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In Shakespeare’s Henry V the soldier Williams confronts the king by saying that “few die well that die in a battle” and that “a heavy reckoning” awaits the king that led them to it (1598)

On the eve of battle King Henry V goes secretly amongst his own soldiers and is challenged by two of them about the morality of going to war:

King Henry: I dare say you love him not so ill to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s minds. Methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable. William: That’s more than we know. Bates: Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us. William: But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

K. Hen.

By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the king: I think he would not wish himself any where but where he is.

Bates.

Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved.

K. Hen.

I dare say you love him not so ill to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s minds. Methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.

Will.

That’s more than we know.

Bates.

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

Will.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

K. Hen.

So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation. But this is not so: the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers. Some, peradventure, have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God: war is his beadle, war is his vengeance; so that here men are punished for before-breach of the king’s laws in now the king’s quarrel: where they feared the death they have borne life away, and where they would be safe they perish. Then, if they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience; and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained: and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think, that making God so free an offer, he let him outlive that day to see his greatness, and to teach others how they should prepare.

Will.

’Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head: the king is not to answer it.

Bates.

I do not desire he should answer for me; and yet I determine to fight lustily for him.

K. Hen.

I myself heard the king say he would not be ransomed.

Will.

Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut he may be ransomed, and we ne’er the wiser.

K. Hen.

If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after.

Will.

You pay him then. That’s a perilous shot out of an elder-gun, that a poor and a private displeasure can do against a monarch. You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice with fanning in his face with a peacock’s feather. You’ll never trust his word after! come, ’tis a foolish saying.

K. Hen.

Your reproof is something too round; I should be angry with you if the time were convenient.

Will.

Let it be a quarrel between us, if you live.

K. Hen.

I embrace it.

About this Quotation:

We quote this play because of its timeless importance and because it was only recently added to the OLL collection. We also have online a facsimile edition of the 1623 Folio Edition of the plays for those readers who wish to try reading it in the original. The discussion between two ordinary soldiers and a thinly disguised King Henry raises a most important legal and moral point, namely who is in fact responsible for atrocities and crimes committed in war? The foot soldiers who do the hacking and maiming, or the king and generals who sent them into battle in the first place? With wars going on around us now, this remains a pertinent question. Bates seems to argue that his obedience to the King absolves him of all moral and legal consequences of his actions on the battle field. William however, perhaps taking a more Erasmian perspective on the matter, believes the King has “a heavy reckoning” to make, and that he seems to feel some qualms about what he may do in the fighting. The justification Harry provides to the obedient soldiers under him is tortured and unconvincing at best.

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