Act III, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
Elsewhere in the palace, the French king and his advisors discuss, amid some embarrassment, Henry’s victory at Harfleur and debate the relative strength of the two warring armies. Charles orders the mobilization of his forces, with which he intends to cut off the English retreat to Calais.
Because it seems clear that the English are not only fatigued and falling ill but are also hopelessly out-numbered, the French king also decides to offer Henry a way out. He sends a herald to demand a ransom, promising in return to spare his army from annihilation.
This short scene tells us something more about the temperament of the French king. Unlike his frivolous son and complacent advisors, Charles has sense enough to avoid a fight with the English if he can and spare his country a potentially disastrous defeat. The demand for a ransom is both prudent and appropriate, given the enormous disparity in size between the two armies. In later refusing it, Henry again shows his boldness and tenacity. (Note that this is the second time Henry is tempted to avoid a fight.)
The scene also anticipates the consequences of a French defeat. A loss would engender scorn in the populace—and specifically among French women, who, complains the Dauphin, already “mock at us and plainly say/Our mettle is bred out.” In a pointed insult to these overconfident men, the women say “they will give/Their bodies to the lust of English youth/To new-store France with bastard warriors.”
Shakespeare inserts this action here because it would otherwise be unstageable, as it would seem anticlimactic to show France after the Battle of Agincourt. This arrangement enables the play to move swiftly from the battle itself to the victorious aftermath in the English camp.
Here, as elsewhere, the French are portrayed as lustful and lazy, in contrast to the spartan English. The contrast is intensified in a speech by the Constable (lines 15-27) where images of heat and cold reflect the respective qualities of the French and the English. Likewise, the Dauphin takes up the gardening metaphor earlier used by Henry, but applies it to his own people. With evident shame, he asks whether “a few sprays [twigs] of us . . ./Spurt up so suddenly into the clouds/And overlook their grafters?” Should we, he says, be such upstarts as to look down on our own, heroic ancestors? The answer is equally obvious and unflattering.