Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 49)
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
For further information on the critical and stage history of 1 and 2 Henry IV, see .
Traditionally, critical discussion of 1 and 2 Henry IV has centered primarily on Prince Henry, or Hal. In this vein, scholars have examined Hal's fitness as the future ruler of England and have compared him favorably or unfavorably to the serious-minded rebel, Hotspur. Closely connected to this focus is critical speculation over whether Hal's transformation from fun-loving ne'er-do-well to responsible heir is a sincere and natural result of his maturation or part of a calculated, cynical plan. Similarly, critics have debated the nature of the Prince's relationship with his father and with Falstaff. Many have argued that Falstaff acts as a surrogate father to Hal and that the Prince's subsequent rejection of the fat knight in 2 Henry IV is cruelly Machiavellian; others have seen it as a necessary gesture of maturity. More recently, scholars have dispensed with efforts to pinpoint Hal's motives. Instead, critical discussion has concentrated on the tragic elements of the two history plays and how the characters and actions in 1 and 2 Henry IV reflect Elizabethan mores as well as the shifting perspectives of both Elizabethan and modern society—particularly with regard to the issues of law and justice.
Of importance to several critics is the degree to which tragedy as a genre informs both 1 and 2 Henry IV. Catherine M. Shaw (1985), for example, argues that for all their dependence on history, a tragic thread runs throughout both plays in the form of Henry IV's guilt-racked conscience for his part in the overthrow and assassination of his predecessor, Richard II. By contrast, Harry Levin (1981) asserts that the tragic focus is Falstaff, whose comic "vitality" and tragic "mortality" are in precarious balance—particularly in the more somber play, 2 Henry IV.
These differing viewpoints regarding genre mirror what has been described as the two plays' ambiguous and, at times, contradictory perspectives: the raucous tavern scenes versus the politically charged Court scenes, Hal's unclear motives (Machiavellian or simply prudent), and Henry's role as usurper versus Hotspur's role as rebel. Increasingly, critics have been less apt to blame one character more than another for the moral ambiguity of the two plays and have instead looked to the audience, the playwright, and the times. For instance Marc Grossman (1995) suggests that Shakespeare created conflict between Falstaff's appealing roguery and Hal's royal responsibilities so that his audience would recognize and accept the gray areas that exist in Hal's predicament as well as in the audience's "everyday" life. F. Nick Clary (1988) also refers to Shakespeare's contemporary audiences in his discussion of Hal's dubious behavior toward Falstaff. He concludes that an interpretation of Hal's behavior depends on the social experiences of the viewer and that "during the Elizabethan Age, when the amorality of Machiavellian politics was practiced as much as it was criticized, a belief in Hal's moral recovery may, in fact, be a testimony to the possibility of regaining an ideal which had been lost." Stephen Greenblatt (1985) asserts that the source of the ambiguity in 1 and 2 Henry IV resides not in the audience but more specifically in the politics of Elizabethan England and the fact that the theater of the time reflected a playwright's continual conflict between being faithful to his own ideas and submitting to royal censorship.
Ultimately, discussions of ambiguity of genre and perspective in 1 and 2 Henry IV revolve around the issues of law and justice. Dain A. Trafton (1981) and E. A. Rauchut (1994) address the question of Henry's legitimacy as king. Trafton contends that since Henry fails to create "an entirely new order" consisting of his own rule of law and neglects to "obliterate even the memory" of Richard IPs reign, he dooms himself to the continuing cycle of rebellion. Rauchut suggests that this rebellion is in part justified after Henry "ignor[es] the law of arms" and demands that Hotspur hand over his prisoners, thereby "committing a royal theft that causes civil war." Norman Sanders (1977), Stanley D. McKenzie (1992), and Daniel J. Kornstein (1994) link the themes of law and justice to Hal's ambiguous nature. All three see aspects of the Prince's behavior as part of his attempt to legitimatize his own eventual rule. Sanders, for example, argues that Hal shuns the "sick nation" he is due to inherit from his father and instead frequents the lawless world of the tavern so that he can one day "create single-handedly a totally new royal milieu" in which to rule legitimately. Similarly, McKenzie asserts that Hal's much debated rejection of Falstaff is in fact justified if the Prince hopes to be respected and obeyed by his future subjects. Indeed, McKenzie adds, while such behavior might seem brutal to a modern audience, an Elizabethan audience schooled in the tenets of Machiavelli would have considered Hal's actions wise. Finally, Kornstein asserts that in 2 Henry IV the "sober, solid, fair-minded lawyer figure" of the Lord Chief Justice is counterpoised against Henry IV as "a symbol of disorder." Thus Hal's coming of age occurs when he rejects his father's world which includes the lawlessness of Falstaff and turns to the legitimate rule personified by the Lord Chief Justice.
Larry S. Champion (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "History into Drama: The Perspective of 1 Henry IV" in JGE: The Journal of General Education, Vol. XXX, No. 3, Fall, 1978, pp. 185-202.
[In the following essay, Champion presents an overview of 1 Henry IV, examining its structure and characterization. The critic asserts that this play reveals Shakespeare's increasing expertise at combining impersonal history with personal, dramatic interest.]
Following the composition of Richard II a conscious bifurcation seems to occur in Shakespeare's dramaturgy. The playwright in Julius Caesar continues to develop the focus of psychological analysis and the internalized protagonist which lead directly to his major tragic achievements. Brutus, like Richard II before him and Hamlet and Othello after him, confronts an ambiguous situation requiring decisions and commitments which cost him his life even at the point of his greatest sensitivity to the true nature of things. If Brutus' illumination is insignificant in comparison with that of Hamlet and Othello, he like them engages the spectators through soliloquies and asides in the intensely limited focus upon the spiritual agony of what Harley Granville-Barker terms the "war within himself."1 In the Henry IV plays and Henry V, on the other hand, all probably written within two years of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare essentially returns to the fragmented perspective and the static characterization of 1, 2, 3 Henry VI. In these plays he apparently was searching for a dramatic focus of sufficient scope to accommodate the movement of national forces through a significant portion of time. Even though an intense concentration upon a single individual would tend to blur the larger perspective by absorbing the spectators' interest and deflecting their attention from the broad social and political issues, he seemed progressively to realize that effective drama depends upon at least minimal emotional interaction between character and audience. And, especially in 3 Henry VI, he moved toward a combination of the structural features which produce the detached view necessary for the historical theme and the devices of internalization which provoke a limited emotional response to the tragically inept title figure and the calculating and heartless political opponent destined within a few years to be the most infamous of English kings. Such a perspective is basic also to 1 Henry IV. Here, however, he combines multiple plot lines with an emphasis upon character ambivalence which yields far richer and more provocative interactions than anything in those earlier Lancastrian stage worlds. "Poised between tragedy and comedy,"2 this work reflects the remarkable potential of the history play "as a separate form."3
The structural devices by which Shakespeare consciously shapes this broad perspective in 1 Henry IV are readily demonstrated, For one thing, no single character dominates the action either physically or emotionally.4 The principal figure in Richard III, by comparison, delivers well over thirty percent of the total lines (1127 of 3599); over five percent of the total lines (185 of 3599) involve him in soliloquies (eleven) or asides (five). Similarly Richard II speaks more than one-fourth of the total lines in his play (738 of 2755). While Richard's only genuine soliloquy occurs moments before his death at Pomfret Castle (66 11.), he gives the word-drunk impression throughout the play that he for the most part is talking to himself (or to the spectators) despite the presence of additional characters on stage. Moreover, in both plays the great majority of the other scenes focus sharply upon the protagonist through conversations about him—whether in Richard III from Margaret, Anne, Buckingham, and Richmond, or in Richard II from Bolingbroke, Carlisle, Gaunt, York, or the parasites. In 1 Henry IV, to the contrary, the title character speaks only eleven percent of the lines (340 of 3049). Three characters, in fact, deliver a larger number, though none is as predominant as the central figures of the Richard plays (Hotspur—18.6%, 566 lines; Hal—18.7%, 569 lines; Falstaff—20.4%, 623 lines). In terms of developing a close emotional rapport between the character and the spectator, the devices of internalization are relatively insignificant in the play (5%—160 lines); the eight soliloquies are scattered among three characters, no one of whom speaks in private more than three percent of the total lines.
For another thing, Shakespeare simultaneously develops three individually significant plot strands—Henry IV's apprehensions concerning both his kingship and his relations with his son, the activities of the rebellious feudal lords which center on the impetuous Hotspur, and Hal's escapades at Eastcheap involving the world of Falstaff and his debauched associates. Totally unlike either the single dramatic focus on Richard Ill's Machiavellian ascent to the throne or the intersecting personal and political fortunes of Richard II and Bolingbroke—and equally unlike the thematically related experience of the two family units in Hamlet or King Lear which intensifies the dramatic focus—the plot strands of this play expand the spectators' vision. While extensive and important parallels do exist between the comic and the serious scenes, the more notable fact is that each strand depicts a vision of a different socio-political stratum, and consequently the dramatic perspective tends to become broad and diffuse rather than narrow and intensely personal. The emerging theme focuses not on the experiences of a single individual but on the evolving condition of a nation as reflected in the fortunes and misfortunes of several significant personalities.
Both the action and the setting of the play are committed to breadth. The scenes, for example, take place in such diverse points as Windsor, Rochester, Gad's Hill, Northumberland, Wales, Shrewsbury, Coventry, and London; even the London scenes move from the polarities of the palace to the tavern at Eastcheap.5 And the disparate plot lines are carefully interwoven within the eighteen scenes as established in Fl—the King's private concerns in three (I, i; III, ii; V, i—426 11.), the rebels' perspective in seven (I, iii; II, iii; III, i; IV, i; IV, iii; IV, iv; V, ii—1136 11.), the Falstaffian world in six (I, ii; II, i; II, ii; II, iv; III, iii; IV, ii—1279 11.). The lines coalesce, of course, in the final two scenes with principals from each strand in combat on Shrewsbury field. Prior to that point, however, the spectators view English society from several angles and from various geographical points, and the activities of both the Lancastrian lower classes and the aristocracy reflect the political and social instability which will culminate in open rebellion.
This theme of national instability Shakespeare accentuates by the juxtaposition of Henry and Hal as political foils in both 1 and 2 Henry IV. Certain modifications which he imposed upon his sources, first described as such by A. R. Humphreys, underscore the dramatist's concern for such a conflict.6 The historical events of the two plays are roughly in the chronological sequence found in the source, but the domestic events (Hal's relationship with his father) are essentially Shakespeare's own creation. Daniel makes no mention whatever of discord between father and son, while Holinshed notes only that the old King in the final year of his life had suspicions about the Prince; similarly, though there is much ado in The Famous Victories concerning the Prince's debauchery, it is again late in Henry's life that he laments the curse of a son who will destroy him.
While establishing this human element so vital to genuinely effective drama, Shakespeare also maintains a broad focus upon the larger design—specifically, the limited capacities of Henry IV as a ruler and the implications of those limitations for the body politic of England—by measuring Henry and Hal against the concepts of monarchy shared by those in his contemporary audience. These late sixteenth-century views, in very general terms, rest on two essential criteria—proper exercise of power and equitable dispensation of justice. Concerning the former, the king, who should receive the scepter as a direct lineal descendant of the royal family, is God's vicar or lieutenant on earth; "The king, yes, though he be an infidel, representeth the image of God upon earth."7 The duty, both religious and social, of the populace is obedience. As a homily published in 1571 states, "Such subjects as are disobedient or rebellious against their princes, disobey God and procure their own damnation."8 In the body politic, obedience to the prince is essential; even a tyrant is preferable to anarchy, which would come with rebellion.9 It is argued that monarchy in form arose from nature as an extended concept of the family unit.10 The prince's duty is analogous to a father's duty; he exercises rule from the awareness of the need for order, for the welfare of the total community and nation. Hence, the king must be powerful, and he must be capable of using his authority to protect himself and his people.
Such, essentially, is Henry IV's concept of kingship, a concept, as Derek Traversi observes, predicated entirely on the ground of "political effectiveness."11 Troubled by a realization that he has achieved the throne at the expense of the rightful King and by a sense of guilt for Richard's murder, he knows full well that his success as a ruler will be determined by his public virtue, specifically his ability to maintain civil order in the land. Regardless of whether Bolingbroke coldly and calculatingly planned to manipulate Northumberland as a stepping stone to political office, the fact is clear at the beginning of the play that Northumberland believes Henry to have broken his pledged word that he sought only the Dukedom of Lancaster. Moreover, established on the throne, the new King seems to shun the alliance from the north as readily as he had earlier embraced it. Dismissed from council, Worcester asserts, "Our house, my sovereign liege, little deserves / The scourge of greatness to be us'd on it, / And that same greatness which our own hands / Have holp to make so portly" (I, iii, 10-13).12 The king with royal dispatch evaluates the rebels' strength and moves to confront them. There is no hesitation before Shrewsbury; the armies of the King are well directed and deployed to fight for protection of order in the land.
Certainly the spectators of the play would admire a king who, so unlike Richard II or Henry VI, exercises without hesitation his royal authority with a positive determination to uphold the law of the kingdom against the hydra-head of rebellion.13 Yet the spectator would perceive with equal clarity that this same king attempts in practice—as Machiavelli did in theory—to separate public and private virtue. Certainly the clearest key to this emphasis on appearance occurs in Part 2 in his deathbed speech to the king-elect:
God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways
I met this crown, and I myself know well
How troublesome it sate upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with better quiet. . . .
And all [my] friends, which thou must make thy friends,
Have but their stings and teeth newly ta'en out;
By whose fell working I was first advanc'd,
And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
To be again displac'd; which to avoid,
I cut them off. . . .
(IV, v, 183-187, 204-209)
He is quick to counsel his son to "busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels" (213-214) so that his own disjunction with his former allies might be put from the minds of the people. But in Part 1, as well, Henry explains the method by which he won the public opinion "that did help him to the crown" (III, ii, 42). By "being seldom seen" (46) and on such occasions dressing himself "in such humility" (51), Henry developed in reputation "like a robe pontifical" (52), which "Seldom but sumptuous, show'd like a feast" (58).
It is dramatically appropriate that this king, whose rule is vitally dependent upon decisive and powerful action in the face of danger and whose public reputation must appear inviolate even though his private actions smack so strongly of blatant practicality, should draw a specific analogy between Hotspur's valorous search for public glory and Hal's debauchery and apparent lack of concern for his public image. Indeed, Hotspur, "the theme of honor's tongue" (I, i, 81), "sweet Fortune's minion and her pride" (83), is a man of Henry's own heart; the King can understand, in a way in which he is never able to comprehend Hal, the political riser who is overtly conscious of public opinion. Kingly praise, it should be noted, comes even in the face of Henry's knowledge of Hotspur's rebellious action of denying prisoners to the throne. Furthermore, the King later praises Hotspur for his public display of virtue (III, ii, 115 ff.) in a scene immediately following Hotspur's compliance in a projected tripartite division of England. When the full effect of these scenes is considered, there can be little doubt that Shakespeare is utilizing Henry's praise of the "politic virtue" of Hotspur as yet another reflection of Bolingbroke's limited concept of rule. For certainly Henry praises, as one having "more worthy interest to the state / Than [Hal]" (98-99), a man who is specifically exposed as lacking qualities inherent in the ideal ruler.
In any event, Henry IV meets the sixteenth-century demands of a ruler who can and will exercise his power for the maintenance of unity in the kingdom. Beyond that, however, the king, in whom public and private virtue must agree in the equitable dispensation of justice should rule for the welfare of the subject. Gascoigne in The Steel Glass (11. 114-134) strikes particularly at the ruler who would strive "to maintain pomp and high, triumphant sights" and "never care . . . to yield relief where needy lack appears." Castiglione14 lists among the attributes of the ideal prince wisdom, justice, courtesy, and liberality in his treatment for and knowledge of his subjects. Similarly, Starkey15 raises the specific issue that there is nothing more repugnant to nature than a whole nation governed by the will of a prince who neither understands the nature of his subjects nor knows their needs. Above all, it is Elyot who most clearly describes this concept of a king in his discussion of the training of a prince.16 Like the "principal bee" the prince moves through society—not with "prick or sting" but with "more knowledge than is in the residue"; though, to understand his subjects, he might move temporarily among "herbs that be venomous and stinking," he gathers "nothing but that shall be sweet and profitable." Furthermore, though a prince study the classics diligently, his theoretical knowledge must be tempered by his experiences in society itself. And, as the prince moves in society, "What incredible delight is taken in beholding the diversities of people . . . to know the sundry manners and conditions of people, and the variety of their natures."
It would be difficult to escape the obvious contrast between Henry's constant concern to hold himself aloof from the people, and his son's ability to move with affable ease throughout the London populace. That the Prince is gaining useful knowledge of his future subjects through his associations is explicitly stated by Warwick in Part 2:
The Prince but studies his companions,
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,
'Tis needful. . . .
The Prince will in the perfectness of time
Cast off his followers, and their memory
Shall as a pattern or a measure live,
By which his Grace must mete the lives of others,
Turning past evils to advantages.
(IV, iv, 68-79)
In Part 1 the Prince suggests a similar advantage in a conversation with Poins: "They [the commoners of London] take it already upon their salvation, that though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy, and tell me . . . when I am the King of England I shall command all the good lads of Eastcheap" (II, iv, 9-15). In Henry V the new King notes to the French ambassador the use he made of his wilder days (I, ii, 268-269). Even Falstaff in his blustering manner implies that the Prince has tempered the cold-blooded valor which he inherited from his father by his association with and knowledge of his subjects (Part 2, IV, iii, 118-123).
In short, although Prince Hal inherits kingly valor and courage from his father—as is witnessed in his exploits at Shrewsbury and in his victories over the French armies at Harfleur and Agincourt—he possesses an attitude toward the monarchy which his father never achieves. Instead of a usurped throne, he inherits an established one; instead of striking internecine blows to protect an unsettled position of authority, he will use the power of a unified England for the positive advantage of expanding his realm; instead of concentration upon the power to punish, he exercises a justice tempered with mercy. Henry IV's cruel treatment of Richard II and his sentencing of Worcester and Vernon to immediate execution might have been politically expedient, but the comparison with Prince Hal's mercy is striking. Immediately after Worcester and Vernon are sentenced, the Prince requests and receives permission "to dispose" of Douglas. In signal contrast to Henry IV's death sentences, Hal delivers Douglas "Up to his pleasure, ransomless and free" (V, v, 28): "His valors shown upon our crests to-day / Have taught us how to cherish such high deeds / Even in the bosom of our adversaries" (29-31). This action is even more significant when one considers that the Prince is showing mercy to one who was at the very center of the rebellion. For Worcester had earlier utilized the capture of "Douglas' son" (I, iii, 261 ff.) as the sole motivation for Hotspur's rallying troops against the King in Scotland, and it was Douglas who very nearly carried the day for the rebels in his personal combat with the King. The Prince also tempers justice with mercy in the much-discussed rejection of Falstaff and his associates, for, although they are "banish'd till their conversations / Appear more wise and modest," the new King "hath intent his wonted followers / Shall all be very well provided for. . . ." (Part 2, V, v, 98-99, 97) In Hal's later action as King he is overtly merciful in his unwarranted freeing, just before the army's departure to France, of one "That rail'd against our person. We consider / It was excess of wine that set him on, / And on his more advice we pardon him" (Henry V, II, ii, 41-43). Even to Cambridge, Exeter, and Grey, the traitors who have accepted bribery from the French, Henry states that, concerning his person, he seeks no revenge, but that their execution is mandatory for the safety of the kingdom (II, ii, 174-175). Moreover, Shakespeare consciously emphasizes the king's mercy in his actions against the citizens of Harfleur, though historically no such mercy was shown.17
A further distinction in 1 Henry IV between Henry and Hal emerges from the dialectical tension created by their perceptions of the other principal figures in the play. Henry's estimation of both Hotspur and Falstaff, for example, is simplistic at best. The one he condones for his valor, merit, and ambition; the other he condemns for his morally reprehensible conduct and his parasitic attachment to the heir apparent. Hal's appraisals are sharply different; he sees both for what they are—individuals who, not devoid of charm, indeed possessing certain admirable qualities vital both to personal fulfillment and popular acclaim, are ultimately unbalanced, intemperate, and self-destructive. The dichotomy, more specifically, is established in the opening lines. Henry IV, as we have previously noted, admires Hotspur and would gladly believe the two Harrys to have been secretly exchanged at birth. Even facing a blatantly traitorous Hotspur at Shrewsbury in Act V, he for "considerations infinite" will not sanction a single combat between his son and the adversary of "great name and estimation" (i, 102, 98). Hal, to the contrary, while obviously recognizing Hotspur's courage and battlefield skills, also perceives the bravado and the unrestrained Herculean ambitions of the man. The one he parodies in conversation with Poins at the Eastcheap tavern:
I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the north: he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, "Fie upon this quiet life! I want work." "O my sweet Harry," says she, "how many hast thou kill'd to-day?" "Give my roan horse a drench," says he, and answers, "Some fourteen," an hour after; "a trifle, a trifle."
(II, iv, 101-108)
The other he addresses in soliloquy over Hotspur's body as an "Ill-weav'd ambition" which, by provoking and feeding the conviction that a kingdom itself is too small, has resulted only in "two paces of the vilest earth" (V, iv, 88, 91).18
Their views of Falstaff and the society of commoners are equally divergent. Henry IV characterizes his son's relationship with them as one of "riot and dishonor" (I, i, 85), of "barren pleasures, rude society" (III, ii, 14); like Richard II Hal "amble[s] up and down, / With shallow jesters" and grows "a companion to the common streets" (60-61, 68). Hal, to the contrary, is never even partially blind to Falstaff's dissolute qualities. From first to last, he addresses his fat companion bluntly and honestly, if good-naturedly. Falstaff is a time-waster, courting trouble with the law (I, ii, 5, 42-43, 66-68); he is a "fat-guts" (II, ii, 31), a liar ("gross as a mountain, open, palpable" [iv, 226]), a villainous thief (314), a devil in the shape of a fat man (447-448), an impudent rascal in whose bosom "there's no room for faith, truth, nor honesty" (III, iii, 153-154). Over his presumably dead body Hal declares that Falstaff would be sorely missed "If I were much in love with vanity!" (V, iv, 106). Illustrations could continue at considerable length, but surely we must assume that Hal from the opening scenes of the play has no illusions whatsoever about his companion. Indeed, he specifically tells us as much in soliloquy. But he also sees beyond the present moment, suggesting that his present associations and actions will make him later shine more brightly when he throws off his "loose behavior" (I, ii, 208), just as the sun seems more brilliant when emerging from dark clouds. This tone of conscious analysis runs, in fact, like a thread through the entire play. Hal asserts that he is "of all humors" (II, iv, 92). He reports, in a statement which slices through the context of levity, that he eventually will banish "plump Jack" from his presence (479). And, on the battlefield he makes good his promise of his opening soliloquy; by openly referring to his truant youth and to an ostensibly instantaneous transformation, he dazzles those around him—even his enemy Vernon, who reports that he seems possessed of "such a grace / As if he mast'red there a double spirit / Of teaching and of learning instantly" (V, ii, 62-64).
Various structural features, then, such as multiple plot strands, the diversity of character and of setting, and the stylized juxtaposition of political concepts contribute to the broad historical perspective of 1 Henry IV. Also fundamental to this perspective is the nature of the characterization. Since the central figures are static and do not command the close rapport and intensity of attention which would tend to blur the larger view of the scene, the spectators are held emotionally at arm's length from the principals; such a detached perspective encourages a breadth of vision not possible—and certainly not intended—in the major tragedies. The movement of the drama, like that of Henry VI plays in some respects, is created by the interplay of fixed types rather than by the developing nature of dynamic figures. Worlds removed, however, is the technique which lends to the characterization a degree of depth and dramatic vitality foreign to the stage worlds of the Henry VI plays. Henry, Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff, for instance, do not develop in the course of the action, and hence they are essentially static figures. The spectators, however forced to view these principals in widely divergent situations, experience a mixed response; the angles from which the character is observed—whether of the public man, the private, the courageous, the cowardly, the melancholic, the philosophic, or the like—cumulatively produce an ambivalence that, for the spectators, moves far beyond the stylization of political theory.
Hal, more specifically, in no way grows or is educated in the process of the play. He announces his intentions when first on stage, and he fulfills them, at least in part, at the conclusion of Part 1. Along the way there is not the slightest doubt in the spectator's mind that he will do so. The difficulty Shakespeare has with the character, as Peter Alexander has written, is that "while he had to talk about the Prince's becoming a different man he also had to make it clear from the beginning that there is no change whatever."19 To compare Hal's experience with that of the prodigal son, one must "so rewrite the parable that the prodigal may say as he departs for the far country, 'I'll so offend, to make offense a skill' " (p. 112). Similarly, to argue the morality tradition as the shaping force, one must accept an Everyman character who knows how to manipulate both sides to best advantage. If Hal is static, however, he is far from a simplistic figure of stylized ideality. Even placing the best interpretation on Hal's use of Falstaff's world is to become better acquainted with all elements of his future kingdom, one is hard pressed to sanction his occasional acts—his passive participation in a robbery involving physical violence and outright defiance of civil law, whatever the rationalization and the mitigating circumstances (II, ii); his refusal to consult with Sir John Bracy, an emissary from his father, at a time of political disruption, indeed permitting Falstaff to speak for him as the rogue sees fit (II, iv, 297 ff.); his arrant lie to the sheriff that Falstaff is not with him at the tavern, that instead he is employed on a special mission (513 ff.); his sudden determination, without explanation, to procure Falstaff an honorable position in the wars, this in the face of his full knowledge of Falstaff's character (545 ff.); and his willingness to grace the lie of Falstaff's slaying Hotspur in battle, an action which by implication at least condones Jack's earlier irresponsibility in substituting wine for his pistol20 and his "discretionary" cowardice in feigning death—let alone his earlier gross abuse of funds for impressment of troops (V, v, 157 ff.). In a word, one can place little credence in the claim that Hal, the ideal king in waiting, is presented without flaw or that any early indiscretions can be excused by his progressive development in spiritual and physical fortitude. He is indeed guilty of occasional lapses in moral judgment—as much at the end of the play as at the beginning—and certainly from the outset he knows his companions for what they are and calculatingly weighs the political advantages of his actions. Either to whitewash his character or to view him as subject to a kind of repentance which obviates a canny sense of political pragmatism is to enforce a reductionism which the full text will not support. Nor should he be viewed, with equal distortion, as a cunning schemer whose lust for power dictates his every move. If John Palmer begs the question with his assertion that Shakespeare "leaves us to decide for ourselves how far Henry really conducts himself according to plan, or how far he is merely creating an alibi for his misdemeanours,"21 it is nonetheless true that the full context will support neither the view that Hal, morally beyond reproach, practices the golden mean of virtue22 nor the view that he is a "self-complacent and self-centered" individual whose "incapacity for true feeling" leads him to discover a genuine Machiavellian energy.23 Hal is, as it were, "his own foil."24
Neither saint nor sinner, then, Hal is an intriguingly human combination of virtues and vices with a taste for the wild life and the thrill of defiance, a tendency to rationalize and mitigate his actions, a remarkable capacity for good humor and a toleration for the boon companion who epitomizes it, a wiley perception of political strategy and of human psychology, a splendid courage and magnanimity on the battlefield, and a genuine dedication to the Lancastrian Throne. Certain characteristics may be dominant at times (suggesting perhaps a sense of development) but never to the exclusion of other features—hence, for example, the significance of the soliloquy declaring his self-knowledge in the midst of his antic moments with Falstaff and the law at the beginning of the play, and of his permitting Falstaff's lie in the context of his greatest military encounter at the end of the play. Hal, then, anticipates the throne and the responsibilities which it entails from his first moment on stage. He, as a static figure moving inexorably toward the throne which will bring fame and glory both to him and to England, does not—like Richard III and Richard II—emotionally engage the spectators in a restrictingly personal manner which would diminish the breadth of their perspective. At the same time he is a complex figure, far from the stylized qualities of heroism in Talbot, of virtue in Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, of villainy in Margaret of Anjou or Richard Duke of York.
The title figure the spectators know less intimately, perhaps in itself an indication of the playwright's concern for a broad focus—especially when one considers the significance of the title roles in the earlier Richard III and Richard II.25 Henry IV, more specifically, speaks not one private line in Pari I, and he appears in fewer scenes than any of the other principals. Again, too, there is no fundamental development in the character. Like Hal, however, he is a complex individual who commands the spectators' interest as they observe his personality from various angles. In I, i, for instance, we view the public Lancastrian face which seems carefully to calculate the political ramifications of every word. Henry is concerned for the kingdom so "shaken" with the "intestine shock . . . of civil butchery" (1, 12-13); were the sporadic insurrections to cease, he would as an act of national expiation lead an English force against the pagans in Jerusalem. Another aspect of the public face, admirably firm and decisive, is revealed in I, iii, in which Henry dismisses Worcester from the Council and sternly refuses Hotspur's conditions for delivering prisoners of war; in III, ii, he moves with confident dispatch to align the three components of his battle force; similarly, the play concludes with his staccato orders to pursue the rebels still at large. Yet another dimension, combining political acumen and magnanimity, is evidenced in the early moments of Act V. Prior to battle he extends "grace" and honorable reconciliation to the rebels (i, 106 ff.), an offer which even Worcester describes as "liberal and kind" (ii, 2). Distinctly different, however, is the remorseful father who senses that his son's profligacy is "the hot vengeance, and the rod of heaven" sent to "punish [his] mistreadings" (III, ii, 10, 11). Sensing in Hal's seeming disregard for the throne a repudiation of all he has achieved, Henry laments that his son is his "nearest and dearest enemy," likely to fight in Percy's pay from "Base inclination, and the start of spleen" (123, 125). The moment of reconciliation is charged with emotion, and a similar humanly vulnerable side is exposed later on the battlefield in words of gratitude to Hal for saving his life.
There may be no significant growth or alteration in personality, but Henry IV is not one dimensional; and the same is true for both Hotspur and Falstaff. Certainly, for instance, Hotspur in one sense fulfills Henry IV's simplistic description.26 Vis-a-vis an effeminate lord from the court in I, iii, he is a veritable Mars on the battlefield, and he boldly asserts his position against the King himself. This same heroic stance the audience privately observes in Hotspur's disdain for those who shirk the battle from fear, yet claim political or domestic excuses: "he shows in this, he loves his own barn better than he loves our house. . . . What a frosty-spirited rogue is this!" (II, iii, 5-6, 20). And Hotspur bravely encounters Hal at Shrewsbury, lamenting in defeat that his sacrifice of "proud titles" is a far sharper pain than the loss of "brittle life" (V, iv, 78, 77). At the same time the spectators also see, far more plainly than Hal, the heir apparent's justification for mocking Hotspur's blustering and immoderate mien. Not only—following the King's order that all prisoners be delivered—does Hotspur develop such a passionate attack of logorrhea that his uncle declines further speech and his father brands him a "wasp-stung and impatient fool" (I, iii, 236); he also insists on alienating his ally. Glendower by bluntly calling him a liar (III, i, 58), and in a high dudgeon he insists that the river Trent be turned so that his division of the kingdom will be larger; in both cases only the cooler head of the Welsh leader preserves the fragile rebel alliance (an odious comparison indeed, since Glendower himself is given to such hyperbolic rant). Similarly he later disregards the defections from his ranks, vowing that since "Doomsday is near" all will "die merrily" (IV, i, 134) and insisting—against the advice of all of his counsellors —that the charge take place that very night (iii, 1-29). But the spectator, unlike the royal father and son, perceives yet another side. When Lady Percy expresses concern for her husband's sleeplessness and loss of appetite and berates him for not sharing his innermost problems, not the heroism or the bravado but the humanity surfaces. Like Portia, Kate fears for her husband's safety; and, if Hotspur's response in II, iv, seems somewhat peremptory, his bantering tone hardly conceals his affection in III, i. Juxtaposed to the amorous pair, Mortimer and his wife, for whom language is a barrier, Hotspur bluntly proclaims Kate "perfect in lying down" (226). She wittily threatens to break his head unless he keeps silence, but he insists that she swear a "good mouth-filling oath" (254). The two are obviously well matched, and the impression conveyed by the scene is one of genuine intimacy. Whatever Henry's or Hal's single-dimensional perception of Hotspur, in other words, the spectators see him in a far more complex light. Not only must they balance the opposing views of the royal family (and the manner in which these views functionally develop the conflict of father and son); they must also accommodate the more personal vision of the man with wife, friends, and political allies.
The spectator's perception of Falstaff is no less complex. On the one hand, the character is indeed a fat parasite who, by inference at least, is a "grey Iniquity," a "villainous abominable misleader of youth" (II, iv, 453-454, 462-463).27 On the other hand he is also a welcome participant in present mirth. Both views are readily illustrated. As a creature of malign influence, Falstaff is a "thief" (I, ii, 138; II, ii, 93) and a robber of the King's exchequer (55), a whoremonger and debtor to the hostess to the tavern (II, iii, 66), a traitor in his misuse of funds for assembling troops in a period of national emergency (IV, ii, 12), and an arrant coward on the field of battle (V, iii, 58-59; iv, 75 ff.). At the same time the Prince without question pays Falstaff 's tavern debts (I, ii, 51) and time and again delights in his resourceful excuses and rationalizations—whether involving the counterrobbery at Gad's Hill (II, iv, 267-269), the pocket-picking at Eastcheap (III, iii, 164-166), or the parodic role-changing (II, iv, 376-481);28 Hal will even tolerate dishonesty at Shrewsbury for the sake of such friendship:
Come bring your luggage nobly on your back.
For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I'Ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.
(V, iv, 156-158)
But there is yet another side to Falstaff which only the spectators perceive, and it is this quality which in large part accounts for the universal popularity of the character. Not only is this "huge hill of flesh" a voice of merry abandon; he also epitomizes that part of human nature which places a paramount value on life and survival and which disdains a commitment to violence and destruction for such pompous abstractions as national power and honor. Moments before the battle begins, for example, he privately shares with the spectators his catechism of honor—it may spur one to fight but it has never been able to set a leg or an arm or to mitigate the "grief of a wound" (V, i, 132). This concept of honor as a mere word for glorifying militaristic actions which result in death is a recurrent theme through several of his soliloquies in the final act.29 Standing over the slain Sir Walter Blount, Falstaff sardonically observes the vanity of honor's prompting the nobleman to fight in the King's disguise (iii, 30-39); later, he is more grotesquely pointed: "I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so; if not, honor comes unlook'd for, and there's an end" (58-61). Similarly, when compelled to feign death to save life, he proclaims that he is "no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is discretion" (iv, 115-120).30 He may at one moment be ashamed of the ragmuffins who follow him, but such embarrassment fails to dampen his enthusiasm for squandering the money he has appropriated (Iv, ii, 11 ff.). And he may at another moment vow to "purge and leave sack, and live cleanly," but he admits that he follows, "as they say, for reward" (V, iv, 164-165, 162). Falstaff, in a word, is worlds removed from the equally extreme battlefield heroics of Hotspur; but like Percy's son he is human in his habitude, and the interweaving of such powerfully ambivalent figures provides a rich and controlled perspective for dramatizing chronicle material.
In summary, Shakespeare's historical perspective reaches a new level of maturation in the two Henry IV plays and Henry V, a level which would seem flatly to refute the recent assertion by James Calderwood that the spectator "cannot simultaneously be involved in the immediate experience of the play and yet be detached from it."31 On the one hand, no longer as in the Henry VI plays is character abstractly fitted to idea. For the most part flat and one-dimensional, the characters of those earlier stage worlds merely serve the purposes of the...
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Law And Justice
Norman Sanders (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "The True Prince and the False Thief: Prince Hal and the Shift of Identity," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 30, 1977, pp. 29-34.
[In the following essay, Sanders contends that Prince Hal associates with outlaws such as Falstaff in order to dissociate himself from his own father's illegitimate rule and, ultimately, to "create " his own form of kingly "Justice. "]
Much of Shakespeare's drama is centrally concerned with men's need to make choices in life and the necessity for taking full responsibility for the actions which result from these choices. One...
(The entire section is 22049 words.)
Stephen Greenblatt (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V" in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Manchester University Press, 1985, pp. 18-47.
[In the following essay, Greenblatt examines the subversive nature of 1 and 2 Henry IV, arguing that it paradoxically serves to strengthen, rather than undermine, the legitimacy and power of the king.]
In his notorious police report of 1593 on Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan spy Richard Baines informed his superiors that Marlowe had...
(The entire section is 35188 words.)
Harry Levin (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Falstaff's Encore," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 5-17.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1980, Levin examines the relationship between 1 and 2 Henry IV, and concludes that 2 Henry IV's function as a sequel is less important than its role in highlighting Shakespeare's shift from history plays and comedies to tragedies, noting that Falstaff's presence in the play signals this change of genre.]
Any single work which entitles itself The Second Part starts from something of a disadvantage.1 The compensating advantage is that it...
(The entire section is 12501 words.)
Berry, Edward I. "The Rejection Scene in 2 Henry IV." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 XVII, No. 2 (Spring 1977): 201-18.
Examines the ways in which critics have misread Hal's rejection of Falstaff in 2 Henry IV suggests methods of interpreting the scene more fully.
Bevington, David. "Introduction." In The Oxford Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part I, edited by David Bevington, pp. 1-110. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Provides an overview of 1 Henry IV, including the play's sources, structure, and tensions between characters, as well as performances of the play and its place in...
(The entire section is 662 words.)