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...
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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...
(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 condenses an important piece of background information—the espionage of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. This allows Shakespeare to dispense with this subplot quickly and to focus attention on Henry’s reaction, which reveals much about his character.
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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 but are too cowardly to use them.
They are interrupted by the entrance of the boy, who tells Hostess Quickly that the infamous John Falstaff, the gang’s aged leader, is seriously ill. She exits, and a threat from Bardolph soon persuades the two men to make up. Pistol ends the scene by saying that he intends to become a profiteer in the coming war.
This scene departs from the main action to introduce a small band of “low,” or minor, characters with whom Henry had consorted during his misspent youth. (The titles they go by—corporal, lieutenant, ancient—are fictitious; none of the men is a regular soldier.) The first three had figured prominently in Shakespeare’s two preceding history...
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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 advice in deciding the fate of a man who, while drunk, voiced an insult against him. He says he is inclined to be lenient, but the three unanimously argue the opposite. Henry thereupon hands them each a writ disclosing their plot and exposing them as traitors.
Unmasked, the three admit their wrongs and plead for mercy, but to no avail. Henry says that they, by urging the maximum penalty a moment before, have condemned themselves out of their own mouths:
The mercy that was quick in us but late
By your own counsel is suppressed and killed.
By saying “I will weep for thee,” he orders them to their death and then returns immediately to his primary concern,...
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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 character whom, had he lived, the audience would be expecting to see. No poetry is inspired by his passing, however—a reflection not so much on the author as on these shallow, self-absorbed survivors.
The animal imagery reinforces this impression and, as before, shows the moral state of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym. (“Nym,” incidentally, was Elizabethan slang for pilferer, or thief.) Now their degeneration has progressed beyond dogs to leeches, as Pistol invites the others to join in his parasitic enterprise by saying “Yoke-fellows in arms, let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys, to suck, to suck, the very blood to suck.” The three will indeed exploit the miseries of war through extortion and theft—and more than one...
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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 Dauphin acknowledges the prudence of his father’s words on general principle, saying it is always a good idea to take precautions. He minimizes the present threat, however, by observing that the English throne is “so fantastically borne” that no one need fear the “vain, giddy, shallow, humorous” Henry. For this he is chided by the Constable of France, who points to England’s traditional resoluteness and warns against overconfidence.
Here Exeter enters with a warning of his own. Invoking the English victor at Crecy, Henry’s ancestor Edward III, Exeter tells Charles to “resign/Your crown and kingdom, indirectly held/From him, the native and true challenger.” Henry is coming, he says, “in thunder and in...
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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, overcoming the theater’s limitations and conferring a mythical importance on the action.
A few details are notable for their apparent inaccuracy. One is the passage describing the helplessness of England, which Chorus says is defended by “grandsires, babies, and old women”—contradicting the fact, mentioned earlier, that three-fourths of the army is still there. Shakespeare may be reminding the audience that despite its military power, the English throne is still somewhat precarious because of the ethnic divisions within the country. As we know, a possible revolt by the Scots, along with the chronic restiveness of the Irish and the Welsh, needs constant attention. This aspect is developed further during Act III.
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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 nature with hard-favored rage” masterfully summons the troops’ fighting spirit. Imagistically, Henry’s soldiers become human instruments of war, their eyes “like the brass cannon.” He skillfully uses the men’s social status to engender competition between the gentlemen and the yeomen, challenging the former to “be copy now to men of grosser blood/And teach them how to war.” The “good yeomen” he likens to leashed greyhounds impatient to be loosed upon the prey. [This may have been Shakespeare’s nod to historical truth, for the yeoman-archer was indeed the mainstay of the army during this campaign.]
While there is no denying the rhetorical power of this speech, a closer look reveals certain disquieting...
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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 these others—captains Macmorris, an Irishman, and Jamy, a Scot. An argument erupts between Fluellen and Macmorris and is about to escalate into a duel when word arrives that Henry has called a parley of his officers. The two vow to resume their dispute later.
This scene begins with an obvious parody of the preceding one, as the ignoble Pistol echoes Henry’s speech: “On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!” It momentarily breaks the serious mood of the play until Fluellen chases the three rascals back to the battlefront.
Then, however, the boy’s soliloquy sounds an interesting new note, as he comments quite explicitly on these rascals. Bardolph is a cowardly...
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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 growing/Upon our soldiers,” decides to “retire to Calais.”
Once again, we see Henry’s oratorical brilliance, in a speech that seems to break the will of the French even when his army could not overcome them physically. We also see his outstanding qualities of leadership. Just as he earlier renounced the French king’s offer of a bribe, he here forswears negotiation, in effect saying “Surrender or die.” This is the kind of resolute, decisive performance his troops expect—one of the “disciplines of war,” in the Elizabethan sense—and Henry rises admirably to the occasion.
While the words are stirring, however, the action here is almost anticlimactic compared with Scene 1, for the victory...
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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.
Here we get a sense of the young woman’s lively intelligence, her cheerfulness, and her apparent willingness to go with Henry if necessary. This is important for us to know, because in a purely technical sense, she is little more than a pawn of history, with no choice over her fate. Seeing her as a flesh-and-blood individual makes us care about her. The scene also prepares us for the later action, in which Henry, rather than simply claiming her as a prize of war, is at pains to win her heart. Here we see what he finds attractive about her.
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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 complacent advisors, Charles has sense enough to avoid a fight with the English if he can and spare his country a potentially disastrous defeat. The demand for a ransom is both prudent and appropriate, given the enormous disparity in size between the two armies. In later refusing it, Henry again shows his boldness and tenacity. (Note that this is the second time Henry is tempted to avoid a fight.)
The scene also anticipates the consequences of a French defeat. A loss would engender scorn in the populace—and specifically among French women, who, complains the Dauphin, already “mock at us and plainly say/Our mettle is bred out.” In a pointed insult to these overconfident men, the women say “they will give/Their bodies to the...
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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 Pistol.” (The Welshman’s dialogue, like that of the other ethnics, Macmorris and Jamy, is sprinkled with idiomatic mispronunciations.) At this point, Pistol himself enters and tries to intercede on behalf of Bardolph, who has been caught stealing and is under the sentence of death. When Fluellen rejects the plea, Pistol exits.
Gower then recollects an earlier meeting with Pistol and exposes him as an “arrant counterfeit rascal,” though Fluellen remains unconvinced. They are interrupted by the arrival of Henry, along with Gloucester and some common soldiers. Fluellen relates the sentence imposed on Bardolph, pointing out that so far the English have not lost a single man in battle—this thief would be the first....
(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 officers join in with punning, bawdy remarks that mock the prince and his “brags.” After the Dauphin exits, the Constable sarcastically ridicules his fighting ability.
When the messenger brings news that the English army has encamped “within fifteen hundred paces,” the subject turns to Henry. “What a wretched and peevish fellow is this King of England to mope with his fat-brained followers so far out of his knowledge,” observes Orleans. The Constable replies that if the English had any sense, “they would run away.” To general agreement, Orleans ends the scene and the act with the following supremely confident prediction:
It is now two o’clock. But, let me see, by ten
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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 swords]
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt.
This speech is marked by vivid imagery. Night is personified as a “foul womb.” Likewise, “fire answers fire” as the two camps oppose one another, and “Each battle sees the other’s umbered face.” Night is then likened to a “foul and ugly witch [who] doth limp/So tediously away.” Note that the time is three o’clock.
Note, too, that the French are seen gambling, as was also the case in the preceding scene. This will have important philosophical meaning at the climax of the battle.
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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 king remarks that Fluellen, though “a little out of fashion,” has “much care and valor” in him.
Next, Henry is accosted by three common soldiers, John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams. When a debate arises as to the nature of the kingship, Henry asserts that “the King is but a man as I am,” pointing out that except for “ceremony,” all his “senses have but human conditions.” The discussion shifts to the philosophical question of whether a king bears responsibility for the moral state of soldiers who die in battle. Bates suggests that he does. “If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.” Henry dissents strongly, insisting that “The King is not bound to...
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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.
To this is added a lengthy speech by another officer, Grandpre, characterizing the foe as men already dead.
In this brief, final look at the cocksure French, Grandpre’s speech has thematic importance. Religious references and biblical allusions abound in the play, both in the dialogue—there are scores of invocations to God—and in actions such as the preceding scene. Here, Grandpre raises a theme that is pervasive in the Bible and central to Christian theology: death and rebirth. The Frenchman calls the English “carrions”—that is corpses—and describes them at length in similarly ghoulish terms. This sets up the climax of the play, in which the “ragged,” “beggared” English...
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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. . . .
As the troops begin to deploy, the French herald Montjoy rides up with a message from King Charles. For the third time he offers an alternative to battle, saying that Henry can spare his army “certain overthrow” by paying a ransom. Once again, the king rejects him, instead making himself the prize:
Come thou no more for ransom, gentle herald.
They shall have none, I swear, but these my joints. . . .
The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which still stirs patriotic passion in the British heart, is the centerpiece of this scene. Some critics have detected a whiff of self-aggrandisement in Henry’s assertion that “I am not covetous for gold . . ....
(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 reference to God (“O Seigneur Dieu!”) for the victim’s name.
As in another companion piece, the scene at the Harfleur wall, Pistol converts a serious theme into parody. Here it is the concept of mercy—a virtue repeatedly associated with Henry. Pistol equates the virtue with his own parasitic nature. “As I suck blood, I will some mercy show.” Not surprisingly, the remark elicits disgust from the boy, who says, “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart.”
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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 blasphemous act associates the Frenchman with a pagan deity. Once again, Shakespeare underscores the different value systems of the two peoples, with the spiritual, high-minded English on one side, and the luxury-loving French on the other.
Perhaps to underscore the point, the Dauphin asks “Be these the wretches that we played dice for?” (In the previous scene, he and the others had placed wagers on the number of English soldiers they would kill.) In the Elizabethan world view, to forsake Christianity and follow Fortune was the sure way to damnation, and Shakespeare’s audience would not have missed the implications of his words—nor would they have overlooked the Constable’s reference to “Disorder.”
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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 Exeter’s lofty sentiments, a jarring reversal in tone.
As will shortly be explained, the line’s placement is perhaps the result of an unfortunate textual error. But what if it is not? What conclusions can we draw from the text as it stands? Henry’s only discernible motivation—the news that “The French have reinforced their scattered men”—is hardly a justification for slaughtering unarmed captives. Should this scene have been as Shakespeare intended, it offers the play’s most damning evidence against Henry, portraying him as the worst kind of coward with, quite literally, a take-no-prisoners attitude. The condemnation is compounded by the preceding half of the scene, in which Exeter relates the deaths of York and...
(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 then spend a few moments discussing the fact that they are fellow countrymen, Henry being from the Welsh town of Monmouth. In the remainder of the scene, the subplot involving Henry and Williams is resumed. When the king notices his glove in the soldier’s cap, he engineers a prank by sending Williams away and then giving Fluellen the other man’s glove (after first claiming that he, Henry, had stolen it from a soldier named Alencon). Fluellen, with the gage in his cap, is then sent on the same errand as was Williams, unwittingly to antagonize him. Once he is gone, however, Henry admits that “I by bargain should/Wear it myself,” and he sends his brother Gloucester and Warwick after Fluellen to prevent further “mischief.”
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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 of it or “take[s] that praise from God/Which is His only.” The scene, and the act, ends with the singing of hymns.
The Williams subplot is resolved in this episode. The soldier’s crime, says Henry, stems from his earlier threat to strike him—a treasonous act for which Fluellen now says, “let his neck answer for it.” This recapitulates the offense mentioned early in the play where a drunken man made an insulting remark (see Act II, Scene 1). In pardoning Williams, Henry rounds out the action and reestablishes the rule of mercy. A parallel may also be seen with the two other cases in which he was called upon to pass judgment, over the three spies at Southampton and over the thief Bardolph. If...
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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 brethren” are “like to the senators of th’ antique Rome/With the plebeians swarming at their heels,” while the king is “their conqu’ring Caesar.”
Chorus also adds a contemporary note in referring to a “general” under “our gracious empress” (i.e., Queen Elizabeth I) who returned from Ireland “bringing rebellion broached on his sword.” This general would be one of two heroes of Shakespeare’s time, either Exeter or Mountjoy, who crushed an Irish uprising in 1599. The reference would serve as a salute both to the Queen, who was the playwright’s chief patron, and to the patriotic pride of the audience.
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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 Quickly has died of “a malady of France—that is, syphilis. Now alone, beaten, and penniless, he resolves to go home and resume a life of crime when he says“to England I’ll steal, and there I’ll steal.”
The business about the leek allows Shakespeare to bring the two major comic characters, Pistol and Fluellen, back for a final bow, and also to establish a light-hearted tone for the last act. Fluellen has perhaps his funniest moments in juxtaposing elaborate politeness with scathing insults. “Aunchient Pistol, you scurvy, lousy knave, God pless you.” The scene also continues the theme of unification, as Gower tells Pistol, “You thought because he could not speak English in the native garb, he...
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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 reconciliation with joy, and the play ends.
Before the final curtain, Chorus gives a brief epilogue relating the subsequent history of this event. After ruling for but a “small time,” Henry died young, leaving the throne to his infant son Henry VI. This king, unwise and unlucky, eventually “lost France and made his England bleed.” The play ends with a plea for the audience’s acceptance.
Though Henry’s wooing of Katharine dominates this scene, and properly so, thematically Burgundy’s speech is at least as important. Its literal meaning is straightforward enough. He wants to reconcile the leaders of the warring countries and establish a lasting peace. But harking back to a...
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