Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1167
In the prologue of act 2, the Chorus tells the audience that everyone in England is on fire for war. The English people are fiercely supportive of Henry’s goals. Everywhere, men are contemplating deeds of honor on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the armorers do brisk work, and the French cower in fear, anticipating a forthcoming English attack.
However, the French king has detected a weakness in Henry’s ranks. He has managed to secure a trio of English traitors to do his bidding: Richard, Earl of Cambridge; Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham; and Sir Thomas Grey, a knight of Northumberland. For French gold, these traitors will murder King Henry in Southampton before he leaves for France.
The Chorus tells the audience that the scene will soon shift to Southampton and then France, so they must imagine these changes in their minds as they sit in the theater. However, the Chorus promises that the scene will not shift to Southampton until King Henry appears again.
Lieutenant Bardolph and Corporal Nym enter. Bardolph wants to know if Nym is still friends with Ensign Pistol. Nym appears nonchalant and says he doesn't care. Upon hearing this, Bardolph offers to buy Nym and Pistol breakfast so they can all be friends when they fight in France.
Nym remains noncommittal, and Bardolph reveals the heart of the matter: Pistol is now married to Nell Quickly, whom Nym was engaged to. Ominously, Nym says that men may sleep with their throats intact but “knives have edges.”
Meanwhile, Pistol and his wife, Mistress Quickly, make their appearance. Bardolph asks Nym to keep calm, but the situation quickly escalates. Both Nym and Pistol draw swords and exchange insults. For his part, Bardolph says that the first man to strike will feel the sting of his sword. Upon hearing this, both Nym and Pistol sheath their swords.
However, Nym gets in a parting word by threatening to slit Pistol’s throat. Furious, Pistol tells Nym to visit the hospital, for that’s where leprous prostitutes with venereal diseases go. Rudely, Pistol names Doll Tearsheet (a prostitute) as a marriage prospect for Nym. He tells Nym in no uncertain terms that he won Mistress Quickly’s hand fairly and that he will keep her as his wife.
Meanwhile, a male servant named Boy announces that Sir John Falstaff, a former friend of King Henry, is very sick. He asks Bardolph and Mistress Quickly to tend to the ailing man. Bardolph rebuffs Boy, but Mistress Quickly is more sympathetic. She says that the poor man will be “food for the crows” soon. After she leaves with Boy, both Nym and Pistol draw swords again.
Nym accuses Pistol of owing him money. For his part, Pistol tries to make a deal with Nym. He promises to pay what he owes to Nym and share any profits from selling provisions and liquor to the troops. In all, Pistol promises Nym financial rewards, liquor, and friendship in exchange for a truce. The scene ends with Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph agreeing to visit Sir John before he dies.
The dukes of Exeter, Bedford, and Westmoreland enter. They reveal that King Henry is aware of the treachery of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. Bedford also notes that the three aren’t privy to the fact that the king knows. Meanwhile, Exeter voices amazement that the king’s “bedfellow” Scroop should betray the king for a few foreign coins.
In another room, King Henry meets with the three traitors. He asks them whether England will be successful in her fight against France. All answer that England will prevail. The three traitors then lavish praise on Henry. According to Cambridge, there isn’t a monarch who is “better feared and loved” than Henry. Meanwhile, Grey contends that the enemies of Henry’s father now serve him with greater loyalty. Finally, Scroop says that Henry’s subjects are ever toiling to serve him.
Henry then lays a trap: he tells Exeter to free the man who was arrested for insulting his royal person. Scroop replies that the king is being too merciful, but Henry persists. Meanwhile, Cambridge and Grey agree that mercy may be appropriate but punishment is necessary. In response, Henry cryptically wonders how capital crimes should be handled when “little faults” are treated so severely.
Next, Henry gives all three men their commissions. Upon reading them, their faces turn white. All know that Henry has discovered their treachery. They ask for forgiveness but Henry rebuffs them. He says that their own counsel moments ago has “suppressed and killed” his mercy. He speaks to each man and voices his grief at their betrayal.
Henry reserves his strongest words for Scroop. Because these are men of integrity, he compares their treachery “another fall of man.” Henry then orders all three arrested and executed for high treason. After the men are taken away, Henry says that God’s revelation of the men’s treachery has made him surer than ever of victory.
In this section, Shakespeare introduces the audience to Henry’s youthful friends, last seen in Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II. Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph are shown to be the same dissolute characters from the previous plays. In this section, it is revealed that Pistol has married Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern. As a result, he and Nym are at odds. We also learn that Sir John Falstaff, once Henry’s closest friend, is dying.
The theme of betrayal is highlighted through Henry’s rejection of Falstaff, Pistol’s duplicity against Nym, and the machinations of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey against Henry. Falstaff, Nym, and Henry must drink the bitter cup of betrayal to the last dregs.
Nym sees his beloved married to another, and Falstaff dies without the assurance of Henry’s goodwill. Meanwhile, Henry must face the fact that his closest friends have betrayed him. He indicts Scroop as a “cruel, ingrateful, savage, and inhuman creature.” The language here is stark, bereft of pleasantries and courtly chivalry. The emphatic use of anaphora in this section—with the repeated phrase “Why, so didst thou”—highlights Henry’s mingled feelings of incredulity, disgust, rage, and sadness.
In the play, the Southampton Plot is financed by the French. However, history diverges from this portrayal. During the turn of the 15th century, Henry’s friends were consumed with the prospect of putting Edmund Mortimer—the 5th Earl of March and heir to Richard II—on the English throne. Interestingly, it was Mortimer himself who warned Henry about the plot.
Shakespeare’s depiction accords with the historical record in that Henry’s judgment is swift, and he sentences all three traitors to death. Henry cites his “kingdom’s safety” as the basis of his decision, not revenge. Here, Shakespeare portrays Henry as a warrior-king with worthy motives and thus reinforces the idea that Henry’s claim to the French throne is just.
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