Act Two of Henry the Fifth begins in the same manner as the first act, with the Chorus pushing the plot forward. After we hear that Henry is ready to lead an expedition to France, the Chorus tells us that “all the youth of England are on fire” (II.Chorus,1). The Chorus then tells of the plot of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey against the king, hired by “the gilt of France (O guilt indeed)” (II.Chorus,26).
Only when the Chorus ends, and we get to Act Two, Scene One, it’s NOT to “Southampton (where) we shift our scene” (II.Chorus,42), but rather to where all our previous Act Two’s (from The First and Second Parts of Henry the Fourth) have gone: the tavern. Here, we find “Lieutenant Bardolph” (II.i.2) and “Corporal Nym” (II.i.1), where the latter bemoans Mistress Quickly’s marriage to Pistol, despite Nym’s being “trothplight” (II.i.18) or betrothed to her. When “Ancient Pistol” (II.i.24) and Quickly enter, it’s obvious from all the ranks, that it’s not just the “youth” of England that are on fire for war, but the old men as well.
There’s the understandable antagonism between Nym and Pistol, and while Mistress Quickly does engage in her usual malapropism (“we shall see willful adultery and murder committed” [II.i.35], with adultery mistaken for battery), the tone is grittier, darker, without the comic riffing of the past. Something is missing. Or rather, someONE is missing. Despite the promise of the Epilogue of The Second Part, Sir John is nowhere to be found. When the “Boy” enters and calls for them to “come to (his) master” (II.i.79), we might infer that the speaker is Falstaff’s page from The Second Part; but when Quickly re-enters the scene and calls for them all to rush to “Sir John” (II.i.112), it’s clear that Falstaff is the missing man. It’s also clear why the old fat man is dying: “His heart is fracted and corroborate” (II.i.119), presumably by King Henry, who by his rejection of Falstaff at the end of The Second Part, has “run bad humors on the knight” (II.i.116). The scene ends with the old friends leaving to pay their final respects to Falstaff.
Act Two, Scene Two takes us to the Southampton promised by the Chorus, and the King and the traitorous trio. The treason is already known by insider royals, and the king’s own brother Bedford is unsure of Henry’s allowing them to hang around. But it seems that Henry has a plan. A trap, to be more specific. When the king and the traitors arrive, Henry asks them about their opinions regarding the French campaign. Each tells of their loyalty and the promise for success. Then Henry asks his uncle to release “the main committed yesterday // That railed against our person” (II.ii.40-41). The traitors argue against the release, saying that the guilty should be punished.
by the way, it’s interesting that in Orson Welles’ film Falstaff, that reference is meant to point to Falstaff’s release… though there’s no real textual evidence to support it…
Henry hands each of the traitors what they presume are their military orders, and watches their reactions as they “lose // So much complexion” (II.ii.72-73). The trap has been sprung, and when they beg for mercy, Henry tells them,
The mercy that was quick in us but late,
By your own counsel is suppressed and killed:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy
There is no mercy, and each confesses his part. It’s interesting that Cambridge says that “the gold of France did not seduce” (II.ii.155) him, but rather hints of another “motive” (II.ii.156), most likely the placement of Edmund Mortimer on the throne (remember him from The First Part… Mortimer was his father-in-law). The traitors are taken off to their deaths, and Henry readies for his invasion: “No King of England, if not King of France!” (II.ii.193).
Act Two, Scene Three, takes us back to the tavern, where the three old tavern-mates, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol prepare to head to Southampton and the wars, devastated as “Falstaff he is dead” (II.iii.5). The three, along with Quickly and the boy, tell stories of the old man’s life and death. And if there’s sadness in their arrival, their departure is just as sad (Nym “cannot kiss [his old love Quickly], that is the humor of it” [II.iii.58]). And we’re off to the war.
The final scene of Act Two takes us to France, but not to the battlefield. Instead, we find ourselves in the French court. The current king, Charles VI, as he prepares for “the English with their full power” (II.iv.1), seems mentally distracted, focused on past defeats at the hands of the “fatal and neglected English” (II.iv.13).
His son, the Dauphin (he of the tennis balls gag gift of Act One), wants “no show of fear” (II.iv.23) as England is ruled “by a vain, giddy, shallow, humourous youth” (II.iv.28).
uh, pot meet kettle… you’re black.
It doesn’t seem to have the effect intended, as Charles goes back in history to recount how Henry’s ancestor “Edward Black Prince of Wales” (II.iv.56) was the last English conqueror in France.
If all this sounds like Shakespeare’s usual flag-waving French-bashing… it is. And it doesn’t end there.
Henry’s uncle Exeter arrives with Henry’s demands:
That you divest yourself, and lay apart
The borrowed glories that by gift of heaven,
By law of nature and of nations, 'longs
To him and to his heirs; namely, the crown
If Charles doesn’t, Exeter promises “bloody constraint” (II.iv.97). Charles promises to “consider this further” (II.iv.113), and Exeter asks if the Dauphin is present, to whom Henry sends
Scorn and defiance; slight regard, contempt,
And any thing that may not misbecome
The mighty sender, doth he prize you at.
When the Dauphin responds with yet another attack on Henry’s youth, Exeter says that the French prince will
find a difference,
As we his subjects have in wonder found,
Between the promise of his greener days
And these he masters now
The English and the audience know Henry is different now. [seems the Dauphin read only The First Part of Henry the Fourth…]
And the second act ends with a little faux suspense as we await the French response.