Henry V, Act 3


3.1 contains one of Henry’s famous rallying speeches, but its indifference to death seems shocking, especially since he is ready to “close up” the breach in the walls of Harfleur “with our English dead”! Why not urge his men to break through the wall, or, if they fail, to make sure that they kill so many defenders that the breach is plugged with dead French bodies? Is there perhaps a link between this speech and the immediately preceding speech by the Chorus: Henry urges his men to see themselves as Achillean warriors. He inspires them by painting a picture of what he “sees” when he imagines what they will do.

3.2 nicely undercuts Henry’s rhetoric: the common soldiers (Falstaff’s friends) are looking for purely personal gain. After the stage is briefly empty, Gower and Fluellen arrive. Gower is English, Fluellen a Welshman, and they soon engage in dispute about military tactics (mining) with the Irishman MacMorris and the Scot Jamy. So we have all the “British” nations represented, and they are anything but united. (Interesting that Henry leads four different nations, but seems focused only on “England.”) Presumably the scene allows for some comedy, based on accent. Maybe Fluellen is played by the same actor who played Glendower.

In 3.3 we get more of Henry’s bellicose rhetoric, as he threatens rape and pillage, demanding that the French surrender. I think this has given him a bad press in recent criticism. Rightfully so: why does he need three times to imagine the violation by his men of “fresh virgins” (14), “pure maidens” (20), and “daughters” (35)?

3.4, by contrast, gives us a glimpse of one of those daughters, at her English lesson. More rather simplistic comedy, based on French pronunciation and mispronunciation, and on the bawdy exchange whereby innocent English words — “foot” and “gown” — have naughty French equivalents.

3.5 sets up the French as contemptuous of the English, as they send an embassy to the English, asking surrender. But do we here conclude that the French are more polite in this matter than the bloody English are? (Or is their politesse just a cover for equally brutal thinking?) Are we to assume, by the way, that high-born French women don’t know any English but the French dukes speak it like the natives? I wonder whether a director would have them speak in heavy French accents.

I found 3.6 hard to follow, maybe just as Fluellen can only “partly understand your meaning.” The key points seem to be that Bardolph is to be hanged for theft, but that Fluellen doesn’t quite understand, and doesn’t realize that Pistol is just as guilty. Now, in a surprising turn, Henry forbids plunder. Does that mean that his bloody language before Harfleur was just talk? Montjoy, the French messenger, now enters to deliver a relatively gentle demand for ransom, and Henry declines.

3.7 seems to trivialize the French. The Dauphin, who has been urging the French king to war, is now full of praise of himself and his horse. Is he a French version of Hotspur, or a parody of him? Maybe he’s also a French version of Falstaff, all talk and no action. As the scene goes on, we see that the French leaders are all full of confidence. This is designed to set up the forthcoming battle between the powerful French army and the outnumbered English. And in this scene it turns out that the French leaders not only speak colloquial English: they also can make jokes about English proverbs. Maybe they all did junior year abroad.


I think there’s a definite subversive strain in the play, evident at various moments, e.g., the archbishop’s speech on Salic law, and what you mention about the king’s highly rhetorical battle speeches, like the rallying speech before Harfleur and Harry’s 3.3 speech to the governor of the town threatening the destruction of the city and the violation of “fresh fair virgins” and the “flowering infants” and at the end the “mad mothers” howling like the women in the mystery plays over Herod’s “blood-hunting slaughtermen.” If Harfleur’s gates are not opened, its destruction will be their own fault.

The chorus prologues seem to want to develop the scene painting elements of the dramaturgy to a higher degree than usual, maybe because of the “epic” nature of the narrative. The closing of the third act prologue even has shouts and cannons going off. This would certainly raise the level of excitement in the theater.

The scene with Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol seems to parody the king’s speech, but the boy undercuts the apparently fake courage of the lowlifes. He’d rather be in an alehouse in London, and his comments on each suggests their interests, which is mainly just plunder. More subversion?

Gower, Fluellen, Jamy, and McMorris may be there as a nod to the breadth of British nationality — perhaps an allusion to the situation at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Irish wars and a Scottish king in the wings. But the jokes, such as they are, must lie in their accents. And the language lesson in the scene that follows brings more jokes with French. Has Sh or his company been taking French lessons?

I like the idea that the French nobility have been off on an Erasmus program and learned good English. Given the previous two scenes, I agree the actors must have been affecting some sort of French accent, and they toss in the odd French phrase for color. Their opinions of the English army are such that you can almost hear the groundlings grinding their teeth and muttering “bloody French.”

Is there a “joke” in Bardolph’s having stolen a “pax” from a church and to be hanged for it? What, after all, has Harry stolen from France? Pistol refers to “pax of little price” and objects that he should be hanged for this. I too find the rest of the discourse hard to untangle. Then Harry wants to get to Calais because his army is in bad shape. And he jokes that the French air has made him a braggart. And he gives a tip to Montjoy — is this an insult? Then another “bloody French” scene. (Brexit has a long history.) Lots of bragging about armor and Bourbon’s horse, and when he exits the others turn their jokes on him.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell