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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.
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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