Speeches from Film: Henry V

William Shakespeare wrote many inspirational speeches for his different characters. One of the best known is the St. Crispin’s Day speech delivered by King Henry to his troops in the classic Henry V.

Henry V

To set the stage, prior to the epic battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, Henry V had led his army across northern France, seizing Harfleur, Calais and other cities in an attempt to win back land in France that had once been in English possession. By the time they reached Agincourt, Henry’s men were exhausted from the fighting, the strenuous conditions and the bouts of dysentery that plagued them.

Sensing that the English were in a weakened state, the French, who greatly outnumbered them, moved their troops to intercept Henry and men. Matters came to a head on the muddy fields near Agincourt.

As the English looked upon the much larger — and rested — forces of the French, their morale must have been low. Realizing that he needed to inspire his troops, Henry encouraged his men and they won a stunning victory that day. (Historical anecdote: Several factors helped the English including their advantageous battlefield position, the fact that the French wore heavier armour that slowed their progress through the mud, and the ability of the English archers to strike their enemy from a great distance.)

Although the speech below is a work of fiction, Shakespeare captured perfectly the spirit of leadership in Henry’s character. Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Henry in the 1989 film adaptation of Henry V is brilliant and earned him an Academy Award nomination.

What makes this speech (which is actually an abridged version of the full speech written by Shakespeare) a great one? A few thoughts:

  • Branagh (Henry) delivers it with passion. And while most speakers today would neither want nor need that particular type of passion, it is sometimes entirely appropriate, as it was in this scene.
  • Branagh’s use of vocal variety is wonderful. At times, he speaks in normal tone; at times his voice rises in a crescendo of emotion; at times he speaks in a whisper. Each time, the tone fits the words perfectly.
  • He uses gestures appropriately.
  • He uses the “stage” well. He climbs the wagon to give himself the greatest accessibility to his audience.
  • His message is focused and clear throughout: We don’t need any more men from England to fight with us. We can do the job ourselves.
  • He knows when to pause for effect.
  • The underlying theme of the speech — honour — is also consistent throughout.

If we are mark’d to die, we are enough to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honour.” … “I would not lose so great an honour as one man more methinks would share from me.” … “And gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

  • After some comments from his men—the mediaeval equivalent of questions from the audience—he concludes with a call to action.

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  1. Hi John,

    Perhaps in modern times Shakespeare would have been a speech writer and not a playwright. Probably more lucrative. LOL Love this idea of speeches from film – guess like me you are always listening for those great lines in films. There is a similar situation in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn addresses his men. His speech starts with something like…
    “The day will come when men’s courage will desert them. That day is not this day… ”

    Thought that was a great intro.

    1. Keith, thanks for the comment. I know the speech to which you are referring. It is a good one and, perhaps, a subject for a future post. In fact, you can see it (and 39 others) in a brilliant two-minute montage by clicking here.

      1. Brilliant, John, absolutely brilliant. I’ll bookmark that one. You must be like me. Whilst my wife is watching the film … I’m listening for lines that I can use in speeches. LOL BTW – looks as though I didn’t get the wording quite right.

  2. Yes John, anyone who has read Shakespeare cannot fail to imagine what a great speech writer he was. King Henry V’s call to action shows all the qualities of what a great leader should be. He inspires and lifts his exhausted troops to commit with all their might to defeat the French, which they do.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chris. Shakespeare was indeed a master wordsmith – the finest in the English language. And that’s why his plays are as relevant today as they were centuries ago.

  3. One of many excellent speeches to be found in Shakespeare.
    I’m pretty sure you meant bouts of dysentery rather than boughts of dysentery.

    1. Greg, thanks for the comment and for holding me to account on “bouts”. I am fairly fastidious when it comes to English grammar and spelling, but every now and again something slips by. Always happy to stand corrected. (And I have now corrected the error.)

  4. This speech catches something we know public speaking makes possible – the ability to persuade people to attach themselves to a cause greater than themselves. The reality for any person going into battle is that you would be crazy not to think about going the other way – especially when the odds are against you and in all probability you will die – in this speech, Henry needs to turn this instinct around and first and foremost, he leads by example – he will fight with them – he will lead them on the field of battle and he is prepared to die there rather than give ground to the enemy. The image of a ‘band of brothers’ fighting for the honour of their country supercedes their own personal interests in surviving and the scene is set by this great speech for an even greater victory.

    1. Thanks for the great comment! Harry’s ethos and pathos win the day in this speech even when — as you have pointed out — logic (logos) dictates that fighting against such odds is a suicide mission.

  5. This is the substance of which we suffer from the lack of in these troubling and dangerous times … men of courage…willing to lead and be lead into the breach … the inspiration of glory derived from the moment of brave intention.

    1. I believe there are such men and women today. However, they are fewer in number than what the world needs.

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