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.Read a translation of Act III, scene vii →
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.