#1: “WE FEW, WE HAPPY FEW, WE BAND OF BROTHERS…”
It’s the speech that moved an army, transformed a nation, and stands as one of the finest in the history of English literature.
So many of the Shakespearean speeches we’re taught in class are of a, shall we say, less than upbeat nature, whether it’s Hamlet asking whether he is “to be or not to be” (in every sense of the word), Macbeth declaring that life to be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” etc.
Even so, the Bard has his fair share of motivational speeches in his most famous and popular plays, no more so than the St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V.
It’s a speech that looms large in the popular imagination, one which has become synonymous with the prestige of the English language and people alike, one performed by such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Kenneth Branagh and (yes, ladies) Tom Hiddleston.
Henry V’s troops are standing in the mud, miserable, and afraid—the French outnumber then five to one, are fresher, and all seems lost. Enter Henry, rallying his men—what does he say? Among other things…
- “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 honor” (Translation: there’s no point in fearing that which is out of your own control, and anyway, either the worst will happen, in which, dwelling on it or wishing circumstances were different can only bring more pain, or you will triumph, and it’ll be all the sweeter for your having faced such a struggle as you did.)
- “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (One of the most famous parts of the motivational speech, being referenced in countless works of popular media and literature alike…Henry V goes on to say “For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”—despite the vast differences in income, status, and so many other aspects of their background, Henry V calls upon their shared sense of patriotism and, arguably more important, their shared importance and duty towards one another…even outnumbered, against the odds, a few men—or women—working and fighting for one another and a common cause can make a difference)
- “Old men forget…but he’ll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day” (Here Shakespeare’s Henry V takes this most famous of motivational speeches and personalizes it. Be proud of what you accomplish! We should all be as lucky as to live to see old age—so live your life in a way as to make your “feats” and reminiscences worth remembering!)
This speech is inspirational in large part because of the context and character giving the speech as well as the actual content of the speech itself. Shakespeare’s “Henriad” is a cycle of four plays, spanning decades in the 1300s and early 1400s, dealing with civil war at home and war with the French abroad, all to determine the fate of the English throne and, by extension, the fate of England’s soul itself, all climaxing in this, one of the English language’s most famous motivational speeches.
The titular Henry V is in three of these plays, but throughout two of them, he’s a rowdy, bar-hopping Prince, known to his friends by his nicknames, Hal and Prince Harry (thus proving that now or centuries before Shakespeare, having Princes named Harry with a reputation for a wild side is a British tradition.)
Hal is by no means a perfect person. He has a good heart, but like so many of us at a young age, he’s wild, reckless and fearful at times, he struggles with his father’s lack of approval, and in many ways isn’t a very responsible—let alone kingly—figure.
His journey is in many ways England’s journey—namely, one of realizing the raw potential he has, outgrowing all the vices holding him back, and then leading his people to victory, stability, and glory.
We are all like Hal sometimes struggling to become our own personal Henry V.
He tells his army, after he has grown up, given up the bar-hopping life for the life of a responsible king, “All things are ready if our minds be so.” That applies for everyday folks such as ourselves as well as kings—we all can benefit from motivational speeches and that which they evoke within us.
This is a king who gets too proud, walks amongst his troops in disguise at night, only to discover they not only don’t share his same pride or confidence, but that they lack confidence in the war, and him, and then, rather than stroking his own ego and pretending all is well, does what he can to rediscover the common touch he knew so well in his bar-hopping days, while still sounding kingly and commanding as he inspires his men to victory.