Henry V, Act III, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English playwright
Today, 23 April, is a special date in the English calendar for two reasons: Firstly, it is St George’s Day; St George being the Patron Saint of England. As the image above depicts, George slays the dragon to save the princess from death. To me, it is an image that represents the triumph of good over evil.
The second reason that today is special is because it is the birthday of one of England’s greatest playwrights, William Shakespeare. Wherever I visit in the world, online or offline, I am struck by how well known Shakespeare is. And, given that he lived c500 years ago, how popular his plays and phrases are still.
So, tying the two together – St George and William Shakespeare – on this special day and, given my interest in public speaking and speechcraft, I thought that I would share with you below one of Shakespeare’s most popular speeches, taken from his play, Henry V, Act III, 1598.
‘Once more unto the breach’ is the opening line from the speech given by King Henry V, to the English army at the Battle of Agincourt in France. The phrase means, let us try again.
The breach in question is the gap in the wall of the city of Harfleur. In his speech, Henry is motivating his troops to attack the city again, even if they have to ‘close the wall with English dead’.
The last line of the speech, ‘Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’’, is a rallying cry to his army, for God to support him (Harry is an alternative name for Henry), England (their country) and St George (England’s Patron Saint).
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
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;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
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.
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!
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.
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;
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!’
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