Summary of the Play
This play celebrates one of history’s most astounding military upsets, the English victory over the French at Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War. Except for a few interludes of comic relief, the action proceeds with no subplots or other complications.
As the play opens in about 1414, the newly crowned Henry is considering waging war on France. His advisors, the leading English nobles and the Archbishop of Canterbury, unanimously urge this action. Canterbury says that France is Henry’s by right, as he is descended from a French queen; the Archbishop also knows, however, that the Church’s huge property holdings, now threatened by a state takeover, will be safe if France is conquered.
Just as Henry agrees to the war, the French ambassador arrives bearing a package from the French Dauphin. It is a quantity of tennis balls—a deliberate insult to Henry, who in his youth was a carousing playboy. This stiffens the king’s determination to “venge” himself on the French.
As England prepares for war, Henry summons three of his advisors. They are, as we know, spies for France. Henry is also aware of their treachery and sends them to their deaths.
The scene shifts to the French court, where King Charles VI’s advisors haughtily express their contempt of the English. The French army, they believe, is vastly superior in numbers and equipment and is in no danger from these invaders. Even when word comes that Henry is besieging the town of Harfleur, the Dauphin does not send soldiers to its aid.
At Harfleur, however, the relatively small English army is having trouble taking the town. Inspired by a speech by their valiant warrior king, they finally prevail, but the struggle is costly. Weakened by battle, Henry’s troops are now falling ill. With winter approaching, he decides to retreat to the coastal town of Calais.
At this point, the French move against him. Amassing an army that is 60,000 men strong, the French march to the town of Agincourt and prepare for combat. Henry’s men number only 12,000, and they are ragged and exhausted. The French camp is more confident than ever.
On the eve of the conflict, Henry assumes a disguise and passes unrecognized among his troops. He learns that, despite their physical distress, their patriotism and fighting spirit are still strong. These visits also prompt him to reflect philosophically on his own role—the heavy responsibilities of being a king and its sometimes dubious rewards. But as the new day dawns, he again rises to the occasion, exhorting his troops with another soul-stirring speech. When a French messenger arrives to demand a surrender, his answer is scornful defiance.
The battle begins. From the onstage action, we can see only that the English are fighting fiercely and bravely. Henry is in the thick of it, giving blow for blow. But he, like his men, is so exhausted that when the French messenger arrives again, Henry must ask him who won. Against all odds, the English are victorious! While losing just a few dozen soldiers, the English have massacred nearly 10,000 French—a devastating triumph that seems little short of miraculous.
The play ends on a note of reconciliation, as Henry courts the beautiful Katharine and wins her heart. Soon after, she is given to him in marriage by her father, King Charles VI, as he surrenders his crown. The two countries have resolved their differences at last, and Charles is wise enough to see the peacetime prosperity that lies ahead.
Estimated Reading Time
Allow two hours for the first reading, disregarding textual notes. After that, allow one hour per act for a close, careful reading, note taking, and test preparation.