We’re almost 600 years away from the Battle of Agincourt, the famous battle in which the outnumbered, cold, and hungry soldiers of Henry V defeated the French in the most famous battle of the Hundred Years War. Shakespeare’s play Henry V centers on the English invasion of France that culminated on the battlefield near Agincourt.
And what, you may ask, has that got to do with birds?
The answer is: Shakespeare.
Shakespeare knew birds and today we begin an occasional series about his love of birds and the thousands of references to them in his plays and poems. We’ve decided to start with some images from Henry V.
In many plays, Shakespeare refers to birds by name but in Henry V birds mainly are metaphors for swift movement. In fact, as Caroline Spurgeon noted in her 1935 classic, Shakespeare’s Imagery, the flight of birds, “. . . symbolized the swiftest movement known to man.” (243) Only one species is specifically identifiable in this play and it is the world’s fastest. When Henry describes his affection for his soldiers, many of whom are low-born conscripts, he describes his affections as “higher mounted” than those of commoners, “yet, when they [his affections] stoop, they stoop with the like wing.” Shakespeare does not name the Peregrine Falcon in that passage, but what else could he have been talking about? Peregrines, the fastest animal on the planet, are the highest and fastest divers.
Most, if not all, the bird references in Henry V are used as similes or metaphors for speed. Preparing to depart for France, Henry urges speed in the preparations,
Let our proportions for these wars
Be soon collected, and all things thought upon
That may with reasonable swiftness add
More feathers to our wings.
While the fleet is on the way to France, the audience is implored to think of wings as the scene changes,
Thus, with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought.
Likewise, on his way back from France, the audience is asked to,
Heave him away upon your winged thoughts
Athwart the sea.
The night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry visits his troops. In a famous discussion with them, Henry argues while a subject’s duty belongs to the King, the subject’s soul is his own. Soldiers who previously have been miscreants or worse “have no wings to fly from God.”
And, in one of the sublime moments of highest emotion in the play, characters have wings to fly to God. The Duke of York discovers his friend Suffolk dead on the battlefield. He cries out,
Tarry, dear cousin Suffolk!
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven;
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast.