Act I, Scenes 1-2 Summary and Analysis
Chorus: a player who introduces the drama, but takes no part in it
Archbishop of Canterbury: head of the Catholic church in England; chief religious leader
Bishop of Ely: assistant to the Archbishop
Henry V: King of England
Duke of Exeter: uncle of Henry V; also a soldier and a statesman
Duke of Bedford: a brother of Henry
Duke of Gloucester: Henry’s younger brother
Duke of York: Henry’s cousin
Chorus begins by delivering a prologue to put the audience in the proper frame of mind. The play’s wide scope, he says, cannot be expressed by theatrical means alone. “Can this cock-pit [i.e., the Globe Theater] hold/The vasty fields of France?” He urges the audience to imagine for themselves the effects that cannot be staged—the battle of Agincourt, the prancing of horses, even Shakespeare’s distortions of time, “jumping o’er times,/Turning th’ accomplishment of many years/Into an hourglass. . . .”
Act I Scene 1 opens with a conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and his assistant, the Bishop of Ely. Canterbury is worrying about a bill currently under consideration by Parliament. The bill, brought up by the House of Commons, would have the state strip the Church of its vast property holdings—“the better half of our possession.” Only an appeal to the king, who shares power with Parliament, can prevent this tremendous loss.
Canterbury then gives a glowing description of Henry. Although wild and reckless in his youth, Henry has rapidly matured into a wise and able king since the death of his father. Ely agrees.
Canterbury then says that he has begun urging Henry to wage a war of conquest on France, arguing that the French Crown is rightfully his because Henry’s great-grandfather had married a French queen. Revealing his true motive, he adds that so rich a prize would make Parliament forget all about seizing the Church’s land. The two churchmen exit to join Henry and his chief advisors, who are about to receive an ambassador from France.
Act I Scene 2 finds Henry, Exeter, and Westmoreland preparing for the ambassador’s arrival and discussing a possible action against France. Canterbury enters, and Henry asks him to explain, in detail, how he justifies England’s claim on the French throne. The archbishop answers by describing a “Salic” (either French or German) law that bars the passing of the Crown through the female side of the family. Henry’s great-grandfather, Edward III, had married a French queen, Isabella. The inheritance should have come down through his descendants instead of hers; therefore, Henry should be king of France. Canterbury further supports his case with a long recitation of Henry’s family history.
Exeter and Westmoreland, too, speak in favor of war, but Henry is hesitant. He fears that Scotland, a subject state always resentful of the English, will rebel if he takes the army to France. At Canterbury’s suggestion, Henry decides to keep three-quarters of the army at home to maintain order in Scotland and to use the remaining quarter abroad. Resolving to “bend [France] to our awe,/Or break it all to pieces,” he summons the ambassador.
The ambassador enters bearing a rather unusual gift from his master, the Dauphin—a quantity of tennis balls. Their meaning is clear from the Dauphin’s written message. He rejects Henry’s claim to “some certain dukedoms” in France and sarcastically adds that “you savour too much of your youth,” implying that Henry “should be playing tennis instead of governing.”
Stung by this a flagrant insult, Henry threatens to send the tennis balls back as cannonballs. “Tell you the Dauphin I am coming on/To venge me as I may,” he warns, vowing to “chide this Dauphin at his father’s door.”
The three issues central to the play that are introduced in Act I are Henry’s moral character, the political situation in England, and the relationship between Henry and the Dauphin.
What we learn about Henry’s...
(The entire section is 1,748 words.)