Henry V Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, Sir Thomas Grey: English nobles, but traitors to the crown

Earl of Westmoreland: English noble

Duke of Bedford: Henry’s brother

Now in Southampton, we see Exeter, Bedford, and Westmore-land, Henry’s three most trusted advisors, discussing a plot involving three other advisors, the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey, whom the French have paid to spy on Henry. As the scene unfolds, however, we find that the king, too, is suspicious of the conspirators and has prepared writs of impeachment for treason.

Henry soon enters, together with Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. The king asks their advice in deciding the fate of a man who, while drunk, voiced an insult against him. He says he is inclined to be lenient, but the three unanimously argue the opposite. Henry thereupon hands them each a writ disclosing their plot and exposing them as traitors.

Unmasked, the three admit their wrongs and plead for mercy, but to no avail. Henry says that they, by urging the maximum penalty a moment before, have condemned themselves out of their own mouths:

The mercy that was quick in us but late
By your own counsel is suppressed and killed.

By saying “I will weep for thee,” he orders them to their death and then returns immediately to his primary concern, preparations for war.

This scene illuminates some of the play’s most important underlying issues, beginning with that of Henry’s character. The standard critical interpretation of Henry V says that it is Shakespeare’s anthem to the legendary warrior-king of Agincourt, and that Henry himself is a model of the ideal Christian ruler. To such critics, this scene exemplifies his balance of mercy (in pardoning the man who insulted him) and justice (condemning enemies of England), as well as his wisdom in letting the guilty parties decide their own fate.

As mentioned above, however, other critics find Henry’s motives less noble, arguing that because he already knows of the plot, he may be simply playing a cat-and-mouse game with the three men in this scene. Rather than forthrightly accusing them, he hands them the papers that lay bare their plot, and then, when they pale at the revelation, he seems to taunt them:

What see you in those papers, that your lose
So much complexion?—Why, look you, how they change,
Their cheeks are paper!

As for the story of the drunken man, skeptics would see more manipulation than wisdom in it, interpreting this contrivance as a means of entrapment.

Henry’s admirers also point to the self-control he demonstrates here—an ability to rise above his own feelings when required to do so by his kingly duties. In a highly personal passage he tells the three:

I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine methinks is like
Another fall of man.

And at the time of sentencing he forswears a personal motive:

Touching our person, seek we no revenge,
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you [have] sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,

(The entire section is 789 words.)