You’ve probably heard it before: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” And the following lines are quite popular among the western warrior community: “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother…”
A lot of people don’t actually know where these words originate from: William Shakespeare and his play about war, “Henry V.”
Before you roll your eyes and groan about a man in a frilly hat with a quill pen and proclivity for bleeding heart sonnets, just wait a second. Give the guy who wrote those words tattooed on so many soldiers and etched into so many minds just a second or two. After all, this is the same play where he cries, “Once more into the breach dear friends, once more…”
Henry V is a historical fiction, set after a series of other plays where “Hal” (the speaker of this passage and the King of England) is an asshole prince who is yet to step up to the plate. As he gains the English throne, he becomes more or less responsible and he declares war on France based on reasons that are sketchy at best.
Still, through various harrowing battles, Henry explores facets of war so many of us are familiar with. His relationship with his friends (and fellow soldiers) change as they shy away from stepping up to the war out of fear, he realizes that the consequences for politicians is different than the consequences of soldiers on the ground, and he is driven to the point where he must risk losing more men, or threaten civilians on the enemy side. And by threaten, I mean threatening to rape virgins and skewer infants on spikes, not just regular old killing—that was happening either way.
The theme that struck me throughout is the theme written so many times on Facebook or in ink on soldiers’ chests: brotherhood in battle, whether or not you are a king or a foot soldier.
Shakespeare may be too old and out of reach to casually read for most people. He certainly is for me—I read his plays on Shmoop before attempting to tackle the original texts themselves (easier to digest that way). I got to the point where I enjoy studying his works occasionally, not to sound pretentious around real scholars while fixing my monocle, but because of his ability to use poetic language to get down in the dirt and understand the deepest facets of the human experience—to truly understand some aspects of war.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons