Henry IV, Part I Essays
by William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part I book cover
Start Your Free Trial

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.

Download Henry IV, Part I Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 to follow other people's ideas on how he should act, and thus he is liable to do almost anything at any time. He will not be bound by "honor", if that means being killed for a cause which isn't all that important anyway. He is spiritually an anarchist, and his humor and joke playing create a delightful chaos around him. Hotspur, on the other hand, is an honorable and brave man, who fights and dies for his cause, never quite realizing that defeat is possible. Ironically, the spiritual anarchist takes credit for killing the political anarchist and it remains for Hal to bring order to the chaos at the close of the play. The King himself, surveying the remains of the battle, says "Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke", referring perhaps not only to the dead Hotspur but to the soon to be disfavored Falstaff.

As we trace the alternation of rebellion and authority, of anarchy and order, through this play, we find most often that they are ironically related. Thus Hal uses the contrast towards the two to bring himself into prominence; the King contrasts his "wild" youth with his responsible old age; Falstaff insists upon his freedom but is most happy when he is under the protection of the authority of the King and his son; Hotspur feels that only through rebellion can "order" be restored; and finally, the King, who came to power as a rebel in his own right, ends the play with the vow that "Rebellion in this land shall lose his sway."

Anarchy and order are thus, in this play, relative concepts. Shakespeare leaves it to his readers to form their own opinions, based upon countless examples, of the worth of the terms and the concepts they represent.

"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...

(The entire section is 7,212 words.)