‘Tis not the balm, the scepter, 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.
(Act 4, scene 1, lines 269–93)

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 reflects on the crushing responsibility that weigh on his shoulders. Henry describes the lonely isolation of power, which is combined with the need to be eternally vigilant. Earlier in this same speech he asked: “What infinite heart’s ease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” (4.1.244–45). 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 concerns himself only with filling 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 of the kings depicted on Shakespeare’s stage are completely devoted to maintaining, solidifying, and increasing their power. For a king to abandon all his power would represent a complete renunciation of a duty and right that, in Henry’s own time, was still considered to be conferred by God. Even other kings who are conscious of the weight of responsibility they carry would shy away from making such a statement. For instance, Henry’s father, Henry IV, complains at length in Henry IV, Part 2 about the pressures that burden “the head that wears a crown” (3.1.31), but it never occurs to him that his lot is less desirable than that of a slave.

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 bracket his own personal feelings. 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.