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Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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4 Blank verse

The speech from Henry V offers a way of transferring skills you have acquired if you have studied poetry. As with any form of poetry, although there is no rhyme, the language is highly patterned, and it is important to pay attention to the ways in which this patterning is achieved. It is a good idea to get into the habit of marking up your text when you are doing a close analysis of a particular passage. The following shows how Henry V's speech (given in its entirety this time) might be annotated.

In this speech King Henry is performing a specific role. This is a public occasion of enormous importance, the first engagement of the English army against the French. The simple family men who have arrived in France must be transformed into a collective fighting machine, and he must achieve this end through oratory. In the first scene of the play the Archbishop of Canterbury has extolled the King's rhetorical skill; here we have a chance to witness it for ourselves.

Activity 6

Using the annotations in our example to help you, pick out some of the rhetorical devices in this speech which seem designed to encourage a communal fighting spirit.

Click to view annotated excerpt as pdf [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


You may have chosen different examples, but these are some of the rhetorical devices that are used:

  • repetition (‘Once more … once more’, ‘On, on’)

  • apostrophe or direct address (‘dear friends’)

  • imperatives or commands (‘imitate’, ‘Stiffen’, ‘conjure up’, ‘Disguise’, ‘Cry’)

  • simile (‘like the brass cannon’, ‘like greyhounds in the slips’)

  • extended metaphor (‘let the brow o'erwhelm it/As fearfully as doth a galléd rock/O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,/Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.’)

  • allusion or associative language (‘Dishonour not your mothers': reminiscent of the biblical ‘Honour your father and your mother’).

It is clear that the King is instructing his men in the requirements of the occasion:

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility.

Notice how the first line runs into the second one, a technique known as enjambement that here suggests that an unquestionable statement is being made about the way men behave in peacetime. This reasonable idea from a reasonable king is about to be shattered by one small word denoting change, ‘But’, which is immediately given additional emphasis by the alliteration of ‘blast’ and ‘blows’. Henry has to prepare his men's minds for battle. After satisfying them (and the audience) that he is a peace-loving, reasonable king, he then needs to get them to reject this image, throw off any constraints on their blood lust, such as ‘modest stillness and humility’, and act more like ‘the tiger’ than ‘ a man’. In a sense he is making it ‘all right’ for them, and the literary devices help him achieve this. He draws the men close to him by calling them ‘dear friends’, and by suggesting in the repeated ‘Once more’ that the ‘dear friends’ have been through this together before and have survived. Furthermore, the first person plural associates them all (him as well as them) with ‘our English dead’.

Throughout the speech there is a repetition of ‘blood’ to denote heritage, but in a context of bloodshed – where any escape from the fighting would result in ‘dishonour’ to the soldiers’ mothers. The soldiers are invited to offer themselves as role-models to ‘men of grosser blood’. The ‘good yeomen’ are being asked to demonstrate (or repay?) the goodness that England has given to them (‘The mettle of your pasture’). All this could be seen as a group of frightened people being made to feel guilty of this fear or appreciative of the opportunity to prove their gratitude. By the end of the speech Henry confidently envisages his men as ‘greyhounds in the slips/Straining upon the start’. But he fails to acknowledge (he cannot afford to acknowledge) that greyhounds are bred for little else, whereas his ‘dear friends’ have other considerations such as the ‘wives left poor’ and the ‘children rawly left’ (IV.1.130–42) which Williams, one of the English soldiers, draws attention to later in the play.

The dead will be ‘English dead’, and the speech has a strong sense of Englishness.

Activity 7

Try to find examples of the way language is used to suggest a sense of national identity.


I expect you have included the number of times England or being English is referred to (apart from the ‘English dead’, we have ‘noblest English’, ‘made in England’, ‘Cry, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”). I'd like to take this a stage further and suggest that the audience is being invited to include itself in a very nationalistic bias which succeeds by virtue of a ‘them and us’ conflict. Notice how many times Henry uses ‘our’ (twice), ‘you'/'your’ (ten times), ‘us’ (twice) as part of his rhetorical strategy to gain his soldiers’ solid support. When he refers to ‘our English dead’ he is not simply uniting them with himself, but, by the addition of ‘English’ he is appealing to their sense of national identity and reminding them that they are not merely fighting for themselves but for their country (which includes their more personal loves of parents, wives, children and friends).

Those addressed – the soldiers outside Harfleur – are invited to identify with the ‘Harry’ who is part of the ‘England and Saint George’. The inclusion of Saint George reinforces the idea that God is already involved via this Saint's protection of England, so ‘Cry, “God”…’ is more a recognition of this support than a plea for it. Through his clever use of rhetoric Henry succeeds in stimulating patriotic fervour, convincing the men of the rightness of their action, suggesting to them the inevitability of the action, and utilizing their sense of manly pride which is closely tied up with their sense of being English. In the theatre this speech is commonly rounded off with resounding cheers and even in an age when people are more sceptical of patriotism, it still has the power to stir an audience. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the next scene is one in which the common soldiers mock the rhetoric of this speech:

BARDOLPH On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!

It is worth reminding you, too, that Shakespeare's play was performed before it was published. In discussing the language, I have made little reference to the performance aspects of this speech but, just as with Ibsen and Churchill, we need to be aware as we read about how, and in what context, the actor would deliver these lines. You will find an extract from Macbeth discussed from this point below.