Navigating Digital Text, Performance, & Historical Resources
Drayton’s Ballad: “The Ballad of Agincourt”
Page Five Audio File
Poetry detailing the victory at Agincourt also was written by sixteenth and seventeenth century poets – far more contemporaneous with Shakespeare than earlier works. Shakespeare was not alone in this usage of popular ballads and broadsides as sources. These musical sources usually collated stories from across cultural histories and were collected by numerous literary figures across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These have been collected into the English Broadside Ballad Archive from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Ballads and broadsides are important to consider because of the potential influence of Michael Drayton’s ballads on Henry V. Michael Drayton (1563-1631) was a poet and playwright that was nearly an exact contemporary of Shakespeare. Drayton published two poetic accounts of Henry V, a ballad (1606, 1619) and a narrative poem (1627).
James D. Mardock notes in his discussion of the text for the Internet Shakespeare Editions that Drayton “returned to the subject matter of Henry V’s reign several times over the course of his long career.” In his 1606 text Odes and Lyrics, Drayton dedicates one poem to Agincourt – “To the Cambro-Britons and their harp, his ballad of Agincourt” – and again in a slightly revised version in his 1619 text Poems.
These two texts bear little resemblance to Shakespeare’s play but, as Mardock notes, “contain several flourishes reminiscent of Henry V.” Drayton glosses over the taking of forts, and builds the tension for the final battle at Agincourt:
And taking many a fort,
Furnished in warlike sort,
Marcheth towards Agincourt,
In happy hour;
Skirmishing day by day,
With those that stopped his way,
Where the French General lay,
With all his power.
Drayton spends a great deal of his narrative poem on those present at the battle on the side of the English, chronicling the actions of Oxford, Gloucester, Warwick, Erpingham, and Clarence, among others.
Shakespeare was not influenced by Drayton in a direct way, but noting the similar focuses of Shakespeare’s play and Drayton’s poems and ballads on the reign of the historical Henry V seems to show a demonstrable interest in claiming Henry V and his victory in Battle for early modern England. These multiple forays into re-claiming historical figures for contemporary discussion demonstrate the importance of historiography in this Shakespearean moment in English history.