Here’s an essay I wrote a short time ago on the comparison of Shakespeare’s drama The Life of Henry V and Kenneth Branagh’s film depiction with a historical description of the battle of Agincourt. How does the Bard measure up?
Shakespeare’s historical drama The Life of Henry V is a glorious tribute to the indomitable King Henry who rallies the underdog English forces and routes the French in the stirring battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare’s depictions of the battle of Agincourt and Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Shakespeare’s play uses this historical setting as a way to show admiration of the young courageous King. To accomplish this, they veer away from the historical record which describes a battle where all the gears of war clicked serendipitously into place enabling the English to pull off an unlikely victory.
Both Shakespeare’s Henry V and Branagh’s film version celebrate King Henry’s heroics in overcoming great odds in defeating the French. The poetic-license they take with the battle’s historical descriptions is meant to enhance the image of the king. Shakespeare builds his drama around the antics of the King. He shows his engagement with the common soldiers by dressing him up in a cloak and having him wander around camp the night before battle to get a feel for how the soldiers are thinking (73). He has Henry, when faced with certain defeat, give an inspiring speech to his comrades in arms saying how survivors of this battle will look back in pride to see what honor was bestowed on the few of them. The purposes of these scenes are to build to a dramatic climax with Henry being the motivating factor in victory.
Shakespeare continues to heighten the drama by emphasizing the French army’s confidence. When the trumpet sounds signifying the start of battle, Shakespeare describes the French leaders as expecting to dazzle the Englishmen with their might cowering them into fear (85). The French leaders see the English as a rag-tag bunch expecting to be defeated. They see the ragged banners of the English, the drooping heads of the soldiers and the circling crows waiting to feast off the dead (86). All of this is to draw the reader into the seemingly hopeless situation which will heap all the more honor and glory on the English once they crush the French in battle. Of course, these are dramatic ploys to serve the reader and audience but do not accurately portray the field of battle. For example, battle historian John Keegan describes the first position of the English being two hundred and fifty yards away from the French – a distance in which the archers could begin to rain down their arrows on their enemies (90). This is hardly an accurate distance that would enable French observers to accurately guess the demeanor and feelings of the English army.
The initial French cavalry charge is one of the most significant moments of the battle of Agincourt, but Shakespeare, perhaps for practical purposes, does not depict it in his drama. Branagh in the film version shows a depiction of the cavalry charge, but it is quite different from Keegan’s historical analysis. After the English archers began pelting the French ranks with arrows, the French cavalry charged at the archers on both flanks. Keegan emphasizes the importance of the wooden stakes which the archers carried with them. Keegan works under the assumption that each archer, when taking up his battle position, pounded his wooden stake into the ground at the spot where he stood – in staggered rows with about a yard on either side of each of them (91). The sharpened stakes were tall and meant to injury the charging horses. This point differs greatly from Branagh’s vision of the battle. Branagh depicts the wooden stakes in a straight line forming a fence or barrier – one which was not very effective as the French horsemen in the film easily broke right through it. The stakes are little more than stage props and are not depicted as being crucial to the battle’s outcome. Keegan contents that if the stakes were staggered, and if the archers were standing dispersed among the stakes, the French cavalry would have charged unknowingly into the spread of pikes which would have devastated their ranks. At the last moment, the English archers retreated quickly revealing the deadly stakes to the horsemen only when it was too late for them to stop thus causing the maximum amount of carnage (94).
In addition to this discrepancy, Branagh’s battle scenes begin with the clash between the two cavalries. Branagh shows King Henry leading the English cavalry into battle. He is sparring with his sword in the thick of the battle as exposed to injury as everyone else. Branagh no doubt portrays Henry in this manner to emphasize Shakespeare’s text. Shakespeare uses Henry’s inspiring speeches and his decisiveness in dealing with the French herald Montjoy to depict a king who is clearly in charge. All of the army is rallying behind Henry upholding him as a hero worthy to be followed. Branagh’s battle scenes give the viewer a similar feeling. The brave hearted king leads the charge, inspires the troops and is given the honor from the army that is befitting of a king. Both Shakespeare’s text and Branagh’s visuals bolster Henry’s reputation more than anything else.
The reality of the battle of Agincourt is not so simple to analyze, and certainly King Henry did not single-handedly inspire victory that day. For one, the king would not have been in such an exposed area of the battlefield. According to Keegan, the king and his entourage had a lot of movement available to them on the battle field after the hand-to-hand combat was nearly finished; this is when they moved up near the English second line (106). This hardly describes a king leading the charge into battle which, of course, makes perfect sense. The front of the battle would be no place for a king regardless of how much courage and fortitude he possessed. Only after the French cavalry charge was repelled and the hand-to-hand combat had forced the French back would the King have dared to make his appearance in the middle of the field of battle.
Shakespeare omits the particulars of the battle which led to the break in the French line giving no real clues as to why it has given way. He writes of the French leaders lamenting their losses and contemplating their own suicides rather than to be shamed by such an embarrassing defeat (95). Even Branagh’s battle scenes leave the viewer wondering why it was so easy for the English to repel the attack if the French had them outnumbered five to one. Branagh only shows the clash of the two cavalries and then many unarmored archers who begin entering the fighting against the French men at arms. The reason for victory is not important for Shakespeare or Branagh; they concern themselves only with the outcome. They want to show the gallant English overcoming great odds to win the day behind the courageous leadership of King Henry. The particulars are not important.
In contrast, Keegan places the blame of the French defeat on a couple of different factors. After the initial disastrous clash that the French cavalry had with the archers’ stakes, many of the horsemen found themselves galloping back toward the French infantry divisions (97). This confusion would have halted the French army in a mass of instability until they were able to continue their march forward. This extra few moments gave the English soldiers time to prepare for the French attack and gave the English archers the ability to continue volleying arrows down upon them (Keegan 97). Though the archers could not stop the French advance, they did channel it into a narrower path which would have dire consequences for them (Keegan 98). Keegan goes onto describe what he calls the crucial development of the battle as being the fact that the movement of the French front became impeded when many of the French soldiers fell down in the heat of battle. The fallen soldiers literally blocked the rest of the army from effectively moving forward (101). As the archers from the flanks began to pick off French infantry who had wandered from the line or who were unable to move forward, the killing zone for the English was expanded and the French suffered massive casualties (Keegan 102, 105).
As the battle is winding down, Shakespeare heightens the dramatic effect of the battle scene by showing the French intent on continuing the fight when they realize they still have soldiers on the field (96). Shakespeare then has King Henry noticing that the French are reinforcing their lines which gives the King cause to tell his soldiers to start killing the prisoners (Shakespeare 97). In actuality, Keegan points out that Henry’s order was more likely a way to threaten the prisoners into submission because he did not want the prisoners to pick up weapons against them if the French did indeed counter attack (112). At that moment, the French, according to Shakespeare, raid the English supplies, kill the boys who were guarding it, and then steal all the king’s goods while burning his tent to the ground (Shakespeare 97-98). Branagh’s film shows horsemen breaking through the row of stakes going directly to the supply area where they slaughtered the younger boys who watched over the supplies. Branagh does not show any massacre of prisoners but does show King Henry very upset at the death of the boys. The historical record of the baggage area being looted indicates that most likely it was due to armed peasants, including three mounted knights from the nearby castle of Agincourt and not the French army (Keegan 84). Keegan likewise indicates that some of the individuals guarding the supply area would have been killed though there is no indication that they were young boys (84).
Shakespeare’s drama and Branagh’s film emphasize the slaughter of the boys perhaps as a way to justify Henry’s order to kill the prisoners or to vilify the French. Either way, it leaves the audience regarding Henry as the just king who has defeated the French in a battle of righteousness. While these versions of the battle may make good theater, they do not stack up well to the actual events of Agincourt.