Henry V, Bedford, and Gloucester are in discussion at the English camp. Though he admits they’re in danger, Henry stays optimistic: he notes that by rendering the English sleepless with worry, the French have turned the English into early risers, which is good for their health. Erpingham enters and, after borrowing Erpingham’s cloak, Henry says he needs time alone to think and sends the men away to his tent. Alone on stage, Henry marvels at himself: “God-a-mercy, old heart! Thou speak’st cheerfully.”
As king, Henry is responsible for keeping his people’s spirits high and projecting confident assurance in England. Yet Henry’s private exclamation to himself suggests that his public appearance and public language are separate from his personal perspective. He is not just king. He is knowingly performing his role as king because it is necessary to hide his inner doubt in order to keep his men strong and optimistic.
Pistol enters and, not recognizing Henry V under Erpingham’s cloak, asks who he is. Henry claims he is a Welsh gentleman soldier named Harry le Roy. Pistol gives him the fig for being Fluellen’s friend, then exits. Fluellen and Gower enter. Fluellen is scolding Gower for speaking too loudly, insisting that everyone spoke softly in Pompey’s war camp, and dismissing Gower’s protests that the French are loud too. “If the enemy is an ass,” Fluellen asks, “is it meet…that we should also…be an ass?” They exit. Henry reflects that Fluellen is brave and responsible.
As in Act 1 scene 2, Henry assumes a false appearance, but now that false appearance extends to his very identity, not just his behavior. Henry’s fake name is a play on words: ‘le Roi’ means ‘the King’ in French and Henry thus picks himself a surname that sounds like “King” in a crude French accent. In this case, by disguising himself, Henry can cease to be king for a while, and in so doing can reveal his own true thoughts and more easily access the true thoughts of his men (who would never reveal their true thoughts to their actual king—they would instead perform as model soldiers). Fluellen, Henry observes, may sometimes seem like a blowhard but he is ultimately a good war captain.
Three common soldiers - John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams - enter and ask Henry V who he is. Henry says he is a soldier under Erpingham, who thinks the English troops are doomed but won’t tell the king so the sight of a fearful king won’t “dishearten his army.” Henry confides that he himself thinks “the king is but a man, as I am,” as susceptible to human limitations and fear as anyone else.
Henry speaks candidly to the theme of appearances while disguised by a false appearance. By expressing doubt in England’s troops and in his kingly powers, Henry reveals his truest and innermost feelings to the common soldiers, feelings that he would never articulate in his role as king.
John Bates says that despite the king’s appearance of courage, he no doubt wishes he were back at home. Henry V protests that the king is glad to be here. Bates wishes, then, that the king were here alone and could be ransomed, sparing many men their lives. Henry says he’d gladly die for the king, since the king’s cause is just and “honourable,” but Bates and Williams remain unconvinced that the war is for good. Williams, especially, doubts the king’s choice to risk so many men’s lives: “if the cause be not good,” Williams speculates, “the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make” on Judgment Day.
Bates and Williams express a common soldier’s perspective on the war: for them, the war is not bound up in the king’s concern for inherited lineage, sovereignty, and glory. The war is simply something that will definitely kill many men and may kill them. From this perspective, the king’s decision to wage war may not only be wrong, but could even be considered a sin punishable by God on Judgment Day.
Henry V is indignant, insisting the king is not responsible for a soldier’s death just as a father who sends his son on a voyage is not responsible if that son dies in sin at sea: “…they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services.” Besides, Henry continues, no matter the purity of the king’s motives for a war, his soldiers will have sinned in the past. “War is [God’s] beadle, war is [God’s] vengeance,” and it’s not the king’s fault if the soldiers die damned: “every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.” Bates and Williams concede that men must answer for their own sins, but Williams still scoffs at Henry’s faith in the king. He and Henry exchange gloves and agree to fight if they meet in the future. Bates, Court, and Williams exit.
Speaking in the appearance of a fellow common soldier, Henry airs his views as king. From Henry’s perspective, the king asks soldiers to fight but he doesn’t ask them to die. Their deaths, he claims, are their own business and are determined by the kinds of lives they lived before the war (sinful or not) rather than by the circumstances of dying in battle. Williams and Bates agree that the men’s sins are their own, but are less agreeable that the king’s will is so tightly bound to God’s will that the king bears no responsibility for the men’s deaths. (This argument may also indicate why it was so important to Henry to have the Church’s blessing on the war—because once he had it he can view himself as following God’s will in pursuing it).
Henry V soliloquizes on the difficulties of being king: the king must bear the burden of everyone else’s problems and has none of the “infinite heart’s-ease…that private men enjoy.” The only thing that distinguishes the king from other men is worthless, “idle ceremony.” “What kind of god art thou,” Henry asks, “that suffer’st more of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?” For the king must often withstand “poisoned flattery” and ceremony provides no comfort. He envies the peaceful sleep of a common laborer, “who with a body filled and vacant mind, gets him to rest.” The laborer is able to enjoy peace while the king, who must ever maintain that peace, cannot.
Henry’s soliloquy affords insight into the personal toll that the kingship takes on him. The roles Henry has to play leave no room for individual leisure and deny him peace of mind. Henry considers this absurd: the king, who is supposedly the most vaulted, pampered member of the kingdom, is in fact the most stressed and the longest suffering. Meanwhile, the king has no special defenses or superpowers to manage that stress: the only thing he has that common men lack is sham ceremony, which is in reality no help at all.
Erpingham enters and calls Henry V to meet with his nobles. He exits and Henry prays, asking God to fill his troops with courage and to forget his father’s wrongdoings in obtaining the crown. He reminds God that he has given King Richard’s body a new burial, has paid five hundred poor people to mourn him twice a day, has built two chantries dedicated to Richard, and that he will do more, “imploring pardon.” Gloucester enters and Henry exits with him.
Henry’s prayer points to the effect past kings have on the role of the present king. Henry feels he has to continue to repent for the wrongdoings of his father, King Henry IV, who deposed his predecessor, King Richard II, by bloody means. In some ways, by attacking France, Henry V is building a kind of historical bridge to his great uncle Edward—a bridge that bypasses his father who came to the throne perhaps illegally—to a great monarch who came to the throne legitimately. In this way, By attacking France, it can be argued that Henry V is trying to legitimize his own holding on the English throne.