Henry V is one of the patriotic jewels in the English cultural crown. Echoes of Henry V’s inspirational rhetoric before Agincourt (“we happy few”) resonated in Churchill’s hymn of praise to the RAF in 1940, and Laurence Olivier’s performance in the title role invested the 1944 film of the play with unique patriotic glamour. This is a play, it seemed, for all seasons and (like its author) for all times.
The play was composed in the late 1590s, when England was engaged in an existential war with Spain while simultaneously blundering through an attempt to subdue Ireland. The spirit of the Elizabethan age invades the late medieval narrative – quite explicitly in places, such as the Prologue to Act Five, which looks forward confidently to “rebellion” in Ireland being broken by the sword.
Yet on second reading the play is not quite the patriotic tour-de-force one might imagine. It does certainly contain many moments of nationalist afflatus. But these are often tempered by more mundane episodes – at times to the point of undermining them. Act Four is a good example. In 4.3, Henry delivers his famous broadside (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” etc); in 4.4, meanwhile, it takes bribery before Pistol is persuaded not to kill his defenceless French prisoner; later in the same scene we learn that two of Pistol’s associates (who had “ten times more valour” than him) have been hanged for theft; 4.6, in complete contrast, presents a romantic and idealised picture of death on the battlefield while in 4.7 the King is praised for having abandoned his old friend Falstaff to his death. In short, every shade of war is shown, from the heroic to the cowardly.
Shakespeare’s project, it seems, is not so much to cheer on the home side as to present a kaleidoscopic picture of battle, red in tooth and claw: here we visit the French camp, complacent and condescending; next we follow the King as he wanders among his troops, raising morale and getting into theological discussions; now we are shown the ordinary soldier, one of the band of brothers, some of whom will forever remember St Crispin’s Day, while others are hanged for theft. War has all these shades, these nuances, says Shakespeare. Patriotism (as a later British hero put it) is not enough.
Scene by Scene
Prologue Act One
The prologue asks the audience to make up for any shortcomings in the play with their imagination.
Act One Scene One
Church leaders are concerned that measures are in train to deprive them of some of their wealth.
The new King is characterised as having radically reformed his behaviour on ascending the throne.
The church proposes to donate money voluntarily to the King to prosecute his wars in France.
Act One Scene Two
The Archbishop of Canterbury reassures the King he has ancient rights to claim the French throne.
The King is concerned about the threat posed by Scotland if England is “empty of defence” in France.
The archbishop says society, like bees, is diverse enough to resist the Scots and to invade the French.
The King resolves to invade France or to die in the attempt, “tombless” and unmourned by history.
The French ambassador, deriding the King’s riotous past, has a gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin.
Henry says he will “turn the balls to gun-stones”, and blames the Dauphin for the coming bloodshed.
Prologue Act Two
With national excitement at war with France, the King’s life is threatened by “three corrupted men”.
Act Two Scene Two
Bardolph confirms to Nym (who had a prior claim) that Mistress Quickly has now married Pistol.
Nym and Pistol draw their swords and threaten to duel, leaving Bardolph to try to restore order.
News that Falstaff is on his deathbed, killed according to his friends by the unkindness of the King.
Act Two Scene Two
Henry’s chief advisors are shocked that others of the nobility should be proven traitors to the King.
Henry appears with the as-yet unmasked traitors and invites their advice on a criminal matter.
They agree that a drunk man arrested yesterday for railing against the King should be executed.
The King exposes the three nobles as traitors and though they beg for mercy, Henry is ruthless.
Henry favoured them but they sold their loyalty to the enemy and now they must answer to the law.
They beg for mercy, but he despatches them to face the executioner, and turns towards France.
Act Two Scene Three
Pistol announces that Falstaff has died, calling out for God and denouncing wine – but not women.
Pistol kisses Mistress Quickly on the lips and gathers up his companions for the journey to France.
Act Two Scene Four
The French King prepares for war, though the Dauphin belittles Henry as “vain, giddy [and] shallow”.
The King reminds his court that Henry’s storied ancestors – his “victorious stock” – are to be feared.
Ambassadors arrive from England calling on the French King to abdicate and surrender his kingdom.
They criticise the Dauphin for his gift of tennis balls, but he wants “Nothing but odds with England”.
Meanwhile the English King – already “footed in this land” – will receive the French reply tomorrow.
Prologue Act Three
The audience is encouraged to imagine the troops embarking for Harfleur on the French coast.
Meanwhile the French King offers his daughter Katharine to Henry, together with some dukedoms.
Act Three Scene One
In an inspirational speech to his troops attacking Harfleur, Henry calls on them to “imitate the tiger”.
In their courage and “noble lustre” the English troops must prove worthy of their heroic ancestors.
Act Three Scene Two
Bardolph and his group are reluctant to fight, a fact recognised by the boy who has been with them.
Captain Fluellen criticises his Irish ally and praises the Scots, but trumpets “call us to the breach”.
Act Three Scene Three
Henry calls on the inhabitants of Harfleur to surrender or face the consequences of rape and pillage.
The Governor directs his town to surrender, and Henry instructs his soldiers to behave respectfully.
Act Three Scene Four
Katharine is practising her English with her servant Alice preparing for her possible marriage.
Act Three Scene Five
The French nobility are surprised that the damp English climate can produce successful soldiers.
The French King calls on his nobility to raise an army to confront the English and capture Henry V.
Act Three Scene Six
Pistol is praised for his “valiant” performance in defending a bridge which the English have taken.
Pistol now appears, and asks that his friend Bardolph, sentenced to hang for theft, be acquitted.
Henry is told of Bardolph’s crime and punishment, and reinforces the need for respectful conduct.
Messages arrive from the French king telling Henry to “repent his folly” and “admire our sufferance”.
Henry admits that his forces are weak but if the French seek battle, the English will not back down.
Act Three Scene Seven
The Dauphin believes his horse is unparalleled, a view which attracts teasing from the French nobles.
It is midnight and the French are waiting impatiently to confront the English camped a mile distant.
Prologue Act Four
The two armies are pictured facing one another in the night, waiting for morning to bring battle.
Meanwhile Henry wanders among the English troops, greeting his soldiers cheerfully, raising morale.
Act Four Scene One
Henry borrows a cloak from Erpingham so that he can wander anonymously alone among his troops.
He encounters Pistol, but is not recognised, and hears himself praised by him as a “lovely bully”.
He overhears Fluellen rebuke Gower for speaking loudly near the enemy, and praises his “valour”.
Meeting three soldiers, Henry tells them “the king is but a man” with human fears and senses.
But he does have an obligation to conceal his fear “lest he by showing it should dishearten his army”.
One of the men reminds Henry of his heavy responsibility to soldiers who may die in battle.
But Henry feels that the fate of each soldier’s soul lies with God so let them repent now of their sins.
The soldiers mistrust the King, but Henry arranges to meet after the battle to see who was right.
Henry reflects on the burdens of kingship, and envies the “slave” who can sleep with “vacant mind”.
But he still agonises over the death of Richard II, deprived of the throne by his father Henry IV.
Henry reflects that he has done all he can as penance for Richard’s murder: but “More will I do”.
Act Four Scene Two
The French nobles preparing for the fight reveal their confidence that battle will be short and easy.
The English soldiers are termed “desperate” and “ragged” as the vultures gather to pick their bones.
Act Four Scene Three
The English nobles calculate that with 60,000 soldiers, the French outnumber them by five to one.
But Henry sees this imbalance as a challenge as the fewer men gain victory the greater their honour.
He invites those who wish to flee the battlefield to depart and he will pay for their journey home.
But those who remain to fight will ever after remember the day and proudly show off their scars.
His fellow-soldiers will be the King’s “band of brothers” and those absent from the field will curse.
A French ambassador invites Henry “Once more” to surrender himself and save the lives of his men.
Henry replies that though his soldiers look “besmirch’d / With marching”, their hearts are “in trim”.
Act Four Scene Four
On the battlefield, Pistol has captured a French soldier but communication proves confusing.
But the Boy translating tells him he is being offered two hundred crowns to spare his prisoner’s life.
Alone the Boy reflects that Bardolph and Nym, both now hanged, had “ten times more valour”.
Act Four Scene Five
The French nobles realise they are losing the battle and return to the fray so as to “die in honour”.
Act Four Scene Six
Reports come to Henry that Suffolk and his cousin York have died noble deaths on the battlefield.
Hearing that the French are rallying, Henry orders his soldiers to kill their French prisoners.
Act Four Scene Seven
News of the French massacre at the English camp seems to justify the order to kill French prisoners.
Fluellen compares Henry to Alexander the Great, but Gower observes the comparison is tenuous.
Fluellen believes the King was right to end his friendship with the “the fat knight” Falstaff.
Henry arrives cursing the enemy for the massacre and ordering the French be shown no mercy.
The French ambassador reappears, begging for the French to be allowed to recover their dead.
Fluellen compares Henry’s victory at Agincourt with his grandfather’s exploits in France.
Henry encounters Williams, whom he met the previous night, sporting “my glove in his cap”.
He encourages him, when he finds the man who gave it him, to “keep thy vow” and Williams agrees.
Then he hands Fluellen his other glove and encourages him to wear it as a trophy of battle.
Act Four Scene Eight
Fluellen follows the King’s instructions and accuses Williams of being “a friend of the Duke Alencon”.
Henry forgives Williams, since his offences “come from the heart”, and rewards him generously.
Henry receives an account of the numbers of the French who have lost their lives in the battle.
The enemy had some ten thousand casualties whereas the English casualties amount to a mere 29.
Prologue Act Five
The King returns to England where he is met by crowds of well-wishers celebrating victory.
But despite the enthusiastic response he forbids “vainness and self-glorious pride”.
Henry was welcomed back as Essex will be welcomed back when he returns victorious from Ireland.
Act Five Scene One
Fluellen has worn a leek as a symbol of Welsh national pride but has been ridiculed by Pistol for it.
But Pistol has insulted him by encouraging him to eat the leek so Fluellen beats him for it.
Pistol is made to eat the leek himself, and Fluellen gives him money to help ease the pain.
Alone, Pistol reveals that his wife Mistress Quickly of the Boar’s Head has died of syphilis.
He resolves to return to England and follow his old friends Nym and Bardolph into a life of crime.
Act Five Scene Two
Following his victory at Agincourt, Henry meets the King of France, his wife and daughter.
The Duke of Burgundy lists a range of day-to-day duties that have fallen victim to the war.
The King says peace will return when he has had the chance to look carefully at the terms on offer.
Henry appoints a group of nobles who will negotiate with the King and Queen on his behalf.
Meanwhile Henry is left with Katharine whom he describes as “our capital demand”.
Henry clumsily declares that though they do not share a common language, even so he loves her.
Henry claims that he lacks “eloquence” but is therefore forced to “speak to thee plain soldier”.
He speaks to her in French, but abandons the language to ask in English “wilt thou have me?”
She says it is not the French custom to kiss before marriage, but Henry ignores this and kisses her.
Henry exchanges some mildly obscene jokes with Burgundy, before asking the King for Kate’s hand.
His proposal is accepted and the Queen concludes, looking forward to peace between the kingdoms.
The play ends with the reminder that Henry’s son with Katharine was Henry VI, who “lost France”.
The opening act of the play illustrates the corrupt state of the (pre-Reformation) English church at this time. Their gift of capital to the King to fight his war in France (mentioned in 1.1) is a cynical attempt to deflect his attention from themselves, and the Archbishop’s agreement that war is justified (in 1.2) triggers the audience’s suspicions of their motives and honesty. Henry is cautious, even so, reminding the Archbishop that war will bring bloodshed and he will share the responsibility.
Henry’s cautious performance in the first act reflects a significant change in his personality. In “Henry IV Part One” and (to a lesser extent) “Henry IV Part Two”, he is presented as a high-living rogue devoted to the riotous Falstaff. But the crown has changed him, and his careful balancing of the options in this scene – for example, the way he places responsibility for the coming bloodshed on the Archbishop and the French Dauphin – reinforces what he says to Falstaff at the end of “Henry IV Part Two”, “I have turned away my former self”.
The news in 2.1 that Falstaff is on his death bed will have resonated with audiences familiar with the two parts of “Henry IV”, since he is a major attraction in both plays as a roistering presence at Mistress Quickly’s tavern in Cheapside and a corrupting influence on the young heir to the throne. True, Henry rises to his responsibilities in Part One, when he defeats the King’s enemies at Shrewsbury, but it’s not until Part Two that he begins to emerge from Falstaff’s influence and turns his attention to his duties as King. Henry’s new priorities are responsible for Falstaff’s death, claims Mistress Quickly: “The king has killed his heart”.
At the time this play was being written, England was fighting an undeclared but ruthless war with Spain. Both countries looked to sink – or capture – one another’s fleets, and both looked to secure territory within one another’s boundaries – Spain in Cornwall, England Cadiz. Anxieties about espionage were justified: the English ambassador to Paris Sir Edward Stafford seems to have been on the Spanish payroll, and appears to have combined passing on sensitive intelligence to the Spanish with keeping to himself information that might have benefited his own side. In 2.2 of “Henry V”, meanwhile, the King shows one way such activities might be discouraged.
So far Act Two has been notable for the theme of death: first the coming executions of the traitorous nobles, then the news of Falstaff’s passing. All four men belong in different ways to Henry’s past, and the King is quick to berate the nobles for letting him down in view of his past generosity towards them. Once again the King is signalling to his people: I am not what I was.
In 2.4, the Duke of Exeter, English ambassador to the French King, personifies war as having an insatiable appetite for its victims – “the poor souls for whom this hungry war / Opens his vasty jaws”. Shakespeare uses the same vehicle – devouring – to denote the tenor Time in his sonnets, an image picked up by Andrew Marvel in “To His Coy Mistress”.
The opening scenes of Act Three focus on the alleged bravery and heroism of the English (or British) soldiers. On one side Henry delivers a speech of rousing patriotic insights, reflecting on the allegedly heroic qualities of his soldiers’ ancestry; on the other, Shakespeare shows us Nym, Bardolph and Pistol, ill at ease in uniform and thirsty for “a pot of ale and safety”. The contrast is unavoidable, but in case it is missed, Shakespeare presents the boy who has been accompanying them, and he is doubly unimpressed: “their villainy goes against my weak stomach”, he declares, “and therefore I must cast it up”.
The use of phonetic spelling and dialect in the speeches given by the Welsh, Scots and Irish characters in 3.2 is a reminder not only of the pleasure Shakespeare takes in exploring the linguistic idiosyncrasies of his characters (Pistol, with his overblown idiolect, is another case in point). These three Celtic characters also serve to show the increasing “British” consciousness of the era in which Shakespeare was writing. Within five years of the play’s first performance, England would have a Scottish king. The appearance of the French language in the following scene (3.4) reinforces the impression of a multilingual world.
The French nobility are presented in 3.7 as mocking the English army on the night before battle, deriding the invaders as brave but stupid, (or “fat-brained”), and led by a King described by the Duke of Orleans as “wretched and peevish”. These observations follow a scene in which Henry, so far from being presented as short-tempered, is a model of detachment and fairness, and rather more than “wretched” in his dignity and respect. Shakespeare allows the French leaders to conclude that the English are out of their depth in this enterprise while subtly suggesting that it is the French who have most to fear.
Henry’s character has been a prominent feature of the two “Henry IV” plays and “Henry V”, but it is not until the fourth act of the last of these plays that we see (as it were) into his soul. In this scene three separate characteristics emerge strongly. One is his determination to meet face-to-face with his own soldiers, and his openness to hear what they say. A second is his willingness to discuss arcane theological questions with them, and to treat their views with respect (“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own”). Perhaps the most surprising character trait is revealed at the end of 4.1, when he exposes continuing anxieties about the fate of Richard II, a monarch murdered in his father’s name. Every possible penance has been paid, he reflects, and the fate of the battle will reveal how far God is willing to forgive. It is worth remembering that in the First Folio, the play is titled “The Life of Henry V”, and this scene reflects that wide angle.
Henry’s humility, revealed in his incognito discussions with his men in 4.2, is reinforced by the speech in 4.3 in which he challenges the significance of the numerical imbalance his forces face at Agincourt. Rather than feel intimidated by the five-to-one ratio of French to English, he sees it as a kind of incentive to distribute the honour of victory between fewer share-holders. In doing so he powerfully evokes ideas of equality (“we happy few, we band of brothers”) quite out of keeping with his status – ideas that would prove fruitful in a later conflict when, in the summer of 1940, Britain once again faced daunting odds in a fight for survival.
The juxtaposition of 4.3 and 4.4 is a striking gesture by Shakespeare: first a speech of great dignity and class by Henry, one of the most famous and admired rhetorical performances in the canon. Then a scene in which Pistol reveals the reality: confusion, misunderstanding, mixed motives, even cowardice – this is what the battlefield (at least in Pistol’s experience) really looks like. Does Pistol belong in Henry’s “band of brothers”? If he does, he joins alone, since as the Boy reveals in the closing speech of the scene, his old confederates Nym and Bardolph have been hanged for theft. Another kind of reality, far removed from the King’s rhetorical afflatus. A more idealised or romantic version of the battlefield is given in 4.6, incidentally, in which Suffolk and York die together.
The practical joke Henry plays on Fluellen, embroiling him in a dispute with Williams, is a reminder of his sense of humour, on display in both parts of “Henry IV”. In Part One he witnesses a robbery by Falstaff unknown to “the fat knight”, and hides his getaway horse. Falstaff has to walk back to London. In the second part, he acts as a waiter at the Boar’s Head in London, serving Falstaff as he eats and drinks merrily while dismissing the heir to the throne as having a “weak mind”. The trick Henry plays here is a rare throwback to those times, mildly diluting one of the central themes of the three plays, his transformation from boy to man.
The Prologue to Act Five draws a parallel between Henry V and – moving forward in time nearly two centuries – the Earl of Essex, glossed here as “the general of our gracious empress” who the speaker hopes to see “from Ireland coming”. Essex was in Ireland leading English forces in the Nine Years War that ran through the 1590s – and any parallels, in so far as they exist at all, end there. In discharging his duties in Ireland, Essex disobeyed almost all the instructions he was given by Elizabeth (“our gracious empress”) and his tour of duty ended somewhere between disaster and farce. Essex launched an attempted coup against the Queen in 1601, and was beheaded at the Tower of London in somewhat grisly fashion.
The closing scene of the play imagines the courtship by Henry of Katharine – an incongruous scene in many ways, in view of the blood that has been spilt in the first four acts. The contrast with Pistol’s fate is also marked: Henry has gained a wife, Pistol has lost a wife. Yet the mood of celebration cannot last, if only because Shakespeare has already presented the story of Henry VI to his audience at the Globe, and as he says, the son of Henry and Katharine “lost France and made England bleed”. In a sense, all history is dramatic irony, and the romancing of Katharine by Henry is a case in point.
Who’s Who / Characters
Once a libertine and dilettante, now a warrior king, he is chiefly notable in this play for his leadership. An inspiring general, but at the same time a disciplinarian, he reveals something of an egalitarian streak, invoking the brotherhood of the soldiers under his command. By modern standards he doesn’t always measure up, but he treats his men with respect, engages their opinions and respects their perspectives while dispensing justice to traitorous nobility.
As a lover, he is perhaps disingenuous (he tells Katharine that he is no wordsmith) and his vulgarity in the final scene is not perhaps to his credit but in other respects he is right to highlight the change in his character since the days of his youth. Among the many monarchs depicted by Shakespeare in the 1590s, this Henry is the closest to an ideal: gifted in his command of the language, respectful to his own men, humane to the enemy, even-handed in his dispensing of justice and at times sensitive as a lover, he has it all. And he dies young, though that is another story.
- Give the phrase used in the Prologue to describe the theatre in which the play is performed
- How will the English return the tennis balls given by the dauphin?
- From which country will England likely be threatened if it invades France?
- Which animal must the English troops imitate if they are to triumph in their first battle?
- What is the name of the town the English army successfully besieges in Act Three?
- Give the name of the English soldier, a friend of Pistol, being hanged for theft.
- From whom does Henry borrow a cloak before he circulates among his men the night before battle?
- Which saint’s day coincides with the date of the Battle of Agincourt?
- How many English soldiers were lost at Agincourt according to this play?
- Which familiar romantic activity does Katharine say is taboo outside wedlock?
When, in the play that bears his name, Macbeth is told by Ross that he is to become Thane of Cawdor, he responds with a metaphor drawn from clothing: “The Thane of Cawdor lives”, he protests. “Why do you dress me / In borrow’d robes?” It’s not the last time in the play that the metaphor of clothing is used to denote status. When his wife insists on murdering Duncan, Macbeth is cautious: “I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people”, he reflects, “Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon”.
One reason why clothing is a suitable metaphor for status in Shakespeare’s plays is that, in Renaissance England, clothes did literally denote status. That is, laws regulated what a citizen could wear according to his station in society. This remarkable expression of social control was often excused (as it was by Elizabeth I) as a means of protecting the citizen from himself, but Adam Smith makes more sense when, writing in the eighteenth century, he argues that citizens need protecting not from themselves but from those who make the law.
These were called Sumptuary Laws, and they spring to mind when in Act Four of “Henry V” the King borrows the cloak of a minor aristocrat, Sir Thomas Erpingham, to go among his troops and hear their views. It’s a disguise he adopts to conceal his status, so as to encourage the men to speak openly to him, as they would not, perhaps, if they knew he was the King. And it works – Pistol thinks the King is a “bawcock” (a fine fellow) while Williams thinks no King can be trusted. Henry’s rhetorical skills, much admired in this play, give ground to his listening skills, and the cloak gives him cover.
In one respect, however, Henry is an exception: Sumptuary Laws were introduced to stop a man getting ideas above his station, whatever his motive. By contrast, Henry dresses down, lowering his status, to level with his men. Rightly so, many readers will think – given the egalitarian impulses that enable him to speak of his army as a “band of brothers”.