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William Shakespeare’s play Henry V invites some comparison with various poems inspired by World War I, especially with Wilfred Owen’s poem titled “Futility” and with Rupert Brooke’s poem titled “Peace.” Although it is difficult to compare such a long play with such short lyric poems, nevertheless certain similarities do exist.
Owen’s poem, as its title suggests, stresses the waste of war – the physical deaths it causes, the mental anguish it creates, and the spiritual uncertainties it raises, especially for those who somehow manage to cheat death (at least temporarily). Staring down at one particular corpse, recently so full of life, Owen’s speaker notices “sides / Full-nerved, still warm” (10-11). This poem resembles a number of different passages in Shakespeare’s play – passages that emphasize the full horrors of war. Thus, when the French prince mocks Henry by presenting him contemptuously with a gift of tennis balls, Henry orders the prince’s representative to
tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.
Although this is a threat, it clearly shows that Henry knows the horrors war can cause. Similarly, later in the play Henry’s own representative tells the French king that by avoiding way he can show mercy to
. . .the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws . . .
Otherwise, the French king will be responsible for
. . . the widows' tears, the orphans' cries
The dead men's blood, the pining maidens groans,
For husbands, fathers and betrothed lovers,
That shall be swallow'd in this controversy.
Passages such as this one show that Shakespeare was quite prepared to emphasize (as Owen does) the ugliness and futility of war.
On the other hand, parts of Henry V also share some resemblances with Brooke’s poem titled “Peace.” Brooke’s poem condemns decadent, non-heroic peacetime and particularly satirizes cowards who evade war-time service. The poem thanks God for giving the speaker’s generation the chance to enjoy the moral and spiritual glories of war. Likewise, Henry, in his speech to his men before the great battle at Agincourt, stresses the honor of fighting:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will, I pray thee, wish not one man more.
. . . if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive. . . .
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother . . . .
Henry here celebrates, like Brooke, the nobility of warfare. The difference is that by this point in the play, Henry has seen and suffered from the grim realities of war, whereas Brooke’s speaker still seems fairly wet behind the ears.
Shakespeare’s Henry V presents both sides of war; the poems by Brooke and Owen are inevitably far more limited.
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