Henry V, Act 4


With the chorus leading off Act 4, we get more effective scene painting. Does “A little touch of Harry in the night” seem a bit much? The scene that follows is, for me, the most memorable in the play. After the encounter with Pistol, then Fluellen and Gower, he meets with three quite ordinary English soldiers with entirely ordinary names, John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams, all the more striking after the tavern names and the “British” names. These guys have entirely realistic opinions and fears, and Harry’s responses seem rather commonplace, at least initially. Bates says the king may show as much courage as he wants, but surely he’d rather be in the Thames up to his neck than here. The dialogue seems wonderfully realistic, and Bates and Williams bat back and forth their sense of what it might mean that the king’s cause is “just.” Williams’ vision of the resurrection on the last day portrays a vivid sense of the horror of battle, and his conclusion, “I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument.” This is never really answered. The king gives a long and reasonably persuasive speech, perhaps in reality an essay, on why the king is not morally responsible for the state of his soldiers at their death. And Bates agrees. But Harry incautiously mentions his vow that he would not be ransomed, which seems unlikely, and Williams asserts this is pretty hollow, since the dead cannot object if he is ransomed. Harry’s vow that he’ll never trust the king if this happens is, unintentionally, a pretty good joke, and Williams, even not knowing who is vowing this, laughs at it, irritating the king. So they exchange gloves with the idea of late redeeming the challenge. Williams seems to have the better of the argument, and Harry sounds a bit petulant. This brings on another long, essay-
like speech about the only difference between a king and everybody else is “ceremony.” This persuades Harry, but would probably not persuade Williams. The scene ends with Harry saying what he has done to redeem Richard’s death, an almshouse with five hundred old men who ask pardon for Richard’s death and two chantries where masses are offered for Richard’s soul. But even this, he worries, isn’t enough since “my penitence comes after ill, imploring pardon.” Of course he himself is not guilty, but his penitence doesn’t cancel his father’s sin.

Then another “bloody French” scene in which they mock the English. In 4.3 Warwick is incautious enough to wish they had one ten-thousanth of the men who aren’t working in England this day, and that sparks Harry’s Hotspur-like sense that having bad odds is more glorious and that, live or die, St. Crispin’s day will be a good name for this battle. Montjoy comes back with the helpful advice that Harry should remind his army of the need for penitence before death. Thanks, Montjoy.

4.4 is another filler sort of scene, Pistol and a captive French soldier that Pistol needs the boy to translate for, full of jokes from Pistol’s misunderstanding of the French. 4.5 has the French aware they are losing the battle. 4.6 has Exeter give a tender account of Suffolk’s death, then Harry gives the order to kill all the French prisoners, which suits Pistol, who has learned enough French to shout “coup la gorge.” But then we learn that the French have killed the boys keeping the luggage — including the boy who spoke French for Pistol? This then evolves into a comic comparison by Fluellen of Harry with Alexander the Pig, which a colleague of mine once joked as the basis for some critical argument he was reading, “For there is figures in all things.” Now Montjoy returns and asks that the French be allowed to gather their dead. When Harry says he doesn’t know if they have won the battle, Montjoy concedes it and they decide to call it “Agincourt.” And then Williams enters with Harry’s glove in his cap. For some reason, Harry give Williams’ glove to Fluellen, who is struck by Williams when he sees the glove. It’s all a bit murky; Fluellen thinks that Williams had the glove of Alenc,on. Harry confronts Williams, who makes a reasonable case that he didn’t know the man he had challenged was the king. Because the king came disguised and as a common man, Williams couldn’t have known it was the king, so the fault is the king’s, he reasonably explains to the king. The king gives him the glove filled with crowns. Fluellen tries to add twelve pence and the advice to keep out of quarrels, but Williams rejects that, but presumably keeps the king’s crowns. This, apparently, is supposed to satisfy us that Williams has been justly answered and compensated for his quarrel with the king. But since the king doesn’t need to be ransomed, the quarrel is moot. Harry, mirror of all Christian kings, piously attributes the victory to God and orders Non nobis and Te Deum be sung.


The Chorus before Act 4 gives us more scene painting. It reminded me of some of Homer’s scene painting in the Iliad, as translated by Pope. I think you are right that there is something about this play which resembles epic narrative. The Chorus also gives us some unalloyed (over the top?) praise of Harry’s “sweet majesty,“,“largess universal,” and “Liberal eye.” I presume there is a pun at line 50 on “foils” — both swords and the low characters.

The entire act is set on the battlefield, the first three scenes on the eve of the battle. 4.1 is quite long, as various characters encounter the king but do not recognize him. Fluellen, the scholar of the history of war, goes on about the “ceremonies of war,” a point that will come back later. Yes, the conversation between king and the three common Englishmen seems realistic at first, but then Henry goes into what you rightly call essayistic mode, and sounds a little pedantic, but not defensive. It’s noteworthy that Williams is not convinced. This gives way to Henry alone, and he speaks two soliloquies, one on how it’s only “ceremony” that separates a king from an ordinary man. I am reminded of Henry IV’s comparison of the sleepless king and the soundly-sleeping ordinary man. I thought too of Falstaff’s address to “honor.” The second soliloquy, in which Harry dwells on his father’s “fault,” suggests that for Harry and for Shakespeare the sins of Henry IV have not been thoroughly worked through.

It’s not clear to me why in 4.2 the French leaders first speak in French, then in English. Grandpré’s “description” of the English camp makes him sound like the Chorus.

In 4.3 we hear that the French outnumber the English 5 to 1. Doesn’t this make us wonder why Harry started the war? (Or at the outset were their forces roughly equal, only later reduced by sickness and casualties?) The famous speech about St. Crispin’s Day — which in the movie, as I recall, is made in the presence of common soldiers — is delivered not to to large numbers of ordinary soldiers but to a handful of Henry’s generals. Doesn’t that change the implications? It’s not ordinary Tommy who will be celebrated on St. Crispin’s Day but the army leaders. You’re right to suggest that Harry adopts Hotspur’s mode. There is only a fixed ‘amount’ of honor, and Harry doesn’t want to share it widely. Can this make him look good? Or is he desperately trying to convert a weakness into strength, necessity into a virtue, to make the best of a very bad business? The scene concludes with Harry refusing to pay ransom. We like that. But it also means that, with very long odds, he is ready to sacrifice the lives of his men.

Because the discrepancy between the numbers of soldiers on both sides seemed so great, I did a little Wikipedia ‘research.’ According to current consensus, the English were outnumbered, but by about 3 to 1, if you count all the French “armed servants.” Why should Shakespeare misrepresent it? Or did he rely on Elizabethan historians who got the numbers wrong? Or was just trying to (over-) emphasize the underdog role?

I assume 4.4 is included because Pistol, as a foil to Harry, asks for ransom, and when he gets it lets the French soldier go.

By 4.5, despite their huge advantage, the French are broken and on the run. Shakespeare doesn’t bother to explain how the English managed this. Contemporary historians of war, like John Keegan, seem to attribute it to the English longbows. Why doesn’t Shakespeare say more about them?

4.6 seemed Homeric to me, recalling the deaths of Nisus and his friend Euryalus. They are more than “brothers” — they seem almost like lovers. And as the scene ends Henry instructs his men to kill all their prisoners. This shocks modern sensibilities, and should have shocked Fluellen, who is a strict observer of the “laws of war.” I understand from my ‘research’ that traditionalists among Henry’s men thought his action very improper, but that historians of the time did not censure him for it. Why not? I have seen suggestions (from Keegan) that Henry had some good tactical reasons, but Shakespeare says nothing about them.

As for the French attack on “the boys and the luggage” (which has always been a part of the story), it’s interesting that it is reported after Harry’s order to kill the French prisoners. So it’s clear that Harry is not acting in response to the French unsporting murders. If anything, he appears to respond to the deaths of York and Suffolk.

In 4.7 Gower, who approves the killing of the prisoners, thinks Harry acted “worthily” and treats his order as an appropriate response to what the French did. Fluellen, who complains that the French action violated the “laws of war,” says nothing about Harry’s own violation. But he does go on with a long speech comparing Harry to Alexander the Pig: Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, and Harry “turned away” Falstaff. It’s an odd moment for this episode (from the end of 2 Henry 4) to be remembered. I wonder if it’s Fluellen’s oblique way of censuring Harry for violating the laws of war.

Montjoy’s request for a truce so they can bury their dead provides an opportunity for Harry to be magnanimous. Instead, he takes a moment to savor his victory and to name the battle. We then get more of Fluellen, who is the king’s “countryman” (is Shakespeare trying to make up for his rude treatment of Glendower?), and characteristically advises the king that Williams must be allowed to “keep his vow and his oath.” At this point Harry sets up a foolish, inappropriate, and dangerous joke which, you would think, could easily have ended in violence or death, despite Harry’s dispatching Warwick and Gloucester to “see there be no harm.” In 4.8 the joke is played out, without serious consequences, and the stout Williams is rewarded. And we now hear some numbers that are simply incredible, that the French have 10,000 dead and the English only 25. Who would believe that? Is it possible that Shakespeare’s audience, who knew the story of Agincourt, thought (because they read the chronicles, that those numbers were correct? Again, my ‘research’ tells me that the modern consensus is that there was indeed a great discrepancy, but it was on the order to 10 to 1 and not 400 to 1. Shakespeare makes the numbers miraculous. Maybe that’s why Henry with sudden piety declares that “God fought for us.” — as if the French were pagans or Turks.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell