Henry’s Greatest Hits: The Siege of Harfleur

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit;
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed 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.
What is it then to me, if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do, with his smirched complexion, all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villainy.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroyed?

Henry the Fifth opens this speech to the governor of Harfleur with three single-line independent clauses, each kicked off with a stressed opening trochee: short, clipped statements. The fourth line, too, includes a trochee (this one midway through the line, to MEN PROUD of). While the next line is regular iambic, it’s not pentameter; it has six feet, with an additional feminine ending. A long line. Why?

Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier

A long line, especially one with an additional unstressed syllable, usually points to a line filled too much with thoughts. What’s the thought tagged onto the end of a regular iambic pentameter line?

a soldier

This is the extra thought.

“Soldier” is the “name that in (Henry’s) thoughts becomes (him) best”; it’s what he CLAIMS is what he is.
[of course, remember, Hal’s always been a bit of an actor… the governor of Harfleur knows no better… but we do, don’t we?]

He claims to be a soldier who will leave the city buried in its own ashes.

Henry the goes on to describe an even more frightening soldier, one who, “rough and hard of heart” will mow down “like grass // Your fresh-fair virgins and flowering infants.” The babes and young girls will be killed. But the governor doesn’t respond. So Henry ratchets up the rhetoric. He makes it sound as if it doesn’t matter to him: “What is it then to me… What is’t to me…” Notice the second time he uses the phrase, he elides the “is it” to “is’t”, quickening the pace, stressing the urgency. If killing the young girls isn’t bad enough, what if “your pure maidens fall into the hand // Of hot and forcing violation?” Henry threatens to allow his soldiers to rape the virgins of Harfleur, after all what control does he have over “licentious wickedness”?

Henry gives the “men of Harfleur” another option, while his soldiers are still in his command. He could easily unleash them (those “greyhounds in the slips” [III.i.31] from just two scenes earlier), but he could also allow the

cool and temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.

I think it’s no accident that Henry recalls a phrase he used when we first met him in The First Part: “base contagious clouds // (that) smother up (the sun’s) beauty from the world” (1HIV, I.ii.191). Of course, then, HE was the sun’s beauty (the son), and the tavern-mates were the contagious cloud. Now, his soldiers are the clouds, and Henry is the temperate wind of grace. He can save Harfleur, or at least save them from “the blind and bloody soldier” who will “defile…your shrill-shrieking daughters” (again, with the rape!), dash in the brains of their “most reverend” fathers, and “spit…upon pikes” the infants of the town, all causing the “mad mothers…howl.”

He gives them the choice one last time: “What say you? will you yield, and this avoid, // Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroyed?”

Of course, the question I have is: if Henry says that he considers himself a soldier, is HE the “blind and bloody soldier” in question?

3 Replies to “Henry’s Greatest Hits: The Siege of Harfleur”

  1. I think this speech and all of its warning about what will follow should have to be considered by all politicians whenever they are on the brink of war with another nation, it so vividly describes the madness of war I think it would serve to deter conflict

  2. Henry says all this to frighten the leaders of Harfleur into surrender, so it is in his interest to exaggerate the horrors they will suffer if they refuse.

    Henry mentions the rape of virgins, specifically the townsmen’s own daughters. This is (in a ruthless way) probably selected for maximum effect on the town leaders. If the English are running riot raping French virgins, probably they will rape other French women as well. Presumably the soldiers doing this to the virgins of Harfleur is more frightening to the Harfleur leaders as they are likely to older men. They will be most worried about their daughters, as their wives mostly be middle aged and have lost much of the beauty of their youth, and so the lecherous soldiers are less likely to want to rape them.

    Also, in that society the loss of virginity was particularly catastrophic for a girl and her family. They will lose ‘honour’ in their community and feel shame. The unfortunate girl has lost much of her value as a bride, affecting her future, since she cannot offer a husband her virginity.

    In those days (and sometimes today) rape, plunder, destruction and murder were things conquering armies might do, especially in the ‘sack’ of a town that the army had had to besiege and take by storm. The brutal logic was a) to punish the townspeople for not surrendering earlier and send a message to the men of other towns that they had better not resist or the same thing would happen to them; b) as a reward to the army. They could enrich themselves by robbing the townspeople at sword point or gun point of their gold, jewels, silver, fine clothes and anything else worth taking. An army away from women a long time during a siege could please their penises by raping any woman or adolescent girl they fancied. And the soldiers could kill anyone who resisted, or just out of sadism.

    Henry does not say he approve of this, but he accepts it as part of war. The French will have brought it on themselves by not surrendering.

    What Shakespeare’s audience would have thought of it I do not know. They must have been aware of the horror of it, and hardly proud to think of their own soldiers committing it. Shakespeare surely intends this to be a patriotic play and for Henry and his army to be heroes. Perhaps it was just accepted as what happened in a war, or a deserved punishment to the French for refusing to accept Henry’s claim to be King of France. Perhaps some men in the audience even liked the idea of being free to loot and rape the French.

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