Summary and Analysis
The opening scene is set in the ante-chamber of the king's palace in London. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely are discussing a bill that is still pending, one that was to be passed during King Henry IV's reign. The bill would have divested the church of more than half of its lands and wealth — in fact, it "would drink the cup and all." Because of civil strife at that time, the bill was forgotten, but now it is once again being discussed. Fortunately, King Henry V is a true lover of the church and, it is believed, can be dissuaded from supporting the bill. Canterbury describes the changes that have overtaken Prince Hal since he became King Henry V:
Never was such a sudden scholar made;
Never came reformation in a flood,
With such a heady currance, scouring faults. (32-34)
While still a prince, Hal and his "unlettered, rude and shallow" companions spent their time indulging in riotous living. The wildness of his youth seemed to have left him the moment his father died:
The breath no sooner left his father's body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seem'd to die too. (25-27)
Henry V is now a sober, wise, and beloved king; in the same way that "The strawberry grows underneath the nettle / And wholesome berries thrive and ripen," so did Prince Hal conceal his real worth as a youth and then emerge fully ripened into a magnificent monarch.
Canterbury then discusses how he has been trying to sway the king against the bill. He has suggested to the king that instead of taking so much from the church's holdings, the king should regain some of France's domains, which would yield much more revenue. He maintains that Henry has a claim on the French crown derived from his great-grandfather, King Edward III. The Archbishop of Canterbury then explains that he and the king were earlier interrupted by the French ambassador, and that he is to meet again with the king to further explain the matter to him. He has an appointment to see the king at four o'clock and must be on his way. Ely expresses his eagerness to know the outcome of the meeting.
For a full understanding of King Henry in Henry V, it is essential that one knows something about him as Prince Hal, as Shakespeare conceived of him in the earlier plays, Henry IV, Part I, and Henry IV, Part II. This background information is necessary because Shakespeare probably conceived of the series as a related group of plays leading up to presenting Henry V as England's ideal king. Certainly, the traits and qualities attributed to Henry are a result, in part, of what he has learned from his past life and past experience.
Scene One opens with a discussion of Henry's qualities and his past escapades, emphasizing the differences between the wild youth he once was and the wise and prudent king that he has become. The discussion between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop Ely reminds the audience of the tremendous changes that have taken place in Henry since his coronation. Upon the death of Henry IV, the wild behavior of Prince Hal's past was immediately rejected and replaced by the sober duties of kingship. Thus the opening scene begins the essential theme of the play — that is, the "miraculous" transformation of a wild, impetuous, and dissolute prince into an ideal, perfect Christian monarch, yet one who is also fully aware of various, earthly political intrigues.
After due praise of the new king, the churchmen bring into focus the political intrigue in terms of the bill which will deprive the church of a major portion ("the better half") of her wealth and revenues. The Archbishop's interest lies first in the preservation of both the state and the church, and thus, he must be diplomatic when he ensures that neither church nor state be deprived; he is, of course, willing to make large levies on church revenues for the sake of the state, but he also must see to it that the church retain control of its revenues. As a result, with diplomatic cunning and political intrigue, the Archbishop hopes to convince King Henry to seek additional revenues in France; to do this, he cleverly advances the theory that Henry is entitled to certain domains in France. If he is successful in this stratagem, the church will not be deprived of its revenues. The Archbishop's chances of success in persuading King Henry are enhanced by the fact that King Henry is "full of grace and fair regard," and he is also a "true lover of the holy church." Consequently, this ideal monarch, through his love of the church and through his spiritual virtue, will be manipulated into a political conflict with France. Consequently, the theme of King Henry's moral growth will be presented against a background of moral political choices and political intrigues instigated by representatives of the spiritual church.