Henry V Summary

In Henry V, William Shakespeare dramatizes the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt. He's goaded into the war by the French Dauphin, who send him an insulting gift of a number of tennis balls. Henry and his troops slaughter the French and bring peace to England.

  • Newly crowned Henry V speaks to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who urges him to wage war on the French. He agrees somewhat reluctantly, but his hesitation dissipates when the French Dauphin sends him an insulting gift of tennis balls.

  • Henry prepares for war. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, he disguises himself as an unknown soldier and walks amongst his troops, heartened by their loyalty.

  • During the battle, Henry fights bravely alongside his men, but is so exhausted by the end of it that he doesn't know who won. The English did, and peace briefly comes to England.

Synopsis

Henry V cover image

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 (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 French, give himself up, and order his soldiers to withdraw from France. Henry is not impressed by this bold gesture.

On the eve of the decisive battle of Agincourt, the English are outnumbered five to one. Henry’s troops are on foreign soil and riddled with disease. To encourage them, and also to sound out their morale, the king borrows a cloak and in this disguise walks among his troops, from watch to watch and from tent to tent. As he talks with his men, he tells them that a king is but a man like other men and that if he were a king he would not want to be anywhere except where he is, in battle with his soldiers. To himself, Henry muses over the cares and responsibilities of kingship. He thinks of himself simply as a man who differs from other men only in ceremony, itself an empty thing.

Henry’s sober reflections on the eve of a great battle, in which he thinks much English blood will be shed, are quite different from those of the French, who are exceedingly confident of their ability to defeat the enemy. Shortly before the conflict begins, Montjoy again appears to give the English one last chance to surrender. Henry, who is not discouraged by the numerical inferiority of his troops, again refuses to be intimidated. As he reasons in speaking with his officers, the fewer troops the English have, the greater will be the honor to them when they win.

The following day, the battle begins. Under Henry’s leadership, the English hold their own. When French reinforcements arrive at a crucial point in the battle, Henry orders his men to kill all their prisoners so their energies might be directed entirely against the enemy before them. Soon, the tide turns. A much humbler Montjoy approachs Henry to request a truce for burying the French dead. Henry grants the herald’s request and at the same time learns from him that the French have conceded defeat. Ten thousand French have been killed, and only twenty-nine English.

The battle over, nothing remains for Henry but to discuss with the French king terms of peace. Katharine, Charles’s beautiful daughter, is Henry’s chief demand, and while his lieutenants settle the details of surrender with the French, Henry courts the princess and asks her to marry him. Though Katharine’s knowledge of English is slight and Henry’s knowledge of French little better, they are both acquainted with the universal language of love. French Katharine consents to become English Kate and Henry’s bride.