King Henry and Prince Hal enter a room in the palace in London accompanied by lords. King Henry dismisses the lords so he and his son can speak privately. King Henry says he wonders whether Prince Hal is God’s way of cursing him by giving him a son whose “barren pleasures” and “rude society” are an affront to “the greatness of thy blood.” Prince Hal apologizes and seeks pardon, promising to “purge” himself of his youthful ways.
For King Henry, honor is strictly defined by birth and maintained by conventional behavior: Hal was born a prince and thus King Henry expects him to behave in a stereotypically princely way and spurn all lower-born company.
King Henry launches into a long speech detailing all of Prince Hal’s shortcomings: he has lost his Council seat to his younger brother (Prince John), he has alienated the nobles and royalty of the court, he has failed to live up to the expectations for him, and has convinced everyone around him that he will only continue to debase himself.
King Henry continues to point out how dishonorable Hal seems in his eyes. Indeed, Prince Hal has contradicted every conventional expectation for a prince.
King Henry’s speech continues, comparing Prince Hal to his own young self. If he had been as “common-hackney’d in the eyes of men, so stale and cheap to vulgar company” as Prince Hal, King Henry explains, he would never have risen to the throne, for his ascent depended at first on people’s wonder and awe at him and admiration for his humility in comparison to the foolish, lavish, petty King Richard, who vainly curried public opinion and didn’t cultivate the grave, mysterious persona Henry did. Prince Hal, King Henry worries, is like Richard, for Hal has “lost…princely privilege with vile participation.”
King Henry’s explanation of his own youthful behavior reveals an understanding of power that is very different from Hal’s: for King Henry, kingly power comes from building a mysterious persona, limiting one’s public appearances, and steering clear of associations with “vulgar” common people.
Prince Hal promises to “be more myself.” King Henry continues his long speech, comparing Prince Hal to King Richard and Hotspur to himself. He declares Hotspur a worthier heir to the throne than Hal and lists Hotspur’s many honorable victories on the battlefield. King Henry starts telling Hal about Hotspur and his allies’ plot to take the throne, then checks himself, asking himself why he would tell such news to Hal, his “near’st and dearest enemy,” since Hal would probably take Hotspur’s side against him.
When Hal says he’ll be “more myself,” he means that he’ll try to appear more like his father wants him to appear, more like the true essence of princeliness his father believes he should naturally display as the son of a king. For King Henry, Hotspur appears far more honorable and royal than Hal does. The king appreciates Hotspur’s pursuit of honor on the battlefield and wishes his own son would follow suit.
Prince Hal denies this and launches into his own long speech asking forgiveness for past behavior and vowing to redeem himself by defeating Hotspur, and affirming he is King Henry’s son by achieving glory. Hal says he “will wear a garment all of blood” and “a bloody mask, which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it.” He will, he swears to God, personally defeat Hotspur and make him “exchange his glorious deeds for my indignities.” All Hotspur’s honors, Hal promises, will pass to Hal. King Henry professes his faith in Hal’s plan and gives his son his blessing.
Hal promises to redeem his nobility and live up to his royal position by winning honor on a (very bloody) battlefield. The prince is, as usual, a canny speaker—he knows just what his father wants to hear and has said it. For his part, King Henry seems satisfied by Hal’s language alone and believes that his son’s actions will carry out his promises.
Sir Walter Blunt enters and tells them Mortimer has just sent word that Douglas and the English rebels have met and joined forces. King Henry immediately starts planning a schedule for assembling their counter defense. Westmoreland and Prince John will march forth first, followed by Prince Hal, followed by the king himself.
Unlike Hotspur, who seems ever bloodthirsty and eager to rage into fighting without a second’s thought, King Henry shows himself to be a more strategic, considerate warrior.