Monday, September 15, 2008

Will Shakespeare knew his stuff!

I came across a very American email bulletin recently. It's called "The Art of Manliness" and is 50% common sense, 25% motivational talk and 25% nonsense. (Actually the biggest mistake it makes is imagining that one can learn how to be a man from attempting manly things one read in an email! Either one learns from one's father or a father-figure or sadly, one simply doesn't learn at all.) However it's a laudable effort in its own, rather eccentric way.

They attempted a commentary on Henry V's Agincourt speech from Shakespeare's eponymous play. The author of the piece suggests that if you "Read this fictional, and yet powerful speech when you’re feeling unmotivated and depressed" then "it will stir you to focus on the legacy you are building and will pass on to your sons and to history." I'm not so sure that reading a speech would do that for me but each to his own, I guess.

Also, don't be too sure about the fictional bit. The language may be Shakespeare's own but parts of the speech itself are historically verifiable. The lines "be he ne’er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition" meant that a "vile" man i.e. a villein or landless labourer would get land and social status of his own (he'd become gentle, i.e. a gentleman). In the reign of Henry VII it was specified that no-one could bear a coat of arms or heraldic devices without a proper grant from one of the highest-ranking heraldic officials, a King of Arms, except those who could show descent from a veteran of Agincourt. Shakespeare may have made great poetry but there was also a lot of perfectly good history in it too! In typical fashion, it gives not just high sentiment (we few, we happy few, we band of brothers etc.) but also practicalities (financial independence and social status when you get home, boys!) It seemed to work too.

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