The Chorus describes the magnificence with which King Henry sails from England to France. We learn that Henry lands with a large fleet of warships at Harfleur, a port city on the northern coast of France. There, the English army attacks the city with terrifying force. The alarmed King Charles offers King Henry a compromise: he will not give him the crown of France, but he will give him some small dukedoms—that is, small sub-regions within France—as well as the hand of his daughter, Catherine, in marriage. But Henry rejects the offer, and the siege continues.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof….
In the midst of the siege, King Henry appears to rally his soldiers. He delivers a powerful speech, conjuring up the memory of the Englishmen’s warlike ancestors and appealing to soldiers, noblemen, and commoners alike.
The scene shifts to Nim, Bardolph, Pistol, and the boy. Their conversation reveals that reception of the king’s speech is rather mixed. Bardolph appears eager for the fight, but Nim, Pistol, and the boy are less happy about the idea of facing death. They wish they were safe back in London, drinking ale.
A superior officer notices the men loitering, and he beats them with a sword until they rush back into the fight. The officer, also in the service of King Henry, is a Welsh captain named Fluellen. The grown men run off, but the boy remains behind for a few moments to muse on the folly and hypocrisy of Nim, Bardolph, and Pistol. He declares that they are all cowards; he has learned this much in the time he has been serving them. He says that they want him to start learning to pick pockets and become a thief like them, but that such an idea is an affront to his manhood. He decides he must leave them and start looking for a better job.
King Henry’s famous speech before the walls of Harfleur, which takes up all of Act III, scene i, is one of the most celebrated passages in the entire play. From his opening plea of “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” Henry unifies his men for his cause (III.i.1). The whole of the stirring passage uses the techniques of poetry to celebrate and glorify war. In particular, Henry invokes images and metaphors from nature—of wild animals like the tiger and of natural forces like the weather—to urge his men to shift into a state of nearly uncontrolled ferocity for battle. His command to his men to “imitate the action of the tiger. / Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood, / Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage” is a call to arms, a call for his men to display their masculinity (III.i.5–8).
In his speech, Henry also uses two other inspirational tactics. First, he invokes English patriotism, calling upon “you, good yeomen, / Whose limbs were made in England,” to “show us here / The mettle of your pasture; let us swear / That you are worth your breeding” (III.i.25–28). Henry’s exploitation of patriotism is a two-part process: he exalts all things English and then compels his soldiers to prove that they are worthy Englishmen. In so doing, and in reminding his men of their warlike ancestors and great historical battles, he attempts to rouse nationalist fervor among his men and a sense of pride in them about their glorious heritage. Second, Henry takes a nontraditional democratic stance, expressing an egalitarian view of soldiering by saying that every soldier is as good as a nobleman: “For there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes” (III.i.29–30). With these words, Henry endows his men with an elevated stature, which he hopes will compel them to act in an elevated manner.
Henry V seems to celebrate and glorify war, a fact that bothers some critics and readers. However, Henry is careful to note that people should not be fighters all the time; he often states that peace is better than war. His message, then, is that when men have to fight, they should do it with full force. In the Harfleur speech, for instance, he begins by saying that “[i]n peace there’s nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility,” before he goes on to talk of war (III.i.3–4). Earlier passages, such as Henry’s speech to Canterbury in Act I, scene ii, or the message he sends with Exeter in Act II, scene iv, illustrate that Henry likes to present himself as a basically peaceful king who has been forced into making war. This stance can be viewed as hypocrisy, however, since Henry is the one invading France. Similarly, Henry’s actions in the play do not reflect the “modest stillness and humility” he claims to prize (III.i.4). Still, one can argue that Henry V does not celebrate war so much as it celebrates Henry and his skillful political ability, which happens to involve using war to achieve his desired ends.
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: