Saturday, October 25, 2014

"This day is call'd the Feast of Crispian" - Shakespeare's Band of Brothers.

"Henry V" 1989 (Renaissance Films, BBC & Curzon Film Distributors).

"'Tis good for men to love their present pains
  Upon example; so the spirit is eased:
  And when the mind is quicken'd, out of doubt,
  The organs, though defunct and dead before,
  Break up their drowsy grave and newly move,
  With casted slough and fresh legerity."  [King Henry V, Act 4, scene 1]

Present Pains.

In the small hours before dawn, weight of "present pains" have all but paralyzed an English army patently outnumbered. Shakespeare's great Agincourt act prefaces the battle with two scenes from the English camp aptly disjointed by a visit to the French, for whom defeat is so distant a prospect that they give, with "fresh legerity" and levity, all imaginative fuel to derision of an enemy hardly worth the effort.The Constable scents his quarry unerringly:

"Do but behold yon poor and starved band,
And your fair show shall suck away their souls,
Leaving them but the shales and husks of men."

An arrogant Grandpre quips that:

"Description cannot suit itself in words
To demonstrate the life of such a battle
In life so lifeless as it shows itself.

Henry's present pain is to find the words to "newly move" his men; Shakespeare's is to make this credible. Both are achieved and blaze through the present, quotidien tense of:

"Let me speak proudly: tell the constable
We are but warriors for the working-day."

From Casted Slough to Fresh Legerity.

[NB: Act 4 may be consulted HERE ]

The key speech (the focus of this post) is also the most famous and hence often quoted out of the very context that shapes it, masking its improvisational nature. It is triggered by overhearing an English voice (presently identified as Westmoreland's) bemoaning the lack of soldiers. That Henry's response is spontaneous is evinced in the exclamatory oaths that characterize the preamble to mention of saints' day, an appeal to honour that leads him to the risky proclamation:

"That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart , his passport shall be made,"

But we (and Henry) know a king's "affections are higher mounted" than those of ordinary men, Fresh in his memory must be the bluntly honest response of Michael Williams at mention of the honour of dying with your king: "That's more than we know."

At this juncture in his reply to Westmoreland, a wider audience exerts its presence and must be summarily addressed. What word does Henry have for the common man? What sustenance in an hour of greatest peril? And what language may be found and understood?

Like tributaries tumbling to a stream, recent experiences meet the exigent present to precipitate one all-embracing vision, easing the spirit, be he low or high, in a blank verse tutored by the prose of Harry Le Roy, ennobled as befits one who has just that night mused uneasily upon:

"What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace.
Whose hours the peasant best advantages."

Not the rhetoric of chivalry nor the prose of his disguise but an inspirational fusion that sets the present afire. You don't get blank verse any simpler or so potent an enactment of spiritual renewal when, where and with whom it really matters. Here is the real battle and it is won. The rest is in God's hands.

This is the natural, rhetorical music of the Aeolian harp - "Twin-born with greatness" finds its authentic voice. Without scene 1's philosophic soliloquy (couched in verse)  on the condition of kingship; without his (disguised) acknowledgement to Brother John Bates that : "I think the king is just a man."  we should the less appreciate Henry's speech as the manifested expression of a long night's uneasy vigil. He has observed courage of kinds in Pistol (even Bates) and Fluellen (in the latter, too, a reminder of self-respect). But how to harness it? How, more intransigent still, to accommodate the myriad concerns of "private men", like Bates, Williams and Court, who put widows, orphaned children and unpaid debts before the fate of kings?


  They say words spoken haunt the air invisible well after utterance. Cousin Westmoreland (and scene 3's other lords) occasion both Henry's initial theme of honour and serve in its development. We met them in scene 1, greeted variously as brothers. Bates was so named, and, for a while, under the name of Harry Le Roy the king bandied words on equal footing with a Pistol who thinks his monarch "A lad of life", seeding memories for him and Shakespeare's audience of Hal.From such traces of the prince of yore comes unbidden an expression of the warrior's valuation of fellowship that prompts the Crispian vision. It is the royal plural, but:

"We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us."

The Henry of history appreciated only too well the synchronicity of fighting the French on October 25th. When he was yet a prince, the town of Soisson in nearby Aisne had witnessed a massacre that had shocked Europe. He claimed after Agincourt to have avenged rhe honour of its saints, Crispin and Crispinian.

Neither I nor anyone I know celebrates St Crispin's Day. I suspect most of us solely associate the name with Henry V and even then know so little of its origin that few are aware two saints not one are involved. Legend has it the brothers were twins, Christians beheaded as martyrs (see Wiki entry Crispin and Crispinian ). "Henry V" Quarto 1 (1599) opts for 'Cryspin'  (see Q1 ), while modern editions tend to follow the First Folio (1623) with 'Cryspian" (see F1 ). While an extra vowel regularizes the verse, I do not think this the whole effect. The Folio prefers "Feast of Cryspian" to the Quarto's "day of Cryspin" emphasizing the ritualistic aspect. The Folio's name effectively fuses the saints into one, while, at the same time, drawing attention to the duality by adding a new line:
"And Cryspine Cryspian shall ne'er go by". Such is the icon offered of this band of two brothers.

Shakespeare's dramatic recourse to this story of martyrdom provides his Henry with the example he reaches for to convince his men to "love their present pains". They desperately need a narrative that unreservedly ousts  the doom-laden story they have told themselves. Duty to the king is not at issue; what is is the universal sense this is nowhere enough.

Vigil and Feast.

If I had to identify the dramatic beginning of St Crispin's Day, I should point to my post's title quotation. There is an alternative in that, for the French of scene 2: "the sun doth gild our armour". For me, the latter is the false dawn of a counterfeit day; the former the much more significant onset of reality. No one, French or English, has mentioned the saints before. Both have passed the same night in superficially similar ways - militarily speaking, vigil has been kept. But while the French have otherwise squandered the time in scornful amusement, English wakefulness has been purposeful. This Wiki entry on Vigil elegantly illustrates the range of relevant resonances and highlights Shakespeare's dramatic plan: Act 4, scenes 1 to 3 are, synchronistically, preparation for war and a devotional for souls.

All King Henry is doing when he states "This day is call'd the Feast of Crispian" is to acknowledge the grim truth of the night. We understand perfectly Shakespeare's emphasis on forlorn hope in the face of overwhelming odds. It is precisely this sobering fact that has brought the English (king, noble and commoner), but not the French, to a last ditch concern not for the condemned body but for the state of the soul. Each in his way has illustrated the king's words to Williams: "Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own." Henry's achievement is to herald the end of the vigil and commencement of the feast at the ripened moment, not by design, but because of what he is, has observed and meditated upon. He already speaks for all. By contrast, given the unshriven state of the French and the carnage that ensues, their final toll transcends mere numbers dead.

It is vital for a full appreciation of the dramatist's intent that we bear in mind the connotations of a religious feast. THIS refers to the opportunity afforded for ritual reenactment which imbues a community with meaning and cohesiveness. The italicized word is dramatic and relates this theatrical Feast of Crispian with the church and early medieval drama. Drama enacts. Shakespeare is no bishop. He does not presume to ape the liturgical. What he does set out to do is to "newly move" the audience with a potent vicarious experience that, as it were, refreshes the page of life and community through imaginative absorption in an old story brought to palpable life.

Shakespeare's Band of Brothers.

 What I have called The Crispian Vision transcends both Henry's appeal to honour and the disquieting miscellany of personal preoccupations that characterized scenes 1 and 2. From its first clarion use, the word rings crystal clear - not crisp as the morning air - it is the inspiration.  Aptly, the repetition, "Cryspine Cryspian" has a military measure striding implacably:

 "From this day to the ending of the world".

To the tune of Crispian, Henry rough-hews a succession of vignettes that draw the mind away and beyond the present. Templated by the annual united tribute afforded martyrdom's famous brothers, their king previews the feast of lasting remembrance mutually assured for all who live or die with him, not for one lord or self but as one band of brothers.

This is no time for palace imagery, let alone a doleful sitting down to tell sad stories of the death of kings. The French await; the Pistols of this world shuffle and scowl. So Shakespeare lends Henry his own celerity and lightness of touch (legerity). Alert to the occasion's limitations, the king sketches as a general might scratch battle plans in the earth. Each brief scenario, given authority (and prophecy) by formal verse nevertheless is plain-as-pike-staff in diction. Stood "a tiptoe" right now, primed for action, no man could not relate to the swelling pride imagined in whoever came safe home to hear the name of Crispen spoken there. All could readily visualize some future, quieter vigil evening when the morrow's named with pride at gatherings and, like a risen Christ, he who was there may show the wounds he had on Crispin's Day.

Though some will die, all will be household words: such is the bond that binds a self-selected brotherhood of peers. Only Shakespeare can so assuredly make music of a simple list of names. Except old men. Nobles, soldiers, audience alike are invited momentarily to sit by the fireside in hovel or manor farm and hear "the good man teach his son" the story. What need to tell it now when they who listen live it as he speaks?

Dramatically, Crispen was initially invoked as a familiar icon of the spiritual vigil undergone before this battle. Now the example is of enduring remembrance, guaranteed to those of any rank who'll shed his blood for the few. And they are happy - in a felicitous state because all are indistinguishably one. Such is the lightness of touch that we delight in catching the muted pun in "gentle...condition". Puns are by definition synchronous - how apt that the assurance of equally esteemed status for all should coincide with the sense of troubled spirits eased by authentic care in the face of death.

The king's vigil (to name scene 1) served to reconcile regal status with Henry, the man. An audience should sense the irony of a king disguised as a man, for what is a king but a man in disguise? While the monarch of that scene aptly soliloquizes concerns that are his alone, the man, represented by reference to "Hal" and "Harry" explores and craves companionship. The speech under discussion miniaturizes this duality as it moves from the (ironic) solitude of the royal plural of:
"We would not die in that man's company"
to the brotherly plural of "We few, we happy few".

Shakespeare creates a rhetoric that is credibly impromptu (seemingly arising ex tempore) in part through unsophisticated vocabulary, but mostly through repetition, the first recourse of oratory. But it's a doubly effective device in that repetition is multiplication. While one shape of the speech is diptych (noble isolation/common fraternity), another is insistently expansive, as the ripples stir a still pond with one pebble. "We few, we happy few" encapsulates the essence of this imperial theme and almost paradoxically increases "few" with its repetition.

A drama only lives in performance and then solely within the active imagination of spectators. I would suggest that for them a full appreciation of who may be counted in the ranks of "we happy few" is a cumulative gathering. Two brothers who die with each other. A king. His noblemen. Those who will stand with him. The children who hear the story from good men. The audience -who, after all, have been the only real auditors.

"Time agreeing; Confederate season". ("Hamlet" Act 3, scene 2).

In a very different situation ('The Mousetrap' murder) Lucianus observes how time itself conspires with human action. Soldiers and dramatists share a heightened sense of timing: both are consummately illustrated in the prelude to Agincourt which is devised in such a way as to prepare a vicarious experience of brotherhood as the actor-shadows play out in artistic rhythm with an absorbed spectator's emotions, understandings and inner drama.

Theatre allows that not only are such events, such men remembered: they are reanimated, live again in the real and present quickening of brotherly feeling as you, spectator or reader, respond alone.

I wrote this on the Eve and Feast of Saint Crispin.

I tell this story now to you, anew.

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved


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