After the English take Harfleur, the Welsh Captain Fluellen talks with the English Captain Gower about the battle for a bridge that is currently taking place. Ancient Pistol enters with a favor to beg of Fluellen. Pistol’s good friend and fellow soldier Bardolph, has been found guilty of stealing from the conquered French town. He has stolen a “pax,” a tablet made out of some valuable material and used in religious rites (III.vi.35).
Bardolph has been sentenced to death by hanging, since that is the punishment Henry has decreed for looters. Pistol begs Fluellen to intercede with the Duke of Exeter to save Bardolph’s life, but Fluellen politely refuses, saying that discipline must be maintained. Despairing, Pistol curses Fluellen, makes an obscene gesture at him, and stalks away.
Gower, who has watched the whole exchange, realizes that he recognizes Pistol and tells Fluellen that he has met Pistol before. Pistol, Gower says, is the kind of man who only goes off to war now and then but pretends to be a full-time soldier when he is back home. Fluellen says that he will keep an eye on Pistol and try to detect his deceptions.
With a drumroll and fanfare, King Henry enters. He questions Fluellen about the battle for the bridge and about how many soldiers the English side lost in the last skirmish. Fluellen answers that, thanks to the smart fighting of the Duke of Exeter, the English have won the bridge. Amazingly, no English soldiers have been lost—except Bardolph, who has been sentenced to hang for stealing. At this news, King Henry displays no visible emotion (which is somewhat surprising, given that when Henry was a prince, he and Bardolph were friends). Henry merely voices his approval of the punishment, stressing how important it is that the conquered French, and their property, be treated with the utmost respect.
Montjoy, a French messenger, arrives with a deeply menacing message from the king of France. King Charles declares that the time has come for him to punish the overly proud King Henry. He suggests that Henry start thinking about his “ransom”—the recompense that the French will demand for their losses when they defeat the English king (III.vi.113).
King Henry sends back a surprisingly even-tempered reply. He admits that his army has tired and that he would rather not fight the French if he can avoid it. He states, however, that he will continue to march on because he believes he is in the right and that he thinks that he will eventually be victorious. Montjoy departs, and the English camp goes to sleep for the night.
In the French camp, several French noblemen—including the Duke of Orléans, the Constable of France, and Lord Rambures—discuss the upcoming battle. The Duke of Orléans brags about his horse, and the others tease him. After a while, a messenger enters to say that the English army is camped nearby. The French nobles then start making fun of King Henry and the Englishmen.
The events of Act III, scene vi may seem a trivial digression, but they actually contribute to one of the play’s main concerns: the extent to which Henry has developed from a frivolous youth into a disciplined leader. The salient fact is that Henry actually knows the thieving soldier Bardolph very well. In the old days, when Henry was still Prince Hal, his closest companions were Falstaff and his crew—including Bardolph. King Henry fought, drank, and even robbed with Bardolph in 1 Henry IV. Knowing this history of camaraderie, we might expect Henry to pardon his old friend. Yet King Henry condemns Bardolph to death with apparent coldness. Gone is the self-professed sense of mercy with which Henry sets the treasonous drunkard free in Act II, scene ii. His decree here that “[w]e would have all such offenders so cut off”—meaning that all looters should be hanged—shows just how severe a man Henry has become (III.vi.98).
Though Henry’s impersonal treatment of his former friend may appear unattractively ruthless, Shakespeare may also be making the point that good leadership entails putting personal feelings aside. In a monarchy, the king is the sole source of law and stability for his nation; Henry realizes that he has a higher duty to the law than he does to his personal friendship with Bardolph, just as he had a higher duty to the law than he did to Falstaff or Scrope. Henry may be waging a violent and bloody war to seize the throne of France, but he acts more as an unstoppable moral force than as the leader of a usurping army. Henry is willing to wage war because he believes himself to be the legitimate king of France; as the king of France, he will hang thieves, whether he knows them personally or not.
The frustration that Pistol directs at Fluellen might more properly be directed at Henry himself, but even if Pistol had the opportunity to complain to the king, he would pay for doing so. He certainly would never cry out “Die and be damned! and fico for thy friendship” to the king, as he does to Fluellen (III.vi.51). The gesture accompanying the word “fico,” which means “fig” in Spanish, consists of thrusting the thumb between two other fingers. This gesture is obscene, with roughly the same meaning to Elizabethan audiences as “the finger” has to modern Americans.
Act III, scene vii, which presents the French side of the battlefield, injects some comic relief into a very tense buildup to battle. The scene also portrays the arrogance and frivolity of the French nobility, which contrasts sharply with King Henry’s steady and deadly focus. Whereas on the English side we see commoners—Pistol and Nim, and even Fluellen and Gower—we see no such counterparts on the French side. Shakespeare thus adds to the impression that all the French are decadent noblemen, like the Duke of Orléans.
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: