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.
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 incredible 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 makes great eye contact with the audience.
- 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. Beginning: “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.” Middle: “I would not lose so great an honour as one man more methinks would share from me.” End: “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.
If you have not seen Henry V, do yourself a favour and pick up the DVD.