Prologue: The Chorus wishes he and the actors of the play had ‘a Muse of fire’ to inspire them to a production that would do justice to the story about to be told. If only the small stage they are to perform on were enough to show the vast fields of France. For how can they show armies, horses, and quick changes of locale and time? The Chorus asks us, the audience, to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps that a humble theatrical production cannot, and to judge the play kindly, and with patience.
Act One: The Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely discuss the matter of the new king, who has surprised everyone in his “blessed…change” from dissolute prince (who, in the Henry IV plays, cavorted with the licentious likes of Sir John Falstaff) to sober, responsible king. Worrying that Henry, of limited money, won’t give the Church the funding they are wont to have, these two not-so-scrupulous men of the cloth prefer to persuade their king that invading France will be morally justified.
In the king’s court, Henry has the Archbishop of Canterbury explain how he has a perfect right to be the next king of France. The archbishop mentions the Salic Law, which forbids female succession in France for inheritance of the throne. Henry’s connection with the French royal lineage is through his great-great-great-grandmother, and so the Salic Law denies him the right to succeed.
The archbishop, however, says that the Salic Land is in Germany, not in France, so the law was not devised for the French. Furthermore, the French themselves have allowed female succession to their throne, and the archbishop gives examples of French kings who held the title through the female. Therefore there is no reason to bar Henry from something French dynastic succession has allowed for the French.
When Henry asks Canterbury if he may in good conscience claim the French crown, the archbishop says he’ll bear the sin on his own head if he is wrong. The king then allows the ambassadors of France to come in.
The first ambassador speaks of Henry’s reputation, when a prince, of carousing and revelry. The French Dauphin, whom the ambassadors represent, suggests that, instead of trying to make war with France, Henry should pursue less ambitious goals, those more suited to his apparently feckless nature. Therefore the Dauphin has given Henry a gift, in a chest, that is in keeping with such puerile pursuits.
Henry has his uncle, the Duke of Exeter, open the chest and see what’s inside. Exeter opens it, and tells the king it is filled with tennis balls. Keeping well controlled his fury at such an insult, Henry tells the French ambassadors that England will play such a set with these balls that far more will weep than laugh at the Dauphin’s proud jest; for no one knows what use Henry made of his days with Falstaff and the others in the Boar’s Head Tavern (that use being, to learn how scoundrels think and act, not to emulate them in any way). The ambassadors are to be safely conveyed back to France.
Act Two, Prologue: The Chorus says, “all the youth of England are on fire.” All prepare for war with France. The French “Shake in their fear and with pale policy/Seek to divert the English purposes.” In fact, they bribe three English nobles, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland: “Confirm’d conspiracy with fearful France.” The king and his men will go to Southampton before sailing to France.
In front of the Boar’s Head Tavern, in Eastcheap, Nym is jealous of Pistol, who has taken Mistress Quickly–the hostess of the tavern–as his wife, after she promised to marry Nym. He complains about this to Bardolph. Then Pistol and his wife the hostess enter. Pistol and Nym exchange angry words, then the two clownish men draw their swords; but Bardolph, his own sword drawn, stops them from fighting.
Then the boy, page to Falstaff, comes and tells them all they must come to his master. Falstaff is sick, for as Quickly says, “the King has kill’d his heart.” (At the end of Henry IV, part two, just after Henry V’s coronation, the new king snubbed Falstaff, since it had never been Prince Henry’s intention to stay friends with such knaves as Sir John.) They all go to see Falstaff in bed.
In Southampton, Henry and his men prepare to sail to France. Exeter and the other nobles are amazed to see the king still speaking on friendly terms with the three known traitors.
Henry discusses what should be done with a drunken man who spoke ill of him; in an indulgent mood, Henry figures the man had too much wine when he spoke so idly. The traitors, in a vain attempt to appear loyal, insist that the man be punished. Henry, smiling, still thinks the man’s distemper can “be wink’d at.” Then the king gives each of the three false men a letter, so they’ll know the king knows their worth: the letters reveal Henry’s knowledge of their plot.
The traitors admit their guilt and, while asking for forgiveness, insist on receiving the harshest punishment, knowing such is the only honourable way to react. They are taken away to be executed. Now Henry and his men will sail to France.
In the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly and the others lovingly remember Falstaff, who has died from a broken heart. She cannot imagine Falstaff being in hell. Then Nym, Pistol, Bardolph, and the boy prepare to join the king in the invasion of France. The three men, scoundrels that they are, plan to pillage and steal at the end of each battle; then, back in England, they’ll deceive everyone about fighting bravely. They all say goodbye to the hostess, and leave.
In the French king’s palace, King Charles VI worries about the coming English. His son the Dauphin proudly insists that, in defending France, the French army should do so with no show of fear; instead, they should act as though the English were doing no more than putting on a “Whitsun morris-dance,” since England “is so idly king’d” with the supposedly feckless Henry.
The Constable tells the haughty prince to be quiet, and that Henry is much stronger and more resolute than the Dauphin imagines. Charles agrees, and fearfully remembers past quarrels between France and Henry’s family, as well as the great shame France suffered from defeat against the English.
Exeter enters with a message from Henry, warning the French king of the coming danger. The Dauphin, pretending for the moment to be his representative, asks Exeter what Henry has for him. Exeter says, “Scorn and defiance, slight regard, contempt.” Now angry, the Dauphin proudly says that he is the one who sent Henry the tennis balls. Exeter says, “He’ll make your Paris Louvre shake for it.” After being told that Henry will know Charles’s mind tomorrow, Exeter leaves.
Act Three, Prologue: The Chorus tells us of Henry’s course to Harfleur, and that we must imagine Henry’s men going across the English channel, then attacking Harfleur. We are to “Suppose th’ ambassador from the French comes back:/Tells Harry that the King doth offer him/Katherine his daughter, and with her to dowry/Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.” Henry, of course, rejects the offer. Then we are to imagine the battle.
At the siege of Harfleur, Henry tells his men to go back in and fight. Roused by the king’s speech, his men rush at the castle and resume fighting. Nym, Bardolph, Pistol, and the boy, however, remain behind, hiding like the cowards they are; Fluellen, furious, growls at them to race in and join the fighting, so the three men rush in. The boy, who for obvious reasons needn’t fight, nonetheless hopes that when he is a man, he won’t be as spineless as the three knaves he left England with.
A humourous conversation–one that exploits the stereotypes and accents of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland–ensues between Welsh Fluellen, Gower, Captain Jamy, and Captain Macmorris, an Irishman whom Fluellen scorns. Fluellen is dissatisfied with the digging of the mines, for they are not up to the proper standards of military discipline, something he is very preoccupied with.
When Fluellen not only criticizes the digging of the mines in front of Macmorris, who is responsible for their supervision, but also makes slurs against Ireland, the Welshman and Irishman almost get into a fight.
The siege is over, and the English have clearly won. Henry gives an ultimatum to the French, surrender, or die. He gives a graphic description of how his men will rape the French women, bash the babies’ brains, and kill all the French men mercilessly if they don’t surrender. The governor of Harfleur says the Dauphin’s powers are not ready yet to resist Henry; so because the people of Harfleur “no longer are defensible,” Henry’s men may enter the gates. Henry tells his men to be merciful to the French.
In the French king’s palace in Rouen, the princess, Katherine, asks Alice about her time in England and acquaintance with the language. Alice acknowledges she knows a little English. The princess asks her how one says la main, les doigts, les ongles, le bras, le coude, le col, le menton, le pied, and la robe in English. Alice says, with comically poor pronunciation, that these French words are translated, respectively, the hand, the fingers, the nails, the arm, the elbow, the neck, the chin, the foot, and the gown.
Unfortunately, Alice’s pronunciation of foot sounds like foutre, a vulgar French word for a vulgar English word that also begins with an f; and she pronounces gown as con, which sounds like a vulgar French word for certain feminine anatomy, for which the English vulgar equivalent also begins with c. Katherine is scandalized, and cannot use such dishonourable language in conversation. Nonetheless, she reviews all her newly-learned vocabulary with Alice, blushing and giggling at the sound of the last two.
Elsewhere in the French palace, all the nobles are alarmed at the advances of the English. They worry that French women will prefer English manliness over that of the French, and giving themselves to English lust, they will litter France with bastard sons. King Charles, therefore, has Montjoy, his herald, go and tell the English of France’s “sharp defiance.” The Dauphin is annoyed, however, that his father wants him to stay out of the fighting for the moment.
The English army has set up camp in Picardy. Pistol is fearful for the life of his friend Bardolph, who has been caught stealing from a church, and is to be hanged for it. Pistol entreats Fluellen to use his influence to have Bardolph pardoned, but the Welshman insists on adherence to military discipline, and therefore Bardolph must be hanged. Pistol curses at Fluellen and leaves angrily. When Henry hears of the execution of his former drinking friend, he outwardly shows hardly any sign of emotion.
Montjoy arrives, telling Henry that the French could have defeated him in Harfleur, but will show the full might of their army soon enough…unless Henry pays a ransom for the destruction England has so far caused. Henry says France will have only his dead body for ransom. Montjoy leaves to relay Henry’s answer to King Charles.
In the French camp near Agincourt that night, the Dauphin, the Constable and the Duke of Orleans all engage in bragging: first, the Constable of his armour; then, Orleans of his horse; and finally, and more gratingly, the Dauphin of his horse, “the prince of palfreys”. Indeed, the prince’s boasting is so obnoxious that he tries the patience of the other nobles. All of them impatiently wait for the morning, so they can kill the English, who a messenger says are within fifteen hundred paces of the French tents.
Act Four, Prologue: The Chorus tells us of “The confident and over-lusty French/Do the low-rated English play at dice.” In the English camp, though, the men “Sit patiently and inly ruminate/The morning’s danger.” Henry will go about pretending to be one of them, to know their thoughts, and give them “A little touch of Harry in the night.”
Indeed, Henry borrows Sir Thomas Erpingham’s cloak and, thus disguised, goes about his men to know how they really feel about the battle to be fought the next day. First he sees Pistol, who speaks of his love of the king, then of his spite for Fluellen, whom he’ll hit over the head with his leek on St. David’s Day, since David is the patron saint of Wales.
Then Henry sees Fluellen and Gower; the former tells the latter to keep his voice down, reminding him of the need for military discipline. Then the disguised king comes to Michael Williams and some other soldiers.
When Williams expresses his doubts as to the justification for this war, after so many men are maimed or killed, Henry defends the carrying-out of the war. The two men’s tempers flare as their disagreeing escalates, and they promise to settle their quarrel after the battle, if both survive. They trade gloves to identify each other later, and part angrily.
Finally, after Henry returns Erpingham’s cloak, he contemplates his burdens as king, and prays to God to make his men brave. He also begs God’s forgiveness for the sin of his father, Henry IV, who deposed Richard II and had him killed.
The next morning, the French army over-confidently prepares for battle; while in the English camp, the nobles are daunted by the superior numbers of the French–five French for every one English fighter. Furthermore, the French “are all fresh,” says Exeter. Salisbury says, “’tis a fearful odds.” Westmoreland wishes they had “ten thousand of those men in England/That do not work today.”
Then Henry arrives, wishing instead to have fewer men, since if they are defeated by the French, the English losses will be minimal; but if these few English win, each man will have a larger share of honour, which Henry covets. Indeed, the king is willing to let any English go home who are reluctant to fight, so he and the remaining few can have even larger portions of honour.
The day of the battle of Agincourt is St. Crispin’s Day. On this day in future years, those who will have fought with Henry will proudly show their scars as proof of their bravery. The names of those who will have fought–Harry the King, Exeter, Salisbury–will be like household words. St. Crispin’s Day will be remembered till the end of time because of these few happy men, this band of brothers. It will not matter if one is of high or of low birth, for this battle will ennoble them all.
Those men now in bed in England, however, will feel like lesser men among any who speaks of his valour on St. Crispin’s Day! The king’s speech fires up the morale of the men, who will now cheerfully face the French army. Montjoy then arrives, asking if Henry will pay ransom, or be surely destroyed.
The king proudly says the French can have his joints for ransom. Montjoy says he won’t ask for ransom again, but Henry fears he’ll be back again.
The battle begins. The English longbow is very effective in cutting down the superior numbers of the French. There is a comical scene with Pistol trying to communicate with a French soldier who surrenders and, knowing neither English nor what a cowardly rascal Pistol is, fears him. The boy, who knows French, translates for them.
The French feel terrible disgrace at their defeat. The Dauphin, Constable, and Orleans all lament their “perdurable shame.”
Later, Fluellen returns to the English camp and finds that the French have killed all the boys who were guarding the luggage! He mourns their deaths, angrily calling this despicable act of cowardice “expressly against the law of arms” and an “arrant…piece of knavery.” Henry is enraged at the sight of the boys’ corpses, and when Montjoy reappears, the king rails at him, assuming he wants to ask for ransom again; but he tells Henry that the English have won the battle.
Williams passes by, and Henry, recognizing his glove in Williams’s cap, asks him of it; Williams explains that it is the glove of “a rascal that swagger’d” with him, and whom he will fight, if he has survived the battle. Williams leaves, and Henry asks Fluellen to wear Williams’s glove in his cap, and if anyone should challenge him by the glove, the challenger is an enemy to the king. Fluellen is to apprehend such a villain, if he truly loves his king.
Soon enough, Williams meets with Fluellen, and assuming the Welshman to be the man he quarreled with the night before, challenges him to a fight. Their altercation catches the attention of the king, who then makes it known to Williams that he was the other man in the previous night’s quarrel. Embarrassed, Williams insists he meant no conscious offense to the king, and begs his pardon.
Later, a list of all the dead is shown Henry, and he is amazed at so many French dead, including many knights, esquires, and noblemen: “a royal fellowship of death!” Even more amazing is how few English died: four of name, “and of all other men/But five and twenty.”
Convinced that God has fought the battle for the English, Henry forbids any to boast of this victory, which has been God’s only. Non nobis and Te Deum are to be sung.
Act Five, Prologue: The Chorus tells of Henry’s return to England, and though his people would have him bask in his glorious victory over France, he forbids it, saying the victory was God’s. Then Henry will return to France to settle a peace treaty there.
On St. David’s Day, Fluellen has a leek in his hat; he knows of Pistol’s threat to hit him on the head with his leek, and tells Gower he wishes to confront the scoundrel. Pistol arrives, and Fluellen hits him on the head with the leek, then force-feeds it to him, all while Gower watches his humiliation. After Fluellen and Gower leave, Pistol mourns the death of his wife, Nell Quickly. He says, “To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal.” Then he’ll lie to everyone that the scars he got were from the war in France.
In the final scene, Henry meets with King Charles and his queen to discuss the terms of the peace treaty. The Duke of Burgundy laments the destruction that this war has caused France. Everyone leaves to work out and sign the treaty, leaving only Henry, Princess Katherine, and Alice.
Henry begins a comically awkward wooing of the princess, whose English has improved somewhat, but is still far from fluent. He asks, “Do you like me, Kate?” She says, “I cannot tell vat is like me.” He says, “An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.”
She wonders if she can love the “enemy of France.” He says it isn’t possible, but to love him is to love the friend of France, for he loves France so much that he won’t part with one village of it. Then he tries to woo her in French, which is as clumsily spoken as her broken English. He can move her in French only to laugh at him.
Still he asks, “wilt thou have me?” She says she must have the consent of her father the king; Henry assures her she’ll get his consent.
Finally, he asks to kiss her hand, then her lips, but in her maidenly modesty she says it isn’t the custom of France for girls to kiss before marriage. He insists that kings and queens make the customs rather than bow to them. Then they kiss.
The others return, the terms of the peace treaty are all agreed on, and Henry and Katherine are to be married.
The Chorus ends by reminding us of how Henry soon died, leaving his infant son, Henry VI, his successor; and the mismanagement of the throne by quarreling politicians caused England to lose France. This story, of course, was already staged in the Henry VI plays.