The Chorus—a single character, whose speeches open each of the play’s five acts—steps forward and announces that we are about to watch a story that will include huge fields, grand battles, and fighting kings. The Chorus notes, however, that we will have to use our imaginations to make the story come to life: we must imagine that the small wooden stage is actually the fields of France and that the few actors who will appear on the stage are actually the huge armies that fight to the death in those fields.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, two powerful English churchmen, confer with one another. They both express concern about a bill that has been brought up for the consideration of the king of England, Henry V. Canterbury and Ely don’t want the king to pass this bill into law because it would authorize the government to take away a great deal of the church’s land and money. The money would be used to maintain the army, support the poor, and supplement the king’s treasury. The clergymen, who have been made wealthy and powerful by this land and money, naturally want to keep it for themselves.
In order to achieve his goal, the Archbishop of Canterbury has come up with a clever political strategy. The young King Henry V has been thinking about invading France, for he believes he has a claim to the throne of France as well. Canterbury anticipates that a war would distract the king from considering the bill to confiscate church property. So, to encourage Henry to concentrate on the invasion, Canterbury has made a promise to the king: he will raise a very large donation from the clergymen of the church to help fund the king’s war efforts.
Canterbury and Ely also spend some time admiring the king’s virtue and intelligence. They note that “[t]he courses of his youth promised it not” (I.i.25)—in other words, no one knew that the king would turn out so well, considering he wasted his adolescence taking part in “riots, banquets, [and] sports” (I.i.57) and hanging around with lowlifes. His reformation has been nothing short of miraculous. The new, improved Henry is about to meet with the delegation of French ambassadors who have come to England. Ely and Canterbury head for the throne room to participate in the meeting.
The Chorus, or Prologue, appears at the beginning of every act to introduce the action that follows, serving as a commentator as the action of the play progresses. Shakespeare frequently makes use of epilogues (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest), but the recurring Chorus is atypical for him. The Chorus serves a different purpose in every act, but its general role is to fire the audience’s imagination with strong descriptive language that helps to overcome the visual limitations of the stage. At the start of Act I, the Chorus’s specific purpose is to apologize for the limitations of the play that is to follow. This use of apology, usually as a means of encouraging the audience to express its approval, was a common technique in the drama of Shakespeare’s time, though it was more often put into an epilogue that followed the play.
The Chorus’s comments emphasize the fact that the play is a performance that requires the audience’s mental cooperation to succeed. From the outset, the play suggests the impossibility of presenting the events as they really were, as the Chorus vainly wishes for “[a] kingdom for a stage, princes to act, / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene” (I.Prologue.3–4). But even as he (on Shakespeare’s stage, a single actor would have played the Chorus) apologizes for the fact that his stage cannot show the full reality of events, the Chorus uses striking language to help the audience picture that reality for themselves: “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them, / Printing their proud hoofs i’th’ receiving earth” (I.Prologue.26–27). The Chorus’s opening invocation of the muse, a classical figure of creative inspiration, also brings to mind the first lines of ancient epics of war, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, and helps to situate Henry V within the imaginative tradition of ancient war epics that depict the deeds of great heroes. Shakespeare uses his most characteristic meter for the Chorus’s speech: slightly irregular iambic pentameter—that is, lines composed of five feet, or groups of syllables, with the emphasis on the second syllable of each foot. The irregularities of the meter tend to call attention to certain important words and inject energy into the passage. The iambic pentameter continues as the action begins, although with far less rigor.
The conversation between Ely and Canterbury in Act I, scene i introduces the behind-the-scenes political intrigue that underlies the whole play and refers back to important events that have taken place before the play begins. Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with these historical events; in Shakespeare’s time, as in Henry V’s time (about 200 years earlier), the church was an extremely powerful and wealthy institution, second only to the monarchy in riches and influence. (In the play, however, the church in question is the Catholic Church, not the Church of England.) The church received much of its money from wealthy landowners who donated money just before they died, in the hopes that the church would pray for them and keep their souls from going to hell. Unfortunately, many leaders of the church were corrupt and worldly and spent church money on luxuries for themselves. Canterbury and Ely’s greed and corruption in attempting to prevent passage of the bill—to avoid forfeiting lots of money by giving some money directly to the king—would have been obvious and familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. Modern audiences may recognize the clergymen’s tactics as an early example of a special interest group lobbying the government.
In the two Henry IV plays, the prequels to Henry V, Henry V appears as a wayward prince. The issue of his wayward youth and his reformation, introduced here by the clergymen, gets significant mention throughout Henry V. In fact, Henry’s newly forged moral character, along with his suitability for the role of king, is perhaps the play’s major focus. If Henry appears to be a drunken scoundrel in the Henry IV plays, he has now matured into an ideal English ruler who, good or bad, is a compelling figure. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other history plays, which focus on groups of historical figures, Henry V is very much a play about a single man.
I just finished Henry V, the 19th Shakespeare play, in my quest to read all the Bard by his 450th birthday next year. If you're interested, visit my blog to find out what I thought of it and more on what I thought of Henry: