Henry V Summary and Analysis
The chorus introduces the play by asking the audience to imagine two mighty monarchs planning to fight over who rules France. They asks the audience to imagine the stage holding all the glorious plains of France and the battlefield where Henry V was victorious.
Act One, Scene One
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discuss a bill that has come before Parliament that would strip the church of large portions of its temporal lands (lands bequeathed to the church that are used for secular purposes). Being clergymen, they are of course strongly opposed to this bill. Canterbury tells Ely that he has tried to convince Henry V to vote against the bill, thereby assuring its failure. In return, the church has promised Henry that it will give him the largest sum ever given to a monarch in order to finance his campaign against France. The church also agrees to recognize Henry's claim to the throne of France by maternal descent from King Edward III.
Both men remark on the fact that the King is a completely different man than they expected him to be. They refer back to his wild days as a youth (portrayed by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part I and to his seeming lack of interest in the crown. They comment on the fact that since assuming power, Henry V has become Machiavellian in his approach to affairs of state, showing that he is a great politician, great military strategist, and also a familiar with religious affairs.
Act One, Scene Two
King Henry calls Ely and Canterbury into his royal court and asks them if he has a legal right to claim France. He needs them, as representatives of the church, to legitimate his claim before he can attack France. Before they give him their answer, he warns them that if they say he has a rightful claim then he will pursue a bloody war against France. At issue is whether Henry can claim France through his maternal line, given that France adheres to Salic law, a law which says that no woman may inherit the throne in France.
Canterbury tells the king that the Salic law first originated in Germany, near Meissen. Since the law is not native to France, it is therefore illegal for France to use that law. Canterbury also adds that several of the French kings have claimed the throne through their maternal lines in the past and thus would have equally unqualified claims to rule if the law were upheld. Both Exeter and Westmorland, noblemen and friends of King Henry, urge him to proceed in laying claim to France.
King Harry is worried that if he gathers an army against France he will be vulnerable to attack from Scotland. Historically Scotland has revolted when the King of England has left to attack France, a problem Henry needs to resolve. His advisors and noblemen tell him that the border defenses will be strong enough to withstand any such attack. Canterbury finally advises him to divide the British forces into four parts so that he can take one quarter of the troops and fight in France while leaving three quarters back home to defend the English borders. Henry agrees to this plan.
King Henry then orders the messengers from the Dauphin of France (the son of the King of France) to be brought in. The messengers present him with a "treasure" of tennis balls for his pleasure. They comment that the Dauphin wishes him to accept the "treasure" in lieu of the dukedoms that Henry has already laid claim to. Henry is not amused with the joke, and says, "Tell [the Dauphin] he hath made a match with such a wrangler / That all the courts of France will be disturbed" (1.2.264-265). He sends the messengers away with the message that he will conquer France and that thousands will die as a result of the Dauphin's "shallow wit" (1.2.295).
Henry V is a daunting play to write, and Shakespeare struggled to not only surpass his previous successes in Henry IV, Parts I,II but also to contain the action on the stage. Part of his answer to this problem was to introduce the Chorus that serves to introduce each act of the play. However, even Shakespeare quickly realized that this was merely an attempt to contain the disorder of the play. The chorus asks, "Can this cock-pit hold / The vasty fields of France?" (Prologue,11), to which the answer is no, it cannot. The Prologue to each act is simply an attempt to control the disorder of the action, to contain it and manipulate it.
The very first scenes introduce Henry as a political figure, a brilliant politician and deal-maker. Through the political plotting of Canterbury and Ely, we see that Henry has gotten the Church to give him money in return for his protection. The support of the church also makes his campaign against France more legitimate, and it helps win him the support of all Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England through the church's influence.
At question in the beginning is the issue of Salic Law. This law essentially prohibits a man from inheriting through the maternal line, or as Canterbury says, "No woman shall succeed in Salic land". This question of inheriting through the maternal line is important, because it not only legitimates Henry's claim to France, but later on his son's claim as well once Henry marries Catherine of France. Canterbury essentially sidesteps the issue by telling Henry that the Salic Law cannot apply to France since it did not originate there, and that he therefore has a claim to the throne.
As the chorus tries to contain disorder, so too does Henry. In fact, containing disorder is a major theme of the play. This becomes evident when Henry mentions that he is afraid of Scotland rebelling in the event that he leaves for France. It is Henry's ability to transform himself that allows him to suppress the disorder at home, he manages to become a Christian king rather than a delinquent. Henry says, "We are no tyrant, but a Christian king; / Unto whose grace our passion is as subject / As are our wretches fetter'd in our prisons" (1.2.241-243). By making his passions limited by state, reason, and self-control he is able to win the support of Scotland as well. This contrasts strongly not only with his spirited youth, but also with the uncontrolled Dauphin who makes a joke of Henry V by sending tennis balls.
It is Henry's great ability to make himself into a Christian king, thereby uniting the church behind him. As a result, he is able to turn the civil wars in England into a unified crusade against France. This allows him to avoid the problems that Scotland normally poses and also to tap into Ireland and Wales for soldiers. His connection with the church further provides him with funds to undertake his battles.
One of the larger themes in almost any Shakespearian drama is the issue of rising and falling from power. Often, as in the Richard plays, the monarch will peak and then fall to his death or destruction. Henry differs in that he alone realizes he must fall in order to rise. He tells the messengers from the Dauphin:
"But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state, Be like a king and show my sail of greatness
When I do rouse me in my throne of France:
For that I have laid by my majesty
And plodded like a man for working-days,
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France" (1.2.273-279)
Henry therefore describes himself as a king who has already been down on the ground with the working men. He is now ready, as he tells us, to show his "sail of greatness" and "be like a king". His ability to connect with the common man comes from having "plodded like a man for working-days" with the rabble of thieves and whores in the earlier Henry IV, Part I. Thus this play, right at the beginning, tells us that we will watch Henry V rise in power since we already saw him at the bottom.
Throughout Henry V France is described as an Eden that has been lost but that can be recaptured. Indeed, the image of France is that of a garden choked with weeds. Note Burgundy's speech at the end of the play where he describes France:
"The even mead - that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover -
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility. (5.2.48-53)
For Henry, his crusade is made religious by convincing the English that France is the Eden they need to recapture.
The carefree attitude of the Dauphin and his underestimation of Henry makes him appear to be a fool. Henry indicates that, "His [the Dauphin's] jest will savour but of shallow wit / When thousands weep more than did laugh at it" (1.2.295-296). In the First Folio edition this comes through even stronger when we see the Dauphin writing poetry to his horse rather than to a mistress. Henry, by contrast, will use prose when wooing Catherine rather than waste his words on something as replaceable as a horse.
Henry V Essays and Related Content
- Henry V: Essays
- Henry V: E-Text
- Henry V: Questions
- Henry V: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- William Shakespeare: Biography