Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 2



Now in Southampton, Bedford (the king's brother), Exeter (the king's uncle), and Westmoreland are discussing the conspirators — Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey — who, for a price, are planning to kill the king. The king, however, is aware of the plot and those behind it.

Henry, Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey enter and begin to discuss the support and loyalty which the king has among his subjects. And as if to illustrate Henry's deserved loyalty to his goodness and wisdom, Shakespeare has Henry order a man who committed a minor offense the day before to be released from prison. Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey argue that the king must set an example and prosecute the offender to the full extent of the law, but the king argues for mercy and pardons the offender, explaining that if he punishes severely for petty crimes, how shall he punish major crimes? Henry then shows the three men some papers which prove that he knows about their plot. Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey each confess and ask him for mercy.

Henry, answering them in a moving and bitter speech, says first that these three who expressed no compassion for the minor law-breaker deserve none now for themselves; he then speaks of the ideal of loyalty and the crime of betrayal. The treachery of Lord Scroop, who "knew'st the very bottom of my soul, / That almost mightst have coined me into gold" and who betrayed Henry for a price, is the most incredible. Henry cannot understand why these three so-called old friends have plotted against him for nothing more than French gold. He questions how he can trust any man if these three whom he thought were most loyal could betray him. But compassionately he says:

I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. (140-42)

He then orders their arrest for high treason against the crown.

Exeter arrests the three, and they tell the king they are ready to die for their crimes; they ask him to forgive them, and each asserts that he is glad that their plan has been uncovered. Henry, in words that suggest his greatness as a magistrate, says that he holds no personal grudge ("Touching our person seek we no revenge"), but the safety of the nation is at hand. He therefore pronounces the sentence:

Hear your sentence.
You have conspired against our royal person
Join'd with a proclaimed enemy and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death . . .

Therefore, get you hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death. (166-78)

Then, exhibiting further the qualities of mature kingship, he turns his attention immediately to matters of state and prepares for the embarkation to France.


The treason that the Chorus speaks of in the Prologue is now discovered and resolved by King Henry in a very calm and reasoned manner. This scene emphasizes many of Henry's admirable qualities. In the first part of the scene, he shows great mercy in forgiving a person whose offense was unintentional. It is also ironic that the three traitors argue for exceedingly harsh punishment: "Let him be punished, sovereign, lest example / Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind." Ironically, King Henry allows the offenders to convict themselves.

The treasonable actions of Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop emphasize the many cases of duplicity that a true king must contend with, and Henry's treatment of the conspirators is firm, just, and decisive; yet in Henry's long speech of denunciation, there is also a note of deep personal tragedy. All of these conspirators have been the recipients of special favors from the king. The treachery of Lord Scroop is the most difficult for Henry to understand since Lord Scroop knew Henry's innermost person: Lord Scroop "knewest the very bottom of my soul." Thus as Henry contemplates the contrast between appearance and reality, between the inner duplicity of the traitors and their outward show of loyalty, he is faced with not so much a political tragedy as he is with a personal tragedy. But however much the tragedy is personal, he must transcend it, and for the sake of England, he must send the traitors whom he has believed to be loyal friends to their deaths.

At the end of his speech of denunciation, he feels the betrayal so personally that he accounts for it in terms that would imply that man is sometimes simply born depraved and evil. At least, Lord Scroop's betrayal is, for Henry, deep-rooted enough to be compared with the original fall of man:

I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. (140-42)

But the mark of a great king is that he must rise above personal tragedy, and thus Henry does as he tells the conspirators:

Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom's safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death. (174-78)

Here, Henry sets aside his personal views and calmly sends the traitors to their deaths for the safety and welfare of the entire nation, a nation which could have been destroyed if the treachery had been successful. After dealing with the traitors, then, Henry turns his attention immediately to the duties at hand — the war with France.

Historically, both Cambridge and Lord Scroop wanted to replace Henry on the throne with Edmund Mortimer, who also had a claim to the throne, and who, in the earlier Henry IV plays, had support from Lord Scroop's father for the throne.