Henvy V, Act 2


Act 2 brings back the Chorus and proclaims the excitement of preparations for war and calling Harry “the mirror of all Christian kings.” But the prologue also forecasts the treachery of the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope, who must be related to the executed Archbishop of York, and Thomas Grey. And he ends with the little joke that in the play we can cross the Channel without getting seasick.

Then back to the tavern world, though we don’t seem to be in a tavern at the moment. The bad blood between Nim and Pistol may mirror the treason among the political characters. Or maybe the enmity between the two kingdoms in their conflict over the hostess. Pistol may also relate to the warlike spirit that now seems unleashed. And his language still makes him seem related to Marlowe or the heightened rhetoric of other playwrights (though Marlowe of course was six or seven years dead by now).

Scene 3 deals with the treachery, Harry showing himself firm about its punishment, mainly because the traitors have taken gold from France with intention of assassinating him. They are apparently the last of the northern rebels associated with Northumberland and the Mortimers, though this point is not made. Harry treats it rather as a divinely directed event that further ratifies his kingship. And ends with “No king of England if not king of France.”

The audience may yearn for Falstaff (though we may have had enough), but the next scene gives us his deathbed. The hostess’s account is wonderfully confused, but may express something of Falstaff’s better side. But at least it saves us from more jokes about his girth.

2.4, maybe surprisingly, brings on the French royal court, and the king speaks with more apprehension of the approaching English than the Dauphin, who maintains his sense of a light and frivolous English king. The Constable gives a character of Harry more in keeping with what the earlier scenes have portrayed. The King remembers the disaster of Crecy and the power of Edward the Black Prince with some high language about that time. When Exeter comes in with the demand of the English king, it’s almost comically straightforward: renounce the throne and give the crown to Harry, and here, presumably, is a copy of the Salic law discussion, not picked from worm holes of long vanished days — though how could it be anything else, given what we heard from the Archbishop of Canterbury? Surprisingly, Charles responds that we’ll think about it and let you know tomorrow. I think we would expect more immediate defiance, but maybe the mild response is to suggest that the French realize they have a doubtful claim.


You’re quite right that Chorus appears before each act. And the Chorus introducing Acts 2 and 3 acts again as a kind of introducer, telling us what we are going to see. But does the audience really need the introduction? It strikes me that an attentive audience, if it paid close and patient attention, could figure out what is happening by listening to the dialogue. Is it possible that Shakespeare had some reason to doubt the capacity of his audience, and so felt he needed to provide the help of the Chorus? Maybe the Chorus functions as a way of showing off a good dramatist’s power of scene painting, of calling up entire worlds by means of mere words. I found myself thinking of Edgar telling the blinded Gloucester what he claims to see as he looks down at the beach from the cliffs of Dover. But it also assigns the audience to “work, work your thoughts.” By means of the imagination, the audience can “see” what the dramatist invites him to see.

I wonder whether, given the hints in the epilogue to 2 Henry 4, the first audiences felt cheated when they realized that the death of Falstaff was not going to be enacted but only reported. It’s a wonderfully gentle report of Falstaff’s final minutes, in which the old liar and pretender is stripped of all his powers. At the end he is just someone babbling about green fields. Yes, it’s comical that Quickly doesn’t seem to realize that he’s perhaps mumbling the 23rd psalm, and that her account of checking the approach of death is frank and bawdy about where she put her hand. Notable that once she finishes her report, Falstaff’s old pals Nym and Pistol don’t spend any time grieving or remembering. They’re thinking about themselves: Falstaff is dead but “we will live.”

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell