Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Henry V

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



Chorus tells us of Henry landing in France and instructs us, “Play with your fancies” (7). The King has offered his daughter Katherine and some minor lands (30-31), but not the crown, so the offer has been rejected. A cannon was shot off, “And down goes all” (34) — a Chaucerian echo (i.e., Knight’s Tale 2613, Miller’s Tale 3821).


“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our British dead” (III.i.1-2). So begins Henry’s rousing, inspirational oratory to the troops. He continues to explain that manly virtues are fine, but in war one must transform oneself, or contrive oneself (in advance), into a savage beast.

Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favor’d rage;
Then lend the eye a teriible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it….

The attitude is diametrically opposed by other plays consistent in their condemnation of such dehumanizing (e.g., Hector in Troilus and Cressida; and Sonnet 94). Fury in Shakespeare is always reprehensible. “The game’s afoot! / Follow your spirit; and upon this charge / Cry, ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” (III.i.32-34). Woo. But “Henry’s idea of war and the warrior is as antithetical to the classical as to the chivalric conception” (Goddard, I 236). Besides, “dear friends”? Give me a break.


“On, on, on, on on! To the breach, to the breach” (III.ii.1) is Bardolph’s less eloquent echo, or reduction, of Henry’s speech. He, Nym, Pistol, and the Boy are present, and Nym obliquely offers an interesting comment on Henry’s rallying call: “The humor of it is too hot, that is the very plain-song of it” (III.ii.5-6). He and Pistol are not anxious to die, but Fluellen, a Welsh officer obsessed by Greco-Roman military precedents, urges them on. The Boy soliloquizes a lament about how dishonorable the batch is.

They would have me as familiar with men’s pockets as their gloves of their handkerchers; which makes much against my manhood, if I should take from another’s pocket to put into mine; for it is plain pocketing up of wrongs. I must leave them, and seek some better service. Their villainy goes against my weak stomach, and therefore I must cast it up. (III.ii.47-53)

Fluellen, obsessed with the “disciplines” and the “directions,” and Gower, another Welsh officer, speak with the Duke of Gloucester and the Irish Captain Macmorris who are “mining” under the city of Harfleur. Fluellen admires the Scots Captain Jamy but not Macmorris, who is in a rage about inadequate progress on the mine-digging. Gower has to break up a near-fight when Fluellen makes what Macmorris hypersensitively takes to be a crack about the Irish. Macmorris vows, “So Chrish save me, I will cut off your head” (III.ii.134) — not that far perhaps from Henry’s blend of God and violence (Goddard, I 237).

The prototype for Fluellen seems to have been Sir Roger Williams, a retainer of the Earl of Oxford (according to a letter from Francis Vere to Cecil) who published A Brief Discourse of War, with his opinions concerning some part of Martial Discipline in 1590, and The Actions of the Low Countries much later but from which many of Fluellen’s utterances originate (R.L. Miller, in Clark 785-790; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 733, Farina 129).


Henry threatens slaughter of virgins and infants, bashing out the brains of old men and threatening “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes” (III.iii.38), if Harfleur does not surrender. Asimov attempts to preserve Henry’s character by emphasizing that “War is something which makes even a king such as Henry V speak in such abominable terms as these” (Asimov 481). But Henry’s pattern of blaming others recurs as he rhetorically asks Harfleur, “What is ‘t to me, when you yourselves are cause…?” (III.iii.19). Henry, pronounced “free from vainness and self-glorious pride” after two plays showing how he wanted to imitate the sun and astound the world by emerging suddenly from behind the clouds, is a savage now.

The Governor has heard that the Dauphin is not ready to send help and so does surrender. Henry entrusts the town to Exeter.


Katherine, the daughter of the French King, tries to learn some basic English from Alice, her better travelled gentlewoman. She learns the words for fingers and nails, elbow, neck, chin, etc. But she has trouble with a couple words that, in English, sound like vulgar French words. So when Alice pronounces the English word “gown” as “cown,” it sounds like the French “con” — close enough to the English vulgarism for me not to spell it out literally. And “foot” sounds like the French “foutre” as in “Va te faire foutre!” So there’s the joke, but what’s the larger point of this scene?

Even aside from the bilingual homonyms, could Shakespeare or anyone have managed to compose this scene unless he or she had travelled? (Anderson xxx; cf. Farina 128).


Meanwhile, the French rulers discuss the English problem. The Dauphin and the Duke of Britain report,

Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out, and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.

They bid us to the dancing-schools,
And teach lavoltas high and swift corantos,
Saying our grace is only in our heels,
And that we are most lofty runaways.

Of the nobles called to arms we get “a sonorous and rolling list [III.v.40ff] but it has a grim dramatic irony in it, for it is the list (taken from Holinshed) of those who in a short while are to be dead or captive” (Asimov 486). The King sends his armies, commanding that the Dauphin remain with him in Rouen. The Dauphin is displeased with this.


In Picardy, Fluellen commends the Duke of Exeter to Gower: “he is as valiant a man as Mark Antony, and he is a man of no estimation in the world, but I did see him do as gallant service” (III.vi.13-15). Pistol arrives and asks Fluellen to intercede for Bardolph, “For he hath stol’n a pax, and hanged must ‘a be” (III.vi.40). A pax is a small plate used to hold communion wafers, or a picture of the crucifixion which people kissed (Asimov 487), so Bardolph stole from a church. Fluellen will not interfere with proper discipline and Pistol leaves levelling insults and “figo” (III.vi.57) at Fluellen. Gower tells Fluellen that Pistol is a knave, but he also presents an anatomy of the development of war stories (III.vi.69ff).

Henry arrives and is told by Fluellen that none of their men was lost but for Bardolph for his theft. Henry pronounces:

We would have all such offenders so cut off; and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compell’d from the villages; nothing taken but paid for; none of the French upbraided or abus’d in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner. (III.vi.107-113)

Henry has an exchange with a French herald, Montjoy, who reports that the French King claims Henry “hath betray’d his followers, whose condemnation is pronounc’d” (III.vi.134-135). Henry orders his troops to march to the bridge. We are on the verge of the battle of Agincourt. “We are in God’s hands, brother, not in theirs” (III.vi.168-169).

Perhaps his disregard for adversaries, foreign and domestic, is enjoyable. But he disregards his friends too. Bardolph’s execution echoes Falstaff’s rejection. And isn’t this a bit hypocritical? What about that bribe at beginning of this play? Isn’t that also ecclesiastical property being appropriated, and more reprehensible for not being merely a petty crime? The supposedly kinder gentler Henry even says now that his soldiers may not call the French bad names! Slimy Lancastrians.


“Will it never be morning?” (III.vii.6). The French, including the Dauphin who is present despite his father’s command, discuss their horses and mistresses. They know they outnumber the English and brag that they’ll each capture skads of Brits tomorrow. Lord Rambures asks the Constable of France, “My Lord Constable, the armor that I saw in your tent to-night, are those stars or suns upon it?” (III.vii.69-70). “Stars,” he answers. Goddard says of the scene, “It is all like some hopelessly overconfident university football squad contemptuous of the team of a backwoods college that by some freak of fortune they have been compelled to condescend to play” (Goddard, I 240).

Act IV