At Westminster castle, King Henry IV can’t sleep. He sends for the Earl of Surrey and Earl of Warwick and, alone onstage in his nightgown, soliloquizes about the difficulties of being king. While his poorest, lowliest subjects can enjoy gentle sleep, he, the king, is denied the pleasure of sleeping. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” he laments.
Right after the fun, raucous tavern scene presents all the charms of immorality, King Henry IV’s grim soliloquy catalogues the pains of morality: Henry tries to be a good, ethical king, but his rectitude has not brought him personal happiness. Neither has kingship, which raises the question not just of who has the right to be king but who would actually want to be king?
Warwick and Surrey enter and King Henry IV asks them if they “perceive the body of our kingdom how foul it is, what rank diseases grow and with what danger near the heart of it.” Warwick tries to comfort him saying it is “but as a body yet distempered” whose “strength may be restored with good advice and little medicine.”
King Henry IV is inconsolable, and cries that the passage of time changes everything, setting off vast transformations by sheer chance. If “the happiest youth” truly realized the havoc that would be wreaked by time, he would “sit him down and die.” The king thinks how recently Richard, Northumberland, Percy, and himself were all friends. He remembers a prophecy Richard once gave that Bolingbroke (Henry IV) would rise to the throne via Northumberland and that the sin of that action would “break into corruption.” Indeed, the king concludes, that prophecy has come to pass.
King Henry IV’s laments encompass critical concerns of the Time theme by describing time as a cruel, fatal opponent to human happiness—time always brings death. The king’s anxiety about Richard II’s long-ago prophecy demonstrates his faith in the power of prophecy, one aspect of the complex symbolic role that omens inhabit in the play.
Warwick assures King Henry IV that every man’s life is a form of history and that studying that history enables men to predict the future with a degree of accuracy. Richard thus simply made an accurate guess—not a prophecy.
Warwick’s rationalism and refusal to believe in prophetic power presents the omens symbol in another light. Prophets, he explains, are just ordinary people who have taken care to observe events over time.
King Henry IV says he’s heard that the Archbishop and Northumberland’s troops number fifty thousand soldiers. Warwick assures the king that “rumor, like an echo, doubles the size of our enemy’s army” and that the rebels surely don’t have so many troops on their side. He promises the king that his own troops are sufficient and shares the good news he’s heard that Glendower is dead. Warwick begs him to get some rest, since his insomniac hours are only making his sick body sicker. The king agrees to go to bed, taking comfort in the idea of getting to go on his crusades once the civil war is over.
King Henry IV’s and Warwick’s conversation highlights another aspect of warfare: fear and rumor. As each side fears the other side’s force, details get blown out of proportion. Warwick reminds the king (and the audience) that the king is not only sick of spirit (being depressed and anxious) but sick of body too. As in the previous play, King Henry IV dreams of engaging in foreign wars even as he loathes civil ones.