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not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
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
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
with a body filled and vacant mind
to rest, crammed with distressful bread;
And but for ceremony such a wretch,
up days with toil and nights with sleep,
the forehand and vantage of a king.
a member of the country’s peace,
but in gross brain little wots
the King keeps to maintain the peace,
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry V!