Captain Fluellen enters with Captain Gower, his fellow officer and friend. Gower and Fluellen discuss the “mines,” or tunnels, that the English side has dug in order to get under the walls of Harfleur (III.iii.4). Fluellen, who is well informed about the ancient Roman tactics of war, thinks that the mines are being dug incorrectly. In his characteristically amusing and very wordy manner, Fluellen expresses his scorn for Captain MacMorris, the Irish officer in charge of digging the mines, and his admiration for Captain Jamy, the officer in charge of the Scottish troops.
Captain MacMorris and Captain Jamy enter, and Fluellen offers MacMorris some advice about digging the tunnels. The hotheaded MacMorris takes offense, and they begin to quarrel. But they are all responsible officers, and there is much work to be done, so after some philosophizing about the hazards of war and the inevitability of death, all four head back into the battle.
With a flourish of trumpets, King Henry appears before the gates of the French town of Harfleur. The town has sounded a parley—in other words, its inhabitants have asked for a cease-fire in order to negotiate. The governor of Harfleur stands on the town walls. King Henry addresses him, advising him to surrender immediately. Henry declares that if the governor surrenders, the people of the town will be allowed to live; if he makes the English fight their way inside, however, the English will destroy the town, rape the women, and kill the children. The governor replies that although he would rather not surrender, he has just received word from the Dauphin that no army can be raised in time to rescue Harfleur. He declares that he will therefore open the gates. Henry orders Exeter to fortify Harfleur as a citadel from which the English can fight the French. He says that he himself will take his forces onward to Calais the next day.
In King Charles’s palace, Charles’s daughter, Catherine, speaks with her maid, Alice. Catherine speaks no English, and this scene is spoken almost entirely in French. Alice has spent some time in England and knows some English, and so Catherine asks Alice to teach her the language. Catherine seems to suspect, wisely, that she may soon need to be able to communicate with the king of England. They begin by learning the names of parts of the body. Catherine mispronounces them amusingly, but she is eager to learn them anyway—that is, until the final two words, “foot” and “cown” (gown), which sound like French obscenities.
Elsewhere at the French court, King Charles, the Dauphin, and his advisors—including the Constable of France and the Duke of Bourbon—are having an urgent meeting to discuss King Henry’s swift advance through France. The French exclamations that pepper their English conversation signify the degree of their distress. They cannot figure out how the English got to be so courageous, since they come from such a damp, gloomy climate. They feel their national honor has been outraged by the British successes, and they are determined to turn the tables. Worst of all, their wives and mistresses have started to make fun of them for being beaten by King Henry’s forces.
King Charles, more sensible and decisive than his followers, orders all his noblemen to raise troops for the army. He calls on about twenty noblemen by name, and presumably there are many more. Charles and his men are confident that with this great number of troops raised, they can intimidate King Henry, conquer his army, and bring him back as a defeated prisoner.
On the battlefield, a new set of important characters enters the play: the foreign soldiers fighting under King Henry’s rule, men who come from the countries that border England and are under English control. Captain Fluellen is from Wales (his name is an Anglicized spelling of the still-common Welsh name Llewellyn), Captain Jamy is from Scotland, and Captain MacMorris is from Ireland. They all speak with distinctive accents, and their personality traits and linguistic idiosyncrasies reflect Renaissance English ideas about the national character of these other countries. Captain MacMorris is hot-tempered, for example, and Captain Fluellen is thoughtful and didactic. Shakespeare uses this extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity to present a broad cross section of the British people in the throes of war.
King Henry urges the surrender of Harfleur with the same complex, morally shaky rhetoric that we see in earlier scenes. He plans—or at least claims to plan, in order to intimidate the governor—to authorize rape, murder, and total destruction unless the governor surrenders the city. The images Henry uses are vivid: he tells the governor to imagine “[t]he blind and bloody soldier with foul hand / Defil[ing] the locks of your still-shrieking daughters” (III.iii.111–112) and “[y]our naked infants spitted upon pikes” (III.iii.115). These images, in addition to being highly disturbing, are troublesome in that they force us to question how honorable or decent Henry is if he is willing to harm innocents so cruelly. Furthermore, Henry’s speech once again deflects responsibility for the impending carnage from himself. He says that if the town doesn’t surrender instantly, he will lose control of his soldiers, and it will be Harfleur’s own fault for subjecting itself to destruction and rape. This idea seems to be mere rhetoric, however, as it is Henry who has urged his men to become killing machines, and Henry who has the power to sway them from acting savagely.
Shortly after the introduction of the dialects of Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy, Shakespeare adds another level to his increasingly complicated linguistic panoramaby rendering Act III, scene iv almost entirely in French. The scene is essentially a comic one, a language lesson mangled by the deficiency of the teacher, Alice. A further source of humor is Catherine’s perception of apparent obscenities in basic English words. Catherine is scandalized by the similarity of “foot” to the French word “foutre,” meaning “to fuck.” Similarly, “cown,” Alice’s pronunciation of “gown,” sounds to Catherine like the French word “con,” or “cunt.” Catherine declares that she is disgusted with English—a language that is vulgar and immodest (“gros, et impudique”) and that respectable ladies would not use (III.iv.48).
In Act III, scene v, we see that the French nobility are at last starting to take the threat of Henry’s invasion seriously. Still, instead of being threatened by the English troops’ show of power, all of the Frenchmen except King Charles are simply scornful, scandalized that the English have been allowed to progress so far. Shakespeare throws in an assortment of French phrases to show the agitation of the group as well as to accent their foreignness. The noblemen exclaim, “O Dieu vivant!” (“O living God!”), “Mort de ma vie!” (“Death of my life!”), and “Dieu de batailles!” (“O God of battles!”—a phrase Henry himself uses later on). They deride and insult the English with amusing turns of phrase that make them seem more like mocking schoolboys than warriors. By portraying the Frenchmen’s petty mockery of the English, Shakespeare ironically mocks the French.
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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