Summary: Act 1: Scene 2

And tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them….

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In the throne room of the royal palace in England, King Henry V prepares to speak with a delegation of ambassadors from France. Several of his advisors and two of his younger brothers (Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and Thomas, duke of Clarence) accompany him. Before speaking to the ambassadors, King Henry wants to talk to the representatives of the English Church, so he sends for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely.

King Henry asks Canterbury to explain to him, in clear and educated terms, the reasoning by which he, as king of England, has a rightful claim to the throne of France. This logic is complicated, going back several generations, and Henry wants to be able to justify a potentially bloody invasion. He reminds Canterbury of the responsibility that Canterbury himself will bear for the death toll of the war if he tells anything less than the truth, and he orders Canterbury to give him an honest opinion and faithful advice.

Canterbury gives the noblemen in the throne room a lengthy explanation of why Henry has a valid claim to France. In France, Canterbury explains, the throne cannot be inherited through a mother. That is, if a king has a daughter, the daughter’s son has no claim to the throne. But England has no such law (known as Salic law in France), and kings can inherit the throne through the female line. Because King Henry’s great-great-grandmother was a daughter of the king of France, under English law, he would be the rightful heir to the throne of France. Of course, the French don’t think the same way, and they believe that their king, Charles VI, is the rightful monarch. If Henry wants to claim France, or even part of it, Canterbury concludes, he will have to invade and fight the French for it.

Both clergymen urge Henry to invade, as do his advisors, Exeter and Westmorland. Canterbury promises to raise from the clergymen a large war chest to finance the project (part of the self-interested plan he discusses in Act I, scene i). Henry expresses concern that the Scottish rebels on his northern border will invade while he is away, so Canterbury suggests that Henry take only one-quarter of his army with him to France, leaving the rest behind to defend England. Henry resolves to proceed with the invasion.

Finally, King Henry calls in the French ambassadors. They represent the Dauphin, the son of the king of France and, in the eyes of the French, the heir to the throne. The Dauphin’s message is insulting: he laughs at Henry’s claim to any part of France and says that Henry is still too young to be responsible. To top it off, he has sent the contemptuous gift of a container of tennis balls, mocking Henry’s sportive and idle youth. Enraged, Henry gives the ambassadors a dark reply, warning them that the Dauphin has made a serious error in judgment, for Henry is not the foolish boy the Dauphin thinks he is. Henry declares his intent to invade and conquer France. The Dauphin will regret his mockery of the English king, he says, “[w]hen thousands weep more than did laugh at it” (I.ii.296).

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Analysis: Act 1: Scene 2

In his first scene, King Henry shows himself to be an intelligent, thoughtful, and efficient statesman, with an extremely impressive presence and a commitment to act as he believes right. He thinks carefully about whether or not to invade France, and although his decision seems to suit the clergymen very well, it is not clear that he has allowed them to manipulate him. More likely, his purposes simply coincide with theirs. Henry also shows his prudence when he absolves himself of potential blame by warning Canterbury very sternly that the lives lost in war must be on the archbishop’s conscience if he misleads the king. The clean and regular meter of Henry’s speech manifests his calm command of his subjects and his wits.

Read more about the importance of Henry’s speeches.

Canterbury’s explanation of Salic law, though it is as clear as he can make it, nonetheless remains extremely complicated. Clearly, each side is interpreting ancient and confusing rules to its own advantage. Basically, the issue is whether the throne can or cannot be inherited through a female, but there is another issue as well. The old books that contain Salic law say that women cannot inherit in any “Salic land.” The French interpret “Salic land” to mean France, but Canterbury thinks he has good evidence that this term actually refers to Germany, not France. Such an interpretation renders Henry’s claim to the French throne valid.

The Dauphin’s gag gift of tennis balls hinges on the ancient custom of sending a gift of treasure to a foreign ruler as a gesture of respect and friendship. On behalf of the Dauphin, the ambassador claims to present King Henry with a chest of treasure in exchange for Henry’s abandonment of his claim to parts of France (apparently, Henry’s early claims in France were limited to a few smaller regions, instead of the whole country). But the Dauphin, who has heard stories about King Henry’s irresponsible teenage years, has sent tennis balls instead of anything valuable. The sarcastic spirit of this gift implies that the Dauphin considers the English king to be unworthy of an adult exchange.

Read more about the tun of tennis balls as a symbol.

In his reply to the ambassador, Henry turns the Dauphin’s joke upside down. First he gives his thanks, starting his speech in a deceptively mild manner with the comment that “[w]e are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us” (I.ii.259). He then shows that he understands the Dauphin’s insult, commenting, “[W]e understand [the Dauphin] well, / How he comes o’er us with our wilder days”—that is, how the Dauphin is trying to embarrass Henry with references to his wild youth (I.ii.266267). Henry goes on to transform the game of tennis into a metaphor for a very real war, threatening, “When we have matched our rackets to these balls, / We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set / Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard” (I.ii.261263). He declares, in other words, that the war will be like a game, the spoils of which will be the kingship of France.

Moreover, Henry charges the Dauphin with responsibility for the impending devastation of France. Henry implies that this devastation will serve as revenge for the Dauphin’s joke when he claims that "[t]his mock of his Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance That shall fly from them" (I.ii.281–284).

He claims that the Dauphin’s mockery has provoked him to invade France, when, in fact, he has already decided on war before even admitting the French ambassadors. For the second time in this scene, Henry transfers responsibility for the deaths in the imminent war to someone else: first, he ascribes it to Canterbury, and now he ascribes it to the Dauphin. This strange evasion of responsibility, combined with Henry’s willingness to accept Canterbury’s corrupt and self-interested maneuvering, are among the many subtle criticisms that Shakespeare injects into his portrayal of Henry as a heroic king. As the war proceeds, Henry assumes the dimensions of an epic hero, but Shakespeare occasionally implies that, beneath Henry’s heroic status, his ethical status is somewhat dubious.

Read more about whether or not Henry is a good king or merely a successful one.