Since I started working with Susan Guthrie, I’ve been paying more and more attention to verse form in Shakespeare. Susan is a big believer in classical verse form, and I’m picking that up from her, and discovering some incredible new things.

For example, I was reading Henry V recently, and came upon noticable variations in one of his famous speeches (IV.i.282-299):

O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon
.

Notice the variation on the four lines in which Henry talks about what he’s done and what he will do in Richard’s memory:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;

I’ve never been much of a believer in the hype around Henry as a great patriotic hero. Personally, I find the play that bears his name to be more ironic than promotional with regards to patriotism. For example, when Henry says that if any commoner fights at Agincourt, the battle will “gentle his condition” (IV.iii.64), does he mean it? It doesn’t seem so, given that only the nobles get their names specially mentioned when Henry finds out about the English death toll (IV.viii.101-104). Moreover, why is this “mirror of all Christian kings” (II.Cho.6) praying to a pagan god in the above speech?

Anyway, my point here is that, if indeed Henry is not entirely honest and genuine, the varied lines in his speech may indicate dishonesty; ie, he’s not genuinely sorry about Richard’s death or his father’s actions, nor does he truly intend to do the penance he claims. (After all, nobody in this play seems to acknowledge the fact that, due to Henry’s father’s usurpation, even if the King of England is legitimately the King of France, Henry is legitimately neither.)

Some editors choose to compile those lines to turn them into proper blank verse. When read as three lines, they work well:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;

These were printed as four lines in the First Folio (see here), but it’s well known that printers would often break up lines to take up space when printing a book. So perhaps when Shakespeare wrote those lines, they were in iambic pentameter, and this whole long rant was meaningless.

What do you all think of Henry and this speech?

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