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In Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 movie, Henry V, King Harry walks across the bloodied battlefield with a slain young boy across his shoulders. Each difficult step, as he moves through the dead and dying is heavy, laborious, as if, even in victory, there is a burden to bear. This scene is not in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, yet it expresses a theme from the play: the terrible price of greatness. That Branagh chose to include this in the movie attests to the importance of the nameless character, Boy. Shakespeare uses Boy to put Henry’s character traits in sharp focus, to represent all that he, as king, has given up, and, most importantly, to symbolize how Henry will carry the consequences of his decisions for the rest of his life.

Boy first appears in Scene 2.1 when he runs into the tavern and begs, “ Mine host Pistol, you must come to my master, and you, hostess. He is very sick, and would to bed.” His master is Falstaff, the now-discarded close friend of the king. Boy remains with Falstaff until his death. Afterwards, for reasons that are not entirely clear, he takes up with Nim, Bardolf, and Pistol and follows them to war. Boy clearly has misgivings about this choice, “As young as I am, I have observed these three swashers. I am boy to them all three, but all they three, though they should serve me, could not be man to me, for indeed three such antics do not amount to a man.” Later, in Scene 4.4, Boy feels somewhat differently about two of them as he ruminates after a disconcerting encounter where he must translate for the sleazy, bloodthirsty thief Pistol, “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart. But the saying is true: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.’ Bardolf and Nim had ten times more valor than this roaring devil…” It is also in this soliloquy that Boy tells us that he will stay with the boys guarding the luggage and that “the French might have a good prey of us.” This observation, unfortunately, becomes a tragic truth. The slaughter of the young boys—and in particular this boy—symbolizes the loss of innocence, something that can never be recaptured. Boy was, obviously good and likely kind, but Shakespeare is showing us that to outwit fate and seize your own destiny requires more than a loyal heart and a solid grasp of French. Greatness requires what Henry had. While Boy was walloped against the surf by circumstances, Henry used circumstances to his advantage even if the odds are against him. Boy was a casual observer of calamity, merely commenting on it, whereas Henry was a man of incredible decisiveness and action. Henry dug in to overcome his fear and Boy nearly succumb to his, “ Were that I was in an alehouse in London…”

While Boy was a likeable, sympathetic character, Henry is not always, particularly when one considers how he treated his old friends, or when looking at the inconceivable violence he threatened in his speech to the people of Harfleur, or how he “toyed” with the traitors. But, if Branagh got it right, Shakespeare’s Henry V was a complex man who knew full well the depth and breadth of his sins. Through the brutal death of the boy, King Harry found that not all things were subject to his fierce and terrible will, including his own past.