Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
At the gates of Harfleur, Henry addresses the French governor with an ultimatum—either surrender the town or see it buried in its own ashes. Henry says his soldiers will “mow like grass” the young girls and children of the town, rape its “pure maidens,” seize its “shrill-shrieking daughters,” smash the heads of its fathers, and impale “naked infants” on pikes while their mothers run mad with grief. The governor admits that the town has been abandoned by the Dauphin, who was “not ready/To raise so great a siege.” Faced with these dire consequences, the governor gives in.
As his army advances to claim the town, Henry, observing that “winter is coming on and sickness growing/Upon our soldiers,” decides to “retire to Calais.”
Once again, we see Henry’s oratorical brilliance, in a speech that seems to break the will of the French even when his army could not overcome them physically. We also see his outstanding qualities of leadership. Just as he earlier renounced the French king’s offer of a bribe, he here forswears negotiation, in effect saying “Surrender or die.” This is the kind of resolute, decisive performance his troops expect—one of the “disciplines of war,” in the Elizabethan sense—and Henry rises admirably to the occasion.
While the words are stirring, however, the action here is almost anticlimactic compared with Scene 1, for the victory is gained not by battle, but by threat. Given the other liberties he took with history, Shakespeare might have staged a mighty struggle before the town’s capitulation—but he does just the opposite, making the triumph look almost like a defeat. Far from exulting in his military superiority or marching regally into the town, Henry ends the scene emphasizing his disadvantages, sickness in the ranks, the onset of winter, and the general exhaustion of his soldiers. Through this strategy, the playwright shrewdly heightens the drama of the next act, where the play’s real climax occurs.
Some critics raise questions about Henry’s speech, which takes up most of the scene. Rather than threatening the town with military harm, he seems badgering and bullying. His horrific details of rape and savagery are at odds with the honorable, principled conduct he claims for himself, and in fact demands from his men soon afterward. Here, again, is the hint of a cruel, sadistic side in Henry that may be masked by his exceptionally virtuous behavior at other times.