Analyze this passage from Henry IV, Part One.
- I know you all, and will awhile uphold
- The unyoked humor of your idleness;
- Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
- Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
- To smother up his beauty from the world,
- That when he please again to be himself,
- Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
- By breaking though the foul and ugly mists
- Of vapors that did seem to strange him.
- If all the year were playing holidays,
- To sport would be as tedious as to work;
- But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
- And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
- So, when this loose behavior I throw off
- And pay the debt I never promiséd,
- By how much better than my word I am,.
- By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
- And like bright metal on a sullen ground
- My reformation, glittering o’re my fault,
- Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
- Then that which hath no foil to set it off.
- I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,
- Redeeming time when men think least I will.
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Prince Hal is speaking a soliloquy but mentally addressing the dissolute and grossly inferior associates who have been trying to lead him astray and have been giving him a bad reputation. This especially includes one of Shakespeare's greatest characters, Sir John Falstaff, who is funny and likable but unscrupulous. Hal's whole soliloquy is in metaphors. I doubt if the sun meant anything but the sun to the Elizabethan audience. Hal is saying that he will be like the sun which can be obscured by clouds [i.e. bad companions, bad repute] but can break through at any time it chooses. His entire soliloquy is saying that he is acting badly in order to appear more attractive by contrast when he chooses to do so. He may be thinking that that time will come when his father dies and he becomes king. This in fact happens. He is an entirely different person in Shakespeare's Henry V, and he rejects his old cronies in order to become a truly regal person as well as an outstanding military leader. He also shows his superior qualities when his father becomes embroiled in wars with rebellious nobles, notably with the fiery and dangerous Hotspur whom he kills in a duel on the battlefield. But it is the transformation in his character that occurs when Hal becomes King that is foretold in this soliloquy in Henry IV, Part One. His metaphors are all about contrast. He knows that he has a bad reputation but that he will appear so much more admirable when the proper time comes. This is what he means by saying:
My reformation, glittering o're my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil [i.e. no contrast] to set it off.
The well-known lines
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work . . .
are also about contrast. If Hal acted like a model prince all the time, he would attract no special notice when he became King.
His entire soliloquy may be nothing more than rationalization for his bad behavior, bad associates, and bad reputation, but he does manage to effect the character transformation he alludes to in this soliloquy.
Very nice, thank you. I ended up answering with references to the "sun" as a primate planet (Great Chain of Being, sun = king, etc.), as well as the pun of the Prodigal "Son."
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