In the opening scene of the play, King Henry IV gives a speech to a group of nobles in court, promising to put an end to the violence that marked his transition to the throne. In his speech, he uses a metaphor that imagines the two parties of the recent civil war as eyes on a face, and a simile that further describes the metaphorical eyes as meteors:
Those opposèd eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery,
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.
First, the King imagines the two conflicting forces, his allies and the former allies of the deposed King Richard II, as “opposèd eyes.” This image of two eyes looking in opposite directions emphasizes the disorder and confusion of civil war. The King further expands upon his own metaphor with a simile, imagining these eyes as being “like the meteors of a troubled heaven.” The King’s metaphor and simile work together in a complementary fashion, suggesting that there is something particularly unnatural about civil war, which divides members of one nation into two.
In his first major soliloquy in the play, Prince Hal explains his plan to stage an impressive comeback in court after his rebellious and wayward adolescence. Comparing himself in a vivid simile to "bright metal on a sullen ground," the young Prince states:
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Until this point in the play, the audience has had little reason to doubt King Henry’s characterization of his son as a good-for-nothing hooligan. However, in this soliloquy, Hal demonstrates a cool, rational intellect, as well as a penchant for manipulation. He states that he plans to “throw off” the “loose behavior” that he has previously exhibited in order to emphasize “how much better” he is than his poor reputation.
Just as “bright metal” catches the eye more readily when it sits upon “sullen ground,” Hal" plans to “attract more eyes” by first lowering everyone’s expectations, or as he phrases it, by “falsify[ing] men’s hopes.” His keen awareness of his own public image and willingness to manipulate others contribute to the moral ambiguity at the core of Shakespeare’s characterization of the future King Henry V.
In the second act of the play, Prince Hal is introduced in a disreputable tavern alongside his companion and mentor, Falstaff. In a state of drunken contentment, the young Prince uses an elaborate simile that compares his fate to the tides of the sea:
Thou sayest well, and it holds well too, for the
fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and
flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by
the moon. As for proof now: a purse of gold most
resolutely snatched on Monday night and most
dissolutely spent on Tuesday morning, got with
swearing “Lay by” and spent with crying “Bring
in”; now in as low an ebb as the foot of the ladder,
and by and by in as high a flow as the ridge of the
Hal characterizes himself and Falstaff as “the moon’s men” due to their nocturnal lifestyle; they spend much of the day asleep and then drink through the night. Similarly, his emphasis on the evening carries criminal connotations: their attempts to steal from others take place under the cover of darkness. Continuing his discussion of the moon, Hal states that his “fortune [...] doth ebb and flow like the sea.” Just as the moon influences the tides, causing the sea level to rise and fall, so too does he experience highs and lows as a result of his decadent lifestyle. He might be successful in stealing a “purse of gold” one night, but he’ll probably lose it again the next evening.
In court, King Henry IV summons Hotspur and questions him harshly over his actions following a recent battle in Scotland. Hotspur, who has disobeyed the King’s orders to turn over his prisoners to the crown, defends his actions in a speech that compares the King’s messenger to a parrot and to a gentlewoman in a metaphor and simile, respectively:
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so pestered with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and my impatience
Answered neglectingly I know not what—
He should, or he should not; for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns, and drums, and wounds—God save the
Percy, nicknamed Hotspur for his “hotheaded” demeanor, attempts to appeal to the King as a soldier. He claims that he did not mean to insult or disobey the King but, rather, that he was briefly offended by the King’s messenger and needed time to cool his head. After the heat of battle, with his wounds still “smarting” or causing him pain, Hotspur feels that he was “pestered” by the King’s officious messenger, whom he describes in a metaphor as a “popinjay” or a parrot. This metaphor characterizes the messenger as a vain and talkative courtier who had no rightful place on the battlefield.
Similarly, he describes the messenger as being “like a waiting-gentlewoman” due to his fussy clothing and effeminate manner. These metaphors and similes not only describe the messenger, but they also reveal Hotspur’s own values and priorities as a soldier who feels more comfortable on the battlefield than in court.
In a comedic scene, the cowardly Falstaff engages in hyperbole, greatly exaggerating the scale, severity, and length of the battle in which he was robbed of the gold that he himself stole from traveling Christian pilgrims. Recounting his version of events to Prince Hal and Poins, Falstaff states:
I am a rogue if I were not at half-sword
with a dozen of them two hours together. I have
’scaped by miracle. I am eight times thrust through
the doublet, four through the hose, my buckler
cut through and through, my sword hacked like
a handsaw. Ecce signum! I never dealt better since
I was a man. All would not do. A plague of
all cowards! Let them speak.
Falstaff hyperbolically states that he fought no fewer than 12 men at once over a span of “two hours,” insisting that he escaped only “by miracle.” He further claims that he was stabbed “eight times” through the clothing covering his torso, four times through his trousers, and that by the end of this lengthy battle his sword was (in a simile) “hacked like a handsaw.” Here, Falstaff presents a greatly exaggerated version of the truth: in fact, he was confronted by two men (a disguised Prince Hal and Poins), and he ran away without attempting to put up a fight.
The dismissive and easily irritated Hotspur mocks his wife in a speech that satirizes the conventions and morals of the English middle class. Before the upcoming battle, Lady Mortimer sings a song to her husband as he lays his head in her lap. After Hotspur requests to hear his wife sing a song, she primly refuses, saying that she will not do it “in good sooth,” a phrase similar to “darn it” in contemporary English. Hotspur responds by making fun of her refusal to curse:
Not yours, in good sooth! Heart, you swear
like a comfit-maker’s wife! “Not you, in good
sooth,” and “as true as I live,” and “as God shall
mend me,” and “as sure as day”—
And givest such sarcenet surety for thy oaths
As if thou never walk’st further than Finsbury.
Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art,
A good mouth-filling oath, and leave “in sooth,”
And such protest of pepper-gingerbread
To velvet-guards and Sunday citizens.
He mocks and imitates her speech patterns, listing various cliched phrases that she uses regularly, including “as true as I live” and “as sure as day.” Using a simile, he notes that she swears like the wife of a candy-maker—a decidedly middle class profession—and insists that she learn to swear properly, “like a lady as thou art.”
His language here emphasizes class differences: nobles, he suggests, curse freely, but the women of the self-conscious middle classes refuse to use vulgarities. He jokingly states that it is as if she “never walk’st further than Finsbury,” referencing an area north of London that was home to many families of the emerging middle-class in England. Hotspur’s satirical comments emphasize both his elitism and his inability to communicate effectively with his wife.
For the first two acts of the play, King Henry IV and his son, Prince Hal, do not share the stage. Their first meeting takes place in Act 3, as the King summons Prince Hal to court and berates him for behavior that he considers unbefitting of a future monarch. In his speech, King Henry uses a series of similes to describe his own carefully calculated approach to presenting himself publicly as King:
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wondered at,
That men would tell their children “This is he.”
Others would say “Where? Which is Bolingbroke?”
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts [...]
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne’er seen but wondered at, and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast
And won by rareness such solemnity.
Hal, his father suggests, has lost the respect of the people by making himself too familiar to them, hanging out in low-class taverns, socializing freely with drunkards and criminals, and failing to uphold the majesty of the monarchy. He outlines his own policy, describing himself first as a comet, a notable motif in the play: “Like a comet I was wondered at,” he states, “That men would tell their children ‘This is he.’” Because comets are so infrequently seen, they are an object of wonder and mystery to the public, and likewise, the King only permits himself to be seen on rare occasions.
Similarly, he describes himself as being "like a robe pontifical"—or, in other words, the clothing worn by priests for important religious rituals. In yet another complementary simile, he characterizes his presence as being “like a feast” that occurs only on special occasions or holy days in the Church. Through these similes, Henry argues that a King should be “seldom but sumptuous,” maximizing his impact by maintaining sufficient distance between himself and his subjects.
Henry IV Part 1 concludes with the bloody Battle of Shrewsbury, during which the forces led by Hotspur and the King finally draw swords on the battlefield. Sir Richard Vernon, an ally of Hotspur and the other rebels, notes that King Henry’s troops have arrived for battle in full armor and military regalia and, impressed, he describes Prince Hal as a “feathered Mercury” in an allusion to the Roman god. Hotspur, however, insists that he is not intimidated by their display, comparing them in a simile to live human sacrifices:
Let them come.
They come like sacrifices in their trim,
And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war
All hot and bleeding will we offer them.
The mailèd Mars shall on his altar sit
Up to the ears in blood. I am on fire
To hear this rich reprisal is so nigh
And yet not ours. Come, let me taste my horse,
Who is to bear me like a thunderbolt
Against the bosom of the Prince of Wales.
While Vernon is undeniably impressed by “gallantly armed” troops, Hotspur argues that their gaudy and expensive uniforms make them more fitting sacrifices to “mailèd Mars,” the Roman god of war, who will sit “[u]p to the ears in blood” by the end of the battle. The King’s troops have arrived, Hotspur claims, “[l]ike sacrifices in their trim.” At this point in the play, there are many clear signs that Hotspur’s forces are not ready for battle, but he pushes forward with characteristic foolhardiness.