In this scene, King Henry IV is in his palace at Westminster. It is the middle of the night and he is in his nightgown, but he is still awake and working on the paperwork of the war.
When he is left alone, King Henry begins to talk to himself and the audience. He says that he has extremely bad insomnia and that these days he cannot sleep at all. Bitterly, he realizes that even the poorest of his subjects can sleep at night in their tattered beds, but he, the wealthy king, is too weighed down by worry, remorse, and anxiety to be able to do so. He concludes that people in positions of power are usually less happy and carefree than the poor and simple.
The Earl of Warwick and the Earl of Surrey, to whom the King sent messages at the beginning of the scene, enter and interrupt him in his reverie (they wish him good morning, and the king, startled, learns that it is now past one).
The three discuss the nation's current state of affairs: they know that the Earl of Northumberland is considering waging war against them. (They do not yet know what we, the readers, have found out in II.iii: that Northumberland has decided against supporting the rebellion.) The king muses about how swiftly time flows, the years turn, and people change. Less than ten years ago, Northumberland was a good friend of King Richard II, the king who reigned before Henry IV. Eight years ago, Northumberland turned against Richard and helped Henry take the throne from him. And now, Northumberland has turned against Henry himself. King Richard had prophesied that this would happen, and King Henry is now disturbed at the realization that Richard had been right.
Warwick, however, points out to the king that Richard had simply guessed that Northumberland would prove a traitor because he had already betrayed Richard. King Henry agrees, and the conversation turns to the course of the war. There is a rumor that the rebels have fifty thousand men, but Warwick is sure that these are merely rumors and that the rebels have no more than half that number. Moreover, he has good news from the west: Owen Glendower, the leader of the rebellious Welsh guerrilla fighters, is dead, so the king will be able to focus his efforts on the English rebels. Since the king has been growing sicker lately, the lords urge him to go to bed. King Henry, regretting once again that this war has prevented him from joining the Crusades in Jerusalem, agrees.Read a translation of Act III, Scene i →
Compared to the lowlifes and peasants of the play, the noblemen often speak in elevated and complex language. King Henry IV is the most elevated among them, and his monologues here are masterpieces of densely woven metaphor, wordplay, and imagery--and are often very difficult to follow, at least on the first reading. They are worth looking over more than once.