In Southampton, Exeter, Bedford and Westmoreland discuss the king’s secret discovery of the traitors’ conspiracy and the traitors’ despicably false efforts to make themselves look loyal to the king. Henry V enters with the traitors: Scroop, Cambridge and Grey. Henry is about to board a ship to France, and Scroop, Cambridge and Grey are flattering him shamelessly, praising the English people’s utter loyalty and adoration for its king.
The conspiracy plot and the traitors’ sycophantic behavior cast a sinister light on the theme of appearances. The conspirators’ loving appearance conceals their murderous true selves. Their own falseness besmirches the perfect loyalty of the English people that they’re praising.
Henry V calls on Exeter to release a man jailed yesterday for criticizing the king while drunk. Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey insist the man must be fiercely punished, a severity which Henry attributes to their “too much love and care of me.” Henry does not heed their advice, explaining that small crimes should be shown mercy and dismissed, reserving scrutiny for capital crimes.
Though Henry knows the truth about the traitors, he strategically chooses to appear ignorant at first. This false appearance allows him to demonstrate his mercifulness while simultaneously leading the traitors’ to reveal their own viciousness.
Henry V asks who will be in charge during his absence and, when Scroop, Cambridge and Grey say that they should be left in charge, Henry hands them papers that reveal he’s discovered their conspiracy. When the three traitors ask for mercy, Henry reminds them that he has suppressed his sense of mercy on their own advice. He criticizes the traitors at elaborate length, expressing his disgust at their two-facedness and willingness to betray him for money. “…so finely bolted didst thou seem:,” says Henry, “and thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot to mark the full-fraught man and best indued with some suspicion.”
Henry discards his own false appearance to indict the traitors for theirs. His previous façade pays off as he is able to point to the traitors’ recent mercilessness and show how hypocritical they are in now asking Henry for mercy. Henry’s description of their individual wrongs tarnishing all men shows just how damaging an encounter with false appearances can be: afterwards, even the innocent start to look suspicious.
Exeter arrests Scroop, Cambridge and Grey, who each pronounce regret and repentance, begging for God’s and Henry V’s forgiveness. Henry calls on God to show them mercy. He explains that he does not seek revenge for himself but for the sake of his kingdom’s safety and in compliance with its laws. He sends them off, “poor miserable wretches,” to be executed. Henry proclaims the coming war will surely proceed smoothly since God’s grace has already revealed the treason hindering it. He takes off for France.
Again, Henry articulates how important unemotional level-headedness and impersonal, rational thinking are to his vision of himself as king. He can, as an individual man, pity and forgive the traitors. But, as king, Henry will do whatever is best for his people and his kingdom.