Act IV, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
John Bates, Alexander Court, Michael Williams: soldiers in Henry’s army
Sir Thomas Erpingham: an officer in Henry’s army
As predicted in the Prologue, Henry spends most of this scene in disguise, mingling with the common soldiers to sense their morale and spread encouragement.
He borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham, an elderly officer, and soon encounters Pistol. Not seeing through the disguise, Pistol treats Henry brusquely. Upon hearing that he is a friend of his adversary Fluellen, he makes a vulgar gesture and exits. Half hidden, Henry then sees Gower and Fluellen himself, who chides his fellow Welshman for making too much noise. The king remarks that Fluellen, though “a little out of fashion,” has “much care and valor” in him.
Next, Henry is accosted by three common soldiers, John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams. When a debate arises as to the nature of the kingship, Henry asserts that “the King is but a man as I am,” pointing out that except for “ceremony,” all his “senses have but human conditions.” The discussion shifts to the philosophical question of whether a king bears responsibility for the moral state of soldiers who die in battle. Bates suggests that he does. “If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.” Henry dissents strongly, insisting that “The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers . . . for they purpose not their death when they purpose their service. Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.” Williams supports this view, saying, “every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head; the King is not to answer it.”
Nevertheless, Henry picks a quarrel with Williams a moment later. Because the time is not right to settle it, the two exchange gloves and agree to meet after the battle. Both put the “gages” in their caps as a sign of recognition.
Once the others depart, Henry soliloquizes on the cost, in personal terms, of kingship. Using the royal “we,” to mean himself, he says “We must bear all. O hard condition,” and, questioning the value of “ceremony,” he concludes that even a “wretched slave . . . with a body filled and vacant mind” sleeps more soundly at night than does a careworn, responsibility-burdened king. But Erpingham’s entrance recalls him to the business at hand, and he orders a council of his generals.
The scene concludes with another soliloquy—a prayer to the “god of battles.” After pleading for valor on the part of his men, Henry asks God to “think not upon the fault/My father made in compassing the crown.” Here he alludes to a crime depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard II, where his father Henry Bolingbroke unlawfully seized Richard’s throne, had himself crowned Henry IV, and caused Richard to be imprisoned and killed.
Henry’s midnight visit to the troops brings out some of his finest qualities and his modesty, his comradeship with the men, his selfless concern for their feelings. He even tolerates Pistol’s ill humor. Shakespeare, having shown Henry’s greatness in the roles of king, statesman, judge, and warrior, now shows us his qualities as a man. Henry, though a dutiful adherent to the demands of the throne, never lets the artificialities of office obscure his fundamental humanity.
Despite his virtues, he once again proves somewhat less than perfect. When dealing with Pistol, a man whom he was once friends with for years, he remains in disguise rather than reveal himself. Yet, both might have only hours left to live. What does this secretiveness say about him?
Other questions arise from his dialogue with the three common soldiers. During their lengthy debate and afterward, Henry’s reasoning is exceedingly elusive. He begins arguing that a king is just a man, but on the question of responsibility, he holds the king aloof, severing his connection with others. When Williams...
(The entire section is 1,153 words.)