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The St. Crispin’s Day speech, delivered by Henry V in Act 4 Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s The Life of King Henry the Fifth is considered one of the greatest speeches in dramatic history. It was delivered by the young, 27 year old King Henry who in previous plays and in history was considered a spoiled, vain prince, not worthy to be a country’s leader. He has now become King and has led an invasion of France in 1415 to reclaim English territory that had been lost to the French over centuries (Normandy, Touraine, Anjou, Brittany, Flanders, and Aquitaine), and to assume the crown of France through a controversial succession law. The speech takes place before the battle of Agincourt where the English pulled off a stunning victory over a much greater-sized French force. The battle took place on October 25, 1415, which is the feast day of the Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian, twins who were martyred c. 286. It was a holiday in England during the Elizabethan times.
Four aspects of the speech stand out. The speech follows many of the rules for great speechwriting: (1) it is plainspoken and written for its audience; (2) its structure follows the basic story-telling format with beginning, middle and end; (3) it uses effective rhetorical techniques; and (4) it has a universal message that has the power to move or inspire all men.
A good speech is plainspoken and knows the audience. The point of a speech is to communicate and so it must be written so that its audience understands. In this speech, Shakespeare had to handle many things, write a speech for King Henry (in the conventional iambic pentameter) in language that the King would be using with his almost peers (cousin Westmoreland and _ _ ) and with his fighting countryman but also in language that would be understood by the upper and lower class Elizabethan audience of his day. To this effect he speaks about celebrating/drinking on the night before the holiday (when men have to “do no work” the next day) and references Crispin Crispian, knowing the audience would know the feast was not actually for one man but twins (and mispronouncing the actual Crispinian).
The speech has a simple structure, a beginning with a great “hook”, a middle with a focused theme and great visual pictures and a conclusion with a call-to-action. Henry begins the speech by turning the odds upside down, arguing that to have more soldiers would require a sharing of the triumph that is about to be theirs. He is going for the laughs, poking fun at himself and his vanity and desire for adoration. Responding to Westmoreland’s wish for more men he says “wish not one man more” because “the fewer men, the greater share of honour”. This is not expected by the men; it draws the audience in, and brings a laugh. Henry turns this laugh into something more serious which becomes his theme of brotherhood in battle. He says that not only do they not need any new troops but those who have “no stomach to this fight” should leave for they are not worthy to die with his men.
Throughout the speech there are great visual pictures. The men that survive “Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named” and will “strip his sleeve and show his scars”. While those who did not fight will “hold their manhoods cheap”. These phrases were obviously meant by Shakespeare to be used by the actors (knowing how pleased Elizabethan audiences were with bawdry acts) ubut they also show that speechmaking is a visual as well as auditory art.
The speech makes use of several rhetorical techniques, the most notable is the tricolon and anaphora, which help sear the words into our memories. Tricolon is also called the ‘Rule of Threes’ which says that the human brain seems to absorb and remember information more effectively when it is presented in threes. Famous examples of the tricolon are Abraham Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” and Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vinci”. The other technique, anaphora, deliberately repeats the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases or sentences. In this play the tricolon is used at the end “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” and used together with the anaphora in the phrases:
“He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,”
“He that shall live this day, and see old age,”
“For he to-day that sheds his blood with me”
The repetitive use is effective and haunting and makes the speech much more memorable.
Finally the universal message in the speech is memorialized in the conclusion with his turning the fighting for honour concept into a statement that the very act of fighting together has made them all brothers, indeed even brothers to the King. The grand theme in this speech is triumph over the French, but more than that, the triumph that can be achieved when men who stick together against great odds.
A great speech has the power to move, to inspire, to motivate.
A great speech can make a person great, can change history, can change the minds of intractable people.
Every speech is an opportunity to open people’s hearts and make them believe.
Second, he brings the future into the present. With the battle just minutes away, the king paints a vision of future glory that will be achieved through victory in battle
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
Third, he transforms vision into reality to achieve that future. Henry V assumes victory and paints a picture of what the future will be like after their stunning performance, an outcome that can only be achieved if they rally together:
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.
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