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Free Study Guide-Henry V by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Online
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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES

ACT IV, SCENE 1

Summary

At the English camp, shortly before dawn, Henry borrows a cloak to disguise himself and goes around incognito. He encounters Pistol who does not recognize him and they have a discussion about the king and Fluellen, whom Pistol would like to "knock his leek about his pate." He also overhears Fluellen and Gower talk about the upcoming war. He meets three ordinary soldiers: Bates, Court and Williams, whom he argues with about the situation of the army and the responsibility of the King to his soldiers.

Henry and Williams quarrel and later exchange gloves to be worn in their caps after the battle. Williams undertakes to challenge the wearer of his glove and give him a box on the ear. In a soliloquy Henry meditates on the hard lot of the King and his great responsibilities he takes on that allow little rest. His only advantage over ordinary men is that he must follow protocol, which is worthless. Erpingham arrives to say that Henry's nobles are hunting for him. Henry sends Erpingham to collect them at his tent. In a prayer, Henry asks God to give his soldiers courage, and not to punish him for his father's seizure of the crown. Gloucester arrives, and they leave for Henry's tent.

Notes

This scene is significant from the point of view of Henry's character as it reveals Henry as being more insecure than he shows in public and that he is anxious about the point he is at - on the eve of battle, which may or may not have a legitimate claim. The scene precedes the battle of Agincourt and Henry goes round the camp to encourage every soldier with his smile and word of cheer. The King reveals a gracious personality and solicitude for his subjects.


With true dramatic insight and profound knowledge of human nature, Shakespeare does not simply turn the King's rounds into a mere visit of inspection, but allows the audience to gain an understanding of the common soldiers' view of the matter as well as witness the doubts and insecurities that rack Henry as he prepares for battle. Although he is determined to fight to the finish, he is unsure how his subjects feel and so elicits a general response of their attitudes towards him as well as the upcoming battle by disguising himself as a commoner. Henry's former affiliation with the lower classes is shown here in his "walkabout." Despite his ascension to the crown, Henry can communicate with the people without pretense or airs although he does attempt to justify his actions as king rather accept the criticism with aplomb. This is in dire contrast to the French nobles whose discourse centers around the machinery of war and ignores the human involvement.

The exchange between Pistol and the King is lighthearted and a prelude to the heavier conversation that occurs between Henry and the three commoners, William, Bates, and Alexander Court. Each of them expounds on various aspects of war and the responsibilities the king has to his subjects. Although they are loyal subjects, they wonder if the king, like them, wishes he were somewhere else. They discuss the possibility of their death and wonder whether it is worth it in the end. But it is Williams, the main antagonist in the discussion, who arouses Henry's anger in a discussion over the responsibilities of the monarch and dubious nature of the causes of war. Because Henry has managed to avert responsibility for most of his actions throughout the play by being a political strategist, he is vexed over Williams' harsh indictment of the king and the responsibility he must bear if the cause they are fighting for is not good. He defends the king as not having to bear the responsibility of his subjects just as a father cannot bear the responsibilities of his son's misconduct but his analogy falls short despite his assertion that "every subject's duty is the king's; but his soul is his own." The more aggressive he becomes in defending his position, the weaker it becomes. Although Henry wants authority, he does not want the responsibility that comes with it.

Here is a sign not of a weak king but a callow one. Not yet a father or husband, Henry still has to mature as an adult to understand the obligations that a ruler has to his people. Finally, with the argument at an impasse, the two decide to have a duel after the battle next day and exchange gloves to put in their hats.

Then follows a soliloquy in which the anguished soul of Henry is laid bare, as he explores the responsibility of the king and the hardships that result from such a role. He also delineates the crime his father committed and how he is seeking retribution for this crime through being a just and honorable king although he knows that he cannot fully right wrongs and that the universe will ultimately seek divine retribution for the crimes his family committed. His ambitions are well-intentioned and noble and he wants to bring England the glory and honor it deserves. A political tactician as well as a noble and just man, Henry gains much audience sympathy in this first scene of Act IV.

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