The Chorus introduces the second act, telling us that all of England is fired up and arming for the war, and King Henry is almost ready to invade France. But French agents have found some corrupt noblemen within the English ranks, and they have bribed them into acting as secret agents. These noblemen are Richard, earl of Cambridge; Henry Lord Scrope of Masham; and Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland. This trio has agreed to kill King Henry in Southampton, just before he sets sail for France.
The scene shifts to London, near a tavern in Eastcheap, a seedy part of town. Lieutenant Bardolph and Corporal Nim appear, preparing to head off for the war. Both of these men are commoners, and Bardolph was once a criminal. Nim has a quarrel with a fellow soldier, Ancient Pistol. Pistol has married Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern in London, who had previously promised to marry Nim. Pistol and Nim draw their swords to attack each other and must be quieted several times by the hostess and Bardolph.
A boy, the page of a knight named Sir John Falstaff, appears. Falstaff, a close friend of everyone present, is old and very sick in bed, and the boy reports that he is getting worse. The hostess goes to see Falstaff and comes back to tell the others that he is dying. The men put aside their quarrel to go to visit him. Nim and Pistol speak darkly of something that King Henry has done to Falstaff; apparently, it is in some way the king’s fault that Falstaff is on his deathbed.
In the port of Southampton, King Henry prepares his armies to sail for France. The conversation between Gloucester, Exeter, and Westmorland reveals that Henry has discovered the treachery of Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey, but the traitors don’t know it yet. Henry enters with these same traitors, asking their advice on a case: a drunken man was arrested the previous day for speaking against Henry in public. Henry plans to free him, but Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey advise him to punish the man instead.
King Henry decides to free the man anyway, and he lets Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey know that he has discovered their intended betrayal, handing them the incriminating evidence on paper. The three beg for mercy, but Henry is inflexible: he asks how they can possibly seek mercy for themselves when they think an ordinary drunkard deserves no mercy. Henry can barely believe that they would sell his life for money—especially Scrope, who has been a close friend—and orders the trio to be executed. Taking the discovery of the traitors as a sign that God is on the side of the English, Henry orders his fleet to sail for France at last.
The Chorus’s introductory speech, which broadens the audience’s perspective by presenting a big-picture view of the entire country in preparation for war, employs urgent and active language to heighten the sense that great deeds are afoot. A picture emerges of a country of heroes, ablaze with anticipation and activity: “Now all the youth of England are on fire, / … / They sell the pasture now to buy the horse” (II.Prologue.1–5). Yet the individual soldiers-to-be that we encounter in Act II, scene i are much less awe-inspiring than those the Chorus describes. They speak in prose rather than verse, and they seem anything but heroic. The rhyming couplets with which Shakespeare ends important speeches are also absent in the speech of these commoners. However, the conflicts of the commoners often mirror those of the royals: Nim and Pistol argue over the rights to Mistress Quickly just as the kings argue over the rights to France.
Bardolph, Pistol, and the others (all the commoners but Nim) are veteran Shakespeare characters, introduced and developed in the Henry IV plays. In those plays, they take a secondary role to Sir John Falstaff, a larger-than-life comic creation and the bosom friend of the present-day King Henry, who is known in the Henry IV plays as Prince Hal. Falstaff does not appear onstage in Henry V, but the characters talk about him, and in Act II, scene iii we learn of his death.
Henry’s history with Falstaff has important implications for Henry’s character. Falstaff was a mentor and constant companion to Prince Hal before the death of his royal father, Henry IV. Much to Henry IV’s chagrin, Falstaff taught the young Hal all about the underworld’s way of life. When Prince Hal became king, though, he rejected Falstaff publicly. According to the friends who go to Falstaff’s deathbed, this rejection was the beginning of the end for Falstaff. As the hostess explains it, Falstaff will die because “[t]he King has killed his heart” (II.i.79).
The juxtaposition of the announcement in Act II, scene i of Falstaff’s impending death and the announcement in Act II, scene ii of Scrope’s impending death creates an interesting implication—that the amount of power a person has plays an important role in determining what it is right or wrong for him to do. Falstaff, one of the king’s former friends, is dying because Henry betrayed him. Scrope, another former friend, is also going to die, but because he betrayed Henry. There is a certain disturbing irony to this fact, but, at the same time, one of the reasons that power plays such a large role in determining a person’s behavior is that with increased power comes an enlarged set of responsibilities. However he might have felt about Falstaff personally, Henry knew that Falstaff was a confirmed outlaw and thief and understood that keeping such a person close to the throne would not serve the larger needs of England. Along the same lines, it is likely that Henry conducts the execution of the traitorous noblemen as he does because he gives priority to his country’s stability over the stability of his personal relationships. He considers it of utmost importance to send a signal to the other nobles that the war is a deadly serious business and will be conducted as such. Henry shows kindness when he can, freeing the insignificant drunkard, but when the fates of nations are at stake, he knows that he must act from motives larger than his own personal feelings. To spare Scrope out of love would weaken the stability of the throne. This sense of responsibility and the necessity of acting justly underlies Henry’s apparent coldness. Henry himself later expounds upon this idea when he describes the pressures of living as a king.
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: