Friday, April 22, 2011

Shakespeare's Speech is Simply Sublime.

There was no way I was letting this letter go by without a shout out to the man. But in particular, this post is about the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V.

There's a moment in my novel, just before a battle, where I wanted my main character to give a rousing speech to her army. I wanted it to be a moment of greatness, of inspiration, and courage. In fact, this last battle scene is loosely based on the battle at Agincourt, as depicted in Henry V.

But, uh, it's tough to write a scene like that when you haven't ever fought in battle and aren't an inspirational leader yourself. The words tend to get kind of silly and overreaching, and eventually, if you're smart, you delete most of them and scale back your ambition a notch.

Having tried to write this type of scene, I have profound love and respect for Shakespeare's St. Crispin's Day speech. It is, in my opinion, the best inspirational speech ever written. That's right. I said it. Er, of course, if you think you know of a better one you can let me know in the comments. I won't berate you too badly.

We are in Act IV, scene III of Henry V. The time for the fight has come. Henry's men are weak from bad food and poor health, and outnumbered by the French three to one. Most of the English think they will die trying to take a strip of land in northern France. Henry overhears his nobles venting their doubts and he goes straight to the marrow of their pride to get them stirred to battle.

WESTMORELAND: O that we now had here

                Enter KIng Henry

But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work today!

KING HENRY: What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? -- No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold;
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour,
As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
For the best hope I have. O do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, To-morrow is Saint Crispian:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, These wounds I had on Crispin's day.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in their mouths as household words, --
Harry the king, Beford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloster, --
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered, --

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
and hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

But if Shakespeare isn't your thing, you should just watch this video. It's hilarious.



  1. Nice video! It's funny you talk about Henry V, I just had to read it for my Shakespeare class (I preferred Richard II). You're right, it's a good speech, but I also feel bad for Henry's men because they believe it.

  2. No disrespect to Shakespeare, but I detest that particular kind of honor he champions in that passage. It's just a ridiculous social construct that justifies men doing stupid, stupid things.

    I won't day it's better than Shakespeare, but I think the motivational speech before the Battle of Pelennor Fields in the Return of the King movie is really pretty good. It's one of the few things in those movies I don't totally disparage, because they actually took Tolkien's word and put them in a very moving context.

  3. M.E. - Of course they believe it. It helped save their lives. Otherwise they might have lain down and died.

    Sarah - GAH! Whaaaah? Okay, the Pelennor fields speech is pretty good too. But, but, honor as a stupid social construct?

  4. "hold their manhoods cheap" has ALWAYS been my favorite part of that speech.

  5. Libby - I love that line!! Cursed and less than are those not there to fight for England. Yeah, I kind of get into that sort of RAH courage in stories.

  6. I tried to write something profound about the speech as an example of Shakespeare's exploration of notions of immortality through memory, but it sounded ridiculous, so here's another speech to add to the list.

  7. This is your day in the challenge isn't it? And you knocked it out of the park-great post! I love the speech, and the video is awesome too.

  8. My favourite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. And that's some fancy aliteration you've pulled together for the post title. Nice job!

  9. Sporkchop - Ha! You thought I wouldn't watch that, but I did. Dirty floors are a menace to society, and the world needs more truly great motivational speakers.

    Tim - Yes! A fellow Shakespeare lover. I admit I got a little weepy in anticipation of S day. :)

  10. DUO - Macbeth is my favorite too. Love it. But this speech makes me tear up. Not kidding. I think it's a sensational speech that's seriously seductive in it's simplicity. << makes no sense, but there's a lot of S's. :P

  11. Henry V is one of Shakespeare's which I've neither read nor seen, so thanks for sharing the St. Crispin's Day speech from it. 'Tis indeed a stirring speech, though 'twould never compel me to battle, not in this day and age when I can get just as much glory without leaving my desk. For, as Edward Bulmer-Lytton (who really should not be mentioned in the same paragraph as Shakespeare) said, the pen is mightier than the sword. And the keyboard, as long as it's hooked up to a computer and that computer is hooked up to the internet, is mightier than the pen.

  12. Nate - Glory from behind a desk? Oh, yeah, you must be a writer. Tis true, we can part a man from his cheap manhood with a few furious keystrokes, and all without leaving the chair. Good point.

  13. Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 is one of my favorite odes to the power of the writer.

    "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
    Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
    But you shall shine more bright in these contents
    Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.
    When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
    And broils root out the work of masonry,
    Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
    The living record of your memory.
    'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
    Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
    Even in the eyes of all posterity
    That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lover's eyes."

  14. I often wonder when I will write my amazing Braveheart like speech! Love Shakespeare and his brilliance. Love the video too!

  15. Sporkchop - I quote that sonnet in my post-apocalyptic novel!!! My MC says those first few lines while standing on the ruins of a Welsh castle -- ruined long before the apocalypse, of course. Very cool.

  16. Jennee - I know! It's hard writing inspiration, isn't it?

  17. That is such a rousing speech of Shakespeare's and the sonnet Sporkchop quoted is beautiful. Shakespeare was pure genius at romance, mystery, thriller, suspense. You name it. I still love Hamlet - my heroes are always somewhat odd too.

  18. I love the St. Crispin's Day speech. I also thought that Kenneth Brannagh did an excellent job in conveying it the 1989 version of the film.

  19. Incredibly stirring. I have not read a great deal of Shakespeare, but I recalled the passage and some of its best lines as soon as you mentioned it. These are hard to write, the stirring speeches, the rally calls. Much to learn from this on the craft.

    On a lighter note, I am reminded of a scene in An American Werewolf in London (I believe it was) where the werewolf in question is trying to get himself arrested for the safety of everyone and is standing on a British street screaming things like, "Shakespeare was French!"

  20. Lauracea - I know. Props to Sporkchop for posting the sonnet. Beautiful.

    Julius - I love that Brannagh has brought so much Shakespeare to the screen. There's a tiny clip of him in that inspirational speeches video.

    Margo - It's very hard to write those kinds of scenes. Maybe my MC should just tell her men there's a thousand dollar bonus for winning. :)

  21. Yay for Shakespeare! :) it's odd to have a crush on a dead guy, but I guess I do. :D hehe.
    I always liked the Lord of the Rings speeches as well.

  22. Brannagh is the modern version of Sir Laurance Olivier when it comes to Shakespeare presented in film.

  23. did you know that Agincourt will be turned into a film? I wrote about it a few times last year. Can't wait.

    When it comes to inspirational speeches before battles I think I love best the one given by Cate Blanchett in ELIZABETH THEGOLDEN AGE when she talks to her army in front of the Spanish armada.

  24. Bethany - Funny, I don't find that odd at all. :)

    Julius - Loved his version of Hamlet, too.

    Dezz - WHAT!! Spill it. What is this Agincourt film you speak of? And I loved that Elizabeth speech too. That was the essence of Elizabeth for me. That she was as badass as her father in her heart and her courage, but trapped in the body of a "weak" woman.

  25. Eh, I'm referring to a particular kind of honor that generally shows up in stories for the purpose of getting characters to make impractical choices. Anytime someone says something like "I must do it for the sake of my honor!" I do believe it is a social construct. There is real honor, but it's sorely misunderstood and misrepresented in storytelling.

  26. He he :)
    here's the first post on AGINCOURT:

    and the second one (in the old times when my blog had a different approach to visual presentation of the posts):

  27. Sarah - Well, in this case I think the men had no choice. There was no retreat. They would have been slaughtered. Steeling their courage for the inevitable fight by invoking a sense of "glory in battle" mentality felt like the right prescription to me. But I agree that characters doing things for impractical or artificial reasons doesn't fly.

    Dezz - Thanks for that. I also read the story will be told from the POV of one of the archers rather than from King V's. And what a snazzy director!! Looking forward to it. And now I have to get the book. Sheesh, I need to come out from under my rock more often.

  28. Ooh, inspirational speeches. Tricky to write, because they so easily feel fake.

    Henry V's speech is amazing, though, and the video is hilarious. I feel so inspired now! ;-)

  29. What a wonderful post! I've thought about the need for inspirational scenes, but I didn't think about using stuff like this. Duh!

  30. I have nothing intelligent to add. Just wanted to say that I love this post and I love Shakespeare and I think you're right about this speech.

  31. I think that this speech was done best by Kenneth Branaugh's version of Henry V.