Saturday, October 24, 2015

Band of Brothers, Household Words, and the Immortal St Crispin's Day Speech

“All things are ready if our minds are so.” — Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3, 
Wm. Shakespeare

October 25, 2015 -- tomorrow -- marks the 600th anniversary of a battle between the English and the French over a territorial dispute in northern France at a place called Agincourt. It was there that the scrappy but loyal English army — crazily outnumbered by the French armored knights — managed to pull off one of the most unlikely military victories of the Hundred Years War. Some 200 years later, William Shakespeare took this moment as the basis of his play, Henry V, and wrote the St. Crispin’s Day speech, one of the most inspirational speeches of all time.

For me, all this might have been lost without the movie, Henry V, made in 1989, or almost 400 years after the play came out; it stars the English actor-writer-director Kenneth Branagh as the 27-year-old King Henry V. This was perhaps King Kenneth’s finest hour:

In the film, King Henry rallies his troops moments before battle. It is October 25, 1415 and the sick, disheartened English soldiers are well aware of the 5-1 strength of the French army; Henry overhears his cousin, a noble named Westmoreland, wishing for more men to help their cause. The king responds, turning this wish around in a speech that captures each man’s desire for honor, glory, espirit-de-corps, and the chance that their names (i.e., his and some nobles’s but, whatever) would go down in history:

“Then will our names, 
Familiar in their mouths as household words*,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, 
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red …

(*The phrase, “household words” originated with that line.)

The real Battle of Agincourt fell on the English holy day of St. Crispin/Crispian, which commemorates twin Christian martyrs who died on October 25 circa 296. In his speech, Henry uses this coincidence, saying, “This day is call’d the feast of Crispian,” adding that whatever soldier outlived the day’s battle would thereafter “stand a-tiptoe” when the day was named; and that every year on St. Crispin’s Eve any veteran of this battle would feast his neighbors and roll up his sleeve to show his scars, saying, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day.”

As King Henry nears the end of his speech, he makes every soldier feel privileged to be there, to be part of this special corps, saying:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers …” 

But before I say how the line “band of brothers” has been immortalized in books and film, let’s first focus on the word “happy:”

King Henry is hardly calling his soldiers “merry” or “lighthearted” at that moment. The word “happy” is, like many adjectives in English, formed from a  noun with a “y” as a suffix. We see this in words like rainy, windy, salty, smelly, etc. Some words need a double-consonant before the y, like sunny, funny, skinny, etc., and “happy” falls into that bunch. 

The noun form, “hap,” by way of Old Norse, means “luck,” just as someone without luck is “hapless.” Meanwhile, “happy” has evolved to mean “content,” and is associated more with feelings of pleasure than luck. Of course, happy and lucky are often related, but the two are distinct as well. In any case, I think Shakespeare’s King Henry meant that his band was “lucky” to be together that day — a subtlety that adds a little more meaning (and sense) to the moment. 

As for “band of brothers,” this phrase has lived on — from Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Battle of the Nile in 1798 to the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks HBO series, “Band of Brothers,” based on the 1992 Stephen Ambrose book of the same name. Just as King Henry implied in his speech, a band of brothers today still means a close-knit group of fighting men.

And the speech works wonders on King Harry’s troops: Click on the link below, which starts just prior to the speech, to hear it for yourself — but don’t click off as the band of brothers cheer; instead, wait until after the messenger brings word of the advancing French army and the once-complaining cousin says he’s ready to single-handedly take them on. You just might find yourself a-tiptoe and bellowing a hearty, “Huzzah!”

What I really want to toast today, this 600th anniversary of Agincourt’s savagery and mayhem over land titles and kingly pride, is the silver lining: a speech whose heart and soul can give hope to any of us with heavy odds to fight and the guts to stay the course — and win.

#Stcrispinsday #shakespeare #bandofbrothers #henryV #battleofagincourt 

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