Synopsis - Henry V

Henry V

By William Shakespeare, 1598

Setting: England and France , 1413-1420


Each act of the play begins with a speech by a narrator-like figure called the Chorus, who introduces and frames the historical events of the play. He encourages the audience to use their imagination to “piece out” the “imperfections” of the author and actors as they witness the ensuing scenes.

In the first scene, young Henry V has just ascended the English throne with the untimely death of his father, Henry IV. The English bishops, concerned about a new bill in Parliament that would strip the Church of half of its revenue, hope to distract Henry and the nation from this bill by offering him a significant sum to finance a new military campaign in France , where conflict between the two nations has dragged on for generations. The Archbishop of Canterbury assures Henry that he has a sound legal claim to the French throne, and Henry resolves to take a small expeditionary force into France . Meanwhile, ambassadors from France arrive with a scornful and taunting message for Henry from the Dauphin, intensifying Henry's resolve.

In Act II, the Chorus describes the patriotic fervor with which the young men of England prepare for war, but warns of the treacherous intentions of Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop and Sir Thomas Grey, who have accepted payment from France to assassinate Henry before the invasion can commence. However, the plot is revealed, the traitors are executed, and the invasion plans go forward.

Landing at the port of Harfleur in Normandy , the English besiege the city and take heavy losses. Henry rallies his troops with a rousing speech exhorting them to prove the mettle of Englishmen, and this final assault persuades the Governor of Harfleur to surrender. The French nobles resolve to bring together all their forces to crush the “sick and famished” English army before it can return to England for the winter. They offer Henry a ransom, but the king vows that he will either win on the field or die alongside his soldiers.

In Act IV, the Chorus describes the night before the battle, as the “confident and over-lusty French” make bets on the scale of their victory, and the “poor condemnèd English” huddle by their fires, dreading the morning's encounter with the far more numerous French. Throughout the night Henry moves through the camp trying to raise the spirits of his men. Disguising himself as a common soldier, he learns that many believe that the king has led them to almost certain death. Once alone, Henry laments the crushing responsibility of kingship, and prays for the safety of his men.

As the morning dawns, the English realize that they are outnumbered 5-to-1. Overhearing his cousin Westmoreland lamenting their position, Henry makes a rousing speech arguing that the “happy few” who fight with him at Agincourt will live on in history as the greatest of English heroes. He refuses a final offer of ransom from the French herald, and battle is joined. Remarkably, the French are routed, and when the two armies count their dead, it is discovered that 10,000 French have been killed, to only 29 English.

In Act V, the Chorus describes Henry's triumphant return to England , where he and his army are greeted as national heroes, followed by his return to France to negotiate the terms of the French surrender. As the French and English negotiators meet, Henry personally woos Katherine to become his wife. Just as Henry persuades Katherine to a kiss, the negotiators return to inform Henry that the French King has consented to all terms. Henry will marry Katherine and their son will be proclaimed the heir to the French throne, uniting the two nations and bringing about an era of peace. However, the Chorus concludes the play with a sobering epilogue reminding the audience that Henry, the “Star of England,” died young, leaving the throne to his infant son Henry VI and ushering in a new regime that “lost France and made his England bleed.”

Major Characters:

Chorus – a commentator who introduces each act of the play, and narrates the epilogue

The English:

King Henry V – formerly known as a wild and unruly youth, he has recently ascended the throne due to the death of his father

Dukes of Gloucester , Bedford and Clarence – the king's younger brothers

Duke of Exeter – the king's uncle

Duke of York – the king's cousin

Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely – church leaders who encourage Henry to invade France

Earl of Cambridge , Lord Scroop and Sir Thomas Grey – English noblemen who are bribed by the French to assassinate Henry

Sir Thomas Erpingham – an officer commanding a portion of Henry's army

Fluellen, Gower, Macmorris and Jamy – captains in Henry's army, each of whom represents a different nationality (Welsh, English, Irish and Scotch)

Bates, Court and Williams – common soldiers in Henry's army

Bardolph, Pistol and Nym – former drinking companions of Henry and Falstaff, they reluctantly join the army

Boy – joins the army with Bardolph and company (and comments on their misdeeds)

Hostess – a tavern-keeper and wife to Pistol

The French:

King Charles VI – ruler of France whose claim to the throne Henry disputes

Isabel – his wife, the Queen of France

The Dauphin (Lewis) – son to King Charles and heir to the French throne

Katherine – daughter to King Charles

Duke of Burgundy – nobleman who negotiates a peace between France and England

Dukes of Orleans , Bourbon, Britaine and Berri – leading noblemen in the French army

Constable of France – the commander of the French military

Rambures and Grandpré – French lords

Governor of Harfleur – the commander of the port city where Henry's invasion begins

Montjoy – the French herald

Alice – Princess Katherine's attendant

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