Act Four of Henry the Fifth begins with, you guessed it, another Chorus, this one introducing us to the night before the climactic battle, with its “creeping murmur” (IV.Chorus, 2) and “hum of either army” (IV.Chorus, 5). Henry, “the royal captain of this ruined band” (IV.Chorus.29), according to the Chorus, “visits all his host, // Bids them good morrow with a modest smile” (IV.Chorus, 32-33), and his presence allows his men to “pluck… comfort from his looks” (IV.Chorus, 42).
This sounds great, but when we get to Act Four, Scene One, and we see Henry in the camp, he has to remind his younger brother Gloucester, “‘Tis true that we are in great danger; // The greater therefore should our courage be” (IV.i.1-2). So much for plucking comfort from his looks. While he sends his brothers and nobles to bed, he must stay awake and with his “bosom must debate awhile” (IV.i.31). He takes a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpington and heads into the camp to talk and listen to his soldiers.
In disguise he meets Pistol, and when he questions the status of the king, Pistol says,
The king's a bawcock, and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant.
I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string
I love the lovely bully.
The love he proclaims gives us reason to believe that he wasn’t around to see the King refuse to pardon Bardolph (as some directors do, against the stage direction of Act Three), as he still holds a grudge against Fluellen, one that makes him want to “knock (Fluellen’s) leek about his pate” (IV.i.54). Pistol leaves, and Fluellen and Gower come and go, and Henry watches it all. Henry is still in disguise (kind of hard for his men to pluck comfort from his LOOKS when he doesn’t look like himself); he then happens upon a group of soldiers, and they discuss the merits of the campaign. Throughout the discussion with Pistol and now this one, Henry walks a fine line between acting the role of the regular soldier and hinting at his true identity–he calls himself Harry Le Roy to Pistol (a play on “le roi” the French word for “king”); he tells Bates, “I think the king is but a man, as I am” (IV.i.100).
When Henry posits that the king’s “cause (is) just and his quarrel honorable” (IV.i.124-125), he meets some resistance from Bates and Williams, who claims that “if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us” (IV.i.29-130). And thus begins a debate on the merits of free will and duty to king, or as Henry puts it: “Every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own” (IV.i.172-173). When the debate moves from duty to the question of Henry ransoming himself, the king states, “If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after” (IV.i.191). And this causes an argument between king and Williams, and they promise to quarrel when the war is over. When the soldiers leave and Henry is left alone, he moves from his dialogue in prose and returns to verse in a soliloquy in which he finds, finally, the true burden of kingship:
I am a king that find thee, and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread
While the subject’s mind is vacant, the king’s is filled with the knowledge that his decisions will decide the fate of the subjects. And now that he has them in France, the night before what he feels with be the climatic battle, he prays to the “God of battles” (IV.i.282), imploring Him to steel his subjects’ minds against the fear of greater numbers. He asks that on this day he not be punished for the usurping sin of his father. He has tried to make amends and promises “more will (he) do” (IV.i.296). And the scene ends with the breaking day.
Scene Two takes us to the French, up and ready for battle. Arrogant, they discuss their “superfluous lackeys and … peasants” (IV.ii.26), and then they head to the fight.
Scene Three takes us back to the camp of the English, as the nobles discuss the horrible odds they are facing: “five to one” (IV.iii.4). When Westmoreland wishes that they had more men, Henry disagrees,
If we are marked to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honor.
And so begins the Saint Crispin Day’s speech. We’ll cover it in more depth later in the month, suffice to say, Henry goes as far to say that he’s willing to send any man home who doesn’t want to die with them. Even if they die, they’ll be remembered:
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbous,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
Glory, honor, remembrance… these are the things that matter. And now his “band of brothers” (IV.iii.61) are ready to go into battle. But before they can build on the momentum of the speech, however, Montjoy returns with another request of surrender and ransom. This time, however, Henry is not as polite: “I pray thee, bear my former answer back: // Bid them achieve me and then sell my bones” (IV.iii.91-92). He then sends Montjoy back, and bids the soldiers “march away” (IV.iii.132) to battle.
Scene Four is a weirdly comic scene on the battlefield, in which Pistol captures a French soldier, but cannot communicate with him until the Boy arrives to translate. After the Boy sends the prisoner away with Pistol, he tells us that not only Bardolph, but Nym, too, has been “hanged” (IV.iv.72). The Boy knows the danger of war, as he needs to go back to guard the “luggage of (the) camp. The French might have a good prey of us, if he knew it” (IV.iv.74-75).
The short Scene Five takes us back to the crestfallen French. Their “ranks (have been) broke” (IV.v.7), so much so that the Dauphin’s only solution is to “stab ourselves” (IV.v.8). Orleans has a better idea: “We are enow yet living in the field // To smother the English in our throngs” (IV.v.20-21). And the French go off once more to the field.
In Scene Six, we’re there when Henry learns that his younger brother York has been killed, and Suffolk, too. The French still won’t leave the field, and when Henry hears a new alarum from the enemy, he assumes “the French have reinforced their scattered men” (IV.vi.36). He then gives an order that’s unexpected: “Then every soldier kill his prisoners! // Give the word through” (IV.vi.37-38).
When we find Fluellen and Gower in Scene Seven, we find the Boy’s fears realized: “there’s not a boy left alive” (IV.vii.5), and to Fluellen this is an acceptable reason for Henry to “hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat” (IV.vii.9-10). This is an interesting juxtaposition to the last scene. It would be nice to think that the reason the order was given was because of the killing of the boys; but it isn’t the case. The scene continues with a bizarre conversation between the two professional soldiers, comparing their king to Alexander the Great, who, Fluellen recounts, “kill(ed) his best friend” (IV.vii.38). When Gower disagrees, Fluellen reminds his comrade that Henry “turned away the fat knight” (IV.vii.46-47). The implication is clear, and not a surprise to us as an audience.
NOW, he’s upset. His brother’s been killed. His former tavern-mates, Bardolph and Nym, have been hanged. But it’s only with the death of the Boy, that he becomes angry… It is that the Boy is the only one he can relate to?
Henry then arrives, and upon seeing the Boy, exclaims, “I was not angry since I came to France // Until this instant” (IV.vii.54-55). He sends a messenger to challenge the French still up on the hill. But before this can happen, Montjoy comes again, but this time not for ransom, but to “book (their) dead” (IV.vii.72). This means the battle is over. It doesn’t make sense to Henry; Montjoy has to explain it to him: “The day is (Henry’s)” (IV.vii.85).
As the counting of the dead on both sides takes place, there is a pause for levity. Henry gives Fluellen his glove, and tells him to find the man with the matching glove (that would be Williams from earlier in the Act); Fluellen goes off looking for a fight, and Henry tells Warwick to follow him and make sure “there be no harm between them” (IV.vii.176).
The eighth and final scene of Act Four depicts the confrontation between Williams and Fluellen, and the King’s intercession between the two. Henry ends up having Exeter fill the glove with crowns and give it to Williams. After this interlude, Montjoy returns with the number of the dead. Ten thousand French killed… on the other side: less than thirty English killed.
There’s only one way to explain it: “O, God, thy arm was here!” (IV.viii.104).