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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1
The play opens in the ante-chamber of the palace in London, where the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely are discussing a bill which has been presented in Parliament. The bill would deprive the church of most of its wealth. Since there has been civil strife, the bill has been forgotten but recently it has been brought up for discussion.
Both men hope the new King will reject it, for he has shown himself to be a devoted monarch deeply interested in the church's welfare. They discuss the changes that have occurred since Henry's youth when he was a feckless young man bent on only having a good time. Now he has matured into a responsible ruler and the churchmen are interested in swaying him to their interests. Canterbury has suggested that he should obtain revenues from France by claiming the crown that derived from Edward III, his great-grandfather. Therefore, he is going to persuade Henry to invade France. Finally, Canterbury says he must meet the king at four and leaves.
In the opening scene, the audience discovers the Archbishop's plan to gain the King's support for the church. The proposal to strip the church of a large part of its wealth and give it to the King was part of the anti-church campaign conducted by a group known as the Lollards. This group claimed among other things that the church was too concerned with material property (it owned a great deal of land) and should confine its interest to spiritual matters. From this scene, one gains an understanding of how involved the church was in economic and political affairs of the state as the two church leaders discuss ways to gain Henry's support for them without depriving the state of needed funds. The King has to make the final decision on the bill and is at present inclined to take the side of the church.
More important to the play, however, is the Archbishop's vivid account of Henry's conversion and his glowing description of the young king's great qualities. It stimulates our interest in the hero- King who is the central figure of the play. After his father's death, Henry metamorphisized from a brash, callow adolescent to a mature and prudent king.
The Archbishop uses three metaphors to reveal the changes Henry has undergone. The first is the idea of the offending Adam. The reference is to the sinful human nature that the audience has inherited from the first sinner. This part was driven out of Henry's character in the same way Adam himself was driven out of the garden of Eden by God.
The second metaphor is that of dirt swept away by a flood of water which means he underwent a spiritual conversion that washed away the vice and the third metaphor is that of the Hydra of Lerna, a mythical nine- headed monster that if its head was cut off, two more grew in its place. Hercules solved the problem by cutting off each head and thrusting a burning brand into the bleeding stump before the new head could appear. Here the Archbishop refers to how easily the prince's faults left him after he ascended to the throne. The emphasis on the king's virtuous traits prepares the way for one of the main themes that reveal Henry as an ideal Christian monarch who understands the ways of the world because he has experienced and rejected them.
In this scene the Archbishop of Canterbury is not merely the head of the church, but also a prominent political figure. He is indeed a crafty manipulator of event and is anxious to divert the King from the disputed bill that would ruin the church. He has himself suggested the renewal of hostilities against France and has even gone as far as to offer a large sum of money from church funds to help finance it. Although Henry is morally righteous, he is also vulnerable to this powerful man who will use his religion to acquire material goods.