Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Soldiers: infantrymen in the English army
Standing before a gap in the wall surrounding Harfleur, Henry delivers a rallying speech to his troops. Pleading for one more mighty effort, he tells them to cast off their civilized manners and “imitate the action of the tiger.” He appeals to their nationalism (“On, on, you [noblest] English”), linking his own leadership with the men’s patriotic and religious fervor:
Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”
Henry’s oratory here is dazzling. “Once more unto the breach” is among the most famous battle cries in literature, and his injunction to “disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage” masterfully summons the troops’ fighting spirit. Imagistically, Henry’s soldiers become human instruments of war, their eyes “like the brass cannon.” He skillfully uses the men’s social status to engender competition between the gentlemen and the yeomen, challenging the former to “be copy now to men of grosser blood/And teach them how to war.” The “good yeomen” he likens to leashed greyhounds impatient to be loosed upon the prey. [This may have been Shakespeare’s nod to historical truth, for the yeoman-archer was indeed the mainstay of the army during this campaign.]
While there is no denying the rhetorical power of this speech, a closer look reveals certain disquieting elements. Its beginning, for example—“Once more . . . once more”—indicates that the army has already tried to storm the town but has failed. In fact, this charge fails yet again, as we learn in Scene 3.
Likewise, some less-than-noble sentiments may underlie the fine words. Henry tells his men to fight like tigers, which in the modern world would imply ferocity coupled with a degree of grandeur. In the Elizabethan scheme of things, however, the meaning would be somewhat different. The lion, not the...
(The entire section is 467 words.)