Henry V enters, along with lords Humphrey, Bedford, Clarence, Warwick, Westmorland, Exeter, and attendants. Henry V asks for Canterbury to be sent in so he can speak with him before he meets with the French ambassadors. Ely and Canterbury enter and Henry V asks Canterbury to clarify whether or not the English throne has a legitimate claim to ruling France. He urges Canterbury for God’s sake to be truthful, reminding him that the decision to go to war against France will result in great bloodshed. Henry V says he will believe whatever Canterbury says.
Canterbury was right to suspect Henry’s interest in his claim. Henry’s wariness about war’s violence introduces the theme of warfare and illustrates Henry’s mature and compassionate perspective on battle: Henry understands that war is a dangerous, bloody enterprise, not just a game to win glory. Henry’s willingness to trust the archbishop’s words demonstrates his devout faith and sense of himself as a Christian king.
Canterbury proceeds at great and complicated length to explain that Henry V has a legitimate right to rule France. The confusion about that right is due to the Salic law (which bars women from inheriting royal standing). Though the French claim that the Salic law applies to France, Canterbury explains that the law in fact applies only to Germany and thus women in France are eligible inheritors. He points out, too, that the current French royalty owe their own positions to royal blood inherited through female lines. Thus, they have no legal ground to deny Henry V’s inheritance.
Canterbury interprets Salic law to England’s advantage, claiming that “Salic land” (in which the law would apply) refers to Germany rather than to France. The French, of course, claim the opposite, interpreting the law to their own king’s advantage. The legal truth is hazy but the monarchs’ desires are clear: both kings want to rule France.
When Henry V wonders whether the claim can be made in good conscience, Canterbury insists that even the Bible condones female inheritance. He urges Henry V to “invoke [his ancestors’] warlike spirit” and claim France. Ely, Exeter, and Westmoreland all pipe in, encouraging Henry V to live up to his ancestors, “the former lions of your blood,” and wage war. Canterbury promises that the clergy will help raise the greatest army in English history.
Knowing Henry’s respect for religion, Canterbury draws on Biblical evidence to support his claim. Canterbury and the rest of Henry’s advisors all expect Henry to be persuaded, too, by an appeal to his lineage. A king, they believe, is shaped and beholden to the royal forefathers from whom he’s inherited his throne.
Henry V explains that waging a war on France would also require readying defenses against the inevitable Scottish invasion. Canterbury insists that the Scottish threat is insignificant, reminding Henry of Scotland’s failed attack on England during King Edward’s war in France. Exeter reassures Henry that while “the armed hand doth fight abroad, th’advised head defends itself at home.” Canterbury reiterates Exeter’s point, illustrating that such a division of duties is only natural by comparing the kingdom to a beehive, whose inhabitants perform different tasks in cooperation towards a common goal. Henry V sends for the French ambassadors, announcing that he has resolved to go to war to claim France.
Again, Henry’s realistic perspective on war (here, his understanding that an offense waged away from home always leaves home vulnerable to others’ attacks) makes him wary. Having drawn on Biblical evidence, Canterbury now draws on evidence from the natural world (God’s creation) to convince Henry that war is necessary, normal, and right. (Though a war, of course, is no necessity, will exile many men from their normal lives, and may not even be right.) Still, Canterbury successfully convinces Henry.
The French ambassadors enter. One ambassador asks Henry V whether he can deliver a message from the Dauphin (the son of the French King Charles) straightforwardly or whether he should temper it. Henry V replies that he is “no tyrant, but a Christian king” whose temper is as firmly controlled as his prisoners.
The two phrasing options – blunt vs. euphemistic – that the ambassador offers introduces the theme of language and shows how closely that theme is related to the theme of appearances. For Henry, being a Christian king means being even-tempered and rational.
The French ambassadors deliver the message: in response to Henry V’s claim on several French dukedoms, the Dauphin warns Henry that “you cannot revel into dukedoms [in France].” He asks Henry to forgo his claim and sends a box of treasure more suitable to Henry’s spirit. Henry opens the box and finds it full of tennis balls. He tells the ambassadors to tell the Dauphin that he has underestimated Henry, that Henry has become a great and powerful king, and that the Dauphin will regret teasing Henry once he sees his tennis balls turned “to gun-stones” and hears the French people curse his joke for generations. Henry declares he will have his revenge and claim his God-given right to France. The French ambassadors depart. Henry calls on everyone to prepare for war.
The Dauphin sends Henry tennis balls to mock Henry’s old appearance as a frivolous teenager (an appearance that the Dauphin believes still applies to Henry’s character). The tennis balls, for the Dauphin, symbolize Henry’s foolishness and love of games. Yet Henry’s anger and fearsome rhetoric transform the mocking tennis balls into a different symbol altogether. No longer a cavalier playboy, Henry has revealed himself to be a formidable king. If he used to sling tennis balls, he now slings gun-stones, and he threatens to shoot such balls-turned-gun-stones right back at France.