As it acts out a war between armies of different mother tongues, Henry V exposes the powers and limitations of language. The most obvious representation of that limit is the non-English portion of the play itself: large chunks of lines are spoken in French, barring the understanding of any non-French-speakers in the audience. The play’s characters themselves struggle with this language barrier, as the French Katherine strains to learn English and Pistol butchers French words attempting to communicate with the Frenchman he captures. But even as language perpetuates misunderstanding and difference, it also embodies ideals of unity and inclusion. The Welsh, Irish, and Scottish accents spoken by Captains Fluellen, MacMorris, and Gower gesture towards England’s diversity and cultural tolerance.
For Henry V, language is also a powerful tool. His rhetoric is the most effective weapon in the play. Before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry’s soldiers lack every physical advantage to the French: they are poor, they are hungry, they are exhausted, they are fighting on unfamiliar territory. They themselves bemoan their situation and wish for reinforcements, certain of imminent defeat. Yet Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech turns the whole war around. Through his words, Henry reconfigures the soldiers’ image of themselves, enabling them to see themselves as an honorable, unified “band of brothers” destined to be celebrated throughout English history for their courage and gallantry. Armed with Henry’s words, the soldiers fight in high spirits and win the Battle of Agincourt against a much larger force.
Language Quotes in Henry V
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
All the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty’s Welsh plod out of your pody, I can tell you that: God pless it and preserve it as long as it pleases his Grace and his Majesty too.
But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor have I no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths; which I never use till urged, nor never break for urging.