Act I of Henry V is pretty short and straightforward. Unlike the Henry IV plays, it has a single setting, Henry’s court, and introduces us only to one set of characters, the courtiers and the king’s ecclesiastical/legal consultants. It’s not until Act 2 that we will meet the remnants of the tavern world and the surviving rebels/conspirators.
That’s not quite right: the first “character” we meet is called “Prologue,” though he calls himself “Chorus to this history.” He gets a famous speech (“O for a muse of fire . . .”) that addresses the audience as proud and patriotic Englishmen and women (who all know what “Agincourt” means) and as occupants of an Elizabethan theatre, with scaffold, cockpit, and the “wooden O” of the Globe. Why did Shakespeare think it appropriate to provide a prologue to the play? It was not his common practice, though there is a Chorus in Romeo and Juliet (1595) and that curious Epilogue in 2 Henry 4. Are there any others in the early plays? Maybe it’s a way of acknowledging that he is retelling a story that’s already very familiar to his audience, maybe inviting them to distance themselves from it a bit, and be prepared to reconsider what they think they know. The audience is invited to participate by “piecing out our imperfections with your thoughts.” It’s interesting that Henry is introduced familiarly as “warlike Harry” — as if he is everybody’s favorite king – who “assumes the port of Mars.” Does that assumes make us think about the actor who portrays him, or about Henry, who may or may not be Mars-like, but dresses like him? Interesting too that we don’t get patriotic bombast about plucky England and dastardly France, but “two mighty monarchies,” equal adversaries, perhaps with equal claims to rule France.
1.1 is a deft introduction to the plot. Not only does Shakespeare use it to remind the audience about Henry’s wild youth, but also to assure us that he is now thoroughly reformed. He also neatly lays out how and why it is in the church’s own interest for the bishops to provide the king with the legal advice he wants to hear, and how they plan to grease the royal palm with a subsidy. There’s always a backstory.
In the beginning of 1.2 the bishops do most of the talking, presenting their interpretation of the Salic Law — that it only applies east of the Rhine. Canterbury needs more than 60 lines to explain his ruling, and he provides more genealogical detail than the audience is likely to be able to follow, and maybe more than the king cares to hear. (I can imagine the king nodding off, or showing impatience.) The king just wants to hear the conclusion, and he gets what he wants. Interesting that most of Canterbury’s speech is devoted to the succession of French kings. We hear only a little bit about the fact that Henry’s claims to France derive from his great-grandfather, but nobody takes the trouble to spell out that Edward III’s mother was the daughter of the king of France. Does this serve inadvertently to raise a question about the strength of Henry’s claim? Is it odd that the famous English victory at Crecy, under the forces led by Henry’s great-uncle, Edward the Black Prince, is described as a “tragedy” that the Black Prince “played”?
We also hear about the danger of a Scots invasion — so much for the advice from Henry IV that his son should busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels: Henry V realizes that before he sails for France he has to guard his rear.
In the latter part of 1.2 the French ambassador, who has not got the memo about Henry’s reformation and still assumes he is Hal, rejects the English claim to “some certain dukedoms,” and presents the insulting tennis balls. (Henry had already staked a larger claim — to “France and all her almost kingly dukedoms.” All?). Henry keeps his cool — maybe he knew what was coming — and tells the ambassador to tell the dauphin that “I will keep my state,/ Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness.” He also promises a bloody war. I’m not sure what the English audience would make of Henry’s reference to England as a “poor seat” and his declaration that an Englishman’s proper “home” is in France, especially if they remembered the famous lines from Richard II uttered by John of Gaunt (Henry’s grandfather) about “this sceptred isle, this other Eden.”
Chorus, as it happens, is not just the prologue to the play, but to each act, and directs the audience to each place of the play’s action. And he directs the audience’s imagination at each appearance. It is an interesting innovation, maybe prompted by the wide range of the play’s action. We did have (or will have in Sh’s career) Time between the third and fourth acts of Winter’s Tale, but Chorus is more insistent, more directive.
The language of the play seems to me more direct and more emphatic than the earlier two plays. The “O for a muse of fire” speech is splendid poetry and wonderful in its engagement with the imaginative necessities of stagecraft. It’s as if Bottom has been shifted into a new, smarter, and higher register.
I like the delicacy of the Archbishop’s distinction of the king’s “true titles to some certain dukedoms” in France and what follows, “And generally to the crown and seat of France.” Not exactly the same thing perhaps. King Harry displaces the moral onus onto the Archbishop in speaking of the “many now in health” who will bleed and die according to what the Archbishop will judge and say. Some 18 lines are devoted to Harry’s insistence that it will be the Archbishop’s moral responsibility for the war, and not, presumably, his. And this is repeated after the Salic law speech when Harry asks if he can “with right and conscience make this claim,” and is assured “the sin upon my head, dread sovereign” on the dismissal of Salic law. But I can’t help but wonder what an Elizabethan audience would have made of the exposition of the law. In fact, none of it is really necessary to the main point, that Edward III, Harry’s grandfather, won France by force of arms because he felt he inherited it from his mother. Salic law, therefore, has nothing to do with France, in the bishops’ opinions, and the long exposition by the A of C is just learned gibberish. Harry might be bored, but he might also be pretending to be giving it rapt attention, as if he understands it and prizes its intricate learning. But of course it’s all nonsense. And then there are those damned Scots, but the A of C has an answer for that as well in his description of the bees, which doesn’t seem to add up exactly until he says, just divide England’s forces in four and take just a quarter to France. And Harry ends up concluding, “France being ours we’ll bend it to our awe, Or break it all in pieces.” (Did we hear something like this fifty years ago?)
The episode with the Dauphin’s tennis balls provides another opportunity to displace responsibility for the war: he’ll be to blame for the jest that will set on Harry’s invasion. And it does reinforce the main point about Harry’s reformation.