Model Close-Reading Essay

This is a Model Close-Reading Essay (~500-600 words) for students in my English 311: Shakespeare. For details, see the course homepage. 

Henry V, 1.2.260-98: A Close Reading

This passage consists of thirty-eight pentameter lines, unrhymed except for two couplets (ll.288-89 and 296-97). King Henry addresses an ambassador from the Dauphin, who has sent a gift of tennis-balls and a rebuke of Henry’s claim to the French crown.

Henry begins and ends with formalities for the ambassador, using alliterative p-sounds (“pleasant,” “present,” and “pains”, ll.260-61) that signal his artfully courteous language. His closing words are less artful, directing attendants to convey the ambassador safely (l.295, 298). The intervening lines (ll.264-297) are Henry’s response to the Dauphin, punctuated by repeated directives: “Tell him…” (l.264), “tell the Dauphin” (l.274), “tell the pleasant Prince” (l.282), “Tell you the Dauphin” (l.292), and “tell the Dauphin” (l.295).

The speech moves through stages, beginning with Henry’s defiant claim that if there is a tennis match, its prize will be the French crown — yet only “by God’s grace” (l.263). This establishes two themes: the costs of war, far greater than those of mere sports; and the grace of God, whose blessings will see Henry succeed. Henry elaborates on the metaphorical game (ll.265-67), repeating “match” from an earlier formulation (“matched our rackets to these balls,” l.262) to suggest that this “wrangler” (l.265) will defeat his opponent on “the courts of France” (l.266). This uses both the sporting and the regal meanings for “court,” which “shall be disturbed | With chases” or pursuits (ll.266-67).

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The ensuing lines (ll.267-81) refute the notion that Henry’s youthful “wilder days” (l.268) and “barbarous license” (l.272) were misspent. He shifts from the royal “we” to a more personal, direct repetition of “my” to assert his glory (“my sail of greatness,” l.275), his claim (“my throne of France,” l.276), and his office (“my majesty,” l.277). This accompanies another shift from Henry’s proverb about “men” (l.273) to the simile he uses for the past when he “plodded like a man for working-days” (l.278). Now, says Henry, “I will rise” (l.279) and “I will dazzle” (l.280) those who will “look on us” (l.281). His use of the plural pronoun is short-lived; by the close of his speech uses four more singular pronouns (I, my).

The final third of Henry’s speech begins with his rousing reinterpretation of “this mock” of “the pleasant Prince” (l.282), repurposing the word “pleasant” from his opening line. Five repetitions of “mock” (ll.282, 285, 286) reinterpret Henry’s initial scorn for the Dauphin’s mockery. Tennis-balls will turn to “gun-stones” (l.283), and the Dauphin will be responsible for their “wasteful vengeance” on the French people (l.284) — namely widows mourning husbands and mothers mourning sons, and those “ungotten [i.e. unbegotten] and unborn” (l.288) whose souls will curse him.

The speech closes with a humble invocation of divine support for his “well-hallowed [i.e. blessed] cause” (l.294) before Henry returns to a tone of self-willed actions (“I…I…I…My,” ll.291-94). Finally, in a rhyming couplet that summarizes his message, he repudiates the Dauphin’s “jest” (l.296), a synonym for the “mock” (l.282) and “scorn” (l.289) that he rejected earlier. Henry ends as he began, with courteous words bracketing a defiant reply to the Dauphin’s discourtesy.

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