In the palace in London, King Henry IV lies sick in bed. He asks his son Humphrey Duke of Gloucester about Prince Hal and Humphrey replies that Hal is out hunting. The king then asks his other son Thomas Duke of Clarence why he isn’t accompanying his brother Hal. Prince Hal, Thomas admits, is accompanied by Poins and his tavern pals. Hearing this, the king grows enraged, furious at his son’s lowlife company and despairing over England’s inevitable ruin once it is ruled by Prince Hal. Warwick pipes up to defend Hal, explaining that the king underestimates his son, that the prince associates with lowlife scoundrels simply to study them and thus prepare to be a better ruler. King Henry IV is unconvinced by Warwick’s claims.
King Henry IV’s ailing and diseased body focuses the theme and symbol of Disease. The king and Warwick have opposite perspectives on Prince Hal’s right to the throne. For the king, Prince Hal’s behavior automatically renders him unworthy of the crown. For Warwick, Prince Hal’s admittedly un-royal behavior could in fact be part of a perfectly defensible ruling strategy.
Westmoreland arrives and conveys the news of Lancaster’s victory over the Archbishop, Mowbray, and Hastings. Harcourt arrives and conveys the news that Northumberland and Lord Bardolph have been defeated too. King Henry IV wonders “wherefore should these good news make me sick?...I should rejoice now at this happy news” but “am much ill,” and faints.
If it seemed possible that King Henry IV’s disease was simply due to stress about his kingdom, there is no possibility of such an explanation now. Even after hearing that his throne is safe, the king’s body continues to sicken.
As King Henry IV lies unconscious, Clarence and Gloucester discuss the grim omens that have plagued the kingdom recently: babies conceived without fathers or born horribly deformed; erratic seasons and weather; flooding rivers. “The old folk, time’s doting chronicles,” say that the last time the land was riddled with such omens was when the princes’ great-grandfather King Edward died. King Henry IV regains consciousness and is carried to bed.
The truth or falsity of omens remains an ongoing question (and symbol) in the play. Whereas Falstaff described the old as lying fools, the princes describe the old as venerable historians.
Prince Hal enters and, hearing King Henry IV is bedridden, says he’ll sit with his father while his father sleeps. Clarence, Gloucester, and Warwick leave the two of them along. Seeing the crown lying on the pillow beside his father, Hal calls it “polished perturbation, golden care” that prevents the king from ever sleeping as soundly as a lowly commoner. Noticing that a feather by his father’s mouth isn’t moving, Prince Hal assumes his father is dead and says that he owes his father grief and tears, which his filial love will pay in plenty. His father, in turn, owes him his crown, which Hal places on his head, reflecting that the strongest arm in the world wouldn’t be strong enough to wrest it off him. Then he, in turn, will pass it onto his own son. Hal exits.
The crown itself, Prince Hal’s musings suggest, is a kind of ailment, damaging the health of anyone who wears it. England’s throne was traditionally passed down from father to his eldest son, thus Prince Hal becomes king once his father dies.
King Henry IV wakes and cries out for Clarence, Gloucester, and Warwick, who enter. Hearing that Prince Hal has been sitting with him and noticing the crown gone, the king concludes that his son is nothing but a greedy murderer, eager for his father to die so that he might inherit his wealth and power. Warwick insists that Hal is a loving son and reports that he’s been sobbing in the next room. Prince Hal enters and everyone else exits.
King Henry IV’s anger reveals some of the anxieties and frustrations experienced by a king towards his eldest son: he wonders whether his son would prefer him dead so that he could reign in full power. At the same time, the ridiculousness of the misunderstanding instills some comedy into the grave scene and turns King Henry IV from stately monarch to a frustrated dad.
King Henry IV accuses Prince Hal of wishing him dead. “O foolish youth,” he exclaims, “Thou seek’st the greatness that will overwhelm thee” and, in stealing the crown, has simply stolen a right that would have been freely given to Hal a half an hour hence, for Henry is almost dead. Prince Hal’s theft has simply confirmed King Henry IV’s expectations: Prince Hal has never loved his father and may as well be a murderer, so much has he longed for his father’s death. Rising to become King Henry V, Prince Hal will render England a foolish, lazy, indecorous, drunken, frolicsome, thieving, murderous, criminal wilderness where “the wild dog shall flesh his tooth on every innocent. O my poor kingdom,” Henry cries, “sick with civil blows!”
Prince Hal’s action has filled King Henry IV with despair on two accounts: first, the king is devastated because he feels his son never loved him and was more interested in inheriting his father’s power than in preserving the old king’s life; second, the king is heartbroken by the thought of the disordered shambles his kingdom will be thrown into under the wild reign he imagines his son will hold over England.
Prince Hal cries out for King Henry IV’s pardon, handing back the crown and swearing his enduring allegiance to his father. Hal explains that, thinking his father was dead, he was wracked with grief and had spoke to the crown to upbraid it for being “worst of gold” and, where other precious things “[preserve] life in medicine potable” the crown “has eat thy bearer up.” Hal explains that he put on the crown, then, to fight against it, the enemy who murdered his father, and derived no joy or delight from it for himself.
Again, Prince Hal describes the crown in terms of disease, comparing it to a parasite that eats away at its host. He describes his action not as the cruel usurpation his father believed it to be but as a heartfelt effort to protect his father against threat.
Moved by his son’s speech, King Henry IV forgives Prince Hal and imparts his final advice lovingly: “God knows, my son,” he says to the prince, “By what bypaths and indirect crook’d ways I met this crown, and I myself know well how troublesome it sat upon my head,” but its blemished acquisition will be buried with King Henry IV and the crown will sit much more firmly and easily on Prince Hal’s head. Still, he warns Prince Hal to be wary of civil unrest and of the rebels that have plagued King Henry IV’s entire reign. The best way to ensure peace in the Prince Hal’s reign will be to launch crusades abroad, so people don’t have enough idle time to grow restless, nurture grudges, and turn traitorous at home: “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action…may waste the memory of former days.” Prince Hal promises to protect the crown to the best of his ability.
Even as he has defended his throne against the rebels, King Henry IV’s dying words reveal that he, too, had doubts about his right to the crown. After all, if the throne is given to someone by God, then what right did Henry have to depose Richard II, no matter what Richard’s sins might have been. Still, he believes that his turning over that crown to Prince Hal will bury the tensions of the past—that a “clean” inheritance of the throne will wipe away the “messiness” of his own ascension to the throne. His military advice to his son—to pursue foreign wars in order to distract his subjects from dwelling in past grudges and fomenting unrest—is highly problematic, of course, as it completely disregards the value and rights of foreign peoples, even as it suggests throwing away the life of common soldiers as a way to maintain power.
Lancaster and Warwick enter to bid King Henry IV last farewells. The king asks what the name of the room where he fainted was and, hearing it’s named “Jerusalem,” marvels at the unexpected fulfillment of a long-ago prophecy that he “should not die but in Jerusalem, which vainly I supposed the Holy Land.” He asks to be carried into that room to die. All exit.
King Henry’s long held aspiration to launch crusades looks even more questionable after this revelation: the king was motivated, it seems, not by religious faith but by the childish desire to fulfill a personal prophesy.