Literature Study GuidesHenry VAct 4 Scene 1 Summary

Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry V | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

In the middle of the night in the English camp, Henry V greets the Dukes of Gloucester and Bedford, who are also awake. Sir Thomas Erpingham enters, and Henry greets him as well, offering words of encouragement. Then he asks Erpingham to lend him his cloak. Henry puts on the borrowed cloak to disguise himself. Pistol enters, but does not recognize Henry and questions him about his identity and place in the army. As they talk Pistol seems to speak highly of the king, but uses some unkind language. Henry mentions that he is Welsh, which leads to a discussion of Fluellen, whom Pistol does not like. Henry claims to be kinsman to Fluellen, but Pistol is unimpressed and leaves in a huff.

Fluellen and Gower enter, and Henry observes them. Gower is speaking too loudly and too much, and Fluellen chastises him by invoking his favorite topic: historical wars, specifically the wars of Pompey the Great. Gower agrees to be quiet, and they leave. Henry remarks that Fluellen is a little eccentric, but is good-hearted. Three soldiers enter—John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams. They are all worried about the upcoming battle, and notice Henry lurking, although they also do not recognize his true identity. They greet him and begin to discuss the battle. Henry explains that he thinks the king is probably just as afraid as they are, but it is not appropriate for the king to express his concerns, because he might dishearten his men.

Henry and Bates disagree about Henry's attitude toward the war and to the men. Bates says he wishes the king were the only person in France, so he would be ransomed, which would save many lives. Henry expresses the opinion that there is no better death than serving the king, if the cause is just and honorable. Williams and Bates note that even if the king's cause is not just, they must be obedient, and the king bears the responsibility of the eternal state of his men (whether they are judged well or poorly by God). Henry argues passionately that soldiers' eternal states are not the king's fault. Williams and Bates remain unconvinced.

Henry turns the conversation to the king's ransom, and Williams says that he thinks the king is bluffing, and for all they know, the king will be ransomed after they are dead (making their battle and death for naught). Henry says he is offended, and Williams offers to fight later, if they survive the battle, to settle the matter between them. Henry agrees. Williams, not knowing who Henry is, asks how he will recognize him. Henry says if Williams will give him a gage, an object that shows that Williams will fight him later, he will wear it. If Williams ever acknowledges the gage, they will fight. They exchange gages in the form of gloves.

Everyone exits but Henry, who soliloquizes about how much responsibility is laid on the king. He then prays that God will help his soldiers have courage, reminding God of all the ways he is trying to make amends for his father's actions in killing Richard II and taking the throne.

Analysis

This lengthy scene helps develop Henry V's character by repeating devices such as the way Henry plays with appearances and words. The scene is full of dramatic irony because the audience realizes who Henry is, but, because of his disguise, his soldiers do not.

Henry is no stranger to going about in disguise; he often disguised his appearance when playing prankster with Falstaff. In fact taking on a different appearance to suit the occasion is one of the things Henry does best. From the beginning of the scene, Henry seems concerned with the suffering caused by his decision to go to war. He tells Gloucester: "There is some soul of goodness in things evil," and perhaps it is this idea that prompts him to disguise himself and get to know his men a little better. He wants to find out for himself what evils war has brought upon the men. He knows they are tired and sick and their morale needs boosting. Will he be able to "distill" the "soul of goodness" this war has brought? One idea Henry has is that facing evils encourages people to prepare for their end; that is, make sure their souls are right before God.

As Henry interacts with Pistol he offers his name as "Harry le Roy." This is a play on the French words le roi, meaning the king, so Henry's pun actually reveals his true identity. Of course Pistol doesn't understand the pun—he knows even less French than Henry, evidently. Mistaking French words for similar-sounding English words is a repeated device in the play, seen previously in Act 3, Scene 4 and occurring again in Act 4, Scene 4.

Bates does not realize that he is speaking with his king, because Henry is impersonating a lowly solider like Bates himself. Shakespeare often has characters from the lower classes, such as Henry's soldiers, speak in prose rather than poetry. Part of Henry's disguise is the fact that when he speaks with Bates and Williams, he speaks in prose, as if he is from the same social class. Although the common soldiers of Henry V's time would likely have been illiterate, Shakespeare's Henry V debates with them as if they are as literate or educated as he was himself—one of Elizabeth I's goals with public education of which Shakespeare was a beneficiary. Bates makes some good points during their discussion. Perhaps it is difficult for a soldier to go to heaven if he dies while engaged in killing. Perhaps the king bears some responsibility for the souls of his men. Henry, who has always made efforts to lay the blame for the war at the feet of others, rejects this notion, saying that the men "purpose not their death when they purpose/their services." Therefore, they are accountable to God for their own sins, and can't blame them on the king. Bates and Williams seem persuaded by Henry's rebuttal. Thus Henry is able to convince his men of his point of view by disguising himself and using his verbal skill to win them over to his side of the argument, cementing his kingship even further. Henry's interactions with these men also make him more concerned than ever to gain God's favor, and be assured that the sins of his father do not pass on to him.

In general the customs of war allowed any prisoner of war to be ransomed, but higher-ranking prisoners would be worth more to the captor. This ransom would be paid so the prisoner would be set free. If the king were captured, or allowed himself to be captured, conceding defeat, the ransom would be very high. When Henry turns the discussion to the king's ransom, though, Bates and Williams admit that the king may have lied about refusing to be ransomed. It is the refusal of Williams to take the king at his word that so angers Henry and results in the dispute.

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