Skahespeare: 1 Henry IV Assignement
In 1 Henry IV, practically every character is a rebel. Compare in this respect the revolutionaries—Worcester, Northumberland, and Hotspur—with Prince Hal and Falstaff and King Henry IV.
The structure of 1 Henry IV is based on oppositions: royal court against the Boar’s Head tavern, aristocracy against common people, vitality against inertia, honor against cowardice, tragedy against comedy, and so on. The language of the play, poised on the opposition of verse and prose, makes the audience feel the diversity of society in the play’s world. The common people, unlike the poetic gardeners in Richard II (III, iv), express themselves in prose, sometimes tinted with ethnicity. Shakespeare’s manipulation of language helps to enlarge the panorama of English society. Unlike Richard II, 1 Henry IV does not focus on a single pair of characters throughout the plot, nor is there a single character whose speeches dominate.
Different strata in the play are connected by the character of Prince Hal, who makes his presence felt in almost all of them. Hal’s mastery of various social linguistic codes reveals him as a clever politician embracing the whole of his nation, since “to learn another language is to acknowledge the existence of another people and to acquire the ability to function, however crudely, within its social world” (Greenblatt 36).
The beginning of the play is bound very closely to the ending of Richard II. Contrary to expectations, Henry IV (Bolingbroke) fails to be a successful ruler. The prophecy delivered by the Bishop of Carlisle (R2, IV, ii, 116–150) of the bloody wars to follow upon the usurpation is just about to be fulfilled. The peace has been broken on the Welsh and Scottish borders (I, i, 36–46, 50–61). Guilt-ridden Henry IV speaks of a crusade to the Holy Land (I, i, 18–27) and despairs over his son’s irresponsibility (I, i, 77–89), regarding it as divine retribution for Richard’s murder. One of the functions assigned by Shakespeare to the king is to provide us with a link with the past, the memory of which haunts the ruler throughout the play. Paradoxically, he is a de facto sovereign who suffers because of the illegitimacy of his kingship. In contrast, his son Prince Hal forms a link with the future. The play presents his skillful preparation for the responsibilities he is going to undertake when as Henry V he becomes “the mirror of all Christian kings” (H5, II, Prologue, 6).
Despite his father’s fears, Hal never truly feels subject to the influence of vices. In his first soliloquy (I, ii, 189–211) he enforces upon us his confident knowledge of himself as a director of events to come: “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill, redeeming time when men think least I will” (I, ii, 210–211). We enjoy a peculiar and intimate relationship with Hal, a relationship that allows us to know how to respond to him at particular moments of the play. The structure of his soliloquy contributes to a sense that Prince Hal is aware of language and theatricality as sources of power. He “fully understands his own behaviour through most of the play as a role that he is performing” (Greenblatt 33). In delineating his character, Shakespeare places us in the unusually privileged position of knowing his good sides, though no one else does. The low opinions held of him by his father, Falstaff, and Hotspur reveal them not only as characters in their own right, but also as the possible roles Prince Hal tests, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Henry IV demonstrates no particular friendship with the common people, and he is anything but the “king of courtesy” (II, iv, 10) that Hal is. He is a lonely man, alone with his thoughts on political responsibility and personal guilt, dealing with his past sins and present dangers. He is secretive and distant, more guessed at than actually known; he is “ne’er seen but wond’red at” (III, ii, 57). Appropriately enough, his character is revealed to us not by means of intimate contact and not by direct and open methods. Henry IV’s real motives, his true feelings, are kept at a distance from us; his treatment of Worcester is one of the best examples. The king’s alienation is stressed by the exaggerated accoutrements of his office. In the mock king scene, Hal’s humorous comments on Falstaff’s royal insignia carry an ironic implication: “Thy state is taken for a join’d-stool, thy golden scepter for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich crown for a pitiful bald crown” (II, iv, 376–378). Furthermore, Falstaff’s way of speaking in this scene follows the officious and pretentious style of Henry IV. He speaks “in King Cambyses’ vein” (II, iv, 383). Falstaff also parodies the King’s constant dwelling on the past, which makes him weep: “Give me a cup of sack to make my eyes look red, that it may be thought I have wept” (II, iv, 380–382).
Prince Hal learns, however, not only from his father’s vices, but also from his virtues. He learns how to adopt a royal posture, but he does it without pompousness, and only when the occasion requires kingly dignity. When he acts officially, he is altogether imperial (V, i, 83–100; cf. the reception of the French embassy in H5, I, ii). His father introduces him to the intricacies of royal power inseparable from responsibility. Henry IV’s knowledge of the severity of laws and intolerance, his practical attitude to the events and behavior which endanger the stability and welfare of England become his own. Prince Hal’s rhetorical attack upon the “villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan” (II, iv, 457–458) serves as a jocular instance of his cultivating the stance of the “cold blooded” Bolingbroke family. His promise of rejecting Falstaff in the mock king scene anticipates his actual treatment of “old Jack” at the end of 2 Henry IV. (For a controversial interpretation of the rejection of Falstaff, cf. Greenblatt 41–42.)
As the parent/child relationship occupies a considerable space in his canon (compare Hermia and her father in MND), in 1 Henry IV Shakespeare also gives this subject some consideration. The relationship between Henry IV and his son being far from satisfactory, the dramatist makes Falstaff an alternative parental figure for the Prince. (Cf. Bevington 794–795.)
Contrary to King Henry IV, Falstaff is an open book as a character. His actions and statements, as well as the statements of the other characters, reveal him to be vain, irresponsible, and self-indulgent. He typifies Vanity. The Prince associates him with the Devil, Vice, and Riot. There is no doubt that he also possesses a streak of the classical miles gloriosus, the braggart soldier; his participation in the Gadshill robbery (II, ii) and his later fanciful rendering of it verbally reveal him as such (Bevington 794). While King Henry IV is too serious and too adultlike, Falstaff is too frivolous and too childlike. Shakespeare’s manipulation of their way of speaking brings out the differences between their characters and their attitudes toward life.
However, on the whole we are made to respond to Falstaff in such a way that we enjoy, understand, and share Prince Hal’s fascination with him. Although we get more and more suspicious of his character—his defilement of Hotspur’s body being the climax—it is very difficult to be objective about him, because Falstaff expresses our secret and unattainable desire to lead an irresponsible lifestyle.
There is no doubt that Falstaff also performs the role of teacher. He can be thought of as being Hal’s guide to life as it is lived by people unconstrained by public duty. Owing to Falstaff, Hal leaves the secluded chambers of the royal castle and explores the life of the common people, the people he is to rule in future. He also benefits from Falstaff’s extremes of behavior, as they make him rethink the ultimate values of kingship—the honorable chivalric code being one of them.
Hotspur, who is the incarnate emblem of medieval chivalry, represents the other pole of the extremes. He is “impatient, proud, unwilling to tolerate a rival” (Bevington 793). His dying speech serves as his apotheosis (V, iv, 77–86). Despite his apparent vices, Shakespeare turns him into a likable character, beginning his presentation on a note of farcical comedy revealed in his way of dealing with the other rebels, especially Glendower (III, i), and in his parting scene with his wife Kate (II, iii).
In a certain superficial way, Hotspur resembles Prince Hal. They have the same name, they are about the same age (Shakespeare changed his historical material to make their ages similar). They both share eagerness to acquire “honor” and fame in battle. Hal learns from Hotspur’s tragic example that pursuit of honor as an obsession, an ideal which takes precedence over everything, can involve risk greater than the potential reward. Therefore, although Hal respects Hotspur, he does not wish to follow his example. Prince Hal has a larger mind than Hotspur’s, capable of entering into a more diverse and consequently richer variety of experiences, of which war is only one. The tavern shows one additional side of Hal’s complex nature, and we shall see him courting a wife at the end of Henry V. In our play, when the time of trial comes and he has to prove his valor on the battlefield of Shrewsbury, Hal wins, demonstrating publicly his superiority over the greatest soldier of his time—Hotspur.
The world of 1 Henry IV is very competitive. The king tries to use the Percies, Falstaff attempts to profit from Hal, Hotspur wagers his honor against the Prince’s on the battlefield. Prince Hal is a real master of deception; his own father is even taken in by him—though we, the audience, know who and what he really is. In the end the victory is given to him, the toughest and the shrewdest. In showing us how Hal achieves his goal, Shakespeare makes a realistic comment on the nature of the world of politics. Our next lesson will reveal how the successful Prince deals with the complicated issues of kingship during war with France.
Optional Reading List
Wilson, J. Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943.
A very interesting approach to the character of Falstaff, seen in the context of Elizabethan ethics.
Traversi, D. “The Historical Pattern from Richard II to Henry V.” In Shakespeare: The Histories, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by E. M.Waith. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1965, pp. 102-112.
The author is especially interested in the themes of policy, honor, and retribution present in the play.
Doran, M. “Appendix: Imagery in Richard II and I Henry IV.” In Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1976, pp. 221–233.
A linguistic analysis of these two plays, concentrating on their differences in imagery.