Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
In the prologue, the Chorus laments that the stage falls short as a setting for the ensuing story. The chorus insists that only a stage as big as a kingdom can do justice to the scenes ahead.
The Chorus wants to see princes playing the part of actors and monarchs sitting in the audience. In this setting, the Chorus imagines King Henry presiding as the god of war. Famine, sword, and fire crouch before him, awaiting his instructions.
On behalf of the actors, the Chorus apologizes for daring to tell so great a story on a humble stage. Still, he believes that the actors can depend on the imagination of the audience to make up for any deficiencies on their part.
The Chorus the audience to imagine two mighty kingdoms divided by a perilously narrow ocean. The Chorus further excites the imagination of the audience with the image of mighty horses planting their sturdy hooves on the soft earth and powerful kings moving through the annals of time. The Chorus ends by asking for patience as the story unfolds and expressing hope that the audience will judge the work of the actors kindly.
Scene 1 begins with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely engaging in a private discussion. The Archbishop of Canterbury expresses his concern about an upcoming bill.
If the bill passes, the Church stands to lose more than half of its lands, the same lands that currently support 15 earls, 1,500 knights, 6,200 squires, and 100 charities. In addition, the bill will require the Church to deposit an annual sum of one thousand pounds into the king’s coffers.
Both clergymen voice dismay at the prospect but remain optimistic that King Henry’s sense of fairness and his love for the Church will prevail. As if to convince himself, Canterbury expounds upon the king’s strength of character. In his youth, Henry had enjoyed a dissolute lifestyle. However, his father’s death transformed him into a “sudden scholar,” banishing his “Hydra-headed willfulness” seemingly overnight.
Canterbury goes on to praise Henry’s oratorical skills and his grasp of theological and political matters. When Henry speaks, his words still the air and inspire wonder in men. Canterbury wonders how Henry acquired these skills, given that he spent his youth in the company of “unlettered, rude, and shallow” characters.
In response, Ely theorizes that Henry hid his profound character under the “veil of wildness.” Ely, ever practical, then asks about mitigating the bill’s damage to the church. For his part, Canterbury reveals that he has already propositioned King Henry, offering to donate a grand sum to the royal coffers, greater than any given to previous monarchs.
Canterbury assures Ely that the king reacted favorably to his suggestion. However, he regrets that the French ambassador’s arrival impeded further discussion about his offer. There was also no time to discuss King Henry’s entitlement to the French crown, a right derived from Edward III, Henry’s great-grandfather. Scene 1 ends with the bishops leaving to attend the French ambassador’s hearing with King Henry.
As the play begins, the theme of political legitimacy takes center stage. Canterbury, the principal leader of the Catholic Church in England, is concerned that Henry will acquire more than half of the Church’s wealth through a new tax.
In medieval England, the Catholic Church held great sway in the affairs of the state. However, this changed in 1534. When the Pope refused to grant Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry signed into law the Act of Supremacy, which replaced the Catholic Church’s authority with that of the Church of England. Thus, for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the division between the British throne and the Catholic Church was more than a mere possibility.
Henry V, however, is set more than a century before the Catholic Church lost its political and religious dominance in England. Here, the fears expressed by both Canterbury and Ely underline the very real conflict between church and state.
To keep the king in line, the Archbishop—by the authority of the Pope—has the power to decree a nationwide Interdict in England. Such an action would suspend all religious services, marriage ceremonies, and funerals, causing the people to suffer.
So, the Archbishop holds great power. However, the king is not without recourse. He can seize the Church’s lands and wealth. King John did precisely this after the Pope put England under an Interdict from 1208 to 1213.
Despite Henry’s apparent love for the Church, the clergymen have no wish to awaken Henry’s ire against them. Henry may be a reformed king, but he is not above retaliating if provoked.
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