Back in London, Pistol, Bardolph, Nim, and the hostess grieve over the death of Sir John Falstaff. The hostess describes his final moments. It seems that Falstaff was happy but also delirious at the very end. He said bad things about wine; no one can agree on whether or not he also cried out against women. Despite their sadness, the men must finally go off to the war, so Pistol kisses his wife, the hostess, and gives her advice and instructions for the time that he is away. He then heads off with the others, including Falstaff’s newly masterless boy.
Meanwhile, in France, Charles VI, the king of France, and his nobles and advisors discuss the approach of King Henry V’s English forces. King Charles’s eldest son, the Dauphin, still believes that Henry is the foolish and idle boy he once was. The Dauphin is eager to fight, but Charles, as well as the Constable of France, do not share his enthusiasm. They have spoken with the ambassadors who recently returned from England and are convinced of Henry’s might. Charles also reminds the Dauphin that Henry’s forebears have been fierce and victorious fighters against the French—especially Henry’s great-grandfather, Edward III of England, and his son, Edward, Black Prince of Wales, who conquered the French at the Battle of Crécy (or Cressy).
The English nobleman Exeter arrives bearing a message from King Henry. Henry has already landed in France, and he now formally demands that King Charles yield up the crown of France and all the honors and land that go with it. If Charles refuses, Henry promises to invade France and take it by force. Exeter tells Charles to consider carefully and return an answer quickly. Charles says that in the morning he will send Exeter back to his king with an answer.
The famous description of Falstaff’s death that the hostess gives in Act II, scene iii is odd and idiosyncratic, yet inadvertently very poignant. Her innocent foolishness infuses the passage with a sense of humor befitting Falstaff. When she says that Falstaff has gone “to Arthur’s bosom” (II.iii.10), she is almost certainly making an error for the proverbial “Abraham’s bosom.” Yet it seems far more natural that Falstaff would join King Arthur after death than join Abraham, one of God’s chosen. Perhaps the “green fields” that Falstaff babbles about as his death approaches are the fabled fields of a mythical and idealized England (II.iii.16–17). The hostess’s accidental flippancy with regard to God is also unconsciously Falstaffian. The hostess says that when the dying Falstaff cried out “God, God, God,” she “bid him … not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet” (II.iii.17–20). The gravity of the situation—Falstaff is dying, after all—is undermined by the foolishness of those in the scene.
Act II, scene iv is the first time in the play that we get the French point of view. As the climactic battle draws nearer, the play’s point of view begins to alternate between the English and the French sides. We see that King Charles is prudent and wise in his estimation of King Henry. But to the Dauphin—Charles’s son, and the heir to the French throne—Henry is still the “vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth” that he has heard spoken of in the past (II.iv.28). Ironically, the Dauphin’s attitude reveals only his own naïveté and youthfulness. The constable tries to point out the Dauphin’s mistake, using a metaphor similar to that which the English clergymen employ in Act I, scene i: he states that Henry’s wild early days were simply fertile soil for the mature flower of his kingship. He says that Henry’s previous antics concealed his royal potential “[a]s gardeners do with ordure [manure] hide those roots / That shall first spring and be most delicate” (II.iv.39–40). While elder statesmen such as the constable and King Charles recognize Henry’s true character, the stubborn Dauphin has to learn about it the hard way—through experience.
The message from King Henry that Exeter delivers to King Charles highlights Henry’s skill with rhetoric. Henry’s request for Charles to “[d]eliver up the crown, and to take mercy / On the poor souls for whom this hungry war / Opens his vasty jaws” simultaneously empowers and disempowers Charles (II.iv.103–105). These lines use a metaphor of devouring, one of the play’s most common metaphors for war, to illustrate how helpless Charles and his countrymen will be in the face of the English army. Henry describes the war as “hungry” and having “vasty jaws” to make the war seem like a wild and unstoppable beast that will inevitably swallow France. At the same time, however, Henry offers Charles a way to avoid this catastrophe. His suggestion that Charles “take mercy” on his countrymen is cleverly worded, as the act of taking mercy on others requires being in power over others. Henry thus couches the unappetizing prospect of surrender in an appeal to Charles’s kingly need to control. Once again, Henry’s cleverness with words shows itself to be a powerful tool, although it is debatable whether Henry is an admirable strategist or a deceitful manipulator.
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: