This week’s Wordy Wednesday is ‘Band of Brothers’. This famous phrase was coined by Shakespeare in 1599 and was first heard in his theatrical production of Henry V – which was one of the opening productions performed in the newly built Globe Theatre.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Henry V [IV. iii. 2291 – 2302]
Henry V delivers this rousing speech to his men just before the Battle of Agincourt. Along with his “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech [Henry V, III. i. 1092], these famous lines capture the heart of the play and Shakespeare’s vision of the warrior King.
The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 went down in history as one of England’s most famous victories and Henry V’s crowning glory. The English army was outnumbered more than four to one by the French and defeat seemed almost inevitable. However, due in no small part to the unrelenting archers with their ferocious longbows driving the enemy back, the English managed to defeat the vast French force. England’s improbable odds before the battle give Henry’s impassioned words even more resonance. Shakespeare endows his Henry V with the powerful skill of being able to stir the hearts of his men and inspire and rouse them into fighting bravely and fearlessly for him despite the odds. Just like Joan of Arc’s battle cry to the French soldiers who later fight the army of Henry VI (Henry V’s son) – they were determined to “fight till the last gasp”. [Henry VI P I, I. ii. 326]
Henry proclaims that at that moment in time, they are all equals and they will stand shoulder to shoulder and fight as brothers. They will fight and bleed together and many of them will die together. This blood bond ties them together as family, and on this day they do not fight as kings, lords or foot soldiers, but as men, as equals and as brothers.
This notion of comradeship and blood bonds during combat is transcendental. Lord Nelson evoked this powerful wartime bond in his speech after the Battle of the Nile, referring to his Sea Captains as a ‘band of brothers’. There are copious examples throughout history of soldiers fighting and dying together as a ‘band of brothers’. One such example is that of the 101st Airborne East Company during World War II. This unit fought fearlessly and heroically from the Normandy invasion through to the end of the war; united by the blood spilt on the battle field and the strength of the lifelong bonds they had forged. Their story was immortalized in the HBO series, aptly named ‘Band of Brothers’.
An evolution of this is seen in Game of Thrones through the Dothraki blood riders fighting side by side with Khal Drogo and then Daenerys’ riders. Daenerys calls these warriors “blood of my blood” as they have pledged their lives to her and their blood is now the blood of their Khaleesi.
I was lucky enough to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V twice during their two year/eight play History Cycle in 2007/2008. It was the greatest theatrical spectacle I have ever seen, and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Henry was passionate, rousing and utterly spellbinding. Such is the power of Shakespeare’s stirring words in Henry V, that Streatfeild delivered his “Once more unto the breach” speech in the dressing room of the English rugby team, to rouse and inspire them before they stepped onto the field to do battle with the French team to fight for the glory of the Six Nations Championship in 2007. An inspired England won the battle on the day; beating the highly favoured French team – (although France were ultimately victorious clinching the title against Scotland the next week). This demonstrates the immense power and potency Shakespeare’s texts still wield today and how they have infused nearly every facet of our contemporary society.
By Linda Nicoll
BritishBattles.com – ‘The Battle of Agincourt’, 2002 – 2013. Chalfont Web. http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/agincourt.htm [Accessed 15 May 2013]
British Library – ‘Treasures in Full ~ Shakespeare in Quarto – Henry V Early Performances’. 2013 London. http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/henry5.html [Accessed 15 May 2013]
Game of Thrones Wiki – ‘Bloodriders – Rakharo’. 2013 Wikia. http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Rakharo [Accessed 15 May 2013]
IMDb – ‘Band of Brothers’. 1990 – 2013 IMDb.com. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0185906/ [Accessed 15 May 2013]
In depth Info – ‘Band of Brothers in literature and history’. Copyright 2005 – 2013. W. J. Rayment. http://www.indepthinfo.com/band-of-brothers/ [Accessed 15 May 2013]
Open Source Shakespeare – ‘Play Search’, 2013 George Mason University. http://www.opensourceshakespeare.com/views/plays/plays.php
Royal Shakespeare Company – ‘Henry V Programme – Geoffrey Streatfeild as Henry V’. 2007, Dir. Michael Boyd – RSC Stratford upon Avon and The Roundhouse Theatre London, England.
Suite 101 – ‘Horatio Nelson and his Band of Brothers’, 1996 – 2013 Suite101. http://suite101.com/article/horatio-nelson-and-his-band-of-brothers-a221354 [Accessed 15 May 2013]