Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scene 2
At the palace in London, Prince Hal appears before his father, who dismisses members of his court so that he can speak alone to his son. He passionately censures the heir-apparent for "inordinate and low desires" and for indulging in "such barren pleasures" in the company of such "rude" individuals (12-14), ignoring his status and obligations as a prince. The king seems to believe that Hal's dereliction may be evidence of God's punishment for "some displeasing service" he (the king) has done. Hal does not claim to be blameless, but he states that busybodies and scandalmongers have exaggerated accounts of his behavior.
The king voices his deep concern at considerable length. Hal has absented himself from councils of state, letting his younger brother take his place. If the king himself had chosen, as Hal has done, to cheapen himself in "vulgar company," he never would have won the allegiance of Englishmen. He especially sees in his son the same fatal weaknesses which led to Richard II's downfall. At that time, the king himself was like young Percy, who, no older than Prince Hal, commands "ancient lords and reverend bishops" into battle and has won "never-dying honour" by capturing the renowned Douglas. To Henry IV it seems that Hal is his greatest enemy, not the Northern rebels and Mortimer.
Chagrined by this strong reproof, Prince Hal urges his father not to believe those who have led the king to misjudge him. He solemnly promises to "redeem all this on Percy's head" (132); that is, he will prove his loyalty and worth by performing glorious deeds in opposition to the valiant Hotspur.
Overjoyed, the king declares that Hal will be placed in command of royal forces. The king himself, joined by Westmoreland and Prince John, will lead another army which will join Hal's in the North.
Sir Walter Blunt arrives with the news that Douglas and the English rebels even now have assembled their troops at Shrewsbury.
In this scene, the climax and turning point are reached. Because of Hal's vow and his appointment as supreme commander of one large force, the way is prepared also for the shift in the comic subplot. The thematic relationship between main plot and subplot is sufficiently clear, for the reader has come directly from the scene in which this meeting between prince and king has been parodied.
To some, King Henry may appear especially calculating in parts of this scene. Why, for example, should he say to his son:
I know not whether God will have it so,
For some displeasing service I have done,
That, in his secret doom, out of my blood
He'll breed revengement and a scourge for me. (4-7)
Perhaps, it is argued, he is not sure that Hal's apparent failure is a sign of God's displeasure, but he is well aware of the "displeasing service" he himself had done — usurpation and regicide. Moreover, his second and much longer speech (29-91) is practical instruction on how to influence people — the right people — what with his remarks on dressing himself "in such humility that [he] did pluck allegiance from men's hearts" (51-52). The point of view represented here is surely not to be ignored, but it may do Henry IV less than justice.
In the first place, it is primarily Henry IV, upholder of law and order, not Henry the sinner, who appears here and in the rest of the play — quite logically, since increasing attention has been paid and will be paid to the rebels. He is the man who, unlike his unfortunate predecessor, is gifted with the arts of kingship. If indeed, according to sixteenth-century political philosophy, the ruler was God's lieutenant on earth, responsible ultimately only to God, he nevertheless must "pluck allegiance from men's hearts," which means that he must win their respect and hold it if his reign is to be successful; after all, God helps them that help themselves. The many contemporary discussions of kingship made all this abundantly clear. The king and father has heard only scandalous reports about his son's behavior. His concern about the succession to the throne is deep and proper; it was a dominant concern of Shakespeare's generation in an England ruled by the Virgin Queen.
Most emphatically now, Prince Hal is pitted against Hotspur. Earlier young Percy had been praised by the king as the "theme of honour's tongue" (I.i.81); now he is "Mars in swathling clothes"(112), a youth no older than Hal who leads high-ranking subjects (a reference to Northumberland, Mortimer, and the Archbishop of York, who are all mentioned in lines 118-19), and who defeated the great Douglas.
At the end of Act I, Scene 2, Hal promised to redeem his tarnished reputation, but he spoke in soliloquy, voicing his secret thoughts, as it were. Now he makes his pledge directly to his king and father. This is not the casual, debonair Prince Hal of the Boar's-Head Tavern speaking. His father's words have penetrated deeply. The very simplicity of his first line underscores his sincerity and determination: "Do not think so; you shall not find it so" (129). He takes his oath "in the name of God" (153). Most readers share the king's elation: "A hundred thousand rebels die in this" (160).