Act IV, Scene 6 Summary and Analysis
Elsewhere in the field, Henry, in the thick of the fight, receives word that the dukes of York and Suffolk have both been killed. Exeter recounts their final moments, in which the two soldiers embraced in “a testament of noble-ending love.” But Henry has no time for grieving. Notified that the enemy has rallied, he issues the order that “every soldier kill his prisoners.”
Henry’s command to murder all French captives has stirred perhaps more controversy than any other single line of the play. To some, this is a barbarous, indefensible act of cruelty, contradicting all the magnanimity implied by his fine speeches. Certainly it is a radical move and, in the context of Exeter’s lofty sentiments, a jarring reversal in tone.
As will shortly be explained, the line’s placement is perhaps the result of an unfortunate textual error. But what if it is not? What conclusions can we draw from the text as it stands? Henry’s only discernible motivation—the news that “The French have reinforced their scattered men”—is hardly a justification for slaughtering unarmed captives. Should this scene have been as Shakespeare intended, it offers the play’s most damning evidence against Henry, portraying him as the worst kind of coward with, quite literally, a take-no-prisoners attitude. The condemnation is compounded by the preceding half of the scene, in which Exeter relates the deaths of York and Suffolk. It is difficult to imagine a greater emotional contrast than that between the poignant end of two noble warriors and the truculent command of a panicky, vindictive leader.