The Chorus relates that King Henry has returned to the port city of Calais in France and, from there, has sailed back to England. The women and children of England are overjoyed to have their men returned to them, and everyone is also glad to see King Henry. When Henry returns to London, the people flock to see him and to celebrate. But Henry is humble and forbids a triumphal procession to celebrate his victory.
Henry returns to France again, and the Chorus orders the audience to return its imagination to France, with the understanding that some time has passed.
Fluellen and Gower converse at an English army base in France. Gower is curious about why Fluellen still wears a leek in his hat, since St. Davy’s Day was the previous day. (St. Davy is the patron saint of Wales, and on St. Davy’s Day, March 1, Welsh people traditionally wear a leek in their hats as a show of patriotism.)
Fluellen explains that, the day before, the obnoxious soldier Pistol insulted him by sending him bread and salt and suggesting that Fluellen eat his leek. So, when Pistol appears, Fluellen starts to beat him with his cudgel until Pistol agrees to the condition that will satisfy Fluellen’s pride: Pistol himself must eat the leek that Fluellen has been carrying in his hat. Pistol eats the leek, and Fluellen gives him some money to ease the pain of his cudgel wounds. After Fluellen leaves, Pistol vows revenge for having been force-fed the leek, but Gower says it was Pistol’s own fault for making fun of Fluellen—and for underestimating him simply because he speaks with a funny (Welsh) accent.
When he is left alone, Pistol turns serious; we learn that his wife, the hostess, has died of venereal disease (presumably syphilis) and that Pistol no longer has a home. He decides to become a pimp and a thief back in England.
At the palace of the king of France, King Henry has come to meet with Charles VI and his queen, Isabel. The goal of the meeting is to negotiate a lasting peace between France and England. Despite his military victory, King Henry will allow Charles to retain his throne. However, Henry has a list of demands, the first of which is that he get to marry his distant cousin, Princess Catherine of France. That way, Henry and his heirs will inherit France as well as England.
The others discreetly retire from the room, leaving Henry and Catherine alone together, with Catherine’s maid, Alice, to help translate. In a comic scene, Henry courts Catherine, trying to persuade her to marry him. Understanding the gist of his flood of English words and few French ones, Catherine eventually agrees, pointing out that the decision is actually up to her father, “de roi mon père [of the king my father]” (V.ii.229).
The rest of the noblemen come back in, and Henry and the Duke of Burgundy trade some manly innuendoes about what Catherine will be like in bed. Everyone signs the treaties that will make Henry and his sons heirs to the throne of France after the king of France dies.
The Chorus appears for the last time to deliver the Epilogue. This very brief speech mentions the birth of Catherine and Henry’s son, King Henry VI of England, who went on to lose France and bring England into war. With a final plea for the audience’s tolerance of the play, the Chorus brings the play to a close.
In Act V, scene i, Pistol, Gower, and Fluellen’s final scene, the patriotic urgency that unites men of disparate nations in battle dissipates, and cultural conflict between the British allies again returns as Fluellen and Pistol insult each other. Fluellen’s tormenting of Pistol with a leek provides comic relief and contrasts with Henry’s treatment of the various characters—Scrope, Nim, and Bardolph—who have gotten on his bad side. Whereas Henry subjects those who run against him to death, Fluellen humiliates Pistol with a ludicrous but ultimately harmless punishment. Fluellen gives Pistol money to make up for his bruised head, demonstrating his compassion.
Pistol’s revelation of the news of his wife’s death adds an unexpected note of pathos to the end of the scene. It reminds us of the earlier deaths of Bardolph, Nim, and the boy, who was probably murdered with the other pages during the battle. The reminder of mortality darkens the play’s conclusion and adds a note of realism to Shakespeare’s presentation of his commoners. Even these comic characters must endure horrible tragedy. For a poor man like Pistol, an accident of fate can result in a terrible debasement—Pistol will now be forced to act as a pimp and thief merely in order to survive.
Act V, scene ii—the courtship scene between Henry and Catherine—is intended to close the play on a light note, but the scene contains some unsettling elements. Henry awkwardly makes courtship speeches, posing himself as an unpolished warrior. Henry has given far too many brilliant orations during the play for the audience to believe that he is no good at speaking. Henry’s discomfort, or his lack of desire to woo Catherine, stems from the fact that Henry’s manners are immaterial to his chances of success. Catherine is being used as a political pawn and barely understands the language her suitor speaks. As she points out when Henry asks her if she will “have” him, the decision her father’s to make (V.ii.228–229).
Henry’s kind treatment of his future wife and his show of seeking Catherine’s consent to the marriage are undoubtedly meant to reassure Catherine and the audience that he will accept his role as a husband with the same commitment and faith with which he has accepted the role of king. Yet the suggestive sexual remarks that Burgundy and Henry trade after the French noblemen reenter are unsettling. Burgundy’s reference to the “naked blind boy” of love, who will invade Catherine’s maidenly virginity, alludes to the god Cupid but is also a phallic reference (V.ii.275). The references to Catherine’s “naked seeing self” (V.ii.275) and to the “eyes” of maidens (V.ii.306) play on the Renaissance euphemism that substitutes “eye” for “vagina.” The play, which throughout has examined the relationship between the noble and the common, concludes by juxtaposing mannered discussions of a marriage between high nobility and the earthy raunchiness of sex jokes.
The Epilogue, like Pistol’s news from home, strikes an unexpectedly somber note: it reminds us that Henry and Catherine’s son did not, in fact, do what they had hoped by uniting the two kingdoms. Henry V, though the ideal king, was not influential in a historical sense—he looks to overturn history, but instead history overturns him. As always, the Chorus points out the difference between a play about a brief period in English history, within which Henry V is a highly successful protagonist of potentially dubious moral character, and the full scope of that history, a context within which Henry proved largely ineffective.
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:
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In your comment on Act I, Scene II, you mentioned, according to ancient custom, sending tennis balls refers to respect and friendship. Would you please tell me the source of this custom? Or recommend me a book to help me understand it?
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