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Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws: Perspectives on the Law of War in the Later Middle Ages

By Theodor Meron | Go to book overview

5
Responsibility of Princes

On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare has Henry circulate among his troops in disguise and engage in a conversation with soldier Williams.

KING [in disguise] Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King's company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable. WILLIAMS That's more than we know.

WILLIAMS 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. . . . Now, if these mendo not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it. . . .

KING 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 deaths when they propose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrament 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. . . . 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. . . .

WILLIAMS 'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head. The King is not to answer it.

(Henry V, IV. i. 125-86)

-64-

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