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.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Once a seemingly dissolute and irresponsible prince, Henry V has become king of England. The stern but just monarch is concerned with his hereditary claim to the crown of France. Before the arrival of the French ambassadors to his court, the young king asks for legal advice from the archbishop of Canterbury. The king thinks he is the rightful heir to the throne of France through Edward III, whose claim to the French throne was, at best, questionable. The archbishop assures Henry that he has as much right to the French throne as does the French king, and both he and the bishop of Ely urge Henry to press his demands against the French.
When the ambassadors from France arrive, they come not from Charles, France’s king, but from his arrogant eldest son, the Dauphin. According to the ambassadors, the Dauphin thinks the English monarch to be the same hotheaded, irresponsible youth he was before he ascended the throne. To show that he considers Henry an unfit ruler with ridiculous demands, the Dauphin presents Henry with tennis balls. Enraged by the insult, Henry tells the French messengers to warn their master that the tennis balls will be turned into gun stones for use against the French.
The English prepare for war. The Dauphin remains contemptuous of Henry, but others, including the ambassadors who have seen Henry in his wrath, are not so confident. Henry’s army lands to lay siege to Harfleur, and Henry threatens to destroy the city and its inhabitants unless it surrenders. The French governor is forced to capitulate because help promised by the Dauphin never arrives. The French—with the exception of King Charles—are alarmed by the rapid progress of the English through France. King Charles is so sure of victory that he sends his herald, Montjoy, to Henry to demand that the English king pay a ransom to the...
(The entire section is 749 words.)
Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scenes 1-2 Summary and Analysis
Chorus: a player who introduces the drama, but takes no part in it
Archbishop of Canterbury: head of the Catholic church in England; chief religious leader
Bishop of Ely: assistant to the Archbishop
Henry V: King of England
Duke of Exeter: uncle of Henry V; also a soldier and a statesman
Duke of Bedford: a brother of Henry
Duke of Gloucester: Henry’s younger brother
Duke of York: Henry’s cousin
Chorus begins by delivering a prologue to put the audience in the proper frame of mind. The play’s wide scope, he says, cannot be expressed by theatrical means alone. “Can this cock-pit [i.e., the Globe Theater] hold/The vasty fields of France?” He urges the audience to imagine for themselves the effects that cannot be staged—the battle of Agincourt, the prancing of horses, even Shakespeare’s distortions of time, “jumping o’er times,/Turning th’ accomplishment of many years/Into an hourglass. . . .”
Act I Scene 1 opens with a conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and his assistant, the Bishop of Ely. Canterbury is worrying about a bill currently under consideration by Parliament. The bill, brought up by the House of Commons, would have the state strip the Church of its vast property holdings—“the better half of our possession.” Only an appeal to the king, who shares power with Parliament, can prevent this tremendous loss.
Canterbury then gives a glowing description of Henry. Although wild and reckless in his youth, Henry has rapidly matured into a wise and able king since the death of his father. Ely agrees.
Canterbury then says that he has begun urging Henry to wage a war of conquest on France, arguing that the French Crown is rightfully his because Henry’s great-grandfather had married a French queen. Revealing his true motive, he adds that so rich a prize would make Parliament forget all about seizing the Church’s land. The two churchmen exit to join Henry and his chief advisors, who are about to receive an ambassador from France.
Act I Scene 2 finds Henry, Exeter, and Westmoreland preparing for the ambassador’s arrival and discussing a possible action against France. Canterbury enters, and Henry asks him to explain, in detail, how he justifies England’s claim on the French throne. The archbishop answers by describing a “Salic” (either French or German) law that bars the passing of the Crown through the female side of the family. Henry’s great-grandfather, Edward III, had married a French queen, Isabella. The inheritance should have come down through his descendants instead of hers; therefore, Henry should be king of France. Canterbury further supports his case with a long recitation of Henry’s family history.
Exeter and Westmoreland, too, speak in favor of war, but Henry is hesitant. He fears that Scotland, a subject state always resentful of the English, will rebel if he takes the army to France. At Canterbury’s suggestion, Henry decides to keep three-quarters of the army at home to maintain order in Scotland and to use the remaining quarter abroad. Resolving to “bend [France] to our awe,/Or break it all to pieces,” he summons the ambassador.
The ambassador enters bearing a rather unusual gift from his master, the Dauphin—a quantity of tennis balls. Their meaning is clear from the Dauphin’s written message. He rejects Henry’s claim to “some certain dukedoms” in France and sarcastically adds that “you savour too much of your youth,” implying that Henry “should be playing tennis instead of governing.”
Stung by this a flagrant insult, Henry threatens to send the tennis balls back as cannonballs. “Tell you the Dauphin I am coming on/To venge me as I may,” he warns, vowing to “chide this Dauphin at his father’s door.”
The three issues central to the play that are introduced in Act I are Henry’s moral character, the political situation in England, and the relationship between Henry and the Dauphin.
What we learn about Henry’s character from the two churchmen is overwhelmingly positive. In fact, lines 23 to 70 are one long string...
(The entire section is 1748 words.)
Act II, Prologue Summary and Analysis
Chorus announces that England is completing preparations for war. Word of this has reached Paris and has caused alarm, and three of Henry’s trusted former advisors—the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey—have been bribed to spy on him. The first scene, says Chorus, is set in London, but he says the ensuing scenes will take them to Southampton, where the assembled army is about to depart, and then to France.
As before, Chorus’ prologue is used to verbally create effects that could not be staged, such as the passage of months during which the army made ready for battle and the geographical shift from London to Southampton to Paris. The speech also...
(The entire section is 157 words.)
Act II, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Bardolph, Pistol, Nym: thieves and cowards; all were friends of Henry during his wild youth
Boy: young man who at first associates with Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym
Hostess Quickly: peasant woman; wife of Pistol
In this scene, five low-class characters—Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Hostess Quickly, and a boy—meet on a London street. Nym and Bardolph appear first, and we learn that their friend Pistol has married Hostess Quickly, who is Nym’s former fiancée. When the couple enters, Nym insults Pistol by calling him “host” instead of his preferred title, “ancient.” This precipitates a quarrel that leads to a mock duel, as both draw their swords...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, Sir Thomas Grey: English nobles, but traitors to the crown
Earl of Westmoreland: English noble
Duke of Bedford: Henry’s brother
Now in Southampton, we see Exeter, Bedford, and Westmore-land, Henry’s three most trusted advisors, discussing a plot involving three other advisors, the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey, whom the French have paid to spy on Henry. As the scene unfolds, however, we find that the king, too, is suspicious of the conspirators and has prepared writs of impeachment for treason.
Henry soon enters, together with Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. The king asks their...
(The entire section is 789 words.)
Act II, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Back in London, outside a tavern, Hostess Quickly tells her husband Pistol that she would like to go with him to the town of Staines, en route to his joining the English army at Southampton. He refuses, saying, “For Falstaff is dead, and we must earn therefore [i.e., grieve for him].” This sets him, Nym, Bardolph, and the boy to reminiscing about their former comrade, with much punning and several bawdy jokes. The short scene ends with Pistol exhorting the others to join him as a camp-follower in France, saying they will make a fortune by living off the misfortune of others.
Shakespeare probably inserted this scene as a final farewell to Falstaff, an immensely popular...
(The entire section is 247 words.)
Act II, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Charles VI: King of France
The Dauphin: son of Charles VI; heir to the throne
Constable of France: leader of the French armed forces
Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Orleans, Duke of Bourbon: French nobles and military commanders
The scene now shifts to the French court, where King Charles VI is conferring with his advisors and his son the Dauphin about the English invasion. The king, recalling England’s victories over the French at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) just a few decades earlier, calls for speedy mobilization of the army “To line and new-repair our towns of war/With men of courage and with means defendant.”
(The entire section is 592 words.)
Act III, Prologue Summary and Analysis
Chorus again calls on the audience to imagine offstage events. Henry has sailed to France and has begun a siege of the town of Harfleur. Meanwhile, a French ambassador tells Henry that the French king is offering Princess Katharine in marriage, along with “some petty and unprofitable dukedoms,” if he will end his campaign. Henry rejects this attempt at appeasement.
As in all the Prologues, Chorus’ diction is elevated and grandiose. The shore is the “rivage,” the sea is “inconstant billows,” strength is “pith and puissance,” the cannons have “fatal mouths,” and so forth. Through this rhetoric, Chorus gives an epic, larger-than-life scale to the drama,...
(The entire section is 270 words.)
Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Soldiers: infantrymen in the English army
Standing before a gap in the wall surrounding Harfleur, Henry delivers a rallying speech to his troops. Pleading for one more mighty effort, he tells them to cast off their civilized manners and “imitate the action of the tiger.” He appeals to their nationalism (“On, on, you [noblest] English”), linking his own leadership with the men’s patriotic and religious fervor:
Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”
Henry’s oratory here is dazzling. “Once more unto the breach” is among the most famous battle cries in literature, and his injunction to “disguise fair...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Captain Fluellen: a patriotic Welsh officer in Henry’s army
Captain Gower: another Welsh officer, friend of Fluellen
Captain Jamy: a Scottish officer in Henry’s army
Captain Macmorris: an Irish officer in Henry’s army
The boy and his friends Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym retreat from the battle, but Fluellen, a Welsh officer, commands them to return to the fray. After the others depart, the boy reflects on the low morals of his companions and decides to part company with them.
Fluellen reenters and is urged by Gower, a fellow Welshman, to help two other officers dig tunnels under the Harfleur wall. They are soon joined by...
(The entire section is 587 words.)
Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
At the gates of Harfleur, Henry addresses the French governor with an ultimatum—either surrender the town or see it buried in its own ashes. Henry says his soldiers will “mow like grass” the young girls and children of the town, rape its “pure maidens,” seize its “shrill-shrieking daughters,” smash the heads of its fathers, and impale “naked infants” on pikes while their mothers run mad with grief. The governor admits that the town has been abandoned by the Dauphin, who was “not ready/To raise so great a siege.” Faced with these dire consequences, the governor gives in.
As his army advances to claim the town, Henry, observing that “winter is coming on and sickness...
(The entire section is 410 words.)
Act III, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
Katharine: daughter of Charles VI
In a room of the French palace, we find Princess Katharine getting an English lesson from her serving-woman, Alice. As Alice asks the English words for various parts of the body, the young woman laughs and speaks disparagingly of the language.
This scene—more accurately, an interlude—introduces the princess whom Henry will later woo and marry. Though the reason for her interest in learning English is not clearly established, we may assume that Katharine knows her father has offered her to the English king (i.e., as a payoff for leaving France), and she wants to prepare for this.
(The entire section is 210 words.)
Act III, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
Elsewhere in the palace, the French king and his advisors discuss, amid some embarrassment, Henry’s victory at Harfleur and debate the relative strength of the two warring armies. Charles orders the mobilization of his forces, with which he intends to cut off the English retreat to Calais.
Because it seems clear that the English are not only fatigued and falling ill but are also hopelessly out-numbered, the French king also decides to offer Henry a way out. He sends a herald to demand a ransom, promising in return to spare his army from annihilation.
This short scene tells us something more about the temperament of the French king. Unlike his frivolous son and...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Act III, Scene 6 Summary and Analysis
Back among the English at Picardy, captains Gower and Fluellen discuss the bravery of Exeter, who has just won an important military skirmish by holding a key bridge further up the river. (This event is not described in detail in the play. Exeter’s stand took place in an area called Teroune. Henry and his men needed a nearby river crossing to avoid an exhausting, 50-mile trek to the next bridge. Exeter, while reconnoitering, came upon a small bridge that the French were about to destroy. He drove off the enemy and held out until Henry and his troops arrived.)
Describing the scene in his slow-witted fashion, Fluellen praises both Exeter and another soldier he saw on the bridge, the “Aunchient...
(The entire section is 653 words.)
Act III, Scene 7 Summary and Analysis
Lord Rambures: a French noble and military commander
Duke of Orleans: a French noble and military commander
The final scene of this act shifts the focus once again to the French military leaders—the Constable, the Dauphin, Lord Rambures, and others—who are camped opposite Henry at Agincourt and evidently prepared for battle. They spend much of the scene in light-hearted banter. The Dauphin speaks about his own steed, which “bounds from the earth,” a Pegasus which “trots the air,” and so forth. Orleans tries to cut him short, first remarking that the horse is “the color of nutmeg,” and then pleading, “No more, cousin.” The other...
(The entire section is 511 words.)
Act IV, Prologue Summary and Analysis
In a subdued, less lyrical style, Chorus asks the audience to imagine the two warring camps during the night before the battle. He describes, on the English side, whispering sentinels, neighing horses, and noisy armor-makers—but on the other side, the “confident and overlusty French” playing dice. He then fortells the action, in which Henry, disguised, passes among the troops and “Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,/And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.” Finally, the Chorus apologizes for the inadequacy of the stage in enacting this historic tale, saying:
we shall much disgrace
With four of five most vile and ragged foils [props, stage...
(The entire section is 206 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
John Bates, Alexander Court, Michael Williams: soldiers in Henry’s army
Sir Thomas Erpingham: an officer in Henry’s army
As predicted in the Prologue, Henry spends most of this scene in disguise, mingling with the common soldiers to sense their morale and spread encouragement.
He borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham, an elderly officer, and soon encounters Pistol. Not seeing through the disguise, Pistol treats Henry brusquely. Upon hearing that he is a friend of his adversary Fluellen, he makes a vulgar gesture and exits. Half hidden, Henry then sees Gower and Fluellen himself, who chides his fellow Welshman for making too much noise. The...
(The entire section is 1153 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Lord Grandpre: a French noble and military commander
Lord Beaumont: a French noble and military commander
The scene returns to the French camp as the sun rises, signaling the beginning of the battle. While the Dauphin and other officers mount up, mention is again made of the the enemy’s pitiful condition, and again we see their self-assurance. Constable says they need only take the field and their mere presence will scare the English to death:
Do but behold yond poor and starved band,...
And your [i.e., the nobles’] fair show shall suck away their souls,
Leaving them but the shales and husks of men.
(The entire section is 233 words.)
Act IV, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
As if echoing Grandpre’s speech, the English officers prepare for death by bidding one another good-bye. Then Henry delivers a speech about the honor of dying for one’s country. Suiting his remarks to the occasion, he says the coming battle will become a national holiday celebrating “St. Crispin.” (In Catholic theology, October 25 was a feast day for two Roman brothers, Crispinus and Crispianus, who were the patron saints of shoemakers.) And in a famous passage, Henry addresses the men—outnumbered five to one by the French—as
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;...
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother. . . .
(The entire section is 470 words.)
Act IV, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
The battle having begun, a French soldier captured by Pistol pleads for his life. His words are translated by the boy. After much confusion and haggling, Pistol agrees to accept a ransom of 200 gold coins.
In light of the ransom at stake in the previous scene, this scene can be considered a companion piece to it. Morally speaking, of course, it is a mirror opposite. Far from rejecting the notion of a ransom, the mercenary-minded Pistol is more than eager to accept. (Buying one’s release was so common during Shakespeare’s time that it was frequently the chief source of an army’s income.) His inverted sense of values is also reflected in the dialogue where he mistakes a...
(The entire section is 207 words.)
Act IV, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
In the play’s shortest scene, the French nobles are found routed and panic-stricken. Their army’s ranks broken and facing certain defeat, they decide to seek death in battle rather than the disgrace they have earned. Bourbon speaks for all in vowing to throw himself on the enemy’s spear when he says, “I’ll to the throng./Let life be short, else shame will be too long.”
Despite its brevity, this climactic scene has one moment of special significance. It is the Dauphin’s invocation of Fortune, a mythological goddess who was thought to control the lives of humans. In contrast to the prayers of Henry and his men, which are consistently directed to God, this...
(The entire section is 234 words.)
Act IV, Scene 6 Summary and Analysis
Elsewhere in the field, Henry, in the thick of the fight, receives word that the dukes of York and Suffolk have both been killed. Exeter recounts their final moments, in which the two soldiers embraced in “a testament of noble-ending love.” But Henry has no time for grieving. Notified that the enemy has rallied, he issues the order that “every soldier kill his prisoners.”
Henry’s command to murder all French captives has stirred perhaps more controversy than any other single line of the play. To some, this is a barbarous, indefensible act of cruelty, contradicting all the magnanimity implied by his fine speeches. Certainly it is a radical move and, in the context of...
(The entire section is 265 words.)
Act IV, Scene 7 Summary and Analysis
Fluellen and Gower, upon hearing of Henry’s command, are both highly pleased. Fluellen compares the king to Alexander the Great, paralleling Alexander’s murder of a friend with Henry’s rejection of Falstaff.
At this point the king himself arrives and repeats his order to “cut the throats of those we have.” He adds, “not one of them that we shall take/Shall taste our mercy.”
Just then Montjoy returns, bearing a request that the French be allowed to bury their dead. Henry asks if the outcome of the battle has been decided, and the herald answers, “The day is yours.” “Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!” cries the happy king.
Henry and Fluellen...
(The entire section is 918 words.)
Act IV, Scene 8 Summary and Analysis
The final scene concludes the action between Henry and Williams. Mistaking Fluellen for the disguised Henry he met earlier, the soldier strikes the officer, an act for which he is immediately accused of treason. Warwick and Gloucester arrive too late to prevent the blow, but after a moment Henry enters and explains everything. By way of pardoning Williams, he fills his glove with crowns.
An English herald enters with an account of the casualties. Some 10,000 Frenchmen died during the battle, but only about 25 Englishmen died. In light of this seemingly miraculous discrepancy, Henry once more attributes the victory to divine intervention, and he prescribes the death penalty for any soldier who boasts...
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Act V, Prologue Summary and Analysis
Apologizing yet again for “th’ excuse/Of time, of numbers, and due course of things,/Which cannot in their huge and proper life/Be here represented,” Chorus relates the events that have transpired between the fall of France and the action of Act 5. Henry returned to England and a tumultuous reception, the Holy Roman Emperor also made the journey in an unsuccessful attempt to impose a peace treaty on England and France. Henry came back to Paris to claim the spoils of war, the French throne, and Princess Katharine.
As elsewhere in the play, similes by Chorus compare Henry and the English to the heroes of classical times. Here, the welcoming Mayor of London “and all his...
(The entire section is 222 words.)
Act V, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Back in France, in the English camp, Fluellen is seen wearing a leek in his cap. Questioned by Gower, he says he means to force-feed this pungent object to “the rascally, scald, beggarly, lousy, pragging knave Pistol,” who had earlier insulted his heritage by making wisecracks about the leek, which happens to be the Welsh national emblem.
When Pistol enters, Fluellen makes good his intention by thrashing him soundly with a cudgel, or short, heavy club. Though he eats the leek, Pistol is unrepentant, and once the other has left he mutters, “All hell shall stir for this.”
When Gower, too, exits, the rogue reflects on his current status. Word has reached him that his wife Hostess...
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Act V, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
In the French palace, the leaders of England and France meet to settle the terms of a peace treaty. After friendly greetings are exchanged, Burgundy gives a long speech summarizing the political situation. Henry then sends the others off to negotiate these matters while he courts Katharine, with whom he has fallen in love.
His amorous attentions make up most of this final scene. Appealing to her not as a king but as a “plain soldier,” he asks for her consent to join their lives and their kingdoms in marriage. Though shy and hesitant at first, she ultimately agrees. When the others return, the French king accedes to this and to “every article” of Henry’s other terms. Everyone present greets...
(The entire section is 786 words.)