Henry V

by: William Shakespeare

Act I, scene ii

Canterbury’s explanation of Salic law, though it is as clear as he can make it, nonetheless remains extremely complicated. Clearly, each side is interpreting ancient and confusing rules to its own advantage. Basically, the issue is whether the throne can or cannot be inherited through a female, but there is another issue as well. The old books that contain Salic law say that women cannot inherit in any “Salic land.” The French interpret “Salic land” to mean France, but Canterbury thinks he has good evidence that this term actually refers to Germany, not France. Such an interpretation renders Henry’s claim to the French throne valid.

The Dauphin’s gag gift of tennis balls hinges on the ancient custom of sending a gift of treasure to a foreign ruler as a gesture of respect and friendship. On behalf of the Dauphin, the ambassador claims to present King Henry with a chest of treasure in exchange for Henry’s abandonment of his claim to parts of France (apparently, Henry’s early claims in France were limited to a few smaller regions, instead of the whole country). But the Dauphin, who has heard stories about King Henry’s irresponsible teenage years, has sent tennis balls instead of anything valuable. The sarcastic spirit of this gift implies that the Dauphin considers the English king to be unworthy of an adult exchange.

In his reply to the ambassador, Henry turns the Dauphin’s joke upside down. First he gives his thanks, starting his speech in a deceptively mild manner with the comment that “[w]e are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us” (I.ii.259). He then shows that he understands the Dauphin’s insult, commenting, “[W]e understand [the Dauphin] well, / How he comes o’er us with our wilder days”—that is, how the Dauphin is trying to embarrass Henry with references to his wild youth (I.ii.266267). Henry goes on to transform the game of tennis into a metaphor for a very real war, threatening, “When we have matched our rackets to these balls, / We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set / Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard” (I.ii.261263). He declares, in other words, that the war will be like a game, the spoils of which will be the kingship of France.

Moreover, Henry charges the Dauphin with responsibility for the impending devastation of France. Henry implies that this devastation will serve as revenge for the Dauphin’s joke when he claims that

This mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them

He claims that the Dauphin’s mockery has provoked him to invade France, when, in fact, he has already decided on war before even admitting the French ambassadors. For the second time in this scene, Henry transfers responsibility for the deaths in the imminent war to someone else: first, he ascribes it to Canterbury, and now he ascribes it to the Dauphin. This strange evasion of responsibility, combined with Henry’s willingness to accept Canterbury’s corrupt and self-interested maneuvering, are among the many subtle criticisms that Shakespeare injects into his portrayal of Henry as a heroic king. As the war proceeds, Henry assumes the dimensions of an epic hero, but Shakespeare occasionally implies that, beneath Henry’s heroic status, his ethical status is somewhat dubious.

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