#MindTheBard: Leech (Henry V)

Alex Hassell Henry V Keith Pattison
Alex Hassell in Henry V
Photo credit: Keith Pattison

To kick off the week, we go once more unto the leech… Giant Microbes aren’t just about ‘germs’, as we shall see over the course of this week, with worms, organs & various other biomedical critters making up the collection. The humble leech has been sucked out of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known histories: Henry V. There are lots of very famous quotes and speeches in this play, but any mention of leeches may well have passed you by as you follow Hal’s transition from carefree prince to warrior king on the fields of Agincourt.

There are many different types of leech – approximately 650 species, to be more precise. They are segmented worms (Annelida) that are found in the subclass Hirudinea, and are characterised by suckers at the end of their bodies: a small sucker at the anterior (containing the mouth), and a large sucker at the posterior end. Leeches can be found in a range of sizes, from very small to around 20cm (longer when stretching), and are made up of 34 segments. They are found primarily on land and in freshwater, though some species live in the sea. You may be familiar with leeches as a mediaeval cure-all, especially if you’ve watched Blackadder II. Surprisingly, there is some scientific basis to their medicinal use, as their saliva contains compounds which can anaesthetise a wound, dilate blood vessels (increasing blood flow), and prevent blood from clotting. The European medicinal leech (Hirudo medicinalis) is actually the source for the anticoagulant hirudin, which is used after surgery to prevent blood clots – and clots can be dissolved using a chemical extracted from Amazonian leeches.

Photo credit: Reuters
Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: Biopharm Leeches Limited
Image credit: Shakespeare’s Words

“Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys,
To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!”
Pistol, Henry V (Act 2 Scene 3)

The relevant quote from today’s play is taken from one of the subplots; Sir John Falstaff has died and his associates Pistol, Bardolph & Nym are preparing to leave London to fight in France. It’s not unsurprising that the quick-tempered Pistol is geeing himself up with this rather aggressive, yet somewhat sneaky, imagery – he likes to boast about his military prowess, but he is essentially a coward.

There are plenty of places to see Henry V, as it is a perennial favourite. The Show Must Go Online’s version is one of my favourites, and I’d also thoroughly recommend The Barn Theatre’s 2019 production – both are available to watch for free on YouTube. If you have a bit of cash to spare, do consider the RSC’s 2015 version starring Alex Hassell (available via BritBox or through the RSC website on DVD), plus the Globe Player has their Jamie Parker-led production to rent or buy. Tom Hiddleston starred as Hal in The Hollow Crown‘s 2012 TV adaptations, which can be purchased on DVD/Blu-ray or digital. Wordsworth Classics are probably the best value if you want to read the play.

Design credit: www.designevo.com

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