Act IV, Prologue and scenes i–ii

Summary Act IV, Prologue and scenes i–ii

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.

Read a translation of Act IV, scene i →

Summary: Act IV, scene ii

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.

Read a translation of Act IV, scene ii →

Analysis: Act IV, Prologue and scenes i–ii

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.99102). 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.218219).

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.248250). 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: