Literature Study GuidesHenry VAct 1 Scene 1 Summary

Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry V | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Ely are talking about a bill that would take lands and money from the Church for the king's other needs. They are trying to figure out how to resist the bill. As they discuss the bill, they recall Henry V as a youth and describe how he has developed from a young, irresponsible man into a good king. They note that he was wild, but when his father died and he was called upon to be king, he seemed to suddenly change: "The breath no sooner left his father's body/But that his wildness, ... Seemed to die too."

The archbishop of Canterbury says that he has introduced to Henry the idea that he might have a claim to the "crown and seat [throne]" of France through his ancestor Edward III. This would provide Henry with new sources of land and money other than the Church's. The two end their conversation by noting that the French ambassadors are due to have an audience with Henry shortly. They leave to attend it.

Analysis

This scene serves as a recap of Henry's youth (described in more detail in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2). Shakespeare uses the dialogue between the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Ely to remind the audience that before he became king, young Harry had run wild with unsavory friends: "His companies unlettered, rude, and shallow,/His hours filled up with riots, banquets, sports,/And never noted in him any study,/Any retirement, any sequestration/From open haunts and popularity."

As the two churchmen converse, the bishop of Ely uses a metaphor to describe Henry's development: "The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,/And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best/Neighbored by fruit of baser quality." Henry, like a strawberry that grows unseen under a nettle, grew to maturity among rough, base companions. He is the "wholesome berry" and his old friends are the berries of "baser quality."

This scene also introduces the problem that drives the plot of the play. A bill that would take wealth away from the Church is up for a vote, and the two church leaders are not happy about it. In an effort to provide the king with another option for obtaining revenue, the archbishop of Canterbury has suggested to Henry that he has a right to France's throne through his ancestor, Edward III, who was the son of Isabella, the daughter of King Philip IV of France. This provides a possible motivation for Henry's decision to go to war against France later in the play.

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