Last Updated on October 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858
Captains Gower and Fluellen discuss the English military campaign. Gower asks if the duke of Exeter is safe. Fluellen answers by praising the duke’s excellent character. He tells Gower that Exeter is holding the “bridge most valiantly.”
The bridge is one of many strategic crossings on the banks of the Somme and represents a critical asset in the English advance. Fluellen also reveals that Exeter is aided by a valiant ensign named Pistol, who then walks up to ask for a favor. Citing Fluellen’s connection with Exeter, Pistol asks Fluellen to intercede on Bardolph’s behalf. Apparently, Bardolph has stolen a pax— a liturgical object—and is slated for execution.
However, Fluellen refuses to help, maintaining that discipline must be preserved among the troops. Upon hearing this, Pistol rains curses on Fluellen. Both Fluellen and Gower agree that Pistol is a panderer, simpleton, and rogue.
The scene then shifts, and Fluellen is giving a report to King Henry about Exeter’s success in holding the bridge. Unlike the French, the English have yet to suffer casualties. Fluellen also tells Henry that Bardolph is to be executed for robbing a church. Henry agrees that offenders like Bardolph should be “cut off.” He tells Fluellen to ensure that the French people aren’t molested as the English troops march through the French countryside.
Meanwhile, the French herald Montjoy appears to give Henry a message from King Charles. Essentially, Charles tells Henry that he won’t give up his crown and that England must pay a ransom for all the losses France has suffered.
Charles juxtaposes his demands for English retreat with insults to Henry’s person. However, Henry responds calmly, telling Charles that the only ransom he can offer is his “frail and worthless” body. He tells Montjoy to relay the message that the English do not seek war but will fight if necessary.
The scene begins with the Dauphin, French Constable, duke of Rambures, and duke of Orleans discussing horses and armor. The Dauphin lavishes praise on his horse, comparing it to the mythical flying horse Pegasus and calling it the prince of all horses.
Meanwhile, the duke of Orleans thinks that the Dauphin’s exaggerated statements are overdone and begs him to stop. The two then trade bawdy jests and insults, comparing horses to mistresses.
The Dauphin wishes that the day would dawn so he can fight the English. He leaves to put on his armor even though it is still midnight. In his absence, the Constable and duke of Orleans agree that the Dauphin is only valiant by reputation, not by actual deeds on the battlefield.
Both men are interrupted by a messenger, who tell them that the English are “within fifteen hundred paces” of their tents. The Constable and duke of Orleans aren’t concerned about the announcement. They think that the English are unprepared and will be soundly defeated.
The duke of Rambures sounds the only discordant note among the voices prophesying England’s fall. He warns that “England breeds very valiant creatures” and that their hounds are of “unmatchable courage.” Both the Constable and the duke of Orleans vehemently disagree. The scene ends with the duke of Orleans proclaiming that they will each capture one hundred Englishmen by ten in the morning.
In this section, Pistol’s plea on Bardolph’s behalf is rebuffed by Fluellen and Henry. Both maintain that good order and discipline must be preserved among the ranks. Despite his former friendship with Henry, Pistol is unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency. His lack of influence reveals his powerlessness.
Here, power is seen as dependent on alliances. Fluellen has Henry’s attention because of his loyalty and his refusal to join in his countrymen’s rebellion against the English crown. Meanwhile, Pistol’s alliance—and for that matter, Bardolph’s—brings few political advantages for Henry. Henry’s refusal to grant clemency to Pistol highlights the burdens of kingship. Poor discipline and a reputation for favoritism would have hampered his bid for the French crown. Thus, Henry betrays his old friend.
Shakespeare is likely also making the point that a king must preserve order in his ranks, especially on the eve of battle. Henry’s curt “We would have all such offenders so cut off” mirrors Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli’s dictum that “In war, discipline can do more than fury.”
The tension in this section is balanced by a brief, humorous exchange between the Dauphin, the Constable of France, and Lord Rambures. In this conversation, Lord Rambures’s question about the celestial design of the Constable’s armor is significant. In answer to Lord Rambures, the Constable says that his armor features stars rather than suns. The Dauphin expresses hope that some stars will fall in battle the next day. His words foreshadow tragedy as history records that many “stars”—that is, the elite of France—did indeed fall in the Battle of Agincourt. Such references to the sun, moon, and stars and their collective influence on human affairs are prevalent in many of Shakespeare’s plays.
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