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  • Brothers and “Gentles” in The Life of King Henry the Fifth
  • Maurice Hunt

Forms of the word “brother” echo throughout Shakespeare’s The Life of King Henry the Fifth (1599), from the scenes involving the brotherhood of thieves, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nim (e.g. 2.1.10, 98; 3.2.41; 3.6.48) to the one at play’s end where King Charles VI of France and King Henry repeatedly call each other brother (e.g. 5.2.2, 10, 83, 315).1 The most memorable instance occurs during Henry’s oration delivered to his troops the day before the Battle of Agincourt. The king reminds them that they will be fighting on the day dedicated to the Feast of Saint Crispin. Crispin and Crispianus were brothers, cobblers, who were early Christian martyrs celebrated for their unshakable faith. Predicting victory, Henry says that his soldiers will be equally remembered with an everlasting fame:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.For he today that sheds his blood with meShall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile,This day shall gentle his condition.And gentlemen in England now abedShall think themselves accursed they were not here,And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaksThat fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


Marsha S. Robinson has argued that Shakespeare in The Life of King Henry the Fifth “counterpoised the tragedy of fraternal strife with the comedy of brotherly reconciliation.”2 Using the term “brother” literally and figuratively, Robinson says that versions of fraternal strife, based on the Cain/Abel archetype and representative of Saint Augustine’s earthly city, motivate Shakespeare’s histories until The Life of King Henry [End Page 71] the Fifth, when the king rhetorically erases fraternal strife and creates several brotherhoods evocative of Augustine’s heavenly city. These occur, according to Robinson, in his refashioning of the Southampton conspiracy as God’s rectification of the Fall of Lucifer and in the forging of countrymen into the single, purportedly national, social class of the Agincourt victors.3 Christopher Dowd, on the other hand, has asserted that repetition of the word “brother” in the play identifies male groupings that can be “defined as biological, national, and spiritual” brotherhoods. These three categories for Dowd also highlight “three areas of English anxiety when dealing with others—race, nationality, and religion.”4 This is true whether the others are French, Irish, Welsh, or Scottish countrymen.

But the lack of conflict, or even anything more than perfunctory interaction, between King Henry and his younger brothers, the Dukes of Gloucester and of Clarence, make Robinson’s “fraternal strife”—at least in its literal sense—and Dowd’s “biological brotherhood” an analytical dead end. Primogeniture is not a contested issue in The Life of King Henry the Fifth. Marianne Novy remarks that in The Second Part of Henry the Fourth (1598) the future Henry the Fifth “makes a point of reassuring his brothers that he will not kill them, as Amurath, the Turkish Sultan, killed his. Rather he says, ‘I’ll be your father and your brother too.’”5 Nothing in The Life of King Henry the Fifth contradicts this promise or suggests that Henry’s earlier remark could have incestuous overtones. Moreover, Dowd’s exploration of spiritual brotherhood restricts itself to the ideas quoted above in Henry’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech and never mentions the imagery of secular communion in it, or that imagery’s religious irony.6

In the following paragraphs, I interrogate the phenomenon of brotherhood in The Life of King Henry the Fifth in relation to “gentleness”—the mark of gentry—as well as to Henry’s desire to be a Christian king. After all, in his most memorable expression of brotherhood, Henry says that shedding blood at Agincourt will “gentle” common soldiers’ “condition,” i.e., raise them to the social rank of gentleman. Not only the Chorus but Henry himself says that he is a “Christian king” (1.2.241–42; 2.0.6). “And the Lord said unto Cain,” after he slew his brother Abel, “Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not...


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