In the soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, King Henry is prodigiously vexed by his inability to sleep. In addressing sleep itself, with the use of an apostrophe, he hopes to persuade it to fall upon him by asking various rhetorical questions. He pleads with sleep for it to abandon its partiality and bestow upon him some rest, as it does upon the commoners. At the end of the passage, however, his indignation turns into resignation, as he realizes that he can do little to alter his situation. The transition in King Henry’s state of mind is conveyed through the soliloquy’s powerful images, revealing word choice, and peculiar sentence structure.
Interestingly, Henry’s combination of concrete and figurative language to describe different social situations creates an atmosphere of polarity. While a repetition of rhetorical questions exemplifies the king’s frustration with sleep, King Henry’s use of literary techniques portrays an elevated status, and his mutating tone displays a gradual rise in anger.
Moreover, King Henry’s conscience is not free of self-doubt. He believes that he might have done something to scare sleep away and asks it “…how [has he] frighted [it]….” Because he is deprived of sleep, it is of great value to the king, who directly addresses a personified abstraction, sleep and refers to it as “…Nature’s soft nurse…” and “…dull god….” The contrast between the tenderness conveyed in the former and the hostility conveyed in the later address help to illustrate the transition in Henry IV’s state of mind as his self-loathing is replaced by anger towards sleep.
Additionally, to convey Henry’s disturbed state of mind, Shakespeare employs contrastingly intense imagery in order to allow the reader to draw comparisons between Henry and his subjects. England’s monarch is thus described as reclining in the “…perfum’d chambers of the great,” while his subjects repose “…in smoky cribs…upon uneasy pallets….” His description of his own living quarters includes alliteration such as “…canopies of costly…sound of sweetest…kingly couch” and consonance as “calmest and most stillest,” repetitions of sound, which soften the setting.
In explaining his subjects’ humble abodes, King Henry utilizes onomatopoeia “…buzzing night-flies…” in order to elaborate on the putrid conditions of the “smoky cribs;” flies congregate around filth, for example landfills. Henry’s tumultuous feelings physically manifest themselves in a depiction of a storm in “…cradle of the rude imperious surge…” and “…the visitation of the winds….” Visually, “monstrous heads” are envisioned, and a “deaf’ning clamor” pierces through the night – allowing for “…hurly death itself…” to awake. In addition, the king utilizes visual imagery in the description of the “…hour so rude…” at sea, to fully arouse a sensation of turbulence in his audience: “…giddy mast…” and “…slippery clouds….”
Passage structure coupled with the repetition of sentence structure causes King Henry’s speech to be quite persuasive. At the beginning of the king’s questions, which are complex sentences, he states the main idea and then expands on that idea with a series of details: “…Why rather, sleep, liest…sweetest melody?” In such cumulative sentences, his rambling conveys his distraught at sleep’s partiality. Attention is drawn, as well, to Henry’s desire for slumber by the use of several exclamation points, which serve to highlight these emotions.
Ultimately, Henry self-confines himself to a night of restlessness and unhappiness. He bemoans his station as king, yet in reality he earnestly strives to retain this particular honor. Rhetorically, he demands of Sleep the reason behind his discomfiture; he realizes, however, that the answer lies within himself and not some “dull god;” as a result, the reader is able to enter his state of mind. Until the last sentence, no sentences in the passage are declarative. The fact that the king ends his soliloquy with the statement “…Uneasy is the head that wears a crown.” suggests that after much indignation he finally reaches a point of resignation. He realizes that his privileged social position does not help him curry favor from sleep. The king accepts his burden of discomfort for lack of sleep, and concludes that it is a consequence from his ruling position.