On this day in 1413, Henry V of England became king. He was king for less than ten years, due to his early death. And his reputation really is just due to the British victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Now that’s one of those great battles that sum up the stupidity of war. Reading Shakespeare, you would think that the British simply fought more bravely than the French. But if anything, they fought more cowardly. It was all due to the use of the long bow that allowed the victory. The vast majority of the British troops were archers. Bravery and resolve in such matters are fairy tales designed to convince men to get themselves killed for no good reason.
It is, then, perhaps appropriate that the great warrior king should die at the age of 36 of dysentery. You gotta love that!
Anyway, Shakespeare’s play Henry V is not bad. It’s interesting how different people at different times have performed it. It’s clear that Shakespeare meant it to be the jingoistic travesty that becomes clear if you sit down and read the whole thing. But normally when it is performed today, people finesse it into something anti-war, or at least nuanced. Which it isn’t. As I’ve argued for years: Shakespeare has benefited greatly by having 400 years of the best editors, directors, and actors finding meaning he never intended and probably would have found horrifying.
Still, we should mark this day of King Henry V by listening to Kenneth Branagh’s do the Saint Crispin’s Day speech. It’s great. It’s beautiful. His performance is wonderful. Yet what he says is vile. Pretty language should never be used to hide ugly ideas.