Henry V Summary
Henry V by William Shakespeare is a play about the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Newly crowned King Henry V speaks to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who urges him to wage war on the French. His hesitations are quelled when he receives an insulting gift from the French Dauphin.
Henry prepares for war. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, he disguises himself as an unknown soldier, walks amongst his troops, and is heartened by their loyalty.
- During the battle, Henry fights bravely alongside his men. The English win, and peace briefly comes to England.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077
Henry V is set prior to, during, and after the battle of Agincourt in 1415. At the beginning of the play, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely discuss an upcoming bill that threatens to strip the Church of its wealth.
Both clergymen wish to divert King Henry's attention away from the bill. Canterbury reveals that he has made an irresistible offer to Henry: a sizable gift to enrich the royal coffers. However, the Ambassador of France has sought Henry’s audience. So, the two clergymen must dismiss their concerns for the moment. They leave to go to the throne room.
There, Henry is conferring with the dukes of Gloucester, Bedford, Clarence, Warwick, Westmoreland, and Exeter. The king wants to know if he can justify his claim to the French throne on legal and religious grounds. Canterbury offers a lengthy explanation supporting Henry’s claim. He maintains that the French Salic law poses no threat to Henry.
Accordingly, the law is based on the Pharamond Rule: “In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant” (No woman shall succeed in Salic land). However, Canterbury says that Salic land is actually located in Germany, not France. Canterbury also argues that many French kings have descended from the female line. Thus, Henry—the descendant of a French princess—has as much right to the French crown as his royal peers across the channel.
Both Canterbury and Ely remind Henry that he is also descended from a long line of warriors, so they encourage him to fight for what belongs to him. Satisfied by what he hears, Henry motions for the French ambassador to be brought in.
The French ambassador tells Henry that he brings a message from the Dauphin, not King Charles. Essentially, the Dauphin rebuffs Henry’s claim to the French throne and, as an insult, gives Henry a set of tennis balls. The Dauphin’s ill-fated actions steel Henry’s heart. He resolves to attack France and wrest the crown from King Charles.
The scene then shifts to Henry’s friends from his youth: Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. Nym and Pistol are at odds. Nym is furious that Pistol has married Mistress Quickly, the woman he was engaged to. Bardolph tries to intervene to prevent a duel between the two.
In the end, Nym and Pistol forge an uneasy truce based on material considerations. Their servant, referred to as “Boy,” then announces that Sir John Falstaff, another of Henry’s former friends, is dying. Mistress Quickly says that Henry is to blame, for he rejected Falstaff after ascending to the throne.
In the palace, Henry discovers a plot against his life. Three noblemen—Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey—plan to kill Henry in Southampton. However, Henry catches the three in a trap. He then has them executed for treason and makes preparations to sail for France.
In London, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym mourn the death of Sir John Falstaff before leaving for France.
Meanwhile, King Charles VI confers with the Dauphin and his advisers. The Dauphin believes that Henry is weak, but the others disagree. Charles says that they must remember the Battle of Crecy, when the English captured all the princes of France. The English are formidable fighters and must not be underestimated.
Meanwhile, the duke of Exeter arrives from England. He tells Charles that the latter must give up his crown or risk the consequences. Charles tells Exeter that he will give him his answer the next day.
Meanwhile, Henry lays siege to Harfleur. Captains Gower, Fluellen, Jamy, and MacMorris lead the siege effort. Playing for time, Charles VI offers Henry his daughter Katherine’s hand in marriage and several small dukedoms. However, Henry is insulted by the offer and continues the siege. With no promise of help from Charles, Harfleur eventually surrenders.
At the French palace, Princess Katherine tries to learn English with the help of her lady-in-waiting Alice. She stumbles over the foreign words but makes a great effort to learn the language of France’s enemy.
Meanwhile, Charles holds an emergency meeting with the Dauphin, the Constable of France, and several noblemen. Apparently, Henry has crossed the Somme and continues to advance. Charles resolutely orders his noblemen to prepare for war and bring Henry to Rouen as a prisoner.
The scene shifts to a battle over the control of a bridge on the banks of the Somme. Captains Fluellen and Gower discuss the progression of the conflict. Meanwhile, Pistol asks Fluellen to intercede with the duke of Exeter on Bardolph’s behalf. Apparently, Bardolph has been sentenced to hang for stealing from a church. However, Fluellen refuses to help. Furious, Pistol leaves.
Meanwhile, Montjoy, a French herald, tells Henry to consider paying a ransom to Charles. Otherwise, Henry must face the consequences of his presumption. Henry answers that he prefers not to fight the French but will not rule out the use of violence to resolve the impasse.
At the English camp at Agincourt, Henry disguises himself by donning the cloak of Erpingham, an officer. He talks to Pistol and listens to Captains Gower and Fluellen arguing about the conventions of war.
Finally, Henry talks to three soldiers—John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams. None of the soldiers realize that they are conversing with the king. After the soldiers leave, Henry muses about the burdens of kingship.
The next day, after Henry rebuffs the French offer to surrender, the battle of Agincourt commences. In the midst of the action, we learn that Bardolph and Nym have both been hanged for looting.
Meanwhile, the battle rages. And, even though the French enjoy a five-to-one advantage in troop numbers, they are no match for the English. Henry and his troops prevail on the battlefield and capture many French nobles. Surprisingly, Henry gives the order to kill all the French prisoners.
Still, a tragedy mars the English victory: the earl of Suffolk and the duke of York have both fallen in battle.
Meanwhile, a group of French soldiers fleeing the battle massacres all the young pages guarding the English camp. Boy is presumed to be among the casualties. Furious, Henry reiterates his previous order to kill all the French prisoners.
It is soon revealed that the English have won the day, and Montjoy, the French herald, approaches Henry to ask for permission to bury the French war dead. As the play ends, the French accede to all English demands and Henry announces his upcoming wedding to Princess Katherine.
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