I'm blogging on Shakespeare, analysing famous lines delivered by the Chorus in the Act III Prologue of "Henry V". It is about Henry's invasion fleet taking a fair wind for France before the siege of Harfleur and battle of Agincourt which Henry V won. With it, he won the French crown and a wife, Catherine de Valois, who was a direct ancestor of Elizabeth 1st.
".....................Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Hampton pier
Embark his royalty: and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle, ship-boys climbing;
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaded sails
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow'd sea,
Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
You stand upon the rivage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing....
First, "Hampton" is Southampton. How is the feeling of wind summoned up? It is through the alliteration of "f" sounds in "Phoebus fanning" which makes the alliterative "silken streamers", the top flags on the masts, long and flying smoothly behind. What is fascinating is that Shakespeare here tells us the correct origin of wind, using "Phoebus", not the blowing wind god, Iolus. Phoebus is the Greek sun god. The heat from the sun does create wind. I wonder how many Elizabethans knew that? Nimble ship-boys commanded by whistles, on deck, climb the rigging to control the thread sails, using ropes of hemp. He builds the picture of the sun working on the wind, which comes into contact with otherwise frail and simple feminine materials (thread and hemp) cleverly manipulated by small boys with good ears, to move hugely heavy ships "huge bottoms" weighed down with cannon through obstructive seas. These were the tall, broad-beamed ships that Shakespeare had presumably seen in illustrated books, which looked like castles, collectively like cities, "dancing" on the sea. Surely this is also a "hymn" in praise of the 1588 English Armada fleet which used "English men o' war" ships designed for quick turning against huge Spanish ships. Imagine being a boy in the rigging in those English ships. Shakespeare loves nimbleness, in everything.
What else is going on? Well, in the sub text, he steadily builds the picture of the "pity of war" through youth dying in it. The boys are controlling the invasion fleet, bravely risking their lives, up top. We are told that only women, babies and old men remained in England. Later on, in the most poignant scene, the boys with the baggage train at Agincourt are murdered, for no reason except revenge, by the retreating French. Are they the same ship-boys? The wonderful Branagh film of "Henry V" shows the victorious King carrying a dead English boy, accompanied by holy music, with unbearable grief etched on his mud-spattered face. What a scene - but it comes out of Shakespeare's text. Even today, when we hear of soldiers of 18 or 19 dying in Afghanistan, we are convulsed by overwhelming sorrow. The pity of war is most poignant in the death of "boys".