Orations Worth Ovations: Visualization, Participation, and the Battlefield of Shakespeare’s Henry V
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Speeches are an inherently limited medium.
If you have visuals, they are closer to slides than cinematography, more PowerPoint than Pixar. The lighting is on or off. There’s no montage to accompany your litany, no special effects to match your affect. Rarely does an original score underscore your argument. And for all the talk of “show don’t tell,” a speech is still much closer to a telling than a show.
So why — when our entertainments are more sophisticated, diverse, and distracting — do speeches still work on us?
As an English major turned speechwriter, I find myself returning to Shakespeare’s Henry V, because the play depends on the unique power speeches have to motivate and inspire, while locating that power in two distinct places: the words of the speaker and the minds of the audience.
Part of the play’s reliance on the power of speech is practical, rather than philosophical. While Broadway productions can run in the millions of dollars, the means and technology in Shakespeare’s time were also decidedly restricted. In fact, the play opens with the Chorus addressing the audience, asking them to do a lot of imaginative legwork:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
printing their proud hoofs I’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there;” (I.i.24–30)
From the very beginning, the play acknowledges how the power of its words will be determined by the “thoughts” — the imagination — of its audience. If we mention a horse, picture a horse. If we mention an army, and you see one guy, just picture a thousand. If we mention a king, make sure you imagine him looking like one. When we talk about traveling across the world, your mind will bring us there.
For the rest of the play, King Henry uses this dynamic between language and imagination to his advantage — no more famously than in Act IV, Scene iii.
This speech comes before the battle of Agincourt — an actual historical battle! — where English forces are severely outnumbered by their French adversaries. People are concerned, wishing for reinforcements. The earl of Westmoreland cries: “O that we now had here but one ten thousand of those men in England that do no work to-day!”
Given the unfavorable circumstances, and the uncertain army around him, Henry seeks to quell the doubts of his men and convince them to “wish not one man more.”
His argument builds with the Bard’s rhythm and rhetoric, and in a longer essay, the speech could be dissected word by word. But for me, the most important and instructive move happens more than twenty lines in, when Henry introduces “St. Crispin’s Day.”
Just as the Chorus asks us to conjure an army or a king, Henry uses his words to summon an imagined future, to skip over the bloody battle and revel in the glories its survivors may enjoy. We bear witness as the veteran begins to “strip his sleeve and show his scars. And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’” And, through a deliberate use of pronouns like “I” or “we” or even “we few,” Henry invites all of us in — to be “remember’d”, to “gentle” our condition — and in doing so he makes his message intimate, exclusive. Being a smaller force is no longer a problem, but a source of pride — only those of us here can understand, or enjoy, this future we have imagined. How quickly fear of death becomes fear of missing out.
Obviously, this is a play, and so the language, the circumstances, and the characters are, well, dramatic. But this is also a familiar technique. The future story Henry tells is an example of what, in Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, is called the visualization, the step just before the call to action. Through speech, we are inviting the audience to see — and really, to create — an image of the future we hope to build and belong to; we hope this image convinces them to participate with more than just their minds.
And in Henry’s case, it seems to work. By the end of his speech, Henry has (we believe) persuaded his men to take among the most drastic actions: to run into battle, to fight, to likely die. After these 50 lines, Westmoreland — the same man who just before this speech wished for reinforcements and cried “O that we now had here but one ten thousand of those men in England” — now tells Henry “would you and I alone, without more help, could fight this royal battle!”
Again, it’s a startling reversal in perspective, one that might be interpreted as dramatic convenience (or even gentle ribbing) rather than the result of genuine persuasion. But, this shift also echoes an earlier moment. Recall how the Chorus asked us to “into a thousand parts divide one man, and make imaginary puissance”; here, Henry is able to shrink Westmorland’s request for “one ten thousand” into “you and I alone.”
For all their limits, speeches can — sometimes simultaneously — expand and contract our senses of ourselves. They can forge community through common purpose, while moving us individually. They are performative, yes, and somehow deeply personal. As an audience, we can somehow be pulled along, admitted into a legion of likeminded people, while still feeling like the speaker is talking only to us.
And that feeling is the result not purely of a speech delivered (though in this video Branagh delivers it well, and as director has given himself the benefit of some movie magic, and soaring music), but of an audience invited to participate — not just in the action they’re taking, but in the images, and future, they are creating.
It’s a form of magic, to summon the past or future, to charm and enchant an audience, to invoke real feeling from mere words. This magic has had more dangerous, even violent, applications, as have been seen throughout history and even in other moments of this play. Indeed, in an earlier scene, Henry stands at the gates of a French town they are about to siege, and — using different pronouns, this time “you” — asks his audience (us, and his opponents) to imagine unspeakable acts of violence to their own families. The result is an ethically complicated byproduct of our participation and co-creation (what does it say that I have conjured this image?), and an awareness of the responsibility and culpability of speakers.
Even today, as we are asked to erect walls in our minds, or conjure the specter of fake news — what are the implications of these imaginings we create and give credence to? And if in asking our audiences to visualize, we can only create images — of horses and kings, futures and fates — how do we combat constructive with constructive? What rousing image must we conjure?
I don’t have the answer, but we must remember that in channeling the imaginations of our audience — to inspire hope, or fear, or action — we ask them to participate. And as speechwriters, we few — we happy few — are privileged to wield this magic, able to do something that transcends the limits of our medium and carries us forward.
Over the course of his St. Crispin’s Day speech, Henry transforms his limited forces from a source of complaint into a cause for celebration; more than that, he changes — in particular — Westmoreland’s mind. And after the speech’s rousing conclusion, Henry reminds us, “All things are ready, if our minds be so.”
In all the battles we need to fight, the arguments we hope to win, the first stage — the speaker’s stage — is that of the mind. An effective speech readies the mind of the audience, preparing them for action. And if speeches, like Henry’s army, seem outmatched by other media, when the best of them enter the fray, those limits do not matter.