Henry V


William Shakespeare

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Henry V: Act 3, Scene 3 Summary & Analysis

Read our modern English translation of this scene.
The Governor of Harfleur and citizens stand on the town walls with the English troops below them. Henry V enters and asks the Governor whether he will surrender, warning him that this is his last chance for mercy. If the Governor doesn’t take this chance, Henry promises to demolish Harfleur, unleashing soldiers “with conscience wide as hell” to rape, kill, and pillage. “What is it then to me,” Henry asks, “if impious war, array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends, do, with his smirch’d complexion, all fell feats enlink’d to waste and esolation?” He paints a gruesomely graphic portrait of the consequences: unstoppable soldiers brutalizing Harfleur’s vulnerable population, impaling infants on pikes, beating aged fathers, and raping daughters.
Henry’s speech demonstrates again what a powerful tool language is on his tongue. Yet here, that power is vicious and combative rather than supportive and sustaining. His imagery assaults the minds of the French and the audience alike and constitutes the most graphically violent portion of the play. That violence is perpetrated by words (i.e. mental action) rather than by bodies (i.e. physical action), but its effect is no less palpable or terrifying. Henry’s language, used as a weapon, fills its listeners with fear and makes them cringe. Henry’s threat also feels genuine—as a king representing and building his nation, he will do these things, even if a normal man might not be able to bear responsibility for such slaughter.
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Literary Devices
The Governor announces that he has gotten word from the Dauphin that France cannot raise adequate defenses at present. He will thus surrender his town to England. Henry V orders Exeter to take charge of Harfleur, fortify it against the French and treat all of its citizens mercifully.
As soon as the French surrender, Henry snaps out of aggressive mode, sheathes his (physical and linguistic) weapons, and resumes the role of merciful king that he embodied at play’s start.
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