Apr 29 2021
‘What ish [the] nation?’

Something I’ve repeatedly come up against in my doctoral research is the perception of early modern England as a homogenous entity. Matthew Greenfield has rightly observed the problematic depiction of ‘English culture as a homogenous entity with clear boundaries, uncomplicated by the British question’. Happily, recent scholarship has done much to counteract this depiction, redirecting our attention to England’s elision and oppression of its archipelagic neighbours and to the uncertainties this produced. I want to try and apply this thinking more locally. Perhaps in addition to being complicated by ‘the British Question’ the ‘nation’ is complicated by what we might call ‘the English Question’. To that end, I’d like to turn to an underexplored moment in Henry V: the dispute between Corporal Nym and Ancient Pistol, to suggest that the oppositional dynamics of Henry V are not limited to England’s archipelagic or continental neighbours but encompass a wide variety of tensions within England as well.

We first encounter Nym bemoaning his lot in II.i, having lost both his fiancée and eight shillings to his erstwhile friend Pistol. Taken on its own, the scene is a humorous episode between two of Falstaff’s former drinking companions, preoccupied as usual with women and money. But when set against the backdrop of the civil unrest in Henry IV and the foreign conflict of Henry V, the scene raises questions. Just how unified is Henry’s ‘band of brothers’? The play as a whole insists on ideals of friendship and brotherhood while at the same time challenging and interrogating our assumptions regarding the unity they imply. The first instance of the former word appears in II.i – encountering Nym, Bardolph asks ‘are Ancient Pistol and you friends/yet?’ – and reappears throughout the scene. The interrogative ‘yet?’ sets the tone for the rest of the play, in which the bonds of friendship and brotherhood are repeatedly cast into doubt.

The scene’s position is also significant. This scene displaces treason from its announced appearance; it also offers our first glimpse into popular military discontent in the play. The Chorus’s assurance that ‘honour’s thought/reigns solely in the breast of every man’ – already cast into doubt by its mention of the traitors Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey – is further eroded by the quarrel in Eastcheap, which revolves around two distinctly dishonourable actions: Pistol’s theft of Nym’s fiancée and his failure to pay his debts. Although the scene implies that both issues have been settled, it is by no means clear that this is the case. Pistol and Nym may be ordinary soldiers, but they are also representatives of a national military entity. Their unresolved dissent in this scene points towards broader underlying fractures in the unity of the ‘happy few’ Henry casts in opposition to the French.

Nym and his companions are representative of a broader lack of enthusiasm for the war which runs throughout the scenes with common soldiers, even shadowing Henry’s interactions with fellow noblemen. By studying these moments of intranational conflict, then, we gain a better understanding of popular military sentiment, both in the play and in the cultural context in which it was first performed. At the time of Henry V’s composition there was significant popular resentment regarding both conscription and the fees levied to fund the war in Ireland. This resentment is played out not only in the more disreputable characters of Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, but in the sentiments of those soldiers depicted as conventionally honourable, such as John Bates and Michael Williams.

Redirecting our gaze to such moments of intranational tension in the play allows us to challenge the idea that England as a whole was a homogenous entity. This might enable us to consider how England’s varied and often conflicted identities were understood by its inhabitants, then as now. In early modern London, for example, playgoers were in the midst of a substantial immigrant community composed of both strangers (those coming from overseas) and ‘Englishmen forren’ such as Shakespeare, who had migrated to London from more rural areas. That is not to say that some degree of division is incompatible with nationhood. Instead, let’s attend to internal divisions alongside those between England and its archipelagic or continental neighbours. Doing so enables us to reconsider Shakespeare’s England as a composite of parts rather than a cohesive whole, offering an alternate perspective on the problematic boundaries of the early modern nation.


Chloe Fairbanks is a third-year doctoral student at the University of Oxford. Her research reconsiders Shakespeare’s treatment of national identity through an ecocritical and spatial lens. She is the co-host and co-writer of 'On the Nature of Things', a forthcoming podcast on how people of the past understood and interacted with the natural world. She can be reached on Twtitter @fairban_c.