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The Life of King Henry the Fifth V
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999
Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.
Overall Impression: A great play about a king in his warlike years, but lacking the humor and charm of the Henry IV plays.
Per Bevington: Principal source was the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles and ultimately Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1542). Also Daniel's The First Four Books of the Civil Wars (1595). WS passes over the three year campaign that intervened between Agincourt and the peace treaty at Troyes, and the Lollard controversy and execution of Sir John Oldcastle, and adds many unforgettable characters: Welshmen, Irishmen, Scots, common soldiers, and thieves. The anonymous play by Tarlton or Rowley called The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth is similar and included the episode with the tennis balls. Other possible sources include Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta and Vita et Gesta Henrici Quinti, the Vita Henrici Quinti of Elmham, the ballad "The Battle of Agincourt", and "The Annals of Cornelius Tacitus" [which provides the model of Germanicus walking through his camp in disguise].
This is WS's culminating statement in the genre of English historical plays. The patriotic history play, starting after the Armada in 1588, waned after 1599. QE was aging and near death without a Protestant heir. This play has become controversial because of the depiction of warmongering, invasion of another country, condoning of rape, etc. Major events/themes include: H5's skill in rhetoric and persuasion, suppression of the playful younger Prince Henry; his need for the church's endorsement, the self-interested actions of the Church through the Archbishop, and a faint anticlericalism; H5's desire to recover the French territory won in the days of the battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) under E3; the Dauphin's contemptuous gesture with the tennis balls; comic characters including Fluellen, who replaces Falstaff; Henry's wooing of Katharine; the epic-like chorus; WS invites us into his world of art & imagination. Action covers the initial campaign to France  up to the Treaty of Troyes and Henry V's marriage to Katharine of Valois [historically 1420].
Note: It is helpful to review the history of The Hundred's Year War, for example at the Encyclopedia Britannica webiste and the lineage of English kings.
The chorus wishes for a muse that could provide a kingdom for a stage and asks "But pardon, gentles all,/The flat unraised spirits that have dared/On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/So great an object. Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?" and says the audience must use their imaginations.
England, the Royal court. The Archbishop of Canterbury expresses concern to the Bishop of Ely about the revived tax bill originally proposed in H4's reign that if successfully passed will cause the loss of half of the possessions of the Church. He marvels at the transformation seen recently in the king compared to his wild days of youth, how scholarly he is ("Never was such a sudden scholar made"), how he has mastered the affairs of the commonwealth and of war. He has made an offer to the king to give a large sum to help H5 pursue a claim to the crown of France as previously claimed by Edward III (his great grandfather) [see summary of Hundred Year's War; E3's mother was Charles IV's sister].
Same. King Henry V ("H5", Harry, formerly Henry Plantagenet of Monmouth, also formerly called Prince Hal) enters with his brothers Humphrey D of Gloucester and [Thomas] D of Clarence along with E of Warwick, E of Westmorland, and H5's uncle Duke of Exeter [Thomas Beaufort, d. 1427, son of John of Gaunt]. Canterbury explains in elaborate detail his justification "as clear as is the summer's sun" for H5's claim to the French throne: E3's mother [Isabella, wife of Edward II] was the sister to the French king [Charles IV], and the Salic laws, which supposedly barred inheritance of titles through females, did not apply in France since they were intended for a part of Germany; also, French kings Pepin, Hugh Capet, and Lewis X [actually IX] derived their titles through female inheritance [also see EB summary above]. He also argues that in the Book of Numbers, a man's inheritance goes to the daughter [omitting that this is only if he has no son]. He urges him to reawaken the warlike spirit and victories of his great grandfather E3 and E3's son Edward the Black Prince at Crécy, etc. Ely also urges H5 to renew these feats and Exeter and Westmorland concur. H5 is concerned that the Scots will take advantage of any reduction of England's northern defenses and attack as they did in the historical past, but Canterbury counters with the fact that King David II of Scotland was captured while E3 was in France. A Lord adds caution about their vulnerability to Scotland, but Exeter is optimistic and Canterbury argue that Obedience to the king, as with bees, will lead to success, especially if he leaves 3/4 of his powers behind. H5 resolves to pursue the claim, and calls in the French ambassadors, who have been waiting to see him.
The first ambassador acknowledges that he represent the Dauphin [future Charles VII], not the French King (Charles VI "C6") himself, an intentional slight. After obtaining permission to render freely his message, he says the Dauphin believes H5 cannot win with a galliard (dance) any land in France and wants to hear no more from him. The Dauphin has sent tennis balls to him as a mocking gesture of contempt reflecting on H5's youthful reputation. H5 responds to the taunt: says that he will play a set in France after he defeats C6; reflects on his wilder days; says he will dazzle the eyes of France; that the Dauphin's tennis balls are turned to gunstones; that many thousands will die and he will be avenged. The ambassadors leave. H5 now has no thought but to go to France.
The chorus says the youth of England are on fire with thoughts of war, Expectation is in the air, the French shake in fear. But there is a local conspiracy allegedly aided by France to stop H5: Richard E of Cambridge [father of Richard Plantagenet D of York; grandfather to E4 and R3], Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland. [Historically, the conspirators intended to promote Edmund Mortimer 5th E of March as contender to the throne].
London, a street. Falstaff's cronies Lieutenant Bardolph and Corporal Nym meet as they prepare to go to France. Nym is resentful about Ancient [ensign] Pistol, who has married the Hostess (Mistress Nell Quickly) even though she was previously engaged to Nym, and is biding his time to do violence to Pistol. Pistol and Quickly arrive. Pistol does not want her to keep lodgers, since she has 12-14 "gentlewomen" employed at "sewing", and would not want to appear to be running a bawdy house [Quickly speaks in unintentional sexual double entendres]. Pistol and Nym draw their swords but are stopped by Hostess. Pistol continues to spew curses [his humor relies on extravagant epithets, fragments from contemporary plays, and foreign phrases] and talks as if he were exorcising spirits. Nym threatens him and they again draw, but Bardolph says he will kill whichever first strikes the other--Nym vows to cut Pistol's throat someday. Pistol advises Nym to espouse the now [venereally] diseased whore, Doll Tearsheet.
A boy, formerly Falstaff's page, arrives to say Falstaff is very ill. Boy suggests Bardolph place his head (i.e., red fiery face) under Falstaff's sheets to warm him. Hostess goes with Boy to see Falstaff. Pistol reluctantly agrees to pay to Nym most of what he owes him, and they make a peace. Hostess returns to say how ill Falstaff is of a "quotidian tertian" fever and that they should go to console him before he dies.
Southampton [England's south coast]. Bedford [John, D of Bedford and formerly D of Lancaster, brother of H5], Exeter and Westmorland discuss the traitors whose plot to kill the king has been secretly discovered.
King enters along with Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey. The three flatter the king and speak glowingly about the upcoming invasion of France. The king refers to a man who was arrested railing against the king while drunk, and the three recommend that no mercy be shown to him. H5 wonders: if such an offense is to be severely punished, what should be done with those committing capital crimes? He gives them ostensible commissions on paper, but these actually accuses them of their intended crimes. They confess and ask for no mercy. H5 will weep for them as like for another fall of man. Cambridge says he did not do it primarily for money [alluding to his real motive to promote Edmund Mortimer's claim]. Grey is relieved that the treason was discovered [!] and all seem repentant. H5 sends them to their deaths, relieved that this and all other immediate obstacles to his departure have been resolved.
London, street. Hostess et al recount the poignant death of Falstaff [the man she once wanted to marry]. Pistol knows he must now make his living through some one else. Bardolph wishes "Would I were with him, wheresoe'er he is, either in heaven or in hell!" Hostess says he is in Arthur's [i.e., Abraham's] bosom, and implies he recited the 23rd Psalm. Hostess felt under the sheets and found he was cold. He cried out against sack and against women, saying they were devils incarnate. The Hostess innocently misinterprets this. He also spoke of the Whore of Babylon [the Church]. Falstaff's former henchmen know they must now find another way to support themselves. Pistol kisses his wife, cautions her to run the tavern on a cash only basis and be thrifty in his absence, and rallies the others to advance to France "like horseleeches".
France, the royal court. French King C6 and the Dauphin discuss the coming of the invasionary force. Dauphin is overly confident, assured that Henry V is a vain giddy humorous youth. The Constable of France cautions Dauphin that he underestimates H5, suggesting he has feigned a deceptive outer shell as did Lucius Junius Brutus [see The Rape of Lucrece]. The king is also less confident, and reminds Dauphin of the French losses to E3 and Edward the Black Prince at Crécy.
A messenger arrives, announcing Exeter's embassy. He asks C6 to lay aside his rule and turn over the crown to H5, giving him the written pedigree justifying H5's claim. The Dauphin is contemptuous, but Exeter cautions he will find H5 different than in the days of his youth. The king will ive his response the next day.
Chorus. It asks the audience to imagine that the fleet has sailed from Dover [actually Southampton] and landed at Harfleur [historically August 1415], leaving England guarded by "grandsires, babies, and old women". C6 has offered H4 the hand of his daughter Katharine and some petty dukedoms, to no effect.
France, before the walls of Harfleur. H5 rallies his troops to charge the city walls, with "Once more unto the breach..." [This seems to imply they already have seen considerable action].
Same. Bardolph calls his men to the breach also! But Nym holds back. Pistol sings a ballad about winning immortal fame. Boy wants some ale and safety. Captain Fluellen arrives and forces them forward into the breach.
Boy is left alone to lament on the cowardice of Bardolph, Pistol's "killing tongue and a quiet sword", and Nym's lack of words or actions, the stealing they all do, and their efforts to train him in stealing. He wants to seek better service.
Several colorful and comical captains interact. Captain Gower wants the Welsh Captain Fluellen to report to the Duke of Gloucester about the mines being constructed by the Irish captain Macmorris in order to undermine the walls. Fluellen expresses his contempt for this non-traditional form of warfare (he reveres the classical models of warfare). The Scots captain Jamy arrives. [Fluellen speaks in a strong accent and is a comical replacement for Falstaff.] Macmorris arrives and Fluellen wants to debate with him the techniques being employed. But Macmorris wants them to get on with the action of cutting throats. Macmorris takes offense at Fluellen as the thick accents fly. Gower tries to moderate. A parley is sounded.
Same, before gates of Harfleur. The governor of Harfleur on the walls parleys with H5--H5 says will be their last parley before burning and sacking the city. He threatens that his soldiers will mow down and violate the virgins and kill the infants, which he says the governor will bear responsibility for. They will defile the daughters, dash the heads of the fathers against the walls, and impale the heads of the infants on pikes. The governor has not received help from the Dauphin as requested, so he concedes defeat to H5 and has the gates opened. H5 has Exeter fortify the city, while, with winter approaching, he will lead his sick troops toward Calais.
French court at Rouen. Katharine, daughter of C6, is trying to learn English from Alice. She is shocked by the English words "foot" and "count", which sound like French vulgarities.
Same. C6 advises Constable that H5 has passed the river Somme as he moves east toward Calais. Dauphin is contemptuous of H5, referring to the English as a wild and savage bastard offspring [i.e., bred from the French/Norman invasion and conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066]. He criticizes their climate and poor lands, but nevertheless fears the French ladies are giving themselves to the English. Duke of Brittany says the English claim the French have grace in their heels (helping them to run away). C6 wants the herald Montjoy to go to H5 with words of defiance. He calls his noblemen to battle and wants H5 brought to him as prisoner. Constable tells of how sick and famished H5's men are, and that they will sink into fear when they behold the French army. C6 sends Montjoy to ask what ransom H5 is willing to pay for his life.
English camp in north France. Fluellen says that Exeter has made it safely across a bridge [not actually over the Somme historically]. Fluellen mentions meeting a gallant man, Ancient Pistol, who then arrives. Pistol pleads for intervention--Exeter has arrested Bardolph for stealing from a church and has said he is to be hanged. Fluellen agrees with the death sentence, and Pistol gives him the fig. After Pistol leaves, Gower recalls that Pistol is actually a cutpurse and bawd. Fluellen though defends him, recalling the brave words Pistol uttered at the bridge. Gower talks of the kinds of men who memorize wartime events and tell great but exaggerated tales of their own involvement with war time experiences.
H5 arrives and asks Fluellen what men he has lost. He says only one man, Bardolph, who is to be executed. H5 concurs with the sentence, again stating that his men are to do no stealing from the countryside.
Montjoy arrives, saying that the French are awakened now to battle though previously sleeping, and asks what ransom he will pay. H5 says he does not seek battle now, as they march to Calais to recuperate from their sickness and injuries, though even in sickness his men are better than Frenchmen when they are well, and he will not shy from battle if forced into it. He says "We are in God's hands."
French camp, near Agincourt. Constable confers with Orleans and Dauphin. Dauphin waxes eloquently with praise for his horse, which is like Pegasus. He starts a sonnet to his horse, but Orleans would rather talk of women. The Dauphin claims his horse is his mistress and various double entendres follow. They anxiously await the morning. After the Dauphin leaves, Constable suggests the Dauphin will not harm any enemy in the upcoming battle. A messenger arrives to say the English are camped 1500 paces from their tents. Constable and Orleans deride the English for their stupidity. Lord Rambures comments they breed valiant mastiffs, though Orleans says they are foolish dogs. Constable observes "The men do sympathize with the mastiffs in robustious and rough coming on, leaving their wits with their wives; and then give them great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils." But Orleans says they are out of beef.
Chorus. We are asked to envision the night with the fires and faces in the nearby army camps visible to each other, to hear the rivets of the armor being applied and the crowing cocks. H5 walks among his men, bidding them good [early] morning and comforting and inspiring them with encouraging looks. The battle of Agincourt [historically Oct 25, 1415] will be pitifully represented by a few men with foils, an inadequate imitation.
English camp at Agincourt, night. H5 confers with Gloucester and Bedford [John], acknowledging they are in great danger but nevertheless expressing resoluteness. Sir Thomas Erpingham arrives and expresses gallant optimism, saying, of sleeping on the ground, "Now lie I like a king". H5 is glad of the example he sets. He asks to borrow Erpingham's cloak, planning to wander alone and incognito.
H5 is now alone when Pistol arrives. H5 confronts him as "Harry le Roy"--Pistol tells him the king is a good man, not recognizing him. He speaks contemptuously of Fluellen and the leek Fluellen wears in his cap on Saint Davy's Day [celebrating the Welsh victory over the Saxons in 540]. After H5 says he is a kinsman of Fluellen, Pistol gives him the fig [obscene gesture] and leaves.
Fluellen and Gower meet. Fluellen wants Gower to speak quieter, and holds forth about the ancient methods of war as used by Caesar against Pompey the Great.
H5 incognito encounters soldiers John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams. He says he serves under Erpingham and grimly states they are "even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide". Asked about the king, H5 says he is but a man, experiencing the same fear as others, but trying to set a good example for his men. Bates wishes they were elsewhere. H5 answers that their cause is just and honorable, but Williams is not sure of that and thinks the king will have a heavy reckoning to make for all the slaughter that will result from his actions. H5 counters with a statement on the relationship between kings and subjects. "The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant". Men should follow their king. They will receive their due from God, either punishment or reward. They should prepare their consciences for dying--if they survive, they will be better prepared to live on. H5 mentions that the king has refused to be ransomed, but Williams answers cynically that he may ultimately give in, incensing H5. H5 challenges him to a fight in the future, asking for the man's glove so that he can wear it on his cap. They exchange gloves and H5 says that he will box him on the ears when he sees him next. Bates asks them to calm down and save the fighting for the French.
Left alone, H5 reflects that the burden on the king is a hard one. The only benefit kings have is ceremony, and that comes with poisoned flattery. And even the slave enjoys sleeps while the king keeps watch to maintain the peace.
Erpingham asks for H5 to rejoin the nobles. H5 prays to God to steel his soldier's hearts to battle, and to forgive his father's usurpation of the crown from R2, for which he has shown much penitence.
French camp. Sunrise. Dauphin is eager to mount his horse and do battle. A messenger tells them the English are ready for battle. Constable comments on the pathetic condition of the English and how they will be easy prey. Let the trumpet sound. Lord Grandpré says the crows are flying over the English in anticipation their deaths.
English camp. Westmorland says the French have 60,000, and Exeter says that is 5:1 odds over them. Salisbury wishes them well against such odds until they meet in heaven. H5 enters and Westmorland expresses his wish to him that they had more men. But H5 answers that they are enough, either to die or to win the honor without sharing it among more men.
The Duke of York [H5's cousin; grandson of E3 by Edmund; died at Agincourt; also called D of Aumerle in R2 play; absent from the H4 plays] arrives to ask for the honor to lead the advance and H5 grants it.
Field of battle. Battle begins. Pistol encounters a French soldier and demands ransom of him, though having difficulty understanding his French. He has Boy translate his threats. After they leave, Boy comments "I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart!" and that Bardolph and Nym had more valor though less bombast.
Same. Constable of France and Orleans lament that the day is lost, their ranks broken. Bourbon feels shamed.
Same. H5 says they have done well, but have more to do. Exeter says the Duke of York is dying from a wound. Earl of Suffolk is also dead, having been lamented over by York. H5 hears new alarums and, fearing a renewed French attack, orders that all prisoners be killed.
Same. Fluellen is disturbed by the order to kill the prisoners. More humorous speech with Gower. Fluellen compares H5 to Alexander the Great, saying that just as AG killed his friend Cleitus, so H5 has killed his friend Falstaff.
H5 enters with others, angered that horsemen are standing idly on a hill looking down on the battle--he wants them either to fight or leave. Montjoy arrives to ask permission to carry away the French dead, saying the day belongs to the English, and naming the battle site as the field of Agincourt. Fluellen recalls E3 fought a famous battle there, and they share some warm camaraderie.
Williams enters. Deciding to continue with his prank, H5 has Exeter call him over, and H5 asks him why he has the glove in his cap. William describes the rascal that challenged him. H5 tells him to keep his oath when he encounters the man who offended him. After he leaves, H5 gives Fluellen the glove to wear in his cap, and sends him to Williams, saying he had the glove from the French Duke Alençon and that anyone who challenges it is a friend of Alençon. He has Warwick go along to be sure no one is hurt.
English camp. Fluellen encounters Williams, who strikes him because of the glove. Fluellen calls him a traitor and a friend of Alençon. H5 shows up and shows Williams that the glove he Williams previously received from the "rascal" is H5's glove. Williams is all apologies, saying H5 did not come to him as himself but disguised. H5 has Exeter fill William's glove with money and asks Fluellen to be friends with him--the men are reconciled.
A herald arrives to announce the dead on each side: they include Charles Duke of Orleans, Duke of Bourbon, Alençon, and 10,000 French, and Suffolk, York, and 25 men[!]. H5 attributes their success to God, not to himself, and pronounces a death penalty on anyone bragging otherwise. He plans to go on to Calais and England.
[5 years historically elapse and end with a second campaign to France by H5 ending in the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 by which the play ends.]
Chorus. The chorus asks pardon for the lapse of time, during which H5 returned to London, his triumphant reception there, the intercession of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund [in 1416] on behalf of France, [the death of the Dauphin,] and H5's return to France [1417, leading up to the Treaty of Troyes 1420].
France, the English camp. Fluellen wears a leek even though it is not St. Davy's day, in order to aggravate Pistol. Pistol shows up and they exchange insults, then Fluellen strikes him. Fluellen forces Pistol to eat the leek. Fluellen sends him off, calling him a counterfeit cowardly knave. Pistol laments that "my Doll is dead" [?an error for Nell, his wife] of venereal disease, and resolves to return to England for more thievery--there he will claim he got the scars from Fluellen's blows in the war.
French court. H5 meets with C6, Queen Isabel, Burgundy and they talk of making Peace. Burgundy wants the garden of France to blossom and be fruitful again. H5 says peace must come on the terms he is putting forth in a document he has provided. C6 asks for representatives of both sides to go over the terms in details. H5 asks to be left with Katharine, his "capital demand".
He proceeds to woo her in his blunt straightforward soldier's speech, saying he cannot flatter or make eloquent speeches. She asks is she can really love the enemy. He answers that she and he will combine England and France. She still is not sure she can love him and is cautious. Finally she says if her father will be pleased with such a marriage, she will also be content. When he tries to kiss her, she says it is not their custom to kiss before marriage, but he says they are able to establish customs for themselves, and kisses her.
The French king and lords return. Burgundy encourages him in his incomplete success at wooing her, saying "Can you blame her then, being a maid yet rosed over with the virgin crimson of modesty, if she deny the appearance of a naked blind boy in her naked seeing self?" He will encourage her to comply. C6 is willing for them to marry and has consented to all the terms of the treaty, asking only that H5 be called "King of England, Heir to France". C6 expresses hope that this will end the enmity between the two countries. H5 and Katharine kiss in the presence of the others, the Queen blesses the engagement, and H5 calls for preparations for the wedding.
Chorus invokes the image of the author writing out the expansive action of the play in a little room, the "small time" [short rule] of H5 "this star of England", and the loss of France and bloodshed in England that followed the accession of Henry VI.