Act 1, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1068

Scene 2

In scene 2, King Henry enters with the dukes of Gloucester, Clarence, Bedford, Warwick, Westmoreland, and Exeter. Westmoreland asks the king for permission to admit the French ambassador. However, Henry demurs. He wants to talk to the bishops before hearing the ambassador’s suit. 

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When Canterbury appears, King Henry loses no time in making a demand. He wants the bishop to present an airtight case for his claim to the French throne. Henry also stresses that he will tolerate no duplicity on the bishop’s part. If English soldiers must die to secure Henry’s right to the French crown, it must be done on the strongest legal and religious grounds. Henry wants to know what the French Salic law says about his claim.

Canterbury answers that Henry’s claim is unassailable. The only thing standing in the way is the Pharamond Rule: “In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant” (No woman shall succeed in Salic land). The bishop contends that the rule has been wrongly applied to France. In fact, the Salic land actually refers to the region surrounding the Sala and Elbe Rivers in Germany. During his reign, the Frankish monarch Charles the Great established settlements in this region.

The French settlers reportedly despised German women for their predisposition towards marital infidelity. Thus, they made a law prohibiting any woman from inheriting land in the Salic region. 

Canterbury asserts that the Salic law quite clearly refers to the right of inheritance in Germany, not France. He then goes on to offer four more reasons to support Henry’s claim to the French crown. 

First, he says that the French did not come into possession of the Salic (German) land until 421 years after the death of the Frankish King Pharamond. Second, King Pepin based his own claim to the French throne on his descent from Blithild, King Clothair’s daughter. 

Third, Hugh Capet ascended to the French monarchy as an heir of the daughter of Charlemagne. Fourth, King Lewis the Tenth, Capet’s heir, ruled as an heir of his grandmother Queen Isabel. All of these Frankish kings derived their claims from the female line of succession, in direct opposition to the Pharamond Law.

Thus, Canterbury maintains that the French have no right to bar Henry, a descendant of a French princess, from the French throne. By all indications, he has as much right to the French crown as the Frankish monarchs.

When King Henry appears doubtful, Canterbury promises that he will take responsibility for war against France. He tells Henry to take courage from his great-grandfather and his great-uncle, Edward the Black Prince, who both fought—and won—bloody wars against the French.

Ely chimes in to support Canterbury, asserting that Henry is in the prime of his youth, “Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises” on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Westmoreland and Exeter add their voices to support war against France.

But an obstacle still remains: Henry insists on crafting a defense against the Scottish before leaving for France. He maintains that his great-grandfather always suffered an invasion by the Scottish every time he went to war with the French. Both Ely and Exeter maintain that Henry has nothing to fear: the English know how to protect their interests at home while fighting abroad. 

Canterbury uses the analogy of a honeybee kingdom to explain. While some worker bees manage the affairs of the nest, others go forth to collect nectar from flowers. Canterbury proposes that Henry divide his troops into four and take a quarter to France. He maintains that if England cannot defend itself with three quarters of its military power at home, it deserves to be overrun by Scottish invaders.

Satisfied by everything he has heard, Henry motions for the French ambassador to be admitted. For his part, the ambassador asks for permission to speak frankly. 

The message he brings is not from the king but from the Dauphin, the French king’s heir. With perfect composure, Henry allows the ambassador to proceed. In his message, the Dauphin makes a sneering reference to Henry’s dissolute youth, suggesting that the latter is inexperienced. In addition, he sends a gift of tennis balls to show his utter contempt for Henry’s claim. 

Calmly, Henry thanks the ambassador for the Dauphin’s gift and quietly proclaims that he will yet retain his right to the French throne. Ominously, he asserts that he will turn the tennis balls into cannon balls that will deprive women of their husbands and mothers of their sons. After the French ambassador exits, Henry orders his advisers to think about how they will implement a military campaign in France.

Analysis

In act 1, scene 2, the themes of political legitimacy and religious nationalism take center stage. Henry wants Canterbury to show, beyond any reasonable doubt, the legal and religious basis for his claim to the French throne. 

Canterbury uses subterfuge to hide his true aims. The clergyman is chiefly invested in protecting the church’s wealth, not securing Henry’s claim. He offers a tortured line of reasoning to discredit the Pharamond Law and misquotes Numbers 27:8 to support his argument:

If a man dies and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter.

However, Canterbury leaves out the phrase “and has no son.” He portrays war with France as both a religious and secular responsibility. 

Both Ely and Canterbury also remind Henry that the “blood and courage” of his ancestors runs in his veins and that he must leverage “blood and sword and fire” to secure what is rightfully his. 

Essentially, Ely and Canterbury manipulate Henry by appealing to his bellicose instincts and religious notions of political legitimacy. Both clergymen play an important role in rationalizing war with France.

In this scene, we are also introduced to the Dauphin, who underestimates Henry’s capacity to wage war and win. Shakespeare juxtaposes Dauphin’s levity with Henry’s steeliness to highlight the changes the monarch has undergone since his father’s death. 

Henry’s repetitive, emphatic use of the word “mock” highlights his aggressive stance against France and his evolution from ne’er-do-well to soldier-king:

many a thousand widows
Shall this mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down.

The Dauphin’s diplomatic miscalculation here foreshadows gaps in the French defense later in the play.


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