On the field at the Battle of Agincourt, the English appear to have seized the advantage and have captured many French soldiers and noblemen. But the battle is not quite over, as many of the French continue to fight. Exeter gives King Henry an update on the battle: the English are doing well, but two noble cousins, the Duke of York and the Earl of Suffolk, have been killed. Exeter touchingly describes the way the wounded York lay down to die beside the body of his beloved cousin Suffolk. Henry, like Exeter, is moved to tears by the story.
A sudden stir and cry sounds. King Henry, interpreting this commotion as a rally by the French, abruptly orders every English soldier to kill his French prisoners—a remarkably bloody move.
Alexander, God knows, and you know … did in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his best friend Cleitus—
Back in the press of battle, Fluellen talks with Gower. A small group of French soldiers, fleeing the main crush of the battle, have attacked the English camp. They have looted the goods there and murdered the young pages, mere children, who were left in the camp. Fluellen is outraged at the French atrocity of killing the young pages, which violates the chivalrous codes of battle. He agrees with Gower in approving of King Henry’s decision to slaughter the French prisoners, and he compares the valiant Henry to Alexander the Great.
King Henry appears, with the Duke of Bourbon as a prisoner. Having learned about the slaughter of the boys, he says he is angrier than he has ever been before and repeats the order to kill the French prisoners. Montjoy, the now-humbled French messenger, reappears. He brings a request from the king of France that the French be allowed to go safely into the battlefield to identify, recover, and bury their dead. King Henry demands to know whether the English won. Montjoy says they have, and Henry praises God for the victory.
Henry spots the soldier Michael Williams, with whom he argued and exchanged gloves the night before. Henry decides to play a practical joke: he gives Williams’s glove to Fluellen and tells him to wear it publicly, saying that it came from a noble Frenchman in the field and that anyone who attacks Fluellen over it must be a traitor to the English. Henry then follows them to see the fun.
When Williams sees Fluellen, he recognizes his own glove and thinks Fluellen was the man with whom he quarreled the night before. He strikes Fluellen, and Fluellen, believing that Williams is a French traitor, orders him to be arrested. King Henry arrives, innocently asking about the cause of the fuss, and then he reveals to Williams that his quarrel is really with King Henry himself. Williams says that he cannot be held responsible for picking a quarrel with the king because Henry was deliberately disguising his identity the preceding night. Henry, enjoying his little joke and approving of Williams’s courage, rewards him by filling his glove with coins.
Exeter and a herald return to report the total number of casualties. Ten thousand French soldiers are dead, but somehow the English have lost only twenty-nine men. Recognizing their extraordinary good luck, the Englishmen give praise to God. Henry orders his men to proceed to the captured village, but without any bragging.
The touching story of the death of the Duke of York, which Exeter relates to Henry at the beginning of Act IV, scene vi, presents a very romanticized view of death in battle. Both Exeter and Henry are deeply touched by the great love between York and his cousin Suffolk, as well as by York’s selfless courage and love for his king. The discrepancy between York and Suffolk’s devoted friendship and King Henry’s ill-fated friendships—with Falstaff, Scrope, and Bardolph, for instance—highlights again the pressure of monarchy, which prevents Henry from enjoying such an uncomplicated, loving friendship with anyone.
The problems inherent in loving Henry are raised again in the following scene, in the conversation between Fluellen and Gower. Fluellen’s comparison of King Henry to Alexander the Great is evidently meant to be very flattering, but it does not exactly come off that way. Fluellen begins by referring to “Alexander the Pig” (IV.vii.12–13). Of course, he means to say “Alexander the Big”—an error for “Alexander the Great,” as Gower promptly corrects him—but Fluellen’s Welsh accent turns the b into a p.
Moreover, the qualities Fluellen praises in Alexander do not necessarily seem flattering when applied to Henry. The most telling of these comes when Fluellen mentions that Alexander, “in his rages and his furies … did in his ales and his angers … kill his best friend Cleitus” (IV.vii.28–32). The parallel Fluellen has in mind is that Henry, at the same age (twenty-eight) Alexander was when he killed Cleitus, “turned away the fat knight with the great-belly doublet” (IV.vii.40). Gower supplies the knight’s name: Sir John Falstaff. This memory does not seem to diminish Henry in Fluellen’s eyes, but it may not sit as comfortably with the audience. Shakespeare continually reminds us that the nature of kingship is such that being a good king may keep one from being a likable man.
The discrepancy revealed in the numbers of the French and the English dead (10,000 versus twenty-nine) may seem almost impossible to believe. Nonetheless, these seem to be the real numbers for the historical battle of Agincourt—at least, they are the numbers recorded for the Battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s historical source, the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed. One cause of the high French mortality rate is that the French army lost its organization, and many of the French soldiers broke and ran. In flight, they were easy targets and couldn’t fight back very well. It had rained very heavily prior to the battle, putting the French, with their heavy armor and horses, at a disadvantage. But probably the most important cause of the lopsided victory was the English use of the longbow, a weapon that had existed for hundreds of years but whose use had been forgotten on the continent until the English brought it to Agincourt. Shakespeare, however, does not attribute the outcome of the battle to tactics, weather, or technology, preferring to depict Henry’s victory as an act of God.
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: