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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

“Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry, “God for Harry! England, and Saint George!” — thus lead the charismatic leader, Henry V

The political situation in 15th century England is tense. King Henry IV has died. His son, young Henry V has ascended the throne. The scars of civil wars that the country has suffered are there to be seen. People are still leading a restless and dissatisfied life.

Nor could the newly crowned King Henry V offer instantaneous solace to the citizens. Of course, people are slowly realizing that he is no longer Prince Hal: he has shunned his wild adolescent past—living with thieves and drunkards of the Tavern on the seedy side of London—and has become a sober-minded willing listener of advice with a strong will of his own. He, people feel, has at once become a King with high concern for his country’s welfare and honor.

To overcome the constraints and to show his royal mettle, Henry V, tracing his relation to the French royal family and using a technical interpretation of certain ancient land laws, lays claim to certain parts of France. But the young Prince of France repudiates his claim by sending an insulting message. This, obviously, makes Henry decide to invade France. Supported by clergy and the nobles, Henry mobilizes troops for war.

The mobilization of troops for invading France, however, affects the common people. Many from the Tavern side, with whom Henry spent his time as young Prince but disowned them after becoming the King—such as Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, the common lowlifes and part-time criminals—join the troops. As they are getting ready for the war, the news of the death of an elderly knight, Falstaff, the former closest friend of King Henry, makes everyone unhappy.

As Henry is all set to sail to France, he comes to know of a conspiracy to kill him. The trio involved in the conspiracy at the behest of the French plead for mercy. Ignoring their plea and ordering their execution, Henry sails out for France. 

Against many odds, his troops fight their way through France. The English troops, being motivated by the inspiring speech of Henry, conquer the town of Harfleur. As his troops, who included men from all parts of Britain, march forward winning one battle after another, Henry, learning that Nim and Bardolph have been looting the locals, orders their execution. Such is his commitment for forthrightness even in attacking the French. 

The war comes to a climax at Agincourt. Here, the English troops are outnumbered by the French by five to one. The night before the final battle, Henry, disguising himself as an ordinary soldier, moves around his camp, meeting soldiers to learn how they perceive the day’s battle, level of their spirit and their expectations about the outcome. At the end of his rounds, sitting alone in the dark, Henry soliloquizes: “What watch the King keeps to maintain the peace, Whose hours the peasant best advantages.”

As the day dawns, he prays to God; and before setting out to attack, he gives one of the most powerful and inspiring speeches ever to be given by a leader— We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. / For he today 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 abed / Shall think themselves accurst they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us.”—to his battle-set troops, and leads them from upfront. Miraculously, they win the battle. The proud French ultimately surrender to the English.

Finally, the peace negotiations result in: Henry will marry Catherine, the daughter of the French King and Henry’s son will be the King of France.


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