Literature Study GuidesHenry VAct 2 Scene 2 Summary

Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry V | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

As the chorus explained, the story now moves to Southampton, where the conspiracy against Henry is supposed to come to a head. Exeter, Bedford, and Westmoreland enter, wondering aloud why the king pretends to trust the "traitors," even though, as they say, the king knows about the assassination plot.

Henry enters with the three traitors—Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey—and announces that they will soon depart for France. He asks the three of them if they think England will succeed in the war against France, and they flatter him, telling him he is well-loved and will be successful. Henry then tells Exeter to set a man that had been imprisoned for speaking against the king free, pointing out that the man was probably drunk, so Henry plans to pardon him. Scroop disagrees, saying that it sets a bad example if Henry doesn't punish those who insult him. Cambridge and Grey agree with Scroop. Henry decides to pardon the man anyway.

Henry gives Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey their commissions. But when they read them, they realize he knows they are conspiring against him. When they ask for mercy, Henry points out that they didn't want him to be merciful in the matter of the drunk man. Exeter arrests the three traitors, and despite their continued pleas for mercy, Henry sentences them to be killed. In this switch between pardon and sentencing, Shakespeare demonstrates an understanding of the principles of kingly leadership as set by Machiavelli. It can be speculated that the balance between mercy and retribution would have been the topic of discussion in his interactions with nobility: certainly Queen Elizabeth herself, as well as her nobles, knew the Italian work intimately.

Analysis

Henry shows just how ruthless he is as he first baits the three traitors into suggesting a "no mercy" approach to the treatment of a man arrested because he "railed" against the king after having too much wine, then reveals his knowledge of their conspiracy, and finally traps them using their own words: "The mercy that was quick in us but late/By your own counsel is suppressed and killed./You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy." He could have simply had them arrested and killed, but he feigns ignorance of their crime so he can have the satisfaction of condemning them, using their own counsel. Why the elaborate ruse?

Henry clearly wants them to admit their fault publicly, to make his execution of them beyond question. Also, he gives them the opportunity to repent of their wrongdoing, so that they might be forgiven by God, and not be condemned to Hell after their execution: "God quit [acquit] you in His mercy."

Henry is very careful of appearances and brilliantly manipulates situations to show him in the best light. He makes a point of saying that he sentences the three to death not for personal vengeance, but for the safety of the nation: "Touching our person, seek we no revenge,/But we our kingdom's safety must so tender,/Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws/We do deliver you." In framing their execution thus, Henry makes sure no hint of questionable behavior can be perceived. In a similar way, in Act 1, Scene 2, he states that the war with France is due to the Dauphin's rude message, and he goes to great pains to establish his legal claim to France's throne.

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