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.
At the end of the second scene of the play, Falstaff and Poins exit the tavern, leaving Prince Hal alone with his thoughts. In a soliloquy, he reflects upon his own motivations for socializing with “low life” characters such as Falstaff and metaphorically compares himself to the sun:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
Though Prince Hal's father, King Henry IV, considers his son to be little more than a trouble-maker, Hal's private thoughts reveal his shrewd and calculating nature. He has strategically cultivated a bad reputation in order to stage a surprising comeback when he returns to court to claim his proper place in the line of succession. Hal states that he means to “imitate the sun,” which allows “base contagious clouds” to conceal “its beauty from the world” only to dazzle onlookers when “he please again to be himself.” In other words, Hal suggests that the sun is more impressive when viewed after a cloudy sky, and he likewise feels that his future achievements will stand out more clearly against his youthful rebellion.
Though Henry IV Part 1 is named for the King, its dramatic action pits two different figures named Henry (and often called Harry) against each other: Henry Percy, nicknamed “Hotspur,” and Prince Henry. These two young men serve as foils for each other throughout the play, each casting into sharper relief the distinctive traits and characteristics of the other. Hotspur’s only soliloquy in the play emphasizes some of these key differences. Speaking to himself after reading a letter from the Archbishop of York that denied material aid to his rebellion and cast doubts upon its possibility of success, Hotspur states:
Say you so, say you so?
I say unto you again, you are a shallow, cowardly
hind, and you lie. What a lack-brain is this! By
the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was laid,
our friends true and constant—a good plot,
good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent
plot, very good friends. What a frosty-spirited
rogue is this! Why, my Lord of York commends
the plot and the general course of the action.
Zounds, an I were now by this rascal, I could brain
him with his lady’s fan.
Hotspur is, as his name suggests, hot-headed. When faced with opposition, he doubles down on his original position and rouses himself into a state of fury. When the Archbishop expresses his doubts regarding Hotspur’s plans, the young nobleman condemns him harshly and stubbornly insists upon the strength of his plan, which he describes repeatedly as “a good plot as ever was laid,” “a good plot,” and “an excellent plot.” His speech, with its clumsy repetition, lacks the slick eloquence that comes so easily to Prince Hal. So too does his speech show little of the shrewd intelligence or capacity for self-criticism that characterizes Hal's many soliloquies.
In the lead-up to the Battle of Shrewsbury, the usually merry Falstaff has a moment of somber reflection. In a soliloquy, he reflects upon the topic of honor:
Can honor set to a
leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a
wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then?
No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word
“honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning.
Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth
he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible,
then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the
living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore,
I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And
so ends my catechism.
Honor is an important chivalric value in the medieval society of the play. Falstaff, however, probes the limitations of the concept of honor, meditating deeply on the difficulty of placing faith in such an abstract concept.
First, he asks if honor can fix a broken leg or arm, or heal a wound, or aid the body in any other physical way. Concluding that honor can do no such thing, he then reflects upon the concept more broadly: “What is honor?” he asks himself. Ultimately, he suggests that honor is just a “word” and, as such, is merely “air.” Many people die honorably in battle, he notes, but being dead, they are not able to “feel," “hear,” or in any way appreciate the honor that they sacrificed so much for.