Henry V
A Study Guide

Table of Contents

Type of Work     Composition and Publication     First Performance     Sources     Settings     Tone     Historical Background
          Characters     Plot Summary     Climax     Themes     The Salique Law     Format: Verse and Prose     Meter: Iambic Pentameter
Famous Verse Passages     Language Variations     Figures of Speech     Study Questions and Essay Topics

Complete Text on This Site With Definitions of Difficult Words and Explanations of Difficult Passages

Study Guide
Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003

Revised in 2010, 2016 ©

Type of Work

William Shakespeare's Henry V is a history play centering on the heroic deeds of England's King Henry V (1386-1422). A history play, which is sometimes referred to as a chronicle play, focuses on real characters and events of the past. However, it fabricates conversations and may introduce fictionalized episodes, characters, or events.

Composition and Publication Dates

Shakespeare wrote Henry V between 1598 and 1599. It was first printed in 1600 in an unauthorized, error-ridden edition that omitted parts of the play. In 1623, a corrected edition of Henry V was published in a book that included thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. The 1600 version of Henry V was printed on smaller pages than the 1623 version. The smaller pages were called quartos; the larger were called folios. The 1623 folio book was the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays. It came to be known as the First Folio after other folio editions were published in 1632, 1663, and 1685.

First Performance

The first performance of Henry V took place in 1599 at the Curtain Theatre in the Shoreditch section of London. In the prologue of the play, the chorus refers directly to the Curtain, asking "Can this cockpit [theatre] hold the vasty fields of France?"(1.Prologue.12). In other words, can the small stage of the Curtain adequately present events that took place on vast battlefields? The chorus then asks, "Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?" (1.Prologue.13-15). Wooden O refers to the circular theatre.

Shakespeare was preparing his audience to use their imaginations to pretend that a great battle is to take place on the stage of the Curtain. Twenty-first century audiences—accustomed to dazzling audio and visual effects in films—may balk at having to imagine the fireworks of battle. However, there is something to be said for this approach. It allows theatregoers to experience the scenes as their mind’s eye sees them. It allows them to create the costumes, the weapons, the charging horses, the smoke of battle. Children create their own scenes when listening to a parent reading a fairytale. They hang on every word and every pause. And when the hero wields his sword, they see in it the gleam of the sun and hear in it the ring of triumph.


Shakespeare based the play on information in Volume 3 of The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed's Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (1529-1580), and The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (1497-1547). He may also have consulted (1) an anonymous play entitled The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, published in 1598, and (2) The Civil Wars, by Samuel Daniel (1562-1619).


The action takes place in England and France between 1415 and 1420. The specific locales are (1) the palace of the king in London; (2) a street before a tavern in London; (3) the port city of Southampton, England; (4) the king's palace in France; (5) the French city of Harfleur; (6) the English camp at Picardy, France; (7) and the battlefield at Agincourt, France, where Henry defeated the French on October 25, 1415.


The overall tone of the play is patriotic. Rousing battlefield rhetoric on the part of King Henry supports the tone, as do reports of valor on the battlefield. 

Historical Background

When Henry V debuted in London in 1599, Shakespeare assumed that his audience was aware of key historical events that took place before the action depicted in the play. Here is a summary of those events:

After King Henry IV died, the crown passed on March 21, 1413, to his son Henry, the Prince of Wales, who proved his mettle in battle during a war against rebels from Wales and Scotland. Although civil discord continued to fester in Britain, the new king shifted his attention to France. Because he believed the French may have usurped lands and titles from his ancestors, Henry began considering invading France and seizing the throne. Defeating the French would not only win back lost lands, but it would also win back the hearts and minds of the rebellious forces at home, uniting them under Henry's flag. But young King Henry's conscience demanded that he seek counsel to affirm or deny the justness of his claims against France.

After receiving opinions justifying his claims, he attacked France and conducted a campaign that today is considered part of the Hundred Years' War, a series of conflicts between England and France, beginning in 1337 and ending in 1453. In Henry V, the most important encounter is the Battle of Agincourt, in which the English won a decisive victory. A treaty after the war made Henry heir to the French throne. Following are details on the battle of Agincourt.

When: October 25, 1415
Where: Field between two forests near the village of Agincourt, France. The town is now known as Azincourt.
Combatants: About 6,000 Englishmen under the command of King Henry V and 20,000 to 30,000 Frenchmen under the command of Charles d’Albret, Constable of France (whom Shakespeare refers to as Charles Delabreth).
Weather: Rain, heavy at times, which muddied the battlefield.
Reason for the Battle: Disputed claims to French lands and the French crown. The battle was part of the Hundred Years’ War, a series of engagements fought between 1337 and 1453.
Outcome: English victory. However, it did not end the war.
Deciding Factors: (1) Inability of the French to maneuver. The heavily armed French cavalry and foot soldiers bogged down in the mud of the narrow field. (2) Crack English archers, who rained arrows on the struggling French. (3) The leadership of Henry V.


Henry V: King of England and great warrior who rallies his troops with patriotic appeals. He is the protagonist, or main character. Shakespeare introduced Henry, a member of the House of Lancaster, to his readers as Prince Henry (also known as Prince Hal and simply Harry) in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. Now in his twenties, Henry has abandoned the folly of his teenage years, when he caroused and womanized, in favor of concentrating all his energies on being a wise warrior king. He refuses to associate with his old drinking friends from the slums of London in order to preserve the dignity of his office as king. However, he exhibits great sympathy for his beleaguered troops, whether noblemen or commoners, in his struggle to defeat a larger French army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. There, he exhibits courage tempered with prudence and good judgment, as well as all of the other leadership qualities required of a king and leader of armies. Shakespeare may have concentrated too much attention on Henry V as a heroic warrior and not enough attention on Henry V as a man. Unlike Hamlet, Richard III, King 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 Shakespeare's depiction of him. Americans have been among Henry's admirers, too, including Presidents Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy.
Gloucester (Humphrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester): King's brother.
Bedford (John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford): King's brother
Clarence (Thomas of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Clarence)
: King's brother.

Exeter (Thomas Beaufort, 1st Duke of Exeter): King's uncle. He arrests three traitors (Lord Scroop, Sir Thomas Grey, and Cambridge) plotting to assassinate the king.
York (Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York): King's cousin. Henry grants his request to lead the vanguard of troops at the Battle of Agincourt. He dies at Agincourt.
Suffolk (Michael de la Pole, 3rd Earl of Suffolk): Nobleman who dies honorably at Agincourt.

Salisbury (Thomas Montagu, 4th Earl of Salisbury): One of the noblemen who tried the 3rd Earl of Cambridge for conspiracy to assassinate King Henry.
Westmoreland (Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmoreland): One of the noblemen who urge Henry to go to war against France.
(Thomas Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick): Warrior who fought against rebels at home before going to France to fight valiantly in Henry's war.
Huntingdon (John Holland): Cousin of Henry V and participant in the Battle of Agincourt.

Archbishop of Canterbury (Henry Chichele): Clergyman who advises the king about his right to invade France and claim the crown. 
Bishop of Ely (John Fordham): Clergyman who joins the archbishop in advising the king about his right to invade France and claim the crown. 
Lord Scroop (Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham): One of three conspirators in a plot to assassinate King Henry.
Sir Thomas Grey: The second of three conspirators in a plot to assassinate King Henry.
(Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge): Third of three conspirators in a plot to assassinate King Henry.

Captain Fluellen: Welsh officer who is a courageous and loyal leader and prides himself on his knowledge of the history of warfare. He is also a comic figure who speaks with a heavy Welsh accent.
Captain Gower: English officer.
Captain Macmorris: Irish officer.
Captain Jamy
: Scottish officer. Like Fluellen, Jamy is knowledgeable in the history of warfare.

Sir Thomas Erpingham: Knight who leads the archers at the Battle of Agincourt.
John Bates, Alexander Court, Michael Williams: Soldiers in the king's army.
Sir John Falstaff (Offstage Character): Fictional character who was a bosom pal and drinking companion of Henry when the latter was the youthful heir to the throne (Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II). Falstaff is not listed in Shakespeare's original character list for Henry V because he has no lines and does not appear on the stage. However, Pistol reports his death from an illness (2.3.6). In Act 4, Scene 7, Fluellen and Gower make a brief reference to Falstaff. In Henry IV Part II, Prince Henry ends his friendship with Falstaff before being crowned Henry V in order to maintain his dignity as king. Falstaff, crestfallen and brokenhearted, begins to decline in health. His death in Henry V symbolizes the new king's final rejection of his former lifestyle as a carousing mischief-maker. The death of the fictional Falstaff in Henry V was mourned by no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth I. His shenanigans in the Henry IV plays were highly entertaining to the great monarch. Consequently, Shakespeare resurrected Falstaff to star in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Pistol, Nym, Bardolph: Fictional characters who appeared in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. In those plays, they were drinking companions of Falstaff and Henry. In Henry V, they are soldiers hoping to practice their trade, thievery, in France. Bardolph is hanged for stealing a sacred object from a church. Pistol helps to verify the king's good qualities for the audience and readers when he says,
The king's a bawcock [fine fellow], and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant.
I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string
I love the lovely bully. (4.1.49-53)
Boy: Friend of Pistol, Nym and Bardolph and onetime page of Falstaff. Unlike Henry V, Boy exhibits a very human quality: fear. On the battlefield at Agincourt, he 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).
Hostess: Pistol's wife. She is a hostess at the Boar's Head Tavern in London. In Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, in which she was unmarried, she was known as Mistress Quickly.
Chorus:  The chorus (one person) recites the famous prologue before Act 1. The prologue asks the audience to imagine that the stage of the Curtain Theatre presents a view of the historical places mentioned in the play, including the battlefields of France. The chorus actor also introduces the other acts of the play and presents a conclusion at the end of the play.
Charles VI: King of France.
Isabel: Queen of France.
Katharine: Daughter of the French king and queen. After Henry defeats the French, he proposes to Katherine.
Alice: Attendant of Katharine.
Dauphin (Lewis, or Louis, Duke of Guyenne): Conceited son of the King of France.
Duke of Orléans (Charles): Overconfident nobleman in the French army. He says of Henry, "What a wretched and peevish fellow is this King of England, to mope with his fatbrained followers so far out of his knowledge!" (3.7.69).
Duke of Bourbon: (Jean de Bourbon): Nobleman who urges his fellow soldiers to return to the field of battle at Agincourt after the English gain the upper hands. He says,
Shame, and eternal shame, nothing but shame!   
Let’s die in honour! once more back again [to the battle];   
And he that will not follow Bourbon now,           
Let him go hence, and with his cap in hand,   
Like a base pander [panderer], hold the chamber-door   
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog,   
His fairest daughter is contaminated. (4.5.13-19)
Duke of Berri (John of Berri; also spelled Berry): French nobleman.
Duke of Britaine: French nobleman.
Duke of Burgundy (John the Fearless): French nobleman who helps conduct negotiations with Henry V.
Constable of France
d’Albret, High Constable of France): Commander of the French army. The King of France refers to him as Delabreth instead of d'Albret.
Lord Rambures (David de Rambures): French knight and master archer.
Lord Grandpr
é: Nobleman in the French army.
Governor of Harfleur
Montjoy: French herald.
Monsieur Le Fer: French soldier who begs for his life on the battlefield.

Ambassadors From the Dauphin to the King of England
Minor Characters: Lords, ladies, officers, soldiers, citizens, messengers, and attendants.

Plot Summary


An actor in the role of a chorus appears on the stage. (In ancient Greek drama, a chorus commented on and helped interpret the action in a play.) He asks the audience to imagine that the play takes place, in part, on a battlefield between two great countries divided by an ocean. The stage of the theater, he says, is the world. “Think,” he says, “when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth” (1.Prologue.27-28). The chorus actor further says that events of many years will be condensed “into an hour-glass” (1.Prologue.27-28). In other words, Shakespeare will mold history to the confines of his play. For example, in the sixth scene of Act 2, Henry arrives in France. The year is 1415. In the second scene of Act 5, Henry is betrothed to the king’s daughter, Katherine. The year is 1420.

The Story

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely are disturbed that England is considering a law that would appropriate large amounts of church money 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 when he was a prince, has turned out well. Ely observes:
The strawberry grows underneath the nettle
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality:
And so the prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness; which, no doubt,
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty. (1.1.64-70)
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 statute—referred to as the Salique 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 explanation of the Salique law appears below.)

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 historical Louis), 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 supposedly 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 intended as 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,
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb’d
With chaces. (1.2.270-275)
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 ensuing 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
along with what may have been a bout of malaria, as his feverish symptoms suggesthave 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 who had been sent earlier 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. 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 arrives. 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, the leader of the French army, tells his officers:
To horse, you gallant princes! straight to horse!
Do but behold yon poor and starved band,
And your fair show shall suck away their souls,
Leaving them but the shales and husks of men. (4.2.19-21)
On October 25, 1415, prospects for victory appear bleak for the English. Nevertheless, the redoubtable King Henry stokes new fire into the belly of his men. The king tells them,
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’ (4.3.45-53)
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 (which are not depicted in the play) and stabilizes France under English control. On May 21, 1420, he forges a peace treaty at Troyes, France, with the French king, Charles VI. 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, 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
Issue [children] to me; that the contending kingdoms
Of France and England, whose very shores look pale
With envy of each other’s happiness,
May cease their hatred. (5.2.173-180)


The climax of a play or another literary 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 (4.3.45-72) before the decisive battle at Agincourt and the victory that followed. The conclusion, or denouement, centers mainly on the treaty making Henry heir to the throne of France and on Henry's meeting with his future wife, Katherine, the daughter of the King of France.

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Henry V unabashedly promotes love of England, support of its welfare, and defense of its claims against foreign powers. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, couches his call for war in patriotic rhetoric glorifying the exploits of England's past military heroes. In urging King Henry to wage war against France, he says,
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,   
. . . invoke his war-like spirit,   
And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,           
Making defeat on the full power of France;   
Whiles his most mighty father on a hill   
Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp [to behold his son] 
Forage in blood of French nobility.           
O noble English! that could entertain [could fight]  
With half their forces the full pride of France,   
And let another half stand laughing by,   
All out of work, and cold for action. (1.2.108-119)
In his plea for war, Westmoreland reminds Henry of the loyalty of his subjects, a loyalty so fierce that their fighting spirit is already encamped in France even though their bodies remain in England awaiting a call to arms.
                         Never King of England   
Had nobles richer, and more loyal subjects,   
Whose hearts have left their bodies here in England   
And lie pavilion’d in the fields of France. (1.2.131) 
Once in France, Henry rallies his troops with this patriotic appeal: "Cry 'God for Harry, England and Saint George!' " (3.1.36). Saint George is the patron saint of England.

Although Henry's army includes English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish troops, he refers to all of them as brothers united in a single cause.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;          
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me   
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile [shall be my brother, no matter how base he is] 
This day shall gentle his condition: [This day shall lift him up]  
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed   
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,           
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks   
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3.65-72)   
Stephen E. Ambrose borrowed the phrase band of brothers for the title of his 1993 World War II book. The book was made into a television miniseries with the same title.

The Blossoming of a Leader

In Henry IV Part I and much of Henry IV Part II, Shakespeare portrayed young Prince Henry as an idler who hung out with bad company in the London slums and drank his fill of beer. Whether the historical Prince Henry was in fact a wayward youth is debatable. The Encyclopædia Britannica says there may be a measure of truth in the negative portrayal of him by Shakespeare, as well as other Elizabethan authors. But the Britannica also says that this depiction of young Henry may have been overstated:
“Probably [these depictions] represent no more than the natural ebullience of a young man whose energies found insufficient constructive outlet.” ("Henry V." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 30 Jul. 2016 <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-V-king-of-England>.
Whether one believes that Henry was a hellion, a borderline delinquent, or a young man wronged by gossip, there can be no gainsaying that after he inherited the throne of England at age twenty-six he was a highly gifted king, ruling with wisdom, caution, resolve, political savvy, justice, and an understanding of his people. Historians generally praise his character and accomplishments. So does Shakespeare's Henry V. Early in the play, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discuss the remarkable changes in the young man.
CANTERBURY:  The king is full of grace and fair regard.          
ELY:  And a true lover of the holy church.  
CANTERBURY:  The courses of his youth promis’d it not.  
The breath no sooner left his father’s body  
But that his wildness, mortified in him,  
Seem’d to die too; yea, at that very moment,           
Consideration like an angel came,  
And whipp’d the offending Adam [sinner; transgressor] out of him,  
Leaving his body as a paradise,  
To envelop and contain celestial spirits [good thoughts; righteous thinking].  
Never was such a sudden scholar made;           
Never came reformation in a flood,  
With such a heady currance [powerful wave], scouring [wiping out] faults.”
The bishops then commend him for his knowledge of theology, government, warfare, and “to any cause of policy” (1.1.49).
Henry proves himself just and decisive when he orders the execution of three traitors before he debarks from Southampton for war. Once in France, he uses his powerful charisma and command of language to stoke fire in his vastly outnumbered and disease-ridden army. After defeating the French at Agincourt, he displays his diplomatic skill in forging a treaty acknowledging him as heir to the French throne. At the end of the play, he becomes a gentle wooer, suing for the hand of the King's daughter.

Unity in Diversity

Captain Fluellen wears a leek on his cap as an outward show of his pride in his native Wales. (The leek, a plant in the onion family, is the national emblem of Wales.) Yet he fights for England, as do Scotsmen and Irishmen, as well as Englishmen—noblemen and commoners. Henry had united them under his rule by healing the wounds of past civil war and strife. He turned old enemies into friends, restored confiscated lands, bolstered a languishing economy, cracked down on bandits and other criminals, and—in a bold move—freed the imprisoned Earl of March (Edmund Mortimer). As the designated heir of King Richard II, the earl lost the throne to Henry IV, Henry V's father, and spent most of his time in prison during the reign of the elder Henry. But after Henry V released him, he became a loyal subject of the young king and even informed on the traitors plotting to assassinate him.

Henry's measures instilled loyalty and devotion into his subjects, qualities required for one of his most important goals as king—the conquest of France. Save for three traitors in his midst, he had the backing of commoners and noblemen alike in all the lands he ruled. As the chorus says at the beginning of the second act:
Now all the youth of England are on fire,   
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies;  
[And silken . . . lies: And the fancy clothes they wear to balls and parties hang in their closets]
Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought   
Reigns solely in the breast of every man:           
[Now . . . every man: Now thrive the craftsmen who make armor. Thoughts of answering the call to duty and performing honorably on the battlefield occupy every man's mind.]
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,   
Following the mirror of all Christian kings,   
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.   

Henry and other characters frequently praise God, appeal to him for protection and favors, and credit him for their success. Their acknowledgement of a ubiquitous, omnipotent presence around them attests to the theocentrism of society in Renaissance Europe. Following are examples of references to God in the play.
Our purposes God justly hath discover’d,  
And I repent my fault more than my death;  
Which I beseech your highness to forgive,  
Although my body pay the price of it.  (Scroop, 2.2.-152-155)

We doubt not of a fair and lucky war,
Since God so graciously hath brought to light
This dangerous treason lurking in our way
To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now
But every rub is smoothed on our way.
Then forth, dear countrymen: let us deliver
Our puissance into the hand of God. (Henry, 2.2.185-191)

He [Henry] wills you, in the name of God Almighty,           
That you divest yourself, and lay apart  
The borrow’d glories that by gift of heaven,  
By law of nature and of nations ’long  
To him and to his heirs; namely, the crown  
And all wide-stretched honours that pertain           
By custom and the ordinance of times  
Unto the crown of France. (Exeter, 2.4.85-91}

O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;  
Possess them not with fear; take from them now  
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers           
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord! (Henry, 4.1.181-182)

MONTJOY: The day is yours.  
KING HENRY: Praised be God, and not our strength [army], for it! (4.7.51-52)

French ambassadors to the English court present Henry a “tun of treasure” (1.2.263) from the Dauphin. They say the treasure will be Henry's if he gives up his claim to French lands. When Henry's uncle, Exeter, opens the tun (a cask), he finds only tennis balls. The Dauphin had sent them to Henry to humiliate him. It was the Dauphin's way of saying that young Henry should occupy his time with games, not government, because he was too immature to wear a crown and rule a country.

But Henry responds by waging a war that devastates the vaunted French army. The crestfallen Dauphin says, “Reproach and everlasting shame / Sits mocking in our plumes.” Moments later, he cries, “Let's stab ourselves.” The Duke of Bourbon says, “Shame and eternal shame, nothing but shame!” The Duke of Bourbon remarks, “Let life be short; else shame will be too long.”

..The Salique Law

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 of a 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. 

In 805, after Charles the Great (Charlemagne) conquered the Saxons (another Germanic people), many of his Franks settled the so-called Salique (or Salic) land, making it—in effect—part of France. One result of this development was that the Salic law supposedly became effective for all of France, not just the Salic portion of it. Therefore, a man descended from the ruling class on the female side of the family was ineligible to become king. Because Henry V is the great-great-grandson of the daughter of a king of France, the French argue, his claim on the French throne is invalid. 

However, the bishop points out, French kings over the centuries acceded to the French throne even though their claim to it was based on female ancestry. Apparently, the Salic law did not apply to France after all. It was a dusty, ancient relic which could not be applied arbitrarily in opposition to power politics and ambition. But, the archbishop says, if the Salic law did not apply to previous kings of France—if it was, in fact, no longer in force—it should not apply to Henry in 1413. To contend otherwise was to say that France legitimized illegitimate kings. Therefore, the archbishop concludes, Henry has a right to attack France. God will be on his side.

Format: Verse and Prose

Shakespeare wrote Henry V in verse and prose.

Verse consists of lines of limited length that follow a rhythmic pattern. In Shakespeare, this pattern is usually iambic pentameter, a rhythm scheme in which each line usually has five pairs of syllables. Each pair consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Shakespeare's verse contains no rhyming lines, as does his poetry. (An explanation of iambic-pentameter verse appears below.)

Prose is the language of everyday conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or rhythm scheme. In a Shakespeare play, the royal, noble, and upper-class characters usually (but not always) speak in verse; commoners generally speak in prose.

Here are examples of verse and prose passages from Henry V.

Verse Passage
Awake remembrance of these valiant dead,           
And with your puissant arm renew their feats:  
You are their heir, you sit upon their throne,  
The blood and courage that renowned them  
Runs in your veins; and my thrice-puissant liege  
Is in the very May-morn of his youth,           
Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises. (1.2.120-126) 
Prose Passage
Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’  made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, Sir John!’ quoth I: ‘what man! be of good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times: now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God, I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and so upward, and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
Notice that the verse lines have limited lengths but that the prose lines continue to the right margin, then wrap. In a verse passage, each line counts as a separate line. Thus, the verse passage above has seven lines. Each line in a verse passage begins with a capital letter. A prose passage counts as a single line, no matter how many sentences, clauses, or phrases it contains. 

Meter: Iambic Pentameter

In verse passages, Shakespeare used a rhythm pattern called iambic pentameter.

To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term iamb (pronounced EYE am). An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Consider the words annoy, fulfill, pretend, regard, and serene. They are all iambs because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented): an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re GARD, and ser ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single stressed (accented) syllable (example: the KING). In addition, they may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word (example: SEV en YEARS a GO).

When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. In the word pentameter, the prefix, pent-, means five. The suffix, -meter, refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a foot). The first three lines under Verse Passage (above) illustrate the iambic pattern, as the following graphic demonstrates:
A WAKE re MEM brance OF these VAL iant DEAD,           
And WITH your PUIS sant ARM re NEW their FEATS:  
You ARE their HEIR, you SIT u PON their THRONE (1.2.120-122)  
Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are iambic. Because they contain five iambs (or five feet) they are said to be in iambic pentameter. (A line with five iambs, or five feet, contains ten syllables, as in the lines immediately above.)  When the words at the end of each line of iambic pentameter do not rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Another term for unrhymed iambic pentameter is blank verse.

Occasionally, a line in iambic pentameter may have nine syllables, or perhaps ten or eleven, instead of the usual ten. The reason is that the importance of conveying the right meaning dictates veering from standard practice.

Famous Verse Passages

Henry V is famous for two verse passages expressing the patriotic rallying cries of Henry during the heat of battle. The first occurs at the beginning of Act 3 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;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean. (3.1.3-15)
In this passage—a rhetorical tour de force—Shakespeare blends a mix of ingredients. One is alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds. This figure of speech occurs in the first two lines with the repetition of “w” sounds at the beginning of words: once more, 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 glare shooting from an eye to a ball shooting from a brass cannon. 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 Roman Catholic saints, Crispin and Crispian, 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:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian’:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother. . . . (4.3.45-68)

Language Variations

Henry V contains prose passages mimicking the dialects of English commoners as well as Welsh, Irish, and Scotch soldiers. These passages lend the play an air of historical authenticity while underscoring the theme of unity in diversity. Examples of these are lines 2.1.3-45 (English commoners), 3.2.26 (Welsh), 3.2.30 (Irish), and 3.2.32 (Scotch).

The play also contains prose passages entirely or partly in French. These passages also support historical authenticity while sometimes providing comic relief. 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 named Monsieur Le Ferthreatened by Pistolasks, “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).

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech Shakespeare uses in Henry V.

Alliteration: Repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or syllables

Never was such a sudden scholar made. (1.1.35)

The grave doth gape, and doting death is near. (2.1.32)

Let floods o’erswell, and fiends for food howl on! (2.1.54)

O Kate! nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined
within the weak list of a country’s fashion: we are the makers of manners, Kate. (5.2.144)

Anaphora: Repetition of words at the beginning of phrases, clauses, or sentences
Hear him but reason in divinity,
And, all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire the king were made a prelate:
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,
You would say it hath been all in all his study. (1.1.42-45)

His hours fill’d up with riots, banquets, sports;
And never noted in him any study,
Any retirement, any sequestration
From open haunts and popularity. (1.1.60-63)

What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coin’d me into gold
Wouldst thou have practis’d on me for thy use! (2.2.98-103)

Take pity of your town and of your people,       
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;   
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace   
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds. (3.30.30-33) 
Apostrophe: Addressing an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; addressing an absent entity or person; addressing a deceased person
O England! model to thy inward greatness,    
Like little body with a mighty heart,    
What mightst thou do, that honour would thee do,    
Were all thy children kind and natural! (2.Prologue.17-20)
(England is addressed.)
Assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds preceded and followed by different consonant sounds
The breath no sooner left his father’s body (1.1.28)
And pretty traps to catch the petty thieves. (1.2.182)
Hyperbole: A gross exaggeration
Therefore in fierce tempest is he [Henry] coming,   
In thunder and in earthquake like a Jove. (2.4.108-109).
Irony, Dramatic: Situation in which the audience or reader is aware of information or a development that a character (or several characters) is unaware of.
For example, in the second scene of Act 2, the three traitors
—Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey—meet with Henry unaware of what the audience knows: that Henry is about to order their execution for treason. Another example begins at line 40 of the first scene of Act 4, when Henry visits his troops at nightfall. When he converses with them, they are unaware that they are speaking with the King.

Metaphor: Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
Take heed how you . . .
. . . awake the sleeping sword of war. (1.2.26-27)
(Comparison of a sword to a sleeping creature)

For once the eagle England being in prey,

To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking and so sucks her princely eggs. (1.2.174-176)
(Comparison of England to an eagle and Scotland to a weasel)

              There’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heart-grief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government. (2.2.29-31)
(Comparison of Henry's government to sweet shade for the people)

                                  Take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws. (2.4.111-113)
(Comparison of war to a hungry monster)
Oxymoron: Use of words opposite in meaning side by side
most truly falsely (5.2.124)
Simile: Comparison of unlike things while using like, as, or than
Consideration like an angel came,
And whipp’d the offending Adam out of him. (1.1.28-32)
(Comparison of consideration, or sober-mindedness, to an angel)

                               Impious war,

Array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends. (3.3.17-18)
(Comparison of the appearance of war to the appearance of the devil)

                    O! for honour of our land, 

Let us not hang like roping icicles
Upon our houses’ thatch. (3.5.24-26)
(The Constable of France compares himself and other Frenchmen to icicles)
They will eat like wolves and fight like devils. (3.7.74)
(The English are compared to wolves and devils.)

Study Questions and Essay Topics 

  • Which character in the play do you most admire ? Which character do you least admire?
  • Write an informative essay analyzing Henry V's ability as a military leader.
  • In an essay, compare and contrast the Henry of this play with the Henry of Henry IV Part I.
  • Is Henry primarily interested in achieving glory for himself? Or is he sincerely and selflessly devoted to the English cause?
  • Write an informative essay analyzing the strategies used by the English and French in the real-life Battle of Agincourt.