King Henry's inspirational "St. Crispin's Day" speech is perhaps the most famous passage in the play. In this speech, which is meant to bolster the morale of his soldiers before they head into a battle that they are almost certain to lose, Henry demonstrates the brilliance with words that he has shown throughout the play. His challenge is to turn his troops small numbers into an advantage, which he does. A speech like this could not be pulled off without enormous personal charisma, which King Henry clearly possesses to an almost frightening degree.
Henry is trying to convince his men that they have all come there to fight for right: for honor, for justice, and for glory. In order to accomplish this, he makes fighting with him at Agincourt sound like a privilege, one which will allow its participants to capture more glory than anything else could. Henry also brings up, once more, the recurring theme of the bond between king and commoner. When he says "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," he is leading into the suggestion that each man "that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition" (60-63). That is, even a commoner will be made noble by fighting at the king's side today. And the result will be life-long honor that will elevate the fighters above their peers: the saint's day of "Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by / From this day to the ending of the world / But we in it shall be remembered... / And gentlemen in England now abed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon St. Crispin's day" (57-67).
This is resonant and powerful language, and the speech has become famous for good reason. As always, however, we must consider both what Henry says, and what he actually means. Will the common soldiers really become the King's brothers? Though he may collect some material reward (if he survives), a commoner won't literally become a gentleman by fighting today. And if we remember the way in which King Henry cast off his commoner (like Falstaff and Bardolph) when he rose to the throne, his claims of brotherhood and solidarity begin to seem questionable. As always, King Henry's rhetoric is actually surrounded by complexities and moral ambiguities.
This was written by one of my friends, JC. It is reproduced with his permission.