Siege Of Harfleur

This is definitely the type of speech that can either make or break a protagonist, especially one who is a king and head of the armed forces.

Henry V takes place during the War between England and France in the 1400s, with young Hal taking the place of his father Henry IV as King of England. Up to Act 3, Henry V has been engaging in a war against France, particularly in the Battle of Agincourt. He then comes upon the strategically important city of Harfleur and puts it under siege. At this point, he delivers his speech, demanding that he take the city or his men will commit all sorts of atrocities “…with conscience wide as hell.”

Upon hearing this parle, you would think that Hal would have actually been able to destroy Harfleur; however if you actually listen carefully, you will find that Hal is not as powerful as he exhumes. In fact, he spends most of the tirade talking about what his men would do. The only time Hal designates himself as a participant is when he promised “If I begin the battr’y once again I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur until in her ashes she lies buried.” In that case, Hal appeals to his own ethos as more of a soldier than a diplomat.

After making this promise, he gets into gruesome detail about the rapine and slaughter that will happen if his men break the siege:

“What is’t to me when you yourselves are cause/If your pure maidens fall into the hand/Of hot and forcing violation?”

Henry V, Act 3.3, 96-98.

Upon hearing these lines, an audience member might think that Hal is gas-lighting the rulers of Harfleur, basically by insinuating it is their fault if his own men broke through and destroyed the town. However, this part shows that Hal is being realistic about the prospects of this possible catastrophe. Basically, Hal admits that he does not have complete control over his own men and cannot rein them in if they decide to commit such a rampage upon the town. He wryly noted how it is as pointless as summoning the Leviathan to walk on shore.

Of course, perhaps it is not a demand, rather a rhetorical strategy that Henry V uses to end the siege. Hal is telling the Governor that he is the only one standing between them and complete destruction. He uses this type of rhetoric in an effort to hold the monopoly of force.

Stephen Greenblatt noted that during Shakespeare’s time, the writings of Machiavelli were becoming widespread among Renaissance intellectuals involved in politics. One precept that Machiavelli held was that a leader can only demonstrate his capability by possessing the attributes of both the fox and the lion. The fox represented his deception and the lion represented violence. Therefore, Greenblatt reasoned, the speech was effective enough to make the governor surrender the city.

Another way to interpret that rhetorical question above is that Hal genuinely cares about the people of Harfleur. He will try to not let them suffer due to the arrogant pride of the Governor who wished to continue the siege. If he had to resort to using explosive rhetoric in order to get the Governor to comply, then so be it. He even expresses concern over the winter and the sickness afflicting them, by instructing his uncle, the Duke of Exeter, to be merciful to them.

Although he had grown from the boy hanging out with Falstaff, he still has yet to earn the complete respect of his own men; and Hal is simply being self-aware about how much of a long way he has to go. What is especially telling is the rhetorical question he posed: “What rein can hold licentious wickedness when down the hill he holds his fierce career?”

Translation: Who else would stop my men from engaging in evil acts when I cannot?

Sources

  • Shakespeare, William. “Henry V.” The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. 2nd Edition. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt. 2008. Pg. 1471-1548.

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