Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Saint Crispin's Day

Today is the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, the patrons of cobblers, so in honor of today, we should all be wearing shoes.

Well, and theatre nerds like me are probably remembering the Saint Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V.

If you've never seen the Kenneth Branagh film version of Henry V, go watch it now. No, seriously, stop reading this blog post and watch it RIGHT NOW.

Done? Wasn't that awesome! As my friend Victoria put it, if only we could live life at the pitch of that film... well, okay, it would probably kill us, but still! It would be worth it.

In honor of the day, I thought I would blog the speech with a few random comments. Here's what the king has to say:

                                                            What's he that wishes so?
                              My cousin, Westmorland?

The Earl of Westmorland (one of the king's cousins, if you care) has just wished that ten thousand men now in England were with the English army in France. If the audience remembers back to the beginning of the play, they might recall that England had to leave some troops at home to guard against an invasion by Scotland. Henry, however, will have none of this second-guessing of that earlier decision.

                                                            No, my fair cousin;
                              If we are mark'd to die, we are enough
                              To do our country loss; and if to live,
                              The fewer men, the greater share of honor.

Honor has been a major theme throughout the Henriad, the tetralogy of history plays encompassing Richard II, The First Part of Henry IV, The Second Part of Henry IV, and Henry V. Falstaff, the shameful mentor to the future King Henry V, claims in 1H4 that honor is nothing but a word. Obviously, the king disagrees.

                              God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
                              By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
                              Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
                              It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
                              Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
                              But if it be a sin to covet honor,
                              I am the most offending soul alive.

Clothing imagery runs strong throughout Shakespeare. Think of Petruchio's line in The Taming of the Shrew: "To me she's married, not unto my clothes." Fine clothes, gold, rich food, these are all nothing. Honor is all that matters.

                              No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
                              God's peace! I would not lose so great an honor
                              As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
                              For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Of course, wishing more men won't bring them there, but the king has something else in mind. He wants to make sure that those who do fight with him give all that they have.

                              Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,
                              That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
                              Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
                              And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

Interestingly enough, this is pretty much what Judas Maccabaeus does in the Bible. According to the First Book of Maccabees (considered apocryphal by Protestants): "Those who were building houses or were about to be married, or were planting a vineyard, or were faint-hearted, he told them to go home again, according with the law" (1 MAC 3:56). In the play, the king gives this reason for his action:

                              We would not die in that man's company
                              That fears his fellowship to die with us.

And then we get to the day for which the speech is named.

                              This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
                              He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
                              Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
                              And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

By some accounts, Crispin and Crispian were born in Britain and lived in Canterbury. In any case, they ended up martyred for preaching the Gospel in Gaul, which is present-day France. Now, the king must prepare his men for the possibility that they, too, will die as martyrs for a cause in France. Staying positive, however, he focuses on those who will survive.

                              He that shall live this day, and see old age,
                              Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
                              And say "Tomorrow is Saint Crispian."
                              Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
                              And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."

That last line doesn't appear in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, but it does appear in a Quarto version published in 1600. It serves as a reminder that many of Shakespeare's plays have multiple texts from which editors can choose.

                              Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
                              But he'll remember, with advantages,
                              What feats he did that day. 

Remembering "with advantages" implies that the survivors will add to the truth, telling tall tales. So what? To the king, that doesn't seem to matter.

                                                            Then shall our names,
                              Familiar in his mouth as household words—

Charles Dickens borrowed from that line in naming a journal he edited Household Words.

                              Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
                              Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
                              Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

We get to see these characters onstage, adding to our enjoyment of the monologue.

                              This story shall the good man teach his son;
                              And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
                              From this day to the ending of the world,
                              But we in it shall be remembered—

And indeed, we do remember them, in plays, in films, and even in blog posts.

                              We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
                              For he today that sheds his blood with me
                              Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
                              This day shall gentle his condition;

As young Prince Hal, the future king hung out with lowlifes in a tavern in Eastcheap. That time seemed wasted to many, but now he is able to relate to the common man. He truly does see them as his brothers.

                              And gentlemen in England now a-bed
                              Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
                              And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
                              That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Bravo, King Henry! Where do we sign up?