Henry the Fifth opens, like The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, with a Prologue. But this time, it’s not Rumor who speaks, but the Chorus, the voice of authority.
Only an authority would realize that no matter what Shakespeare’s strengths, he cannot truly bring history to the stage. Instead, the Chorus implores the audience to fill in the blank spaces of the production with their “imaginary forces” (Prologue, 18). There will be “imperfections” (Prologue, 23), he says, but he sets the stage masterfully,
deck(ing) our kings,
Carry(ing) them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass
— Prologue, 28-31
From the Prologue, we are sent in Act One, Scene One, not to the king, or to battles, but rather to the scheming of two bishops, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. They are concerned by a “bill” (I.i.1) that they had been fighting and that had been pushed aside in the final “scrambling and unquiet” (I.i.4) months of Henry the Fourth’s rule. But with his death, the bill is up again, and we understand why they are so concerned. Should the bill pass, the Church will “lose the better half of (its) possession” (I.i.8). But how to prevent it, Ely asks.
Then in a moment akin to two heavyweight boxers feeling each other out in the opening rounds of a bout, we get this exchange:
The king is full of grace and fair regard.
And a true lover of the holy church.
Canterbury then recounts how Hal’s past didn’t portend such a graceful adulthood; in heavenly terms (“like an angel” [I.i.28], “Adam” [I.i.29], “paradise” [I.i.30], “celestial” [I.i.31], and “reformation in a flood” [I.i.33]), the Archbishop praises the new king, and when Biblical references fail him, he describes Henry as a neo-Alexander–“the Gordian knot of it he will unloose” (I.i.46).
When Ely brings Canterbury back to the notion of the bill, the Archbishop says that to the bill Henry “seems indifferent” (I.i.72). It is up to them, then, to present to the king new opportunities, “as touching France” (I.i.79). And this is perfectly timed, as they speak of the French Ambassador’s current visit.
In Act One, Scene Two, we see that French Ambassador’s visit, but not before King Henry questions the bishops on their opinions on France and the “law Salic” (I.ii.11); he warns them that they must think twice if they are going to “wake the sleeping sword of war” (I.ii.22).
Canterbury then goes off on a long speech, outlining the Salic Law that supposedly barred Henry from any claim to the French throne–no monarch can be king of those areas of France, if his legitimacy comes through a female ancestor. The French claim itself is through a woman, making them hypocrites; plus the law itself is wrong, as he states with a reference to “the Book of Numbers… When the man dies, let the inheritance // Descend unto the daughter” (I.ii.99, 100-101). The Bishop of Ely concurs, as does Henry’s uncle, Exeter.
Henry has already thought this out, though, and he questions whether or not the Scottish rebels will take advantage of a French invasion. The threesome quiet his doubts, and Henry–as he calls for the French Ambassador–states,
Now are we well resolved; and, by God's help,
And yours, the noble sinews of our power,
France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe,
Or break it all to pieces: or there we'll sit,
Ruling in large and ample empery
O'er France and all her almost kingly dukedoms,
Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn,
Tombless, with no remembrance over them:
Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipp'd with a waxen epitaph.
it’s a good thing he wins, huh? whoops, SPOILER ALERT! …
Not only is he ready to invade France, but he’s willing to go all in, to win all or nothing at all, and either way let history tell the tale. The Ambassador from the Dauphin of France arrives with a gift and a warning: “let the dukedoms that (Henry) claim(s) // Hear no more of (him)” (I.ii.257-258). The gift is even more insulting: tennis balls for a play-king.
Henry, however, is NOT amused:
We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have march'd our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.
And we understand him well,
How he comes o'er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them.
But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king and show my sail of greatness
When I do rouse me in my throne of France:
For that I have laid by my majesty
And plodded like a man for working-days,
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.
So get you hence in peace; and tell the Dauphin
His jest will savour but of shallow wit,
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it.
Convey them with safe conduct. Fare you well.
— I.ii.260-264, 267-269, 274-289, 294-298
It’s a calm, but intense speech… and note the little bit about “dazzl(ing) all the eyes of France” … a nice little throwback to his first soliloquy in The First Part, where he predicts his “reformation, glitt’ring over (his) fault” (1HIV, I.ii.206).
If he wasn’t sure about invading France before, he certainly is now.