Henry the Fifth could have easily ended with Act Four. The greatest military victory in English history would have been a great capstone for a history play.
So why have Act Five?
We need it to link this play to the three parts of Henry the Sixth… which means that we need a baby, and for that a marriage, and for that a wooing.
So like every act before it, Act Five begins with the Chorus. Only this time, he’s not wishing us to use our imagination or apologizing for the inadequacies of the stage. This time he’s here to explain why–to “those who have not read the story” (V.Chorus,1)–he’s got to skip some things: Henry’s return to England, fighting “rebellion” (V.Chorus,32) at home, then returning to France at the invitation of the King.
But when the first scene begins, we’re not in the French court, but in the English camp. Where we find the antagonism between Fluellen and Pistol, borne of the Welshman’s refusal to argue for Bardolph’s pardon, come to its logical conclusion: Fluellen beats Pistol and forces the man to “eat some part of (his) leek” (V.i.38). After Fluellen has completely humiliated him, Pistol is left alone to tell us what is left for him. His wife is dead; though he says, “my Doll is dead” (V.i.72), most critics believe this is an error for “my Nell” (Mistress Quickly’s name from The Second Part). Pistol decides to return to England and turn to pimping (“bawd” [V.i.81]) and stealing, and telling people the “cudgeled scars” (V.i.84) he’s received from Fluellen, he “got … in the Gallia wars” (V.i.85).
The second and last (sort-of) scene of the act and play takes us to the French court where Henry and his followers meet with the French leaders (including the Queen and Princess Katherine). After a solemn discourse on peace by Burgundy, Henry says that France “must buy that peace // With full accord to all our just demands” (V.ii.70-71). King Charles is amenable and Henry sends Exeter to work out the specifics, while Henry stays behind to speak with Katherine, as “she is (his) capital demand” (V.ii.96).
We need Act Five to link this play to the three parts of Henry the Sixth… which means that we need a baby, and for that a marriage, and for that a wooing.
The vast remainder of the scene is the wooing of Katherine by Henry. He begins in verse, but when her response is in broken English, he moves to prose (as if verse would have been wasted on her). It’s charming scene, partially in French, partially in English. It’s a perfect scene for a romantic comedy. So it fits, as we said that the HISTORY Henry the Fifth ended with the close of Act Four. This is a different play, one that softens his threatening character, humanizes his heroic legend.
He woos her (“But, Kate, dost thou understand thus much English? Canst though love me?” [V.ii.191-193]). He convinces her to marry (“England is thine, Ireland is thine, France is thine, and Henry Plantagenet is thine!” [V.ii.238-239]). He even convinces her to break custom and give him a per-marital kiss (“nice customs curtsy to great kings” [V.ii.268]).
The play ends with one last Chorus, an Epilogue, where he states that his “all-unable pen” (V.Epilogue,1) has mangled the “full course of (history’s) glory” (V.Epilogue, 4). In this sonnet (the only Chorus that takes the form), the Chorus tells of the birth of Henry the Sixth, “whose state so many had the managing // That they lost France and made his England bleed” (V.Epilogue, 11-12), a story “which oft our stage hath shown” (V.Epilogue, 13) in the first tetralogy.
And the cycle is complete.