The Chorus describes the scene in the French and English camps the night before the battle: the quiet night, the burning watch fires, the clank of the knights being suited up in their armor. In the French camp, the overly confident officers have already decided how to divide up the loot of the English, for they outnumber the English by five to one. In the English camp, the soldiers all believe that they will die the next morning, but they wait patiently for their fate. During the night, King Henry goes out among his soldiers, visiting all of them, calling them brothers and cheering them up. This visit raises morale greatly, for every soldier is pleased to see, as the Chorus puts it, “[a] little touch of Harry in the night” (IV.Prologue.47).
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it, but in gross brain little wots
What watch the King keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
At the English camp at Agincourt, King Henry talks briefly with his brothers, Gloucester and Clarence, and with old Sir Thomas Erpingham. He asks to borrow Erpingham’s dirty cloak, then sends these advisors off to confer with the other noblemen in his royal tent, claiming that he wants to be alone for a while.
Wrapped anonymously in the borrowed cloak, Henry sits by the common campfire, talking with whoever wanders by. He is pretending to be an ordinary soldier, and none of the men recognizes him as the king. The first person to come by is Pistol. When Henry brings up the subject of the king, Pistol praises Henry, in his own rough and bizarre way. Pistol then insults Fluellen, and Henry, going under the name Harry le Roy (le roi, French for “the king”), humorously pretends to be Fluellen’s relative. Pistol promptly gives him the obscene fico gesture and leaves.
Next to come by are Fluellen and Gower, but they are so busy talking to each other that neither of them sees Henry. Gower greets Fluellen, but Fluellen scolds him to talk more softly while they are so close to the enemy. Henry silently admires Fluellen’s prudence and intelligence.
Next, three common soldiers—John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams—join Henry at the campfire. Henry discusses with them the English troops’ odds in the coming battle and finds that they doubt the motives and the courage of the king (these men, of course, do not recognize Henry). Henry defends the absent king, but Williams will not back down, so they agree to establish a quarrel. They exchange gloves, signaling their intent to find each other later and fight if they both survive the battle.
The three soldiers leave, and Henry muses to himself. He laments the lonely isolation of power, which is combined with the need to be eternally vigilant. The only consolation Henry can see in being king is the elaborate ceremony and costuming that accompanies the position. Yet he contends that this ceremony is empty and that he would rather be a slave, who is at least able to rest easy and not worry about the safety of his country.
It is nearly dawn and almost time for the battle. Henry, still alone, prays to God to strengthen the hearts of his soldiers. He also entreats God not to punish him for the bloody manner by which his own father took the English crown, to Henry’s shame and regret.
Meanwhile, at their camp, the French prepare for the battle. The constable, Lord Rambures, the Earl of Grandpré, and others put on their armor and mount their horses. The constable and Grandpré give pre-battle speeches full of confidence and cheerfulness. Seeing the English army’s ragged appearance and small numbers, the French look forward to an easy victory.
Henry’s disguised conversations with his soldiers in Act IV, scene i demonstrate the closeness between king and commoner. The scene quickly runs through the many different kinds of voices that sound in Henry V, showing how each of them interacts with Henry and thus adding a new dimension to our understanding of the formidable monarch. Henry’s conversations with his soldiers highlight the commonalities between king and subject, as does the fact that, without the costume of kingship, Henry is not recognizable as a king. Henry speaks to his similarity to other men when he tells his soldiers that “I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me. . . . His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man” (IV.i.99–102). Henry clearly understands that the difference between him and other men lies only in the trappings of his position—he may be wealthy and powerful, but flowers smell the same to him as they do to everyone else.
At the same time, one can argue that because most of the soldiers don’t even know what Henry looks like well enough to recognize him in the flesh, this scene underscores the distance between the king and his soldiers as much as it emphasizes the similarities between them. When Henry is alone again, his thoughts turn to the differences between his position and that of the common soldiers. In a monologue of central importance to his character, Henry describes the terrible responsibilities of power, which both isolate and weigh upon the king. Everybody seems to lay all their worries, concerns, and guilt upon the shoulders of the king, who has nothing to ease this terrible responsibility except an empty display of power and glory. “What infinite heartsease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” Henry asks, offering us a rare perspective on the negative aspect of power and demonstrating his understanding of the distance between himself and his men (IV.i.218–219).
Henry’s comment that “thrice-gorgeous ceremony / . . . / Can[not] sleep so soundly as the wretched slave” closely echoes a speech given by his own father in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV (IV.i.248–250). That speech, which ends with the famous line “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” expresses the weary Henry IV’s understanding of the responsibilities of power, which the young Henry V, like his father before him, must now learn (2 Henry IV, III.i.31). This speech by Henry V is crucially important to the play, as it finds Henry alone for the first time; it is our first opportunity to get a glimpse into Henry’s psyche that is not compromised by his need to appear kingly. Henry presents us with the idea that his motivation for his actions as king is not power-lust or arrogance, but simply a crushing sense of responsibility to preserve stability and order for his subjects.
The conversation among Henry and John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams marks the first time we hear from English soldiers who do not completely support King Henry. Williams’s argument that the soldiers do not know whether or not the king’s reasons for being in France are particularly worthy is a powerful one, and it is likely to match our own reservations about Henry as a hero. Williams claims that:
If the [King’s] cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day [Judgment Day], and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’—some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them . . . some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.
Throughout the play, Henry has been arguing that he is in no way to blame for damage caused by his war, but Williams challenges Henry’s claims, arguing that the king has the greatest moral responsibility. In doing so, Williams evokes the image of the shattered family, just as Henry does in Act III, scene iii, when he threatens the town of Harfleur.
Yet, even in disguise, Henry continues to deny all responsibility on behalf of the king. In his answer, Henry ignores most of Williams’s argument, choosing to focus his rebuttal on Williams’s statement that men who die in battle die badly—that is, die in sin and are condemned to hell. This technical religious point is largely tangential to Williams’s argument. Henry ignores the larger question of whether the king is responsible for his soldiers’ deaths. Henry seems really to believe in Canterbury’s legal justification for his invasion of France. Moreover, he seems really to believe himself the king of France and that the man currently sitting on the throne is not the real king. Because he writes off the invasion as justified and ordained by God, Henry doesn’t concern himself—or, at least, he feels that he is not required to concern himself—with the issue of his moral responsibility.
Henry’s belief in his right to the throne of France may seem dubious to modern readers—it makes little sense that a bloody war in which an invading foreign monarch conquers another culture could really reestablish the proper order of things. Indeed, even Shakespeare seems to question Henry’s logic at times. But it is important to remember that although Shakespeare definitely allows for an ironic, or critical, reading of Henry’s actions, Henry’s thinking is not out of line with the ideas of the post-medieval era. Therefore, it is not fair to write off Henry’s certainty that he is blameless as a mere disguise for insatiable power-lust.
Finally, Henry’s heartfelt prayer at the end of the scene gives us an interesting glimpse into one of his insecurities. He nurses a lasting concern over the dubious way his own father, Henry IV, got the crown—a process that included the overthrow and murder of the previous king, Richard II. (Shakespeare covers these events in the first play of the tetralogy, Richard II.) Henry V has tried to atone for Richard’s death with purchased prayers, but he still seems to be haunted by it, a doubt that makes sense given Henry’s own intractable notions of the rights of kingship and his own unbending certainty that he is the true king of France. After all, under Henry’s logic, if his father stole his crown, then he is not the true king even of England.
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: