If anyone doubts the power of words, spoken or written, they need only read Shakespeare. Among Shakespeare’s works, few have the power of the scene from his drama “Henry V”, known as the “St Crispin’s Day Speech”. Although Shakespeare’s work is a drama, he is describing real events and a little context can help readers better understand this amazing motivational speech.
The events surrounding the speech take place during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and involve a series of wars between England and France dealing with England’s claim to the French throne. Henry V was pulled into the war when the French king offended him directly and supported a plot against Henry’s life. The army of Henry V crossed the English Channel and started its campaign in France.
On October 25th, 1415 (St. Crispin’s Day), the French army intercepted King Henry near the village of Agincort, with approximately 36 thousand troops, compared to Henry’s nine thousand. On the background of his army’s anxious, demoralized state, he gives this famous speech. Henry himself led his men into battle and the French army was defeated.
It is interesting that according to sources from Burgundy, in the real life speech, Henry V told his men that the French had boasted that they would cut off two fingers from the right hand of every archer, so that he could never draw a longbow again. After the battle, English archers were showing French captives those fingers as if saying “See – my fingers are still here”. This gesture is now known as the “V” – victory gesture.
At any rate, without further delay, here is the St Crispin’s Day Speech:
O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING (Henry V).
What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin.
If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires;
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford, and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
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 accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
My sovereign lord, bestow yourself with speed:
The French are bravely in their battles set,
And will with all expedience charge on us.
KING (Henry V).
All things are ready, if our minds be so.
Here is one of the best “Henry V” performances by Kenneth Branagh from the 1989 film that he also directed. The whole film is as good as this very scene:
Truly, “All things are ready if our minds be so!”