Why Henry V’s Band of Brother’s Speech was so Persuasive

408 words have stood the test of time. They are feted and celebrated as much now as they were nearly 500 years ago when they were written. Many people still consider them the finest combination of words ever produced in the English language. They were the words of King Henry V to his overawed troops in act 4, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The scene has come to be known as “Henry V’s Band of Brothers speech” (it’s also known as the “St. Crispin’s Day Speech”) and there’s a reason it’s so highly praised. It is rich in persuasive power. Why not given it a listen? Then I’ll tell you why it’s so persuasive.

Background

The speech took place on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in late October 1415, in the thick of the Hundred Years’ War. Henry V and his men were greatly outnumbered. The French were confident of victory and jovial by their fires on the eve of battle, celebrating as if they had already won. Meanwhile, gloom descended over the despondent English, who thought that this would be their last night among the living.

With their morale low, leadership mattered even more. If panic stormed the English lines on the next day’s fight, the men’s deaths would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most deaths in battle came after panicked men started to flee, after all.

Henry V needed to restore confidence in his men, quickly. He would do so by taking advantage of several laws of persuasion.

Before the St. Crispin’s Day Speech

On the morning of St. Crispin’s Day, Henry V interrupted the doom and gloom coming from his officers. He cut a majestic presence worthy of a king. He was upbeat, his body language erect, projecting confidence. As Scott Adams would say in Win Bigly, Henry V was moving energy and focus away from the formidable French army, away from despondency, and on to the majesty of the king. As Robert Greene would say, “emotional states are contagious,” a phrase proven in subsequent studies.

Before even beginning his “Band of Brothers Speech,” Henry V was creating a new emotional state in his men through his demeanor. It was Pre-Suasion. It wasn’t the only aspect of Pre-Suading he would do.

Henry V Band of Brothers Speech

The Band of Brothers Speech

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honor.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honor,
I am the most offending soul alive.

Henry V begins by sucking the energy out of Westmoreland’s despondency and channeling it to a higher ideal. He says that he himself is willing to die for his country and honor. If death comes for his army, it will come for him, too.

The crucial line in the opening portion of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech, though, is “the fewer men, the greater share of honor.”

This is more Pre-Suasion. In that book, Robert Cialdini advises readers that channeling attention to any of his universal principles of influence is a likely winner in any subsequent attempt to persuade. Here, Henry V is channeling his men’s attention to the concept of scarcity. What is scarce has more value.

In the following lines, he spurns wealth. In a sentiment straight out of Sallust, Henry V is saying that riches are transitory. Only a virtuous, elite few can attain true honor that lasts for all time. That is the pursuit worthy of a king.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honor
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

Here again, Henry V is bringing up scarcity and disdains treasure. Everyone has the ability to attain riches. Only a scarce few can gain something much greater – an honor that turns into everlasting fame. It’s straight out of the Homeric tradition.

To cement the argument, Henry V goes on to socially shame the timid. If you’re too afraid to fight, the king says, you can take your money and leave right now. You wouldn’t be worthy of dying with your comrades, for the king now blurs the lines between majesty and commoner. He uses the crucial words “we” and “us.”

The midpoint of the Band of Brothers Speech is where the tribe is created. It is a tribe of a scarce few, only the most worthy. The cowardly who only pursue riches aren’t worthy. Henry V is telling his men that they can take the money, but that would be them turning their backs on the tribe. That’s shameful.

Robert Cialdini often mentions in Pre-Suasion that messages tailored to the social aspects of things are more persuasive than those that aren’t. For example, he details that people are much likelier to do what they can to reduce their energy use if their neighbors might catch wind that they’re using too much energy, and thus harming the environment. Protecting the environment by itself isn’t nearly as persuasive.

Henry V is using the same principle in the St. Crispin’s Day Speech. His men will be far likelier to value their honor if their comrades get wind that they might not value it. Before the climax of the Band of Brothers Speech, the king is using social proof, another universal principle of influence, to persuade with.

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

In the climax, the king again brings up social mores. He uses visual language to make his men imagine their elevated place among their neighbors for having fought on St. Crispin’s Day, with the physical proof of their scars.

He finishes by going back to scarcity. He now gives his a solid name for his in-group, his few – “we band of brothers.” This is a group that transcends social class. Commoners can be made noble through the supreme honor of being part of that group, while those who don’t take part in it, those “ten thousand men in England who do no work today,” as Westmoreland grumbles before the king’s speech, will be shamed. Why would Westmoreland want such unworthy men to help them?

The once-despondent English, now the Band of Brothers, have had their fears erased. They are ready to do battle on this St. Crispin’s Day!

Henry V St. Crispin's Day Speech

Just reading it makes you ready to go out and kick some ass, doesn’t it? That’s the reason why Shakespeare’s “Band of Brothers” is so often considered the finest passage in the English language.

In Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdini talks about “Persuasive Geographies,” where keeping images or words in certain places can help you work better because of the way they channel your attention.

I recommend starting every day by reading or listening to this speech. It will work.

After you’re done, read Stumped. It shows you how to make use of the principles.