Henry V Summary

The play depicts an uneasy political situation in the medieval England. The King Henry IV had died and left the kingdom to his heir, the young prince Henry V, no one is taking seriously yet. He gets England devastated by several civil wars, his people are poor and embittered, without hopes for their lives to get better soon. Now Henry V has to grow up really, really fast, abandoning his favourite parties, adventures with drunkards and thieves in a Boar Head Tavern, and nights in brothel. These medieval joys aren’t suitable for the King anymore. Moreover, he has to build up a solid reputation of a serious ruler instead of the one of an airhead teenager.

We see the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discussing the new bill the Parliament has just signed. According to that bill lots of income and lands will be taken from the Church and given to the state to fund the reforms Henry V needs to conduct. Surely, both bishops are extremely dissatisfied with that bill and decide to offer the King the conspiracy. They will voluntarily give him some of the Church wealth to fund his army and Henry V will take care of the bill and (possibly) those who were the main authors.

The bishops know that Henry lays claim to the certain dukedoms of France, because one of his ancestors was the daughter of the French king, so he has some legitimate rights. So he most certainly will need the well-funded and equipped troops to support his words with some manpower. The Archbishop goes to see the King and, using his knowledge of the laws and the ability to interpret them in a certain way, cites Salic Law and persuades Henry to invade France and solve the question of the dukedoms once and for all with all the enemy country. Henry is now excited to take over all the France. Luckily, the Ambassador of France is in his castle, waiting for the audience. Henry sent a letter to the French Dauphin (prince) before, claiming his rights for the said dukedoms and now waits for the answer.

The ambassador enters and gives the answer of his lord to Henry. The answer states that the Dauphin will never give up his own rights to the dukedoms. Also he sends to his fellow King the gift that will amuse him and soften the refusal. The gift is a treasure chest filled with toy balls - this is an insult and a hint that Henry is still a child who needs the toys to switch his attention. Enraged, Henry prepares the equally insulting answer, promising to turn every toy ball into a cannonball and capture France with sword, making the father of the Dauphin serve his new King of both England and France.

Meanwhile, Henry’s old friend named Bardolph, who didn’t have to give up his lifestyle, enjoys life with Pistol, Nim and Mistress Quickly - two thugs and a brothel owner - in Eastcheap, one of the most dangerous and sleazy districts of London where Henry used to spend time before his crowning. Suddenly Bardolph hear rumors that Sir John Falstaff, an old friend of both him and Henry and their mentor, is dying of a broken heart, because the new King abandoned and forgot him. But they didn’t manage to reach Falstaff until he is alive - the man passes away, though not because of broken heart, but of a sexually transmitted disease. Bardolph and his company mourn him for only a couple of minutes, wondering if he would go to Heaven for his faithful service or to Hell for his promiscuous way of life. Later the men of the company rush to join Henry’s army, while Mistress Quickly stays behind to run her brothel.

We return to Henry and learn that not everyone is satisfied with his rule. Some of his own friends plan to assassinate the King, either because of sympathy to France or because the Dauphin paid them. Their names are Scope, Grey and Cambridge and they all are English nobles. From their talks we also learn that Cambridge, though he also took the money, has his own reasons to participate. He thinks that another candidate for being a king named Mortimer, has a better claim to the throne of England than Henry does and will be much better and legitimate ruler. He has the right to say that - Henry IV, the former King usurped the throne, taking the crown from his predecessor, King Richard II, with the help of French money and French army. So the heir of Richard II is technically also suitable to be the King. The cover of the conspirators is blown and they are captured and taken to Henry himself for interrogation. Here the young King shows himself as a smart and intelligent ruler. After learning everything from them Henry orders them executed and finally boards the ship to set sail across the English channel and invade France.

In the meantime the French Dauphin and his councilors think about whether or not they shall alarm King Charles VI, his father, about the plans of Henry. Even if his people think that it would be wise to report to the King about possible danger, the Dauphin is too obsessed with his own persona and too offended by Henry’s answer. He proclaims that both Henry and his army are just misfits and he himself will defeat them easily in the very first battle, even without asking the King of France for help. While they are still hesitating, Henry and his troops cross the English channel and land on the shores of northern France without any resistance. They invade the town of Harfleur, drunk with first successes and no actions from the French side. We hear Henry’s battle cry “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more”, inspiring his army to show feats of courage and take the town without much effort.

For a while we return to London just to see that Bardolph, Pistol and Nim had some troubles with getting to war. They are home, back to their favourite pub, laughing, drinking ale and staying out of troubles. They don’t care if they will be considered cowards, at least they are smart cowards who have the guarantees to stay alive and enjoy life with comfort. After seeing them, we immediately return to the battlefield to see the three Captains of the English army, doing exactly the same thing (just without ale and more eloquent speeches). Fluellen, MacMorris and Jamy watch the battle from afar, pretending to be the genius strategists and discussing the art of warfare as far away from the actual battle as possible, while the soldiers do all the work and take all the risks.

The French defenders of the town ask for a parley. Henry waits for them to surrender and, overexcited with his power over the town members, thinks about conditions of the surrender. He comes to the gates of Harfleur himself and reads his ultimatum to the governor: either the town surrenders or after the English army takes it the soldiers will rape all the virgins in the town, impale the babies on spikes alive and crush the heads of old people. Terrified almost to losing consciousness, the Governor of Harfleur surrenders. The speech of Henry sounds chilling even now, especially if you remember that it was composed and said by a teenager. With great pleasure.

The war continues. The army of the Dauphin comes into play and Henry can’t advance as fast as he wanted to. We see that Bardolph and Nim made it to the front line, but they weren’t there for England, for glory or just plainly for fighting. The two friends of Henry are looters, stealing supplies during the war. It is a serious criminal offence and they are immediately sentenced to death by hanging. The English army becomes exhausted and, unlike the French one, it can’t have reinforcements. The English troops are outnumbered and before the Battle of Agincourt their spirit is as low as it is only possible. Henry comes to his soldiers personally and tries to inspire them with a motivational speech. They listen attentively, but it seems to have little to no effect.

Henry decides to make a research himself. He takes the plain and dirty clothes of an average soldier and wanders the camp disguised as one, so that he can hear what his army really thinks about him, the war and their chances to win. What he hears differs drastically from the upbeat reports his officers give to him. The soldiers aren’t excited at all, actually they are afraid of the battles, discussing how many of them will be killed outright tomorrow and how many will “only” lose their body parts, becoming cripple useless shadows of themselves. The soldiers complain that their King would be only captured for ransom with all due respect and then sent back to England. Nothing except his honor is endangered, while all the rest of the prisoners of war will be most certainly tortured and executed by the French.

The King gets into discussion with one of the soldiers named William. William wonders what his King had in mind starting this war and is it justified at all or is it just another his whim. The soldier declares that Henry and only he will be personally responsible for every English soldier who died in this war and will die further. Henry, who never looked at the war from this angle, argues that the King can’t be personally responsible, even if his orders cause people to die. There is no much sense in his words, mostly it is plain psychological self-defence. Henry returns to his tent, dresses back to the royal clothes and laments about his heavy duty of being a King and being misunderstood by his people.

Still, in the morning, when the French and English armies prepare for the battle, we see that Henry made the right conclusions. He stands before the remains of his army and today his speech is truly great. The King is saying what his soldiers want to hear: he will be with them and will be equally responsible for everything and share their fate. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother”. Henry manages to convince his people that even despite they are outnumbered it only means that they will get much more honor (and loot!) after their victory.

We don’t know either it works or the miracle happens - the author leaves it for us to guess - but the Battle of Agincourt is won by English army with the ridiculous losses that are about four aristocrats and twenty-five common people against hundreds from the French side. Henry praises God for such a victory and says that anyone who doubts that God was on the English side, will be executed immediately.

Victorious, Henry returns to England where he is praised by the Parliament and has a big parade in his honor. When the official (and pleasant) part is over, Henry returns to France. Now he is going to talk not with the Dauphine, but with King Charles and Queen Isabel himself. The treaty he demands is outright humiliating: Henry reads the whole laundry list of demands to the royal couple and their daughter, Catherine, is in the top of the list. King Charles agrees to everything (like he has a choice) and orders to start preparation for the wedding immediately, so the peace treaty between their countries will be confirmed with the marriage. Luckily for Catherine, Henry is courteous enough not to take her as another trophy. He romantically woos her to marriage, praising her virtues and literally begging her to marry him. This gives a spark of hope that their marriage won’t be totally loveless…

Despite the seemingly happy ending, in the epilogue the chorus reminds the audience that happiness is temporary. Soon after the Battle of Agincourt Henry V died and his son, Henry VI lost all the lands his father conquered.