‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farcèd title running fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world—
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread;
. . .
And but for ceremony such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the forehand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it, but in gross brain little wots
What watch the King keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
This soliloquy by Henry is extremely important to the play because it gives us our only glimpse into Henry’s psyche that is not compromised by his need to appear kingly in front of others. Sitting alone in his camp, disguised as a commoner, Henry reveals the crushing responsibilities he feels on his shoulders, with every man of England laying his soul, debts, wives, children, and sin on the king’s head. Henry describes the lonely isolation of power, which is combined with the need to be eternally vigilant (“What infinite heartsease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” [IV.i.218–219]). The only consolation Henry can see in being king lies in pomp and “ceremony”—Henry’s word for the opulent show of royalty, with its rich clothes, parades, traditions, and self-aggrandizement. To Henry, ceremony is essentially empty, no more than a “tide of pomp” beating on a shore. Henry says that he would trade all that ceremony for the peaceful sleep of the slave, who has no greater concerns in his head than his stomach and who has no idea “[w]hat watch the King keeps to maintain the peace.”
Henry’s speech is somewhat self-pitying; after all, it is doubtful that a slave would find his life as easy as Henry seems to think. But Henry’s willingness to envy a slave at all is rare for a monarch. Most kings are completely devoted to maintaining, solidifying, and increasing their power; for a king to abandon all his power would represent a complete failure of his intentions and desires. Even other kings who are conscious of the weight of responsibility they carry would shy away from such a statement. Henry V’s father, Henry IV, for instance, complains at length in 2 Henry IV about the pressures besetting “the head that wears a crown,” but it never occurs to him that his lot is less desirable than that of a slave (2 Henry IV, III.i.31).
Henry V’s statements show his remarkable ability to look beyond the ingrained and commonplace value judgments of his society, entertain an independent perspective, and place himself imaginatively in the shoes of his subjects. Henry also shows how little pleasure he takes in his own power. He is motivated by a sense of responsibility to his subjects, a responsibility that he takes very seriously and that requires him to place his own personal feelings a distant second. He is unable even to express his sorrow at his condition to anyone else; only when he is alone can he relax enough to allow himself to feel his own regret. If Henry is self-pitying in this speech, it is in part because there is no one else to pity him.