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Prince Harry has come to the royal palace, after a long absence, to answer his father’s summons. Henry is both sad and angry and rebukes his son in stinging terms. He says he would like to be able to forgive Harry but he cannot tolerate Harry’s recent behavior. Henry asserts that if Harry continues to hang around with commoners, he will never command the respect a king must have. Henry feels that familiarity breeds contempt: only that which is rare and unusual is well respected. When he himself was waging the war that made him a king, he adds, he didn’t slum around London the way Harry does. Rather, when he made his occasional appearances, he was very courteous and regal. That way, the common people respected and loved him in a way that they do not respect or love Harry.
Henry then tells Harry that he is behaving just like Richard II (the king whom Henry overthrew): the common people scorned and hated Richard, who spent too much time indulging in pleasures and who made friends and counselors out of fools. In Henry’s opinion, such dissolute behavior will make the people hate Harry too.
Henry continues his diatribe against Harry, saying that he feels that Hotspur currently has more real right than Harry to inherit the throne. For, although Harry has the claim of blood inheritance, Hotspur is the one who demonstrates his courage in warfare, winning honor in his battles and daring to take on even the king himself. While Hotspur reminds Henry of himself when he was young, Henry does not recognize himself at all in Harry. In fact, it is clear (according to Henry) that Harry acts like such a scoundrel because he hates his father. Henry is sure that Harry will soon go over to Hotspur’s side, joining forces with Henry’s deadly enemies.
Clearly moved, Harry breaks out into an emotional speech in which he asserts that Henry is wrong. He swears that he will take revenge upon Hotspur for everything that Hotspur has ever done against Henry. He adds that when he finally defeats Hotspur in combat, all of Hotspur’s honor, glories, and achievements will become Harry’s own. He vows to begin acting in a way suitable to the heir to the throne, and he solemnly declares that he will carry out what he has sworn or die in the attempt. Pleased but wary, Henry tells Harry that he may have the command of soldiers in the upcoming war, to prove himself sincere and carry out his vow.
Sir Walter Blunt, one of Henry’s trusted allies, enters suddenly, bearing the news that the Douglas, the leader of the Scottish rebels, met the English rebels several days earlier at Shrewsbury, in the west of England. The combined force will soon be ready to attack. Henry says that he already knows about this development and has sent out his younger son, Prince John (Lord of Lancaster), and the Earl of Westmoreland to meet them. Next Wednesday, he adds, Harry will set out, and on Thursday, Henry and his forces will follow. All will meet at Bridgnorth, not far from the rebels’ camp at Shrewsbury, in twelve days.
Read a translation of Act III, scene ii →
This critical scene is positioned at the midpoint of the play, halfway through the third act. Shakespeare often places the important turning point of a play at the midpoint, neatly dividing the action into prelude and result. The most obvious importance of this scene is that Harry vows to abandon his vagabond ways and behave as a royal prince should. He has long planned to undergo this transformation, as he earlier reveals (he plans to redeem himself “when men think least I will” [I.ii.195]). Evidently, with his father despairing and war looming nearer, Harry decides that the time is right to make his move.
The crucial moment, when it comes, is surprisingly brief and understated. In the midst of his father’s long speech of reproof, Harry gives a reply of a single sentence, saying simply, “I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord, / Be more myself” (III.ii.92–93). Harry’s words imply that the seedy, lazy image he has projected to the public is not his real self and that he has only been playing an elaborate game. Now, it appears, he feels it is time to throw off the pretense and reveal his true, kingly nature.
Harry follows this brief but heartfelt promise with a much longer and more elaborate speech after his father has finished speaking. Here, he makes clear the terms of his commitment to reform and vows to do specific things to prove it: he acknowledges his past faults, begs his father’s forgiveness, swears never to return to those ways again, and promises to prove himself by fighting and defeating Hotspur. Harry finally makes concrete the connection between himself and Hotspur that Shakespeare has hinted at all along—that Hotspur is winning the glory that rightly should belong to Harry. Harry’s belief that Hotspur is merely his “factor,” or stand-in, and that Hotspur’s defeat will prove Harry’s nobility contributes to the sense that a final confrontation between the two young Harrys is inevitable (III.ii.147).
The confrontation between the royal father and son in Act III, scene ii echoes several earlier moments. Shakespeare is fond of symmetries and often repeats scenes, conversations, or even characters. Harry and Hotspur form a symmetrical pair, as do Falstaff and Henry—both are father figures to Harry, but Harry can accept them only alternatingly, one at a time. The scene itself mirrors the role-playing game that Harry and Falstaff stage in the latter half of Act II, scene iv. But it also echoes Harry’s own vow to himself at the end of Act I, scene ii, especially in terms of its use of language and metaphor. Most noticeable is the use of the sun as a symbol of the king and his reign. While Henry alludes to the lack of “sun-like majesty” of the previous king, Richard II (III.ii.79), Harry earlier states that he will “imitate the sun, / . . . / By breaking through the foul and ugly mists” (I.ii.175–180). Since Harry has now cast off his pretense of idleness, he will presumably soon burn through the clouds and begin to shine with the sun’s terrifying radiance.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV, Part 1!