Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1680
In this prologue, the Chorus asks the audience to imagine the ghostly stillness that pervades both camps. The fires burn, but men’s voices are silent. Meanwhile, powerful warhorses trade “high and boastful neighs” across the wide expanse, “piercing the night’s dull ear.” The blacksmiths are hard at work, outfitting the troops with armor.
The Chorus relates that the French are playing dice, cursing the night’s slow advance. Eager to fight and confident in their numbers, the French believe that the English will be easily routed.
Meanwhile, tension pervades the English camp. The troops sit in their “war-worn coats,” pondering the “morning’s danger.” In this morose atmosphere, Henry emerges as a beacon of hope. He visits each of his troops and speaks kind words to all. Henry is like the sun, shining light and warmth on his war-weary men. He betrays no fear; his cheerfulness is unrelenting.
From this touching scene, the Chorus shifts our attention to the battle ahead and asks for patience as the actors attempt to recreate the legendary battle of Agincourt on stage.
The scene begins with Henry conferring with the dukes of Gloucester and Bedford. Henry admits to Gloucester that the English army is in great danger. However, he maintains that this should inspire greater courage in all of them. Henry tells Gloucester that there is often “goodness in things evil,” if only men would look for it. For example, due to the nature of the threat they face, the English have become early risers. Ever optimistic, Henry extols the virtues of early rising.
Sir Thomas Erpingham enters, and after borrowing Erpingham’s cloak, Henry expresses a desire to be alone. He sends Gloucester, Erpingham, and Bedford off to confer with the rest of the nobles in his royal tent. Meanwhile, he stays behind, wandering through the camp.
Pistol soon appears. He doesn’t recognize the king and proceeds to ask whether Henry is an officer or infantry soldier. Henry answers that he’s a Welsh soldier who goes by the name of Harry le Roy. Pistol talks amiably with Henry until the latter makes the claim of being Fluellen’s friend and relative. Upon hearing this, Pistol curses Henry and leaves.
Next, Gower and Fluellen enter. Fluellen complains that Gower is talking too loudly. They quarrel, with Fluellen defending the conventions of military conduct. Fluellen maintains that the camp would be a place of “sobriety” and “modesty” if everyone followed Pompey’s rules.
Next, three soldiers—John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams—enter. Williams is the first to address Henry. He asks Henry who his captain is. Henry answers that he serves under Sir Thomas Erpingham. Williams then inquires about Erpingham’s view of the upcoming conflict. Henry replies that the situation is hopeless but that Erpingham hasn’t shared his assessment with the king. Henry maintains that beneath the pomp and ceremony, the king is a man like any other. And, as king, he mustn’t betray fear, lest he dispirit his army.
Bates answers that the king may put on a brave front, but he probably wishes that he was neck-deep in the Thames rather than at war. Bates also thinks that the king would save many lives by offering himself up for ransom to the French. Henry responds that he would rather die in the king’s company, for his cause is just and “honorable.”
For his part, Williams says that the king will have much to answer for if the cause isn’t just. On Judgment Day, all of the arms, legs, and heads severed in battle will join together and demand justice. Williams is persuaded that no one can gain absolution—forgiveness of sins—by dying in battle, especially when they leave behind destitute widows and children. He thinks the king should be held responsible if soldiers die in damnation.
Henry answers that the king cannot be held responsible for the “particular ending” of his soldiers. Henry asserts that the soldier’s duty is to his king. However, the soldier must take full responsibility for the state of his own soul. Therefore, it is up to every soldier to keep a good conscience, whether he dies on the battlefield or by other means. In the end, Williams agrees that every man must take responsibility for how he dies, saying “every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head.”
The conversation then shifts to whether the king will be ransomed to pay off France. Williams thinks this is a strong possibility, but Henry disagrees. The two agree to exchange gloves and take up their quarrel after the war.
The three soldiers then leave, and Henry is alone. Privately, he becomes distressed when he contemplates the significance of his royal position. Aside from the pomp and ceremony separating him from the common folk, he shares the same humanity. However, his position comes with tremendous burdens and responsibilities. Although his subjects fear him, he feels that he derives no true benefit from it. Henry believes that the commoner has a better quality of life. The latter can enjoy his “country’s peace” without worrying about the things that must be done to maintain that peace. That responsibility belongs to the king, who derives no true pleasure from the burden.
Meanwhile, Erpingham enters and tells Henry that his subjects are looking for him. Before venturing forth, Henry asks God to “steel” his soldiers’ hearts for war. He also asks God not to think of his father’s actions in wresting the crown from Richard II. Henry reminds God that he has interred Richard’s body in a new grave and that he has built two chapels for Richard’s soul. Finally, he reveals that he has hired five hundred of the poor to pray for absolution for his father’s sins. Henry ends his prayer by promising to do more to atone for past wrongs. Gloucester then enters, and Henry leaves with him.
The Dauphin is excited that the time for war has come. A messenger arrives to announce that the English are waiting. Upon hearing this, the Constable rouses everyone with a stirring speech.
He maintains that there isn’t enough work for all of them, as the English have “Scarce blood enough in all their sickly veins.” He says there is nothing to fear from the English, that even the “lackeys” and “peasants” hanging around the outskirts of their battle formations could take the English down. The Constable ends his speech by saying that the French advance will cause the English to cower in fear and surrender. He is convinced that the English have said their prayers and only await death.
Meanwhile, the Dauphin wonders whether they should give the English their dinners and their “fasting horses provender” before fighting them. The scene ends with the Constable giving the order to charge.
By borrowing Erpingham’s cloak, Henry shrouds himself in anonymity. In so doing, he is given a glimpse into the psyche of the common man. And in a soliloquy that reads more like a lamentation, Henry lays bare his own soul. Shakespeare reveals the vulnerabilities of both king and subject to highlight their shared humanity and collective powerlessness. Thus, while in disguise, Henry discovers important truths about those he leads.
The most significant exchange is the one Henry has with John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams. Although all three soldiers agree on the primacy of a king’s authority, they also argue that monarchs must be held accountable for their actions. Williams proposes that if a man does not “die well” and righteously, it “will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.” Unspoken is the question of whether the king is responsible for the deaths of his soldiers.
For his part, Henry insists that the “king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers” and that “every subject’s soul is his own.” His argument is epitomized in the divine right theory of kingship. Although the doctrine didn’t come into popular use until the reign of King James I, monarchs like Henry didn’t shy away from embracing monarchical absolutism.
To Henry, the king cannot be questioned by his subjects; he is accountable only to God. This view allows Henry to sidestep Williams’s implied question of whether a king can be held responsible for the bloodshed his decisions provoke.
When he is alone, Henry laments the “hard condition” of kings who, although “twin-born with greatness” can enjoy no true peace. His subjects hold him responsible for their lives, souls, and even debts. Henry maintains that the peasant is better situated in life than him. As a monarch he gets “poisoned flattery” instead of true homage. The use of an extended list of nouns—beginning with “‘Tis not the balm”—emphasizes that the pomp and circumstance of a king’s position hides the true burdens he must bear.
Shakespeare references classical mythology to lend legitimacy to Henry’s argument. The peasant is said to never experience a “horrid night.” Rather, he “Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night / Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn, / Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse.” The mention of Elysium is perhaps ironic, as it is the final resting place of virtuous men, heroes, and mighty kings. Hyperion is one of the names of Helios, the sun who navigates the heavens by chariot. Phoebus is an epithet of the god Apollo.
Henry maintains that the peasant has more claim to Heaven’s treasures than a king. In essence, the peasant enjoys peace without the burdens of leadership, a luxury Henry feels he has been denied. Thus, in this section, the audience gets an important glimpse into Henry’s complex character. Although a ruthless tactician, battle-hardened warrior, and absolute monarch, Henry isn’t immune from despair and doubt. Yet, he hides his true feelings to avoid demoralizing others.
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