Act 1

The play opens with a prologue from the Chorus, whose task throughout the play is not only to encourage patriotic fervour but also to give imaginative assistance to the audience:

"Suppose within the girdle of these walls

Are now confined two mighty monarchies…

Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’th’ receiving earth."

One consequence of this device is that it is easier for us in this play than perhaps any other of Shakespeare’s to imagine ourselves watching an original performance in the Globe theatre and responding to the impressions from the stage. The first Chorus invites the audience to "deck our kings" with its thoughts, meaning that we should contribute to the bringing to life of the action with our own imaginative input.

The opening scene that follows initially seems understated after the rarefied tone of the prologue. Two bishops, rather than kings, enter and discuss a bill of law which is due to considerably reduce the church’s money. It becomes clear later in the scene that the bishops are set to encourage wars abroad as a tried and tested way to divert attention away from this bill, advancing the king certain church money to ensure they don’t lose too much. This self-seeking motivation of the churchmen is important in the wider examination of the background to war in the play, but the principal function of Canterbury and Ely in this scene is to reinforce the change of character in Henry for anyone who might not have seen Henry IV, Part II:

"The breath no sooner left his father’s body

But that his wildness, mortified in him,

Seemed to die too"

Gone is the wild and flippant Prince Hal of the previous stage incarnations; in his place we are presented with a model of Kingship almost too good to be true:

"Hear him but reason in divinity

and, all-admiring, with an inward wish

You would desire the King were made a prelate.

Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,

You would say it hath been all in all his study."

In the next scene the new thoughtful King duly calls upon Canterbury to spell out, without embellishment, exactly what his claim is to the throne of France, warning the Archbishop to "take heed…how you awake our sleeping sword of war". Canterbury, in a long and formal speech, clarifies the nature of the Salic Law of France, which states that the throne may not pass by the female line. Henry’s claim comes via Isabel, mother of Edward III, and is hence void; Canterbury, however, explains that it is the French who are mixed up over the origins of their Salic Law, and urges the King to press his rightful claim in war.

Henry concurs, and after a discussion of the threat of the Scots from the North if England is left unguarded, the ambassador from the Dauphin, son of the French King, is called in. Henry is told that his claims are thought to "savour too much of your youth/ And bids you be advised". The ambassador then presents

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