Prince Harry (a.k.a. "Hal") is the Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, though you wouldn't know it by his behavior at the beginning of the play. In our first encounters with Hal, we find him at his apartment in London and a seedy tavern in Eastcheap, where the prince carouses with his drinking buddies, plans a highway robbery, and takes every opportunity to thumb his nose at authority. Needless to say, he's a real pain for his father, King Henry IV, who worries about Hal's lack of decorum and wonders what will happen to his kingdom when his wild kid gets hold of the crown. (Henry's got enough on his plate with the rebel forces threatening to depose him and he's not sure which problem is the bigger threat – his unruly son or the rebel army.)
It turns out, though, there's no reason to worry because the prince has got things under control. After a night of carousing with his friends, Hal surprises the audience by letting us in on a little secret. His bad behavior, he says, is just a disguise. The truth is, he's been pretending to be degenerate in order to stage a dramatic "reformation" that will amaze his critics and make him a better king. Hal famously compares himself to the "sun" and says his "glittering" "reformation" will "show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off" (1.2.29). Acting like a rebellious teenager and breaking the law is a good thing for the country? Um, OK. We may be skeptical, but Hal's strategy really does work and we get to watch the entire thing unfold. By the play's end, Hal redeems himself on the battlefield by saving his father from Douglas. He also kills Hotspur, who's been running around telling everyone that Hal's a disgrace and a wimp. As a war hero, Hal shrugs off his bad boy reputation, steals Hotspur's honor, and demonstrates his ability to govern.
Sounds manipulative, right? It is, and it kind of reminds us of just about every politician or public relations machine out there. Here's something you ought to know. Shakespeare is partly interested in how Prince Hal (all leaders, really) resembles a Machiavellian ruler. As we know, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a fourteenth-century "how to" guide for princes on the maintenance of power. (It was pretty popular in Shakespeare's day.) According to Machiavelli's theory, being a successful ruler has nothing to do with being a nice person or doing the right thing. Instead, it's about being inventive, charismatic, willful, and energetic. Sounds pretty cynical, right? It is.
But, the play suggests this may be a very necessary component of leadership. Hal, after all, must prepare for his role as king and, given the current political climate (a rebel faction is threatening to depose Hal's father, whose legitimacy is debatable), Hal's got to figure out a way to be an effective monarch during a very uncertain time. For Hal, one of the best ways to do that is to stage a dramatic "reformation."
But, staging a "reformation" isn't the only way Hal prepares for his future. One could say, in fact, that Hal's time in Eastcheap is all part of his dress rehearsal for kingship. One of the ways Hal "prepares" for his future is by trying on different roles.
Remember when Hal and Falstaff turn the Boar's Head Tavern into a mock royal court, where Falstaff becomes the "King," and Hal plays himself? This is loads of fun to watch, sure, but it's also significant in that Hal is able to practice how to behave like a "prince" when he faces his father. Midway through the play-within-the-play, of course, Hal decides that Falstaff isn't good enough to perform the part of King Henry. "Dost thou speak like a king?" he asks. (Pretty nervy considering Falstaff's impromptu acting chops.) We're really not surprised when Hal makes Falstaff switch roles so the prince can demonstrate the proper way to act like a monarch. The thing is, Hal is really good at playing the part, which shows how well he knows his father and how easy it is for him to speak and act like a king.
Our point? While Hal carouses with the commoners in Eastcheap, he also practices the art of statecraft in a kind of dress rehearsal for his future role as king. Why does this matter? Well, Hal's character allows us to think about some pretty significant issues taken up by the play – what it means to become a king (or queen, just in case Elizabeth I is watching) and how monarchs can rule effectively in times of uncertainty. This has some pretty important implications when we think about the relationship between kingship and theatricality, and you can read more about this in "Art and Culture."
So what about the times when Hal doesn't behave like a royal? Even then his knack for acting serves him well. Think about the way Hal brags to Poins that he "is so good a proficient in one / quarter of an hour that [he] can drink with any tinker in his own / language during [his] life" (2.5.15-17). Translation: Hal can cozy-up to the commoners by learning their language (the way they speak and also their customs and values) in a mere fifteen minutes. He can make the commoners believe that he is their "sworn brother" and "the king of courtesy" who will "command all the good lads of Eastcheap" when he is king. He calls them "blockheads" behind their backs but, nevertheless, he is able to gain their trust and support, a necessity for when he leads the kingdom.
Before we dismiss Hal as a mere Machiavellian, we should think about his genuine fondness for camaraderie and playfulness. Sure, Hal's sometimes coldness toward Falstaff gives us the chills, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that Hal feels some affection for his friend. When the sheriff comes looking for Falstaff after the Gads Hill robbery, Hal covers for him (2.4.73). He also lets Falstaff get away with claiming he killed Hotspur in battle at Shrewsbury (5.4.14). In fact, Falstaff is more than a just a chum, he is also a kind of surrogate father to the prince, whose relationship with the king is pretty strained. Some literary critics read Hal's affection for and cruelty toward Falstaff as a way for the prince to express his anger at his father without paying the consequences of abusing the king.
We're not necessarily saying this is so, but we can see the appeal of hanging out with Falstaff, who's always down for a little fun and spends lots of quality time with Hal. How would you feel if your father told you that God sent you to earth to punish him for his past sins? How would you react if your father told you he wished that Hotspur (one of the rebels threatening the king's life!) was his son instead of you? We know that King Henry says this because Hal has been behaving badly. Yet, there's something to be said for the fact that Henry doesn't know his son very well. (He has no idea that Hal plans to stage a reformation or that he hangs out in taverns so he can learn from commoners.) The point is, Hal is a complex figure, and not merely cold-hearted. Ultimately, however, Hal must reject Falstaff as he "grows up" and turns toward kingship and a more honorable life.