“I know you all” (I.i.188), Hal tells us, all of us, in Act One, Scene One of The First Part of Henry the Fourth. And he has the facility of becoming us, of “imitat(ing)” (I.i.190) and “falsify(ing)” (I.i.204).
As if to prove it, Hal tells Poins,
I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life.
He may not be the common man (after all, he refers to himself as “Prince of Wales” just 10 lines earlier [II.iv.9-10]… but more on that later), but within 15 minutes he can talk to that common man in his own language. And because of it, he can say,
I am now of all humors that have showed themselves humors since the old days of goodman Adam to the pupil age of this present twelve o'clock at midnight.
Since the beginning of time, there has been no emotion or mood that Hal cannot replicate. He can “play Percy” (II.iv.104), direct Falstaff to “stand for (Hal’s) father” (II.iv.363), and–when Falstaff cannot play the part correctly–“play (his) father” (II.iv.419) himself.
He can be anyone.
Maybe that’s the problem, as the turning point for his character comes in his chiding reunion with his father, when he’s forced to promise, “I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, // Be more myself” (III.ii.93).
But who is he? We’re not sure. I’m not sure even he knows.
All I do know is that during the course of the play, Hal references himself in the third person as “Prince of Wales” six times in the play, all but one of which occur AFTER he states that he will be HIMSELF:
- Hal tells Worcester to “tell (his) nephew // The Prince of Wales doth” (V.i.85-86) praise Hotspur
- He tells a retreat-sounded Westmoreland, “God forbid a shallow scratch should drive // The Prince of Wales from such a field as this” (V.iv.11)
- In battle, he tells the warrior Scot, Douglas, that “it is the Prince of Wales that threatens (him)” (V.iv.41)
- And in his last fight, he tells his “foil” (I.i.208) Hotspur, “I am the Prince of Wales, and think not, Percy, // To share with me in glory any more” (V.iv.62)–and this is the first time that the third person reference moves to a self-reference–and “Nor can one England brook a double reign // Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales” (V.iv.66)
isn’t it interesting that like his “foil,” Hal’s personal growth is not easy, but one tainted with a relapse…
We may not know who Hal is… He may not know who he is… But he knows who he’s supposed to be: the Prince of Wales.