King Henry has rejected a deal with the French and Harfleur is being besieged, in the background to this opening scene. After all Henry’s warnings about the horrors of war in Act 1. 2. , the explosions and trumpet call implied by the stage direction ‘Alarum, and chambers go off’ must have made the audience jump. Particularly as the chorus had asked it to imagine all these things, ‘eke out our performance with your mind,'(III. 35) rather than expect them in reality. ‘And down goes all before them’ (III. 34) suggests a breach has been made in the defensive wall of Harfleur and Henry must rally his retreating forces.
There is a sort of heroic desperation in the first two lines of the opening scene, something that offers the stark alternatives of either death or glory. Henry’s speech seems to have an independent life of its own. Lines such as, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,’ ‘Cry, “God for Harry, England and Saint George! “(III. 1. 1-34) resonate far beyond the confines of the play, yet they must be considered within it’s context. The advice Henry gives to his soldiers appears to apply as much to himself as to them, ‘stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.. set the teeth.. old… bend. ‘(III. 1. 6-9, 15-17)
They are all active verbs stating that the men have to make a conscious, active effort to become war-like. All these events, Henry’s speech implies, must be willed. Yet there is a further more puzzling point through the use of the verbs, ‘imitate’ and ‘disguise. ‘(III. 6-8) These suggest that it is not simply a matter of calling up their war-like emotions, the soldiers must pretend to be what they are not. They must ‘act’ the part. ‘Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide,’ sounds like the director of a play telling his actors how to perform.
Therefore his ‘great speech’ is not, as it is often taken to be, simply the inspiring call to action of a great soldier, but an elaborate rhetorical device. It is the performance of an act deliberately designed to encourage his soldiers to fight, to the death if necessary, ‘Or close up the wall with our English dead! ‘ In the build up to the battle, Henry speaks to his soldiers not as subservients but as equals, ‘dear friends.. our English’ and ‘our ears,’ (III. 1. 1-5) bound together as if ‘brothers’ in the equality of desperate sacrifice.
Although addressing his first remarks to all those besieging Harfleur, he goes on to distinguish between parts of his army. ‘On, on you noblest English,’ he exhorts to the nobility to set a good example to those below ‘Be copy now to men of grosser blood,/And teach them how to war. ‘ (III. 1. 24-5) Henry also addresses their social inferiors: ‘And you, good yeomen,’ (III. 1. 25) but brings their social divisions together in the unifying ‘nobility’ of battle: ‘There is none of you so mean and base/That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
The final simile confirms their unity: ‘I see you stand like greyhounds’ (31) but ends on a curious image. The tone of the rest of the speech has been one of heroic endeavour, the similes comparing the men favourably to siege weapons ‘like the brass cannon’ and their fathers to classical heroes ‘like so many Alexanders. ‘ Yet the image of a dog has been used in many instances, as an insult ‘coward dogs. ‘ (II. 4. 69) Placed at the end of the heroic Harfleur speech, the dog image therefore gives it a strange twist and perhaps a moral uncertainty, which is compounded by the behaviour of the low-life characters in the next act.