Act Three: Lessons in English War and Language

Act Three of Henry the Fifth again begins with the narration of the Chorus. As Act Two ended, we seemed on a collision course with war, and since war is difficult to portray on the stage, the Chorus focuses on getting the audience to use their imagination to piece out the presentation of war: “Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege” (III.Chorus, 25). The Chorus even touches upon the little suspense that hung in the air at the end of the last scene:


Suppose the ambassador from the French comes back;
Tells Harry that the king doth offer him
Katharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry,
Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.
The offer likes not: and the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
And down goes all before them.

— III.Chorus, 28-34

So we know that France doesn’t want war, they want to deal (enough to make the princess part of the bargain)–but Henry goes to war instead. The final image is that the “devilish cannon” can blast down all.

Only we find that this isn’t really the case, as Act Three, Scene One begins with Henry urging his soldiers back into battle: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; // Or close the wall up with our English dead” (III.i.1-2). They’ve attacked, been pushed back, and now Henry has to urge them into battle again. So much for the cannons knocking down “all before them.” Henry’s rhetorical tactic here is to bolster their bravery, to get them to “imitate the action of the tiger” (III.i.6). When that doesn’t work immediately, he moves on to appealing to their nationalist pride: “On, on, you noblest English. // Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!” (III.i.17-18). He succeeds, and the men charge “On, on, on, on, on! to the breach” (III.ii.1).

In the second scene, we see the less heroic members of the army, the tavern-mates, as Nym tells Bardolph, “Pray thee, corporal, stay: the knocks are too hot; and, for mine own part, I have not a case of lives” (III.ii.3-4). A Welsh officer Fluellen forces them into the fight, leaving the Boy behind to tell us that what we already assumed—his tavern-mates are cowards (having “a killing tongue and a quiet sword” [III.ii.33]) and thieves (who will “steal anything” [III.ii.40]). The Boy sees their faults and realizes that–like Hal–he “must leave them, and seek some better service” (III.ii.50).

After the Boy leaves, we hear real soldiers converse, and while they may be professionals, that doesn’t mean there isn’t friction, especially between the nations of the “united” kingdom. If they did have a war to bring them together, then they’d be at each other’s throats. Lucky for them, there are other “throats to be cut, and works to be done” (III.ii.110-111). [Think of Henry the Fourth’s advice to Hal: to busy “giddy minds” with foreign wars… whose is the giddy mind?]

In Act Three, Scene Three, Henry calls for the mayor of Harfleur to surrender, and is not a kind imploring. We’ll be covering this speech (III.iii.1-43) in much greater detail later in the month, but suffice to say it is filled with threats:

  • I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur // Till in her ashes she lie buried.
  • mowing like grass // Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants
  • your pure maidens fall into the hand // Of hot and forcing violation
  • heady murder, spoil and villainy
  • Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters
  • Your fathers taken by the silver beards, // And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls
  • Your naked infants spitted upon pikes

He closes his threat, “What say you? will you yield, and this avoid, // Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed?” (III.iii.42-43), and the mayor, without the assistance promised by the Dauphin, surrenders. Just so we know that his speech was just that, words, Henry then tells his uncle Exeter to “use mercy to them all” (III.iii.54).

Act Three, Scene Four takes us back to the French palace, where Princess Katherine asks her lady Alice for an English lesson. Knowing of her father’s offer of her hand in marriage (combined with news of Henry’s successes in battle) must have brought the realization to Katherine that “en peu de temps” (III.iv.37), there is very little time. Katherine asks Alice how to say different body parts in French, and it ends bawdily with “foot” and “gown” (for robe)… why is this bawdy? Because “foot” is a homonym for “foutre” (French for the F bomb) and “gown” is a homonym for “count” (French for, well, you get the picture). A cute yet bawdy scene.

But it’s a short-lived respite, though, as we move down the hall to a meeting of King Charles, the Constable of France, and the Dauphin. Things are not going well, and the Constable fears having to “give (their) vineyards to a barbarous people” (III.v.4). It’s even worse, as the Dauphin admits,

Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.

— III.v.28-31

It’s more hilarious Frenchy-bashing (to the English), and it’s enough to rouse the king to call for an expedition to

Go down upon (Henry), you have power enough,
And in a captive chariot into Rouen
Bring him our prisoner.

— III.v.53-55

Act Three, Scene Six takes us to the English army, where we learn that “aunchient lieutenant” (III.vi.12) Pistol has done “gallant service” (III.vi.15). [Is Pistol a killer as well as a thief? Remember his volatility in earlier scenes and that a man was killed in his and Doll Tearsheet’s presence in The Second Part] When Pistol arrives, he tries to use his newly won respect to ask for a favor: he wants Fluellen to beg Exeter to pardon Bardolph, who has robbed a church, and has been sentenced to death. When Fluellen refuses, however, Pistol gives him the Elizabethan version of the finger, “figo” (III.vi.56), and exits. Henry then arrives, and asks Fluellen how many men have been lost, and Fluellen says,

I think the duke hath lost never a man, but one that is like to be executed for robbing a church, one Bardolph

— III.vi.96-98

Expecting a royal pardon? Don’t count on it. Henry not only refuses to pardon, but states that “all such offenders (to be) so cut off” (III.vi.104).

The French herald Montjoy then arrives to ask Henry to surrender and consider what ransom he would be willing to pay. Henry politely refuses, saying that his only ransom will be his own “frail and worthless” (III.vi.152) body. Instead, he says that he would like to have passage to march his army to Calais; if not, then “We shall your tawny ground with your red blood // Discolor” (III.vi.159-160).

The last scene of the third act takes us to the French camp, where the nobles look forward to the next day’s battle. They’re confident, arrogant, foppish, and thoroughly French (to the eyes of the English). They compare horses and shields, and pity the poor English.

Nothing like dramatic irony leading up to a battle, right?

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