Inspiration – Henry V and War

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remember’d. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

~ King Henry V, Henry V

Henry V, one of William Shakespeare's histories, has a lot to teach about portraying complicated events and experiences. (Folio page from the 1619 edition)
Henry V, one of William Shakespeare’s histories, has a lot to teach about portraying complicated events and experiences. (Folio page from the 1619 edition)

Shakespeare’s histories are rarely taught today, even in university level courses. As high school students, many have had to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, or even Macbeth. Of the histories, Richard III is the one I have most often seen studied at the college level, though the tragedies Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar are taught more frequently. It is usually not from Shakespeare’s histories that we most often hear his work quoted. Phrases like “A rose by any other name…”, “Out, damned spot, out I say!”, and “Now is the winter of our discontent…” have slipped into the public consciousness in ways Shakespeare could not have foreseen.

But there is one history penned by the bard that does receive its fair share of quotation, though I doubt whether many are aware of the quotes’ origins. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were apt to say “And upon this charge cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’” when setting out on a case. The St. Crispin Day speech is one of the most famous in Shakespeare’s cannon, and with good reason. Even those unfamiliar with the speech itself are likely to have heard the phrase, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Henry V, the play which chronicles the ascension of Prince Hal to the throne of England and his war with France, is actually my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, followed closely by Coriolanus.  

I have been alive for a little over twenty-three years old now; for thirteen of those years my country has been at war in one part of the world or another. My father, grandfather, godmother, and other relatives have and do serve with various branches of the United States military. The military and war have been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and the experiences I’ve had with both institutions have understandably shaped me and my view of the world. Perhaps this is why Henry V appeals to me so much. The majority of the play takes place during King Henry’s war in France, and the way Shakespeare presents this conflict is rather singular. Instead of showing us the war through King Henry’s eyes exclusively, the audience gets to see the conflict through the eyes of every kind of person involved – the nobleman hoping to distinguish himself in battle, the lifelong soldier who seen too much death, but could stand to see a little more, the new recruit from the lowest of social classes who’s only interest is in making a buck, the young boy who dreams of valor, and the women hoping for their men’s safe return.

War, no matter how you feel about it, is complicated. It always has been, and since I don’t see the human race giving up violent conflict in the foreseeable future, it always will be. It’s brutal, horrific, and takes lives that surely could have been put to better use in peacetime. But it is also the sight of some of history’s greatest acts of heroism; even acts of remarkable kindness and compassion. Wars may be fought between countries and factions, but they are fought by men and women. And no two people will have the same experience of it.

War effects us all, though it may do so in different ways (Photo of the Sino-Japenese War in 1894)
War affects us all, though it may do so in different ways (Photo of the Sino-Japenese War in 1894)

As a writer, or any creative individual, it’s important to remember that any large event, such as war, or natural disaster, or even something positive, like a citywide celebration, will be perceived differently by individual characters and entities. There is no blanket statement or description that will fit such a scene, and it is almost disrespectful to try to fit one to it. If you really want to convey an experience like war, take a page from Shakespeare’s book of tricks and try to convey to your audience as many different perceptions of the event as you can.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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