Henry IV, Part I Essay - Essays


The Theme of Anarchy Versus Order in Henry IV, Part I

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I the theme of anarchy versus order runs through the action of the play from beginning to end. On a purely political level, of course, the notion of monarchy, or order, personified by Henry IV and his son Hal, is seen in opposition to the rapidly declining feudal ideal, of which Hotspur and his family are prime examples. Quite clearly the anarchy of feudal divisions of land and power had brought England to the point of disaster more than once. On the level of characterization, however, it is somewhat more difficult to trace the relationship of anarchy and order to individuals; it really depends upon the point of view which one chooses to adopt.

As the play opens we find Prince Hal living a wild and riotous life, under the influence of Falstaff. King Henry, who consistently stands for order in this play (if we ignore the disorderly way in which he seized the crown for himself), is quite obviously displeased with the turn his son's life has taken, and indeed considers the idea that Hotspur might be a more appropriate successor than Hal. Initially, then, from the point of view of characterization, we might think that the anarchy of Hal and Falstaff was to be opposed to the order represented by the King and Hotspur. But upon closer examination we find that in the first place there is method to Hal’s behavior, and in the second place Hotspur is again and again referred to as a "rebel". If we read the play carefully we realize that from the beginning it has been Hal's intention to reform, and indeed to dazzle the world with his honor, his stability, and his dedication to the order of the kingdom. Thus, the embodiment of irresponsibility and anarchy in the play is to be Falstaff alone. We must distinguish carefully between the philosophical anarchy of Falstaff and the political anarchy of Hotspur.

John Falstaff, the delightful comic hero of the play, is indeed irresponsible; he is free. He refuses...

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"Honor" in Henry IV, Part I

The purpose of this essay is to analyze several important words in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, to follow their use throughout the play, and to indicate their various meanings, the ways in which they define characters, and the ways in which they relate to the major themes of the play.

The central concept surrounding Falstaff as he moves through the first Henry to the second is that of honor. Is he the endearing, uproariously funny scoundrel we first believe him to be, or is he a cowardly liar? As we trace the use of "honor” we find that Shakespeare uses the word to illuminate not only the character of Falstaff, but to shed light upon the concept of honor as it is interpreted by Hal and others in the play. The most famous use of the word in this play occurs in Falstaff's speech:

Can honor set-to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? no. What is honor? a word. What is that word, honor? air. A trim reckoning!—Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth be hear it? no. Is it insensible, then? yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it: honor is a mere scutcheon:—and so ends my catechism. (V,i)

While we know quite well that Falstaff is not a brave man, yet he is clearly more honorable than anyone else in the play. Thus this speech indicates not the man's subjective estimate of honor, but rather the extent to which the word and the concept have become meaningless to the majority of men. Falstaff is articulating in essence that in the fiercely competitive and bloody world of war, of the rapid crowning and dethroning of kings, the man who has "honor" will not live long. From this last act perspective, then, we should return to the beginning of the play and see the ways in which Shakespeare has used this word with the above concept as the underlying meaning.

The King is the first in the play to employ the word, which has its own irony considering the methods he used to obtain the crown. He is heard to complain as he compares his son Hal with the son of Northumberland, Hotspur; whom he calls "A son who is the theme of Honor’s a tongue". (I,i) The next time the word appears it is on the lips of Hotspur himself, who is damning the King and urging his father and Worcester to "redeem/ Your banish’d honors and restore yourselves . . ." (I,iii) In the contrast between these two speeches one can easily see Shakespeare’s notion that the concept of honor and its embodiment seldom come together in the reality of a single person. Both Hotspur and the King believed in "the undegenerate chivalric conception of honor" which "was a lofty one. Under it trial by battle, and war, became religious affairs."1

Honor is thus, as Falstaff says, nothing more than a word, for it expresses a concept which can be conveniently twisted to support whatever side of the battle one is on. For Hotspur, who repeats the word almost immediately, "honor" is the quality he possesses which will "grapple" with the "Danger" which is King Henry. (I, iii) And again, the word is repeated by him as a synonym for victory: ". . . methinks it ware an easy leap,/ To pluck bright Honor from the pale-fac'd moon". (I, iii) Two lines later the word again appears as Hotspur boasts of his ability to ". . . pluck up drowned Honor by the locks", almost personifying the concept as a drowned woman, referred to in the following line as "her". (I,iii)

To contrast Hotspur's use of the word, the next time it is spoken it is by Hal, in conversation with Poins, and in reference to his proficiency in drinking: "I tell thee, Ned, thou hast lost much honor, that thou wert not with me in this action." (II,iv) The word here may be equated with manhood, or pride in the cruder accomplishments in life. Thus Hal is linked here with the Falstaffian tendencies in his life, in a way which seems to confirm his father's original comparison.

Indeed, the King is the next to use the word and he uses it again to compare his son to Hotspur, this time in a direct challenge to Hal: "What never-dying honor hath he got/ Against renowned Douglas!" (III,ii) The word here is used in the sense of popularity, for the King is primarily concerned with Hotspur’s fine public image in contrast to Hal's. The Prince, however, takes up the word and throws it back at his father. He sarcastically calls Hotspur a "child of honor and renown" and says that "For every honor sitting on his helm,/ Would they were multitudes, and on my head my shames redoubled!" (III,ii) Quite clearly Hal has seen through the standard interpretation of honor, "the integrity of the soul before God."2 He is aware that his own shame and Hotspur's honor are not so very different.

Hotspur is called "the king of honor" by Douglas (IV,i) and here the word is synonymous with strength or potency, particularly in battle. It is used next as a pun by Falstaff to Hal: "I...

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Political Satire in Shakespeare's Histories

When we examine selected history plays of Shakespeare we find that the playwright made extensive and varied use of political satire within them. Richard III, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II, and Henry VIII all evince strains of political satire, although history, not satire, was the playwright's focus in each work. Moreover, political satire is handled differently by Shakespeare in Richard III, Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry VIII. In Richard III we find that political satire revolves around the character and machinations of Richard. In Henry IV, Parts I and II, we find political satire to be more pervasively present as it extends from the throne to the taverns of Eastcheap. As we are informed in the Prologue to Henry VIII, Shakespeare's purpose in this play is not to entertain, but, nevertheless, an extremely subtle form of satire is presented within this work. In this paper we shall provide a detailed analysis of political satire in each of the above-mentioned plays, making points of comparison and contrast among the plays in the course of our discussion.

In Richard III the figure of Richard dominates the narrative line and political satire is centered around Richard. Richard's machinations are, in fact, instances of political satire in which the nation’s affairs are determined by brutality and ruse. Hence, when Richard calms the fears of Clarence, having previously acted as the driving force behind his brother's imprisonment, we cannot help but smile at Richard’s ironic observation, "Well, your imprisonment shall not be long/ I will deliver you, or else lie for you." Here the irony is two-fold for it is certain to Richard that Clarence's imprisonment will not be long, Clarence's head being intended for the block, and it is equally certain that Richard has 'lied' for Clarence, having fabricated the grounds for his imprisonment and execution. Richard’s plots are the epitome of all that is heinous in politics, and his plots are so monstrous that they contain a humorous aspect. For example, when Richard complains of those "That do conspire nay death with devilish plots/ Of damned witchcraft," the irony is more than evident. Equally ironic is Richard's assumption of protector to Prince Edward. Here Richard admonishes his young charge:

Sweet Prince, th' untainted virtue of your years
Hath not yet dived into the world's deceit;
No more can you distinguish of a man
Than of his outward show; which God, he knows,
Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart.

What greater irony can there be than Richard, the embodiment of deceit, expounding on the existence of deceit in the world. These instances are all examples of political satire, for the manner in which Richard conducts his plotting is completely unprincipled, in playing that political fortunes are made by cunning, not virtue.

Richard is a master of subtle argument. Repeatedly we find Richard using some clever device to extricate himself from a delicate position. Thus we find the following exchange:

Anne:Villain, thous knows’t no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
Glos.: But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

Later Richard reveals in his trickery against "many simple gulls" reveling in his ability to change minds through slippery argument, "But then I sigh; and with a piece of Scripture/ Tell them that God bid us do good for evil." Richard, we find, is a master of political rhetoric. He has the capacity to alter minds through the most specious of arguments, a quality singularly suited to the politician. Richard’s ability to defend untenable positions through subtle argument is a commentary upon the ability of the politician to manipulate his fellows through argument.

It is through Richard that we receive the most scorchingly humorous portraits of courtiers. Take for example Richard’s acerbic characterization of his political enemies as fawning fops:

Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
By silken, sly insinuating Jacks?

Aside from the obvious irony involved in Richard's protest here we find that this piece is a marvelously satirical account of courtly folly. For Richard, "Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front," and now, "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber/ to the lascivious pleasing of a lute." Of course, like everything from Richard's mouth, we may take this commentary with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, independent of their being Richard's pronouncements, these depictions of the foppery of court life are, in themselves, pieces of political satire.

Of all the incidents which occur in Richard III certainly the most humorous from the standpoint of political satire occurs in Act III, scenes v and vii, in Richard's attempts to sway the polity toward his kingship. Richard gives explicit instruction to Buckingham, counseling on how to gain the favor of the Mayor of London and his post:

Infer the bastardy of Edward's children:
Tell them how Edward put to death a citizen,
Only for saying he would make his son
Heir to the crown. . . .
Moreover, urge his hateful luxury,
And bestial appetite in change of lust; . . .
Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that insatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father, then had wars in France;
And, by just computation of the time,
Found that the issue was not his begot.

Richard knows how to appeal to the polity, through purple suggestion and waving of the bloody flag. Richard is adept at touching that which is worst in man, fully cognizant that emotional and colored diatribe is superior to reasoned argument in dealing with the masses.

If Richard’s instructions to Buckingham are amusing, even more so is the response which they elicit. Reporting to Richard in response to Richard's inquiry, "what say the citizens?" Buckingham details:

No, so God help me, they spake net a word;
But like dumb statues, or breathing stones,
Stared at each other, and look'd deadly pale.
Which when I saw, I reprehended them;
And ask'd the Mayor what meant this wilful silence:
His answer was, The people were not used
To be spoke to but by the recorder.

The English polity, in this characterization, is a confused lot. Their reaction to the speech, according to the Mayor, is less to its content and more to the form of its delivery. The silence of the crowd toward Richard's kingly claims is a species of political satire which finds the polity to be a less than adequete repository of political power and a completely ineffective safeguard of the commonwealth.

Richard, of course, eventually succeeds in gaining, or at least neutralizing the public. However, Richard must still appear modest and 'unworthy' in the fashion of the reluctant politician. Hence Richard demures:

Definitively thus I answer you.
Your love deserves my thanks; but my desert
Unmeritable shuns your high request. . . .
Yet so much is my poverty of spirit,
So mighty and so many my defects,
That I would rather hide me from greatness—
Being a bark to brook no mighty sea—
Than in my greatness covet to be hid.

In the age-old fashion of politicians we find that Richard, having clawed his way to the throne, now, with extremely false modesty, appears to shy away from it, even though all are aware of his plan to accept. This bow in the direction of political decorum is, indeed, ironic, considering the depths Richard has stooped to to obtain the crown, and represents another example of Shakespeare's use of political satire within Richard III.

In Henry IV, Part I, as in Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare has dispersed political satire much more pervasively than in Richard III. Here political satire extends from the throne, to the camp of the conspirators and to the doings of Falstaff and his zanies. A great deal of the work's political satire revolves around the unseemly contrast between Hal's royal status as heir apparent and his association with the lads of Eastcheap. We get some inkling of this contradiction in Henry IV's wish that, "O! that it could be prov'd/ That some night-tripping fairy had exchang'd/ In cradle-clothes our children where they lay/ and call'd mine Percy, his Plantagenet." Indeed, at the outset of Henry IV, Part I, Hotspur's honor is seen in sharp contrast to the debaucheries of Hal and his vulgar cohorts. The contrast is more than evident in Act II, scene iv, in which Falstaff assumes the role of Henry IV, commenting, "this chair shall be my state, this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown." Later Henry IV elaborates upon the contrast between Hal's princely status and the character of his associates:

Tell me else,
Could such inordinate and low desires,
Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts,
Such barren pleasures, rude society,
As thou art match'd withal and grafter to,
Accompany the greatness of thy blood
And hold their level with thy princely heart?

Indeed, the satire generated by the contrast between Hal’s formal status and his life in England's roadhouses is made even more humorous by the understandable discomfiture it elicits from the king.

The contrast between Hal's princely status and his association with Falstaff is further illustrated in satire concerning the divine right of kings. Kings, in the days of Henry IV as in Shakespeare's time, were thought to rule by divine authority. Moreover, because of the divine nature of the king's rule, certain metaphysical properties were associated with the king. Attempting to justify his cowardice in facing the disguised Prince alter his ill-fated stint as highwayman, Falstaff falls back upon the divine right of kings:

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye. Why, hear you, my masters: was it not for me to kill the heir-apparent? Should I turn on the true prince? Why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules; but beware instinct: the lion will not touch the true prince. Instinct is a great matter, I was a coward on instinct. I shall think the better of myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant lion, and thou for a true prince.

Aside from the humorous reflection of...

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