I bloody love Will Shakespeare. I know he’s got feet of clay being not averse to plagiarising plots and dialogue, but the twist he put on them made his works unique. He’s contributed hugely to the English language – if you came to his plays fresh you’d think then full of clichés, but the little tinker coined loads of them.
What’s my favourite play? I love As You Like It, with its incredible maze of gender (and jokes which only work if a bloke plays Rosalind) and Twelfth Night is great, too. That has such a wistful quality, with its “happy ever after”s set against a background of great sadness and cruelty. It’s full of strange sexual politics and confusion, and the most recent version I saw (at Chichester, with Patrick Stewart as a brilliantly funny Malvolio) didn’t pull its punches in terms of depicting the homoerotic elements. And it has one of the clearly gay Shakespearean characters in the sea captain, Antonio. There’s another Antonio and in The Merchant of Venice and both are older men in love – yes, they confess that love out loud – with younger men who aren’t worth their affection.
However, neither of those are top of the Cochrane pops. That, appropriately for St George’s day, is Henry V, with its wonderful secondary characters – including surely the first example of “There was an Englishman, and Irishman, a Welshman and a Scot…” – and its great set piece speeches for the king himself. We all know the one about, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but it’s this speech – before the gates of Harfleur – which springs to mind today. Imagine it being spoken by Kenneth Branagh, or Laurence Olivier, or any of the many great actors who’ve taken the role. Work your minds so you can picture the scene.
And don’t forget to notice that last but two line. It wasn’t Sherlock Holmes who first said that the game was afoot. It was our Arry.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’