Henry V Summary
How It All Goes Down
First things first, Shmoopsters: If you want to brush up on what went down in Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, or Henry IV Part 2, check out our summaries, but then come right back because things are getting seriously juicy at King Henry's royal palace in London...
Back? Good. When Henry V opens, the Archbishop of Canterbury and his sidekick, the Bishop of Ely, are having a private chitchat about a bill that's just been reintroduced by Parliament. If passed, the bill would take a bunch of the Church's land and money and put it in the king's treasury, which means it would probably be used for stuff like feeding the poor and funding the king's army. Canterbury isn't exactly thrilled about the idea of sharing the Church's dough, so he's decided to offer King Henry a HUGE chunk of change to make the bill disappear... forever. The extra cash will come in handy, because Henry is thinking of invading France and making a claim to the French crown, which requires a whole lot of well-funded troops. (Church corruption? Check. Greed? Check. Political intrigue? Check. We told you things were getting juicy.)
Citing a loophole in the Salic Law, Canterbury encourages Henry to invade France and help himself to the throne. Henry, who doesn't exactly need much convincing, totally agrees that he's got every right to the French crown, in addition to the English crown. After all, his great-great-grandmother was the daughter of a French king, so Henry's basically got dibs. The French should have absolutely no problem accepting this just as soon as Henry explains things to them. (Yeah, right.)
Canterbury's advice couldn't come at a better time, because the French Ambassador just so happens to be visiting England on a diplomatic mission and he's waiting to talk with Henry. It turns out that Henry has recently tried to claim some French dukedoms, so the Ambassador has brought a message from the Dauphin (the French king's son, who is set to inherit the throne) of France. The message goes something like this:
"Dear Henry. Thanks for your recent letter about your plans to claim some French territory. I've thought it over and decided that it's just not going to happen. Your pal, the heir to the French throne. P.S. In place of the dukedoms you so desperately wanted, please accept my gift to you, this giant treasure chest that I've gone ahead and filled with some tennis balls for you to play with."
Oh, snap! Henry is furious. How dare the Dauphin insinuate that he's just a boy who's better off playing a game of tennis than participating in power politics! (Looks like the Dauphin didn't get the message about Wild Prince Hal's transformation into a serious king. Maybe he should go back and read Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2.)
Naturally, Henry's got a message of his own for the Dauphin. It sounds like this:
"Dear Lewis, Thanks for the generous gift! I love it so much that I'm totally going to get medieval on you and your country by turning these tennis balls into cannonballs that will rip you and your friends to shreds. Then I'm going to take your father's crown and make him polish my new gold wand while I relax on his throne. Sincerely, the Soon-to-be King of France and England."
Taking a break from all this political drama, Shakespeare checks in with Henry's old pal Bardolph, who is still hanging out with his low-life crew (Pistol, Mistress Quickly, and a new guy named Nim) in Eastcheap, the London slum where Henry used to chill when he was a rowdy young prince. The word on the street is that Sir John Falstaff (Henry's ex-BFF and mentor) has been seriously ill. Everybody says he's dying of a broken heart because Henry banished him (back in Henry IV Part 2). Before we know it, Falstaff dies (off-stage) of a nasty venereal disease. After Bardolph and company take a few minutes to mourn their loss and argue about whether or not Falstaff is in heaven or hell, the guys run off to France to fight in Henry's army, leaving Mistress Quickly behind to run her "inn" (which is code for brothel).
Meanwhile, we find out about a treacherous plot to have King Henry assassinated by (gasp!) some of his own friends. Apparently, the French have paid three English noblemen (Scrope, Grey, and Cambridge) to kill him. We learn that Cambridge isn't just in it for the money – he thinks this other guy named Mortimer has a better claim to the English throne than Henry does. (Remember, Henry V only got to inherit the throne because one day his dad, Henry IV, took some French money and put together an army to help him snatch the crown away from the then King Richard II.) After playing a few mind games with the traitors, Henry has them executed. Then he hops on a ship and sets sail across the English Channel so he can snatch the crown away from King Charles VI. (You're picking up on the irony of all this attempted crown-snatching, right?)
While this is happening, the French talk about whether or not they should be alarmed that Henry's troops are about to invade France. The cocky Dauphin thinks that Henry and his army are a bunch of clowns – the battle will be a piece of cake (or maybe some other delicious French dessert, like chocolate mousse).
Before we know it, Henry's troops land on the shores of northern France and invade the town of Harfleur. During the siege, we get to hear Henry's famous battle cry, "Once more into the breach dear friends, once more." (Translation: "We've just blown a giant hole in the town's wall so please rush in there ASAP, even though it's dangerous and you'll probably die.")
While this is happening, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim stand back and remain as far away as possible from the action. They say they'd much rather be back at home in London, enjoying a nice "pot of ale" (kind of like beer) at their favorite pub. Before we can decide whether or not we think they're cowardly or just plain smart, we notice that a small group of Captains (Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy) are also standing back as far away as possible from the fighting. Instead of fighting, these so-called leaders have a lively debate about the art of warfare while most of the other soldiers do all the dirty work. (Hmm. Shakespeare is really good at this irony thing, don't you think?)
After the French call an official time out (which is technically called a "parley"), Henry stands before the gates of Harfleur and warns the Governor to surrender now or reap the consequences, which will probably involve his soldiers 1) raping the town virgins, 2) impaling infants on spikes, and 3) bashing in the heads of defenseless old men. The Governor of Harfleur surrenders. (By the way, we think the scariest version of this speech is in Peter Babakitis's 2007 film. You can check it out here.)
Later, we learn that Bardolph and Nim have been caught looting (when you steal stuff during a war or a riot) and have been sentenced to death by hanging. (Dang. Henry's old Eastcheap pals are dropping like flies. What's up with that?)
Meanwhile, the rest of the English troops are seriously down and out – they're exhausted and know they're outnumbered by the French soldiers. The night before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry walks through his camp and tries to cheer them up. Then, he borrows some dirty old clothes and disguises himself as a commoner so he can wander around the camp and get the 411 on what his soldiers are really thinking. It turns out they're not as excited about warfare as Henry is. They point out that they're the ones who will probably be killed or who will lose important body parts (like heads, legs, and arms) during the fighting. The king, on the other hand, will probably just get captured and ransomed for a bunch of money before the French ship him back to England with his tail between his legs.
Still disguised, Henry gets into an argument with a guy named Williams, who wonders if King Henry's war is even justifiable. Either way, Williams declares that the king is going to be responsible when the English soldiers are slaughtered in battle. This ticks off Henry, who argues that, actually, the king is not responsible for the lives of his men, even though they have to follow his orders and he's just ordered all of them to fight a battle they'll probably lose. (Um, okay.) When he's alone, Henry feels sorry for himself and delivers a long, whiny speech about how hard it is to be a king. (Cue the sad violin music.)
The next morning, the French and English prepare to get their battle on. To pump up his small crew of soldiers, Henry delivers one of the most famous motivational war speeches of all time, which includes the following lines: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother." Henry convinces his troops that it's actually better that they're so outnumbered because, this way, when they stomp all over the French, there will be a lot more honor for each of them. (This is sort of like how sharing a delicious pepperoni pizza with a small group of friends is better than sharing it with the entire school because everybody gets more.)
Miraculously, the English win the Battle of Agincourt and suffer only a handful of losses. Only four English nobles and 25 commoners have been killed. The French, on the other hand, have lost a boatload of men. We're not exactly sure how this happens because Shakespeare leaves the details a little fuzzy, but Henry promptly attributes the victory to God and warns that, if anyone says otherwise, they'll be put to death.
After the battle, Henry goes back to England, where they throw a big parade for him. He then returns to France to work out the details of a peace treaty with King Charles and Queen Isabel of France. Henry's got a big list of demands, including the right to marry the French princess, Catherine. Then something totally bizarre happens. Even though Henry knows that Catherine will be his wife, he tries to get all romantic and woos her anyway, begging her to marry him (as if she has a choice). King Charles agrees to the terms of the treaty and declares that Henry and Catherine can get hitched ASAP since the union will unite France and England. (Time for wedding cake!)
Unfortunately, Shmoopsters, this triumphant feeling doesn't last long – during the play's Epilogue, the Chorus comes out on stage and says something like, "By the way, we don't have time to show what happens next but it's not good. As we all know, Henry dies and his son, Henry VI, totally loses France. But, we hope you liked our play. Have a good night everyone!"
We know you've got a ton of questions about this, so go to "What's Up With the Ending?" if you want to know more.