By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ is the second most famous speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, after Henry’s celebrated Crispin’s Day speech. This speech comes in Act 3 Scene 1 of the play, during the siege of Harfleur in Normandy, carried out by the real historical King Henry V in 1415 as part of the Hundred Years War.
Henry’s rousing speech to his troops is his attempt to unite and inspire his men to continue fighting with him against the French. Let’s take a closer look at the language Henry uses, offering a summary and an analysis of his speech as we go through it, line by line.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
Henry’s speech begins with rousing words of encouragement to his troops, with the words ‘dear friends’ treating the soldiers as the king’s equals and close companions (as some of them, namely the noblemen, would have been). He begins by addressing the noblemen among his ranks; later (as we will see), he also addresses the yeomen or ordinary men within the army.
The repetition of ‘once more’ meaning ‘again’ (fittingly, repeated once more at the end of the line), spurs the men to summon the energy for one last assault on the walls of the town of Harfleur. Henry and his men have already attacked the walls and weakened them – hence the ‘breach’ that has appeared in the wall – but they have not yet completely broken through and gained access to the town.
Although these first two lines of Henry’s speech are well-known and often quoted, do they actually make sense? ‘Once more unto the breach … or close the wall up with our English dead’ can be paraphrased as ‘charge at the wall once more or die in the attempt’. But it doesn’t really make sense: the charge is easy enough to carry out, but it’s the success or failure of it which is at issue.
In his notes to the Arden edition, King Henry V (Arden Shakespeare), T. W. Craik directs us to Samuel Johnson’s opinion that some intervening line between ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ and ‘Or close the wall up with our English dead’ may have been lost: Craik suggests ‘And either enter in, and win the town’. So the opening words would then read:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
And either enter in, and win the town,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
This makes more sense, although it is only speculation as to whether there ever was an intervening line, and what it might have been.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
In other words: ‘In peacetime, men should be humble and not quick to anger; but when at war, as soon as they hear the trumpets of war they should become like the tiger, a ferocious beast’.
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
This call to war should cause men’s muscles to stiffen in readiness for battle and get their blood up, so they’re ready for a fight. Their calm or ‘fair’ nature should be suppressed and replaced with anger and ferocity that gives their eyes a fearsome appearance.
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Here we have a typically Shakespearean image: ‘portage’ means portholes, as in a ship, so Henry is essentially saying, ‘let your angry eyes appear in your head like portholes on a ship, much like brass cannon used in warfare’. Henry commands his men to just out their foreheads or brows over their eyes, so their faces are like a terrifying cliff hanging over the wild and desolate sea.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Next, Henry commands his men to grit their teeth (in hardened resolve) and let their nostrils flare in warlike anger. They should take a deep breath and summon all the energy they have to the utmost. He reminds the men that their fathers proved themselves in war: now it’s their turn. (By the way, ‘fet’ means ‘fetched’, so these men’s blood is fetched or derived from their fathers, who were tried and tested in war.)
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
And their fathers were men who, like so many Alexander the Greats, have fought in this part of the world from morning until night, sheathing their swords only when there was no one left to fight with. Henry calls on the men not to dishonour their mothers by running away now: stand here and fight, he says, and by doing so prove that those warlike men who sired you actually were your fathers.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
It’s worth remembering that Henry’s ‘dear friends’ (‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends …’) are noblemen: men of good birth. Next, Henry tells these noblemen to act as a good example for ordinary men to follow, and to teach them how to fight in a war.
And turning to the yeomen or farmers (i.e., those men among the ranks who are not noble: some of them were of such low status they weren’t even yeomen, who were technically farmer freeholders), Henry reminds then that their arms and legs are English and so this is their chance to prove the strength that arms of men raised in England are capable of.
Henry doesn’t doubt that they are worthy of their English identity, but now is the time to prove it. This is a neat piece of rhetoric from Henry, winning the soldiers round: he’s essentially praising them (‘don’t worry, I know you men won’t let me down’) while at the same time calling upon them to prove that they can be relied upon (‘but just remind me, for my sake’).
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
Henry concludes his rousing speech by telling the men that none of them is of so humble birth that they don’t possess a noble look in their eyes. To him, the men are like greyhounds straining at their leash, wanting to be released and begin the hunt.
With words that have become among the most famous in all of the play, Henry V rallies his troops, calling for them to cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ – another piece of fine rhetoric utilising the pattern of three, whereby ‘Harry’ (i.e., King Henry V) is linked to both the country the men are fighting for and that country’s patron saint, a knight who embodies the noble qualities Henry wants the soldiers to find in themselves now.
Throughout Henry V’s ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’ speech, he makes references to animals known for their ferocity (tigers) or speed (greyhounds), while his talk of ‘breeding’ and ‘pasture’ imply a link between the English soldiers and bulls and rams, tough and hardy animals. He also reminds the soldiers of their nationality, summoning a patriotic pride that he will raise to yet greater heights in the later Crispin’s Day speech.