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An Unheroic Scene: Qualifying the War Against the French

Page Four Audio File

3.1 Pistol: Hero or Zero?

3.2 A Farcical Parody of Combat: Inversion of Values and Contrast
3.3 Debunking the Idea of a British Army: External and Internal Conflicts

3.1 Pistol: Hero or Zero?

Despite the lucky outcome of the battle of Agincourt for Henry V, this scene does not show the bravest soldier in his army. Pistol is presented as an anti-hero: he speaks a lot but does not act or, in the Boy’s words, “he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword” (3.2.35-6). He is not on the battlefield to honor his country, but he is driven by money. “For I shall sutler be unto the camp, and profits will accrue” (2.2.109-10), says he to Nym before their departure for France. As John Kerrigan notices, “he thinks only of cash. Wrenching language, he finds money everywhere. When Le Fer speaks of ‘moi’[4.4.13, 20-1], Pistol assumes that this is a denomination of coin; ‘bras’ [French for ‘arm’, 4.4.17] he hears ‘brass’ [4.4.18], and is insulted to be offered base currency [4.4.18-9]. (…) Only when he is offered écus [4.4.41-2], which the Boy translates as crowns, is he satisfied.” His very name points out both his greediness and worthlessness since the “Pistole” was a Spanish gold coin whose denomination derived from the Spanish pistola, a plate of metal. 
His incompetence as a soldier is also visible though his name given the fact that a pistol was an unreliable gun in early modern England: “The weapon for which he is named was inaccurate and often misfired until advances were made in its design in the 19th century.”  Unfortunately, Pistol will never obtain the two hundred crowns Le Fer promises him since he has to execute the French under the orders of Henry V (4.6.37-8). The English soldier could have lived a comfortable life with this large sum since “it was equivalent to about four years’ pay for a soldier (or an actor).”  The only capital he gains is Fluellen’s petty money (“a groat,” 5.1.61-7) that is offered as a humiliating compensation after the Welsh has beaten Pistol with a cudgel. All these elements, together with Pistol’s inability to understand Le Fer and the Boy’s acknowledgement of his unworthiness (4.4.67-73), debunk the figure of the heroic soldier presented by Henry V in his previous speeches.

3.2 A Farcical Parody of Combat: Inversion of Values and Contrast

In addition to discrediting the dilettante English soldier, this scene offers a series of inversion of values that makes the only battle episode a farcical parody of combat. The enemy, Monsieur Le Fer, does not live up to his name; “fer” means “iron” but the soldier acts cowardly, having maudlin reactions to Pistol’s bravado. He also considers that Pistol is a gentleman of high rank (“Je pense que vous êtes le gentilhomme de bonne qualité,” 4.4.2-3), a knight and the bravest English Lord (“un chevalier, je pense, le plus brave, vaillant, et très distingué seigneur d’Angleterre,” 4.4.56-7). The dramatic irony is here obvious for the audience/spectator who knows that Pistol’s wife, Nell, is the owner of an Eastcheap tavern – a place hosting lower-class customers – and has heard the Boy complaining about his robberies (3.2.43-4). If Pistol’s martial valor is questioned, his French counterpart’s lack of discernment does not present him as a suitable opponent either.

Besides, this scene is in complete contrast with the previous one when “warlike Harry” (prologue, 5) utters what is known as St. Crispin’s Day speech. A glorious tribute to heroism and battle, this speech is a way to galvanize his outnumbered men by praising his soldiers’ bravery and the rewards of unity (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother (…),” 4.3.62-4). As opposed to Pistol, the eponymous character is “not covetous for gold” (4.3.27); he wants this battle to be fought valiantly so that it goes down as a glorious war episode (“This story shall the good man teach is son,” 4.3.58). Kathryn Prince also emphasizes the discrepancy between scene 3 and scene 4: “The rhetoric and preparation for war may perhaps convince or inspire, but there is no mighty battle scene in this ostensibly most militaristic play: the only combat between French and English soldiers is the comic interchange between Pistol and LeFer.” 

3.3 Debunking the Idea of a British Army: External and Internal Conflicts

Choosing to depict the confrontation with the French army in a single farcical scene where the soldier who embodies the English is no bona fide hero seems to ridicule the conflict, presenting the English soldier (Pistol) as unfit. As Emma Smith puts it, “This scene stands as an ironic, anti-climactic, unheroic synecdoche for the entire Battle of Agincourt: it is the only representation of fighting.”  The irony created by the dichotomy between the king’s words and Pistol’s behavior annihilates Henry V’s vision of a united and valiant army: “English nationalism is undermined (…) since Pistol is hardly the epitome of English courage.”  This is probably the reason why a large number of adaptations excise this scene or minimise its importance. Such a negative image of the English soldier did not fulfil the purpose of Laurence Olivier, whose 1944 film version of Henry V aimed at boosting the morale of the British troupes fighting the Germans during the Second World War. 
In “Either/Or: Responding to Henry V,” Norman Rabkin argues that Henry V may be seen either as a patriotic celebration of the triumph of England over France or as a cynical way of debunking heroism. If the second interpretation is to be favored, the Pistol/Le Fer scene may be seen as the embodiment of what the English army really is, or rather, where the insidious enemy is. Indeed, even if the French are on the opposite side, scenes of internal struggle in the English army (among the representatives of the countries that now constitute the United Kingdom) are more recurrent than direct confrontations with French soldiers.

Before the battle, the argument the Welsh and Irish captains have escalates when Fluellen mentions Macmorris’s “nation” (3.3.122-36). A death-threat is even uttered (“I will cut off your head,” 3.3.136) and only the parley stops the belligerents (3.3.139), as if the conflict that needed to be solved was the one between the captains. Later on, Fluellen and the Londoner Pistol come to blows because the latter mocked one of the former’s Welsh traditions (the custom of wearing leeks on Saint David's Day, 5.1.30-54). Willy Maley notes that “Captain Fluellen’s force-feeding of the leek to the abject Pistol symbolically enacts the dialectic of Anglo-Welsh exchanges in the Tudor period.”  This exchange is reminiscent of the Pistol/Le Fer scene inasmuch as Fluellen also tries to control Pistol through the invasion of his intimacy since the Welshman compels the Londoner to put the leek in his mouth while he threatens to beat him with a cudgel (see figure 3). 

Coupled with the latent threat of a Scottish invasion (1.2.150-1), the tensions portrayed between England, Wales, and Ireland indicate that the French are not the only inimical party; the enemy may be less far/fer than it seems.  Despite Henry V’s successful attempts to gather the British allies against France, this alliance remains fragile and fractured because of the xenophobic mind-set of characters such as Pistol who uses the same slighting idiolect to address the French and the Welsh. 

Read Nora Galland’s article for more details on the British characters and their relationships in Henry V.

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