The Chorus sets the scene before each act of the play, using striking visual imagery to instruct the audience in how to picture the setting. In the Act I Prologue at the very beginning of the play, for example, the Chorus states:
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high uprearèd and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth,
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings
Within the small circumference of the stage, then, the chorus commands the audience to imagine two “mighty monarchies” that are represented by “uprearèd and abutting fronts,” or in other words, high and intimidating rocky cliffs, separated only by a “perilous narrow ocean.” Because there are no actual animals on the stage, the Chorus further requests that the audience picture horses “printing their proud hoofs” into the ground when horses are mentioned in the play’s dialogue. This small visual detail adds specificity to the picture that the Chorus attempts to paint in the mind’s eye. So too does the Chorus instruct the audience to “divide one man” into a “thousand parts,” imagining each actor on the stage as being a thousand men instead, in order to better appreciate the full scale of warfare that cannot be accurately represented onstage.
The imagery provided by the Chorus primarily invokes the sense of sight, as it is the audience’s own imagination that must “deck” or decorate the scene. Through such imagery, the Chorus instructs the audience to picture the scene vividly despite the relatively scarce scenery used in Elizabethan theater. The primary function of the Chorus is to compensate for the “imperfections” or limitations of the stage by more fully immersing the audience in the scenes and actions of the play.
The Duke of Exeter, uncle to King Henry V, employs vivid imagery in a speech to the King of France:
Deliver up the crown and to take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws, and on your head
Turning the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries,
The dead men’s blood, the privèd maidens’
For husbands, fathers, and betrothèd lovers
That shall be swallowed in this controversy.
Speaking boldly before the French court, the Duke’s chilling speech draws both from the sense of sight—in particular, the personifying image of war’s “vasty” or gaping jaws biting down on the heads of widows, children, young maidens, and men of all ages—and also from the sense of sound—of “orphan’s cries” and “maidens’ groans.” Wielding imagery as a weapon, the Duke imparts an impression of the English army as a vast and unstoppable machine of death, grinding up everything and everyone in its path regardless of age or gender. The Duke employs this dark and morbid imagery in order to paint a disturbing picture of the horrors of war, thus encouraging the French King to surrender his throne to Henry peacefully, as a “mercy” to his own subjects who would be spared the bloodshed to come.
King Henry employs horrifying and violent imagery in his famous speech following the Siege of Harfleur. Threatening unimaginable violence upon the town should the Governor of Harfleur decline to surrender peacefully, Henry states:
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds
Henry mobilizes the senses of sight, touch, and sound in order to paint a hellish picture of war. He piles gruesome image upon gruesome image—of heads smashed against walls and babies impaled on spikes. So too does the King call upon the Governor to imagine the sound of his “shrill-shrieking daughters” as they are violated by “blind and bloody” soldiers, and the “howls” of “mad mothers” that are loud enough to “break the clouds.”
Above all, his language here strategically highlights familial bonds—daughters, fathers, infants, and mothers—threatening not just the destruction of individuals, but of the interpersonal relationships that constitute the very fabric of any society. Henry is ultimately successful in his attempt to pressure the town to surrender without bloodshed, though his willingness to deploy such obscene imagery stands in stark contrast to the expectations of chivalry—the social and moral code traditionally followed by medieval knights.