Summary and Analysis
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010 ©
Type of Work
.......Henry V is a history play centering on the heroic deeds of England's King Henry V (Prince Hal of Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II).
Composition and Publication Dates
.......Shakespeare based the play on information in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed's Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed and The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547).
Protagonist: Henry V
.......The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely are disturbed that England is considering a law that would appropriate large amounts of church riches to meet expenses of the Crown, including the cost of military enterprises and welfare for the poor. So they devise a plan to sabotage the proposal: They will offer the king a handsome sum—greater than any that the clergy provided to his kingly predecessors—to help him finance foreign military adventures. During the discussion, the bishops express relief that the young king, who had a reputation as a carousing wastrel, has turned out well. Ely observes:
The strawberry grows underneath the nettle.......Later the bishops receive an unsolicited opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the king when he summons them to advise him on whether it would be legally and morally correct to attack France. He believes he has a right to the French throne on grounds that the French usurped lands and titles from his ancestors. So he asks the Archbishop of Canterbury for his opinion, telling him "That what you speak is your conscience wash’d / As pure as sin with baptism” (1.2.36-37).
.......The archbishop then rains a torrent of legalisms upon the king’s ear, including a reference to an old law instituted by a legendary Frankish king, Pharamond, who died in 426. Written in Latin, this law says, “In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedent” (1.2.43), meaning “No woman shall succeed in Salique land.” During his presentation, the archbishop explains how the French are interpreting this law unfairly and hypocritically to prevent Henry from claiming what is rightfully his, the French crown. The explanation is complicated and almost impossible to understand when presented in the rapid-fire dialogue of a stage presentation. (A plain-English “translation” of the archbishop’s arcane explanation of the Salique law follows this plot summary.)
.......Bishop Ely, the Duke of Exeter, and the Earl of Westmoreland add their voices to the archbishop’s, urging Henry to claim his inheritance and go to war. The archbishop then says that the clergy “will raise your highness such a mighty sum / As never did the clergy at one time. . .” (1.2.138-139).
.......Henry now seems ready to throw down the gauntlet and declare war. However, on the advice of the archbishop, Henry decides that it would be wise to leave a substantial army behind in England to keep the rebellious Scots in check.
.......Henry then receives the ambassador of the French dauphin, Lewis, the son and heir of Charles VI, King of France. The dauphin’s ambassador tells Henry that the dauphin regards Henry’s claim on French lands as laughable, although the ambassador presents a gift from the dauphin—a chest containing a treasure. The ambassador says the treasure is Henry’s if he will abandon all claims on France. Exeter opens the chest and finds tennis balls. They are an insult, suggesting that young Henry is fit only to play games, not to rule a kingdom. But Henry surprises the ambassador with a bellicose reply:
When we have march’d our rackets to these balls,Henry further says that the tennis balls will become “gun-stones” (1.2.291) and that invading English armies will leave in their wake thousands of widows, sonless mothers, and ruined castles. For generations to come, the French will regret the dauphin’s tennis-ball jest.
.......In the ensuring days, all England rises up to back Henry, and strong-armed young men eagerly join his cause. Armorers thrive. Farmers sell pastures to buy horses. Warriors sharpen sword and axe.
.......Meanwhile, outside the Boar’s Head Tavern in the Eastcheap section of London, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol—drinking companions of Henry in the days when he was a hell-raising teenage prince—discuss with the tavern’s hostess news of the death of Sir John Falstaff, Henry’s boon companion during those old days. Apparently, Falstaff died a broken man. Henry’s rejection of him and his degenerate lifestyle (see Henry IV Part II) have been too much for old Sir John. The hostess (who was Mistress Quickly in the Henry IV plays and is now Pistol’s wife) says Falstaff died well. “I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends,” after which he “babbled” and “cried out ‘God! God! God!’ ” (2.3.9). Wine and women were Falstaff’s ruination.
.......Boy, another of Falstaff’s companions, notes that the old knight once said the devil would get him because of his womanizing. Boy then says, “Do you not remember, a’ [he] saw a flea stick upon Bardolph’s nose, and a’ said it was a black soul burning in hell-fire?” (2.3.18).
.......After Henry arrives in southern England at the port city of Southampton, he prepares to set sail for France. Three envoys earlier sent to France on the king’s business are brought before him. It seems that these men accepted a French bribe to assassinate Henry. Now every inch a king—a king of justice swift and final—Henry orders their execution, then casts off for France and glory. At the city of Harfleur in September of 1415, Henry and his forces encounter stiff resistance after breaking through the city walls. When the English army is thrown back by the doughty French defenders, King Henry heartens his forces with a patriotic rallying cry.
.......Among the English forces are those rapscallions from the Boar’s Head Tavern in London, companions of the late Sir John Falstaff. They are less than stalwart when it comes to blood and battlefields. Boy says, “Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety” (3.2.6).
.......After King Henry rallies his troops, they redouble their efforts, and Harfleur is theirs. It is heartening that Scots, Welshmen, and Irishmen all have fought bravely, signaling that England is united under Henry’s leadership. Winter comes. The English are tired, hungry, and weak of spirit after long marches through France. At night, as the French mass their troops, Henry walks about the camp in disguise to assess the mood of his troops and, if necessary, fire them with resolve.
.......When dawn breaks, a gloomy English soldier predicts the troops will not live to the end of the day. The disguised Henry tells him, “Methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable” (4.1.91). The French, meanwhile, brag that they will snap the English spine with a massive army of princes and nobles arrayed in glittering armor. When the time for battle finally arrives, five French soldiers stand for battle for every English soldier. Even their restless, neighing horses seem eager for battle. The Dauphin shouts, “Mount them, and make incision in their hides, / That their hot blood may spin in English eyes” (4.2.9-10). The constable of France, one of the leaders of the French army, tells his officers:
To horse, you gallant princes! straight to horse!.......On October 25, 1415, prospects for victory appear bleak for the English. Nevertheless, the redoubtable King Henry V once again stokes new fire into the belly of his men. The king tells them
This day is called the feast of Crispian:5.......Thanks to his eagle-eyed archers and the fury of his foot soldiers, he drenches the battlefield, Agincourt, in French blood and wins the day. It is the turning point in the war against France. Between 1415 and 1420, Henry wins further battles and stabilizes France under English control. On May 21, 1420, he forges a peace treaty at Troyes with King Charles VI of France. The treaty recognizes Henry as heir to the French throne. Furthermore, it grants Henry the hand of the king’s daughter, Katherine of Valois, in marriage.
When Henry attempts to win Kate’s heart (Act V), he heaps praises on her and she responds sometimes in French and sometimes in broken English. She asks, “Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of France?” (5.2.119). Henry says:
No; it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate; but, in loving me, you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine: and, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine. (5.2.120).Kate responds: “I cannot tell vat is dat” (5.2.121). Henry tries to explain in French, but he is little better in that language than Kate is in English. After a time, he ends up kissing her and complimenting her on her charm. King Henry and King Charles then make wedding plans, and Charles says,
Take her, fair son; and from her blood raise up.......On June 2, 1420, Henry and Katherine marry and have a son, born as Henry VI, King of England and France. However, because the son of King Charles—the same dauphin who gave Henry the tennis balls—does not recognize the Treaty of Troyes or English rule, war again looms on the horizon.
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in Henry V, according to both definitions, is Henry's rousing "St. Crispian's" speech in Act IV, Scene III, before the decisive battle at Agincourt and the victory that followed.
Strong leadership is a powerful weapon. Henry's qualities as a leader make him not only a fit king but also a redoubtable warrior.
A noble cause with noble warriors can win the day against overwhelming odds. Though outnumbered, Henry V defeats the French because his forces believe the cause is noble and just.
Foreign war quells domestic strife. Since ancient times, rulers have gone to war to divert the attention of the people from domestic problems. Henry V is well aware that war with France will unite his subjects and make them forget the domestic issues of the day. In present-day America, some opponents of President George Bush argued that his decision to wage war on Iraq was an attempt to divert attention from economic problems at home.
A just cause can transform disunity into unity. Henry's army of Welsh, English, and Irish soldiers fight as one army against the French usurpers of English lands.
.......The “Salique land”
referred to by the archbishop was in Germany and was occupied by
Franks, Germanic people who later moved westward and established
France. Under the Salique law (also called Salic law), a daughter could
not inherit the property and entitlements of her father. This
proscription applied to all women, including the daughter
king. Thus, despite her royal status, a king’s daughter could not
pass on lands and entitlements of the king to her children; she could
not give them what she did not legally possess.
.......Shakespeare may have concentrated too much attention on Henry V as a heroic warrior and king and not enough attention on Henry V as a man. Unlike Hamlet, Richard III, Lear, and Othello, Henry V is almost one-dimensional. His psyche remains ensconced in his gray matter, unexamined.
.......On the other hand, Shakespeare's depiction of Henry as a nearly flawless superhuman established the young king as a model for monarchs and statesmen of later generations. The spirit of his fiery, never-say-die patriotism and echoes of his rousing rhetoric have rallied the British in times of crisis down through the ages. In his Second World War speeches, Winston Churchill, an admirer of Henry, paraphrased the king. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher has been compared to Henry. Americans have been among Henry's admirers, too, including Woodrow Wilson and John and Robert Kennedy.
.......Henry V is famous for the patriotic fire of its imagery. Two passages that have inspired generations of Englishmen focus on the rallying cries of Henry during the heat of battle. The first occurs at the beginning of Act III after the English breach the walls of the city of Harfleur but are thrown back in fierce fighting. Undaunted, Henry says,
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;.......In this passage—a rhetorical tour de force—Shakespeare blends a gallimaufry of ingredients in a bubbling patriotic stew. Consider first alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds. This figure of speech occurs in the first two lines with the repetition of “w” sounds: once, once more, wall, and with. Man in the third line then mates with modest in the fourth line. Shakespeare next gives us blast of war blows; stiffen the sinews, fair nature with hard-favour’d, pry the portage, and wild and wasteful.
/.......Shakespeare also uses stark contrasts, setting modest stillness against the blast of war, then fair nature against hard-favour’d rage. He also sets off concrete images with abstract ones—tiger and blood, for example, set off by fair nature and hard-favour’d rage. He follows with a simile comparing the terrible aspect of the eye prying (looking out) to the appearance of a brass cannon on a vantage point. A metaphor then compares brow to a galled (projecting) rock. All of these devices enable Henry to deliver a rousing oration, one that appeals to the emotions and inspires heroic action.
.......The second rousing passage also appeals to the emotions. In this passage, Henry tells his troops on the day of the French-English showdown (October 25, 1415, the feast day of two declared Roman Catholic saints, Crispin and Crispinian, who were martyred in beheadings) that posterity will long remember their deeds in the battle about to take place. Henry says:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:.......In this passage, Shakespeare uses repetition skillfully to call attention to the importance of the occasion. In particular, he repeats the word day, sometimes rhyming it internally with say, to attach special meaning to the date of the battle, October 25, St. Crispian’s Day. (See Note 5, below.) In addition, he has Henry repeat we in line 65—"we few, we happy few, we band of brothers"—to foster the sense of brotherhood necessary for successful soldiering.
.......King Henry’s lofty verses contrast sharply with the prose rhetoric of the common soldiers amassed to fight for him. For example, during the fury of battle, Boy comments—with a kind of pithy eloquence—“Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety” (3.2.6). To Boy and to many of his compatriots, battlefield glory, won at the cost of one’s own life, has far less appeal than leading a simple, undistinguished life in which one retains life and limb.
.......Whether Shakespeare spoke French fluently is unknown, but he knew enough of the language to write droll passages in which the English and French misunderstand or mispronounce words in each other’s language. For example, on the field of battle, a French soldier—threatened by Pistol—asks, “Est-il impossible d’eschapper la force de ton bras?” (Is it impossible to escape the force of your arms?” 4.4.17.) Pistol, misunderstanding bras (arms), replies, “Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat / Offer’st me brass?” (4.4.19-20). Such passages provide comic relief from the deadly serious fighting and from the lofty oratory of the king.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in Henry V. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Never was such a sudden scholar made. (1.1.35)Anaphora
Hear him but reason in divinity,Metaphor
Never Hydra-headed wilfulnessSimile and Metaphor
Consideration like an angel came,Simile
Impious war,Reference to the Theatre in the Play
.......In the prologue of the play, Shakespeare refers directly to the Curtain, the threatre in which the play debuted in 1599. He asks, "Can this cockpit [theatre] hold the vasty fields of France?" In other words, can the small stage of the Curtain adequately present a play set on a vast battlefield? He then asks, "Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques9 that did affright the air at Agincourt?" The wooden O of course refers to the circular Theatre. Shakespeare was preparing his playgoers to use their imaginations to pretend that a great battle is to take place on the stage of the theatre, just as modern audiences pretend that everything they are about to see in movies such as Gladiator and Raiders of the Lost Ark is real and devoid of artifice.
When: October 25, 1415
1...crescive: Increasing, growing.