Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, the second and third plays in Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, cover the end of Richard II's reign through the beginning of Henry V's reign. Critics have often noted that other characters in the play, most notably the king's...

(The entire section contains 93300 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Henry IV, Part I study guide. You'll get access to all of the Henry IV, Part I content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Act and Scene Summaries
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
  • Critical Essays
  • Quotes
  • eText
  • Short-Answer Quizzes
  • Teaching Guide
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, the second and third plays in Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, cover the end of Richard II's reign through the beginning of Henry V's reign. Critics have often noted that other characters in the play, most notably the king's son Prince Hal, Sir John Falstaff, and the headstrong rebel Hotspur, overshadow the importance of King Henry IV. This has led many scholars to theorize that it is not so much the king's reign as it is the education of Prince Hal that is the focus of both the plays. In this regard, many comparisons have been drawn between Hal and Hotspur, comparing the fitness of each as the potential ruler of England. Also of interest to critics has been the nature of Hal's relationship with both his father and Falstaff, as well as the reformation of Hal and the rejection of Falstaff. In addition to the study of characters, more recent analyses of the plays have focused on the unity of the plays, and whether or not they present a balanced whole.

While both parts of Henry IV are separate and independent plays, and in Shakespeare's time were performed as such, the question of the aesthetic unity of both plays as a whole has been a topic of abiding interest among scholars studying Shakespeare's history plays. Discussing this issue in his 1972 essay, Louis I. Middleman suggests that while a notation at the beginning of the plays suggests a disunity of conception that is hard to ignore, both parts of Henry IV ultimately present a balanced whole. According to Middleman, this unity is achieved through Hal's emergence as a complete character, learning from the superabundant spirit of Hotspur and the exuberant spirit of Falstaff. In contrast, in an essay comparing both parts of Henry IV, John Berryman (1970) takes issue with critics who see the two plays as a whole. M. C. Bradbrook (1965) also examines the question of unity and continuity between the two parts of Henry IV, suggesting that Shakespeare uses Part I to create and distinguish each of the main characters, while in Part II the role taking becomes more subtle. Bradbrook suggests that this evolution of character between the two parts of Henry IV displays Shakespeare's maturity as a playwright, allowing him to explore the emergence of the concept of secular sovereignty versus traditional judgments of right and wrong.

Prince Hal’s character has also been an area of critical interest, particularly his transformation from one self to another. Many critics have debated the realism of his reformation; however, Matthew H. Wikander (1992) notes that Hal's earliest speeches prepare the audience for his reformation at the end of the play. Wikander contends that in a political context, this change is absolutely necessary in order to prove his ability to inherit the throne of England. Paul A. Gottschalk (1974) agrees when he notes that the tavern scene in Henry IV, Part I, as well as Hal's first soliloquy, predicts the impending change in his character later in the play. In addition to Hal, one of the most significant characters in these plays is Sir John Falstaff. Widely acclaimed as one of Shakespeare's most enduring and beloved characters, Falstaff provides a foil and comic relief to the seriousness embodied in Hotspur, serving as both companion and mentor to the young Prince as he prepares for the assumption of his rightful place as King of England. While much discussion of Falstaff's character has focused on his relationship with and ultimate denouncement by Prince Hal, more recent criticism has begun focusing on the character of Falstaff as a significant dramatic device. Barbara Everett (1990) explores the origin and development of Falstaff's character in Shakespeare's history plays, with an emphasis on the political significance of his appearance in Henry IV.

In addition to analyses of character and unity in Henry IV, the treatment of the reformation and redemption of Prince Hal and the rejection of Falstaff also have been featured prominently in many critical discussions of the play. Many studies have noted that in contrast to earlier critical interpretations of Hal's redemption and Falstaff's rejection, Falstaff and Hal conspire from the very beginning to build towards the rejection scene. This is so because the future king needs a public occasion, almost a ritual exorcism, to help display his reformation. Noting the sequential nature of both plays, Jonathan Crewe (1990) proposes that Hal's reformation is ultimately an ongoing process that begins in Henry IV, Part I and continues through Henry V, reflecting Shakespeare's preoccupation with issues of legitimate change and succession.

M. C. Bradbrook (essay date 1965)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5290

SOURCE: “King Henry IV,” in Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, The Harvester Press, 1984, pp. 72-83.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Bradbrook offers an overview of Henry IV, Parts I and II,contending that they are political plays that address contemporary political issues.]

There was once a summer school at the other Stratford where, in two successive hours, a first speaker said that anyone who doubted the unity of the great continuous ten-act play was disqualified to understand Shakespeare; while a second said that anyone who thought 2 Henry IV more than a feeble ‘encore’ must be illiterate. The link that I would see is that of adaptability, the imaginative ability to create a part and to play it. In Part 1, this playful, heroic, or sometimes merely crafty capacity distinguishes each of the main characters. In Part 2, the role-taking (to use familiar jargon) is subtle, Machiavellian and by no means subjected to plain ethical judgments of right and wrong. In dismissing Falstaff, Henry V appears both kingly and treacherous—because his two roles can no longer be played by the same man; the King cannot be true to the reveller of Eastcheap. In the play as a whole, the width of reference and ambiguity of response shows Shakespeare's full maturity. ‘The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem’, said the philosopher Wittgenstein; and Machiavelli's contribution to political thought consisted in dropping theories of political government and observing the facts of behaviour, in all their awkward complexity. ‘We are much beholden to Machiavel’, said Bacon, ‘who openly and unfeignedly declares … what men do, and not what they ought to do’. A famous book on princely education, Elyot's Book of the Governor, had aimed in the early sixteenth century at producing a traditionally good, well-equipped and high-principled ruler. Machiavelli perceived the emergence of secular sovereignty; and the rest of the world was horrified at what he saw. It had already arrived when Warwick the Kingmaker, in Henry VI's reign, putting pressure on the Vatican to back his policy, manoeuvred in a way any modern student of politics would readily define; but the next century still had no words for it. Behaviour was ahead of statement; for it is the artist that first catches the implications of behaviour. 2 Henry IV came out shortly after the first edition of Bacon's essays; these men, however different their minds, were observing the same phenomenon. Shakespeare gave it imaginative form, Bacon gave it definition.

As an actor, Shakespeare was gifted with a special insight into the quick-change aspects of political life; Protean variety, which was the outstanding quality of Elizabethan acting, elicits exactly what the new politics demanded of the ruler. Many have noted that Richard III is a natural actor in his wooing of Anne, his scenes with Clarence, with Edward. However, he is drawn as conventionally wicked; for ‘men should be what they seem’. In Henry IV Shakespeare is questioning the popular frame of assumptions more radically; yet he had to avoid shocking his audience.

The uncertainties, the troubles, the doubtful roles, the lack of any suitable heir—these issues were calculated to touch powerfully the feelings and engage the interest of any audience in the late 1590s. And the glorious resolution of all doubts in the triumphant coronation of Henry V was exactly what the country was momentarily to feel when James I peaceably succeeded in 1603. Alas! James was no Plantagenet—but instead of leading his people to war against France, he at least united them with Scotland.

Shakespeare was not writing a political treatise or constructing an allegory, but he was playing variations on a live political issue; in these plays the whole of society enters into the conflict. The colourless citizens of Richard III, the symbolic gardeners, Welsh tribesmen, the groom of the stable who appear in Richard II play minor roles. But here the life of London, and Gloucestershire, and the north is fully drawn into the play; while Shakespeare presents, in ever varying forms, a generous and yet sceptical questioning of that traditional principle which his earlier plays assume. This is political drama in a far profounder way than its dynastic interests would suggest, for the psychology of political life is here developed; the most successful man is he who can adapt himself most flexibly while retaining a clear sense of direction and purpose. This was exactly what the apparently changeable but really determined Elizabeth had done. Unlike her successor, she did not theorize; but she was a superb practitioner.

The Queen was the government; so throughout her reign the question of what would happen if she died untimely had troubled her subjects. A disputed succession meant the possibility of civil war—the ultimate worst thing for the sixteenth century (as perhaps it still is). This was a topic which no writer would dare directly to treat on the stage, for the consequences would have been extremely serious; but in the mirror of history it had been reflected ever since the young lawyers in 1561 put on Gorboduc—a play written by one of the Queen's gravest counsellors. This play enjoyed a great and continuing success; it is about the wickedness of dividing a kingdom—as Hotspur and the conspirators propose to do. Other plays dealt with similar subjects—Horestes, Locrine, The Misfortunes of Arthur. These are now little more than names in a textbook; but then they were the means by which the warnings and counsels of her subjects might be tendered to the Queen herself. They were played before her; when later still in 1601 Essex and his friends wanted to raise the city of London, they put on the old play of Richard II.1 We see this use of history today in such plays as Brecht's Galileo, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Sartre's Lucifer and the Lord.

Within Henry IV, each character plays several roles, and the leading characters often substitute for each other. Falstaff is the father of Hal's wit, the King father of his chivalry; Harry Monmouth is the son of Henry's loins, but Harry Hotspur the son of his wishes.2

Falstaff plays any and every part. His imagination devises ever-fresh fancies for himself and his followers, which are taken up and discarded as fast as they are conceived. He describes Hal and himself as thieves, in gorgeously poetic terms; he next promotes himself to judge—but is ready to turn hangman; he then becomes melancholy and repents. In the heat of exploit Falstaff is a ‘young man’ that ‘must live’, and the victim of Hal's love charm; in the next scene he is ‘poor old Jack’. Having justified himself for robbery on the grounds of a vocation for it, he raises a tempest of rage when his pocket is picked, and takes the opportunity to repudiate all his debts. Playing the knight of chivalry, he asks Hal to bestride him if he is down, and boasts that his deeds surpass Turk Gregory's. He rises in fact from his mummer's sham death to claim the spoils of victory.

Against Falstaff's instinctive mobility, Hal's role-taking looks deliberate. He early casts himself for the role of Percy, playing it in a mixture of admiration and irony; in his revels, he plays the part of Prodigal Prince, with Falstaff as his father; and then, assuming the King, deposes and banishes Falstaff as later he will do in earnest. But he can play the potboy in a leather apron, equally well. The fantasy life of Eastcheap (even the robbery is a jest), playing at capital crime, at exhortation, at soldiering, is sharply dismissed by the Prince, even while he enjoys it. It is Idleness—according to Puritan opponents, the capital sin of all players. Idleness and Vanity are keywords in Part 1; both were favourite terms of abuse for the players, but Shakespeare draws their sting. It is in the comedy of Gadshill, sweeping along through the first two acts, that the grand genial theme of Robbery is stated. Thief … hangman … gallows … : the sinister possibilities are suggested only to be brushed aside, for the thieves are in company with ‘nobility and tranquility, burgomasters and great oneyers’. In the older plays, it is the King's own money which is taken. Later the note is graver; the rebels carve up the commonwealth and use her as their booty; the King himself is confessedly one who stole the diadem and put it in his pocket; the tussle with Hotspur over the prisoners is an attempt at Gadshill measures. According to Holinshed, Hotspur said of Mortimer, ‘Behold the heir of the realm is robbed of his right, and yet the robber with his own will not redeem him.’

Falstaff of Gadshill is succeeded by Captain Falstaff, robbing under royal warrant by his misuse of the King's press. At Shrewsbury the Prince robs Hotspur of all his honours, and finally, most shameless of all, Falstaff robs the Prince of the glory of killing Percy, and staggers off, a porter of the ‘luggage’ that once was the fiery Hotspur. The Prince, with an indifference more telling than contempt, offers to ‘gild’ what he at the same time labels as a ‘lie’.

Falstaff's chief weapon is neither his sword nor his bottle of sack, but his jests; his power to defend the indefensible springs partly from nimble wits and partly from that innocent and unstudied shamelessness which breeds lies gross, open and palpable as the fantasies of childhood. Somewhere in Falstaff lurks the small boy who boasts that he has just killed a lion. Only by degrees does he penetrate from his Castle of Misrule, the Boar's Head Tavern, to the world of heroic action in which Percy moves; only in Part 2 to the world of judgment, organization, political theory which surrounds the King. He is an Actor, not in the calculating fashion of Richard III, but with the instinctive, ductile mobility of a jester who takes up any position you throw him, and holds it.

Henry IV, as in the play of Richard II, stands for the life of judgment against that of the fantasy and imagination; it is his superior skill in deploying his forces that defeats the dash and fire of Hotspur.

Percy's scornful mimicry of the popinjay lord reveals that he, like Hal and Falstaff, lives in the life of the imagination. To think of a plot is enough for him; he can feed on his motto Esperance; mappery and closet-war are quite alien to him. Yet when he meets the more primitive imagination of Glendower with its cressets and fiery shapes, its prophecies out of the common lore, Hotspur baits Glendower mercilessly. Glendower is Hotspur's Falstaff.

Before Shakespeare wrote, Hotspur was already a potent name in such common lore. Every member of the audience would have known that old ballad of Douglas and Percy by which Sir Philip Sidney had confessed himself stirred more than with the sound of the trumpet. Hotspur's contempt for balladmongers is ill-deserved; for they were to keep his fame alive. In The Battle of Otterburn a single combat, such as the Prince offers at Shrewsbury, is offered by Douglas to Percy, and the conqueror salutes his gallant foe, as the Prince, laying his royal favours on the mangled face, salutes the dead Hotspur. In the ballad, it is Percy himself who

                                        leaned on his brand
And saw the Douglas dee:
He took the dead man by the hand,
Saying, Woe is me for thee;
To have saved thy life, I would have parted with
My lands for years three;
For a better man, of heart, nor of hand
Was not in all the north country.

The resurrection of Douglas to join the conspirators in this play adds greatly to their potency. Hotspur could so easily have won at Shrewsbury; the battle against odds is a true foretaste of Agincourt—the little troop with its Welsh and Scots contingent, led by one man's courage. Harry learns his role at Agincourt from Hotspur's at Shrewsbury.

Harry Monmouth, the changeling prince, born in the enchanted west, publicly takes up the role of chivalrous knight in Vernon's splendid description of his mounting his horse; and Hotspur cries:

Come, let me taste my horse,
Who is to bear me like a thunderbolt
Against the bosom of the Prince of Wales.

(IV.i. 119-21)

The essence of chivalry is the mounted charge: knights must have horses—and rivals to encounter. The images are cosmic, grand. As Harry says ‘Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere’. The image of the rising sun dispelling clouds, which the Prince uses in his opening soliloquy, is inevitably parodied by Falstaff: ‘Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries? a question not to be ask’d. Shall the son of England prove a thief and take purses? a question to be ask’d’ (II. iv. 394-7).

Harry of Monmouth and Hal of Eastcheap are different roles for the same young man, who had learnt manysidedness among the pots of ale, where Hotspur contemptuously places him. The opening soliloquy shows the Prince as a passionless manipulator of events, whereas Hotspur is carried away by rage, ardour or mockery. In his presence, calculation fails; his uncle Worcester, the supreme Machiavel, gives up schooling him and at the last dupes him. (In his source, Shakespeare could have found that Worcester had in fact been tutor to Hal; a suitable appointment, had he cared to develop it.)

Hal's many parts, however, do not cohere as naturally as do Falstaff's. In Falstaff the contradictions spring from a great natural vitality; they are the fruit of abundance; in his presence, jests alone are plotted. The Prince is nimbly versatile, witty in a biting style and noble in a restrained one; irony and control are his modes, as lustiness and shamelessness are Falstaff's. In wit they are evenly matched; but Hal dispenses patronage, and a follower can never be quite a friend. The mixture of apparent intimacy and real insecurity which Falstaff develops at the Boar's Head is like that attained by players with such noble patrons as Southampton or Pembroke; and the real Boar's Head Tavern was one of the players' winter houses. Falstaff harps constantly on Hal's position as heir apparent, and though he may dare to call him ‘cuckoo’ and ask, ‘Help me to my horse, good king's son’, there is behind the Prince's retort, ‘What, shall I be your ostler?’ something of the sting that appears in ‘I know you all’, with its later, more dramatic sequel, ‘I know thee not, old man’.

Falstaff's gross body, his constant and clamorous needs, for sack, for wenches, for a hand to his horse (the Prince can vault into the saddle), makes him helpless at times with the helplessness of the flesh and of old age, which raises its voice in the shrill reproaches of the long-suffering Mistress Quickly. Falstaff needs his wits to live; Hal needs his only to jest, and is an extraordinarily ascetic Rioter. In the old plays of the Prodigal Son, an addiction to harlots always characterized the Rioter. In Part 1 Falstaff represents misrule and good cheer rather than riotous life. Dover Wilson noted the many images of food which are applied to him—the most frequent is ‘butter’; he ‘lards the earth’ and is ‘as vigilant as a cat to take cream’. Though gross, these images are rich, nourishing, festive.

It is because he inhabits such a mountain of flesh that his wit ‘strikes fiery off’. He uses his bulk as a shield to turn reproaches into a jest, and in his extraordinary union of the child, the animal and the criminal, never pursues any single aim, so that all his disabilities serve only to illustrate his freedom. The dexterity with which he extricates himself from danger is a quick and natural response; when he hacks his sword or attempts to cozen, he is always exposed. His confidence in himself is deep, animal, instinctive; in this, he resembles Hotspur. They represent the nobility of instinct, a feckless, unthrifty splendour of living which is unknown to the prudent court. Coarseness and violence, the stench of the battlefield and the smell of the stable, cling to Hotspur, who would have his Kate swear like a mosstrooper, and leave modest oaths to citizens' wives. The praise of instinct which Falstaff bestows on himself has some truth in it. He swears commonly and most properly by himself, for out of himself a whole world of living roles is created for himself and others to play.

Henry IV has only one role to play—that of the King. He has shown courage, and a disregard for conventional restraint and for all the sacred taboos in assuming the crown; as L. C. Knights has observed, he remains the embodiment of the guilt that is inseparable from getting and keeping power. His vision of a united England sets him above his enemies; but against his deep repentance, and that of the Prince in face of his father's ‘dear and deep rebuke’, is set the mock repentance of Falstaff, couched in the canting whine of the sectaries. Falstaff thus protects himself against the uncou’ guid by stealing their thunder.

Interplay of character, exchange of roles, melting of mood into mood, and free range combine to give Part 1 its ‘divine fluidity’. All is lucent, untrammelled in the consequence. The consequences are presented in Part 2.


Here the characters are sharper, clearer, more definite; they do not blend but contrast. Instead of lambent interplay, division or fusion of roles is provided, with clear separation of man and office. There is more oration and less action; the action belongs to the common people, while the King utters his great soliloquies and Falstaff talks directly to the audience on the virtues of sherris sack.

The embodiment of some of the leading themes appears in the Prologue Rumour, and I was sorry that this Prologue was cut in your production. Morally, Rumour embodies the Lie; socially, she represents ‘rotten Opinion’ or Seeming; politically, the unstable and troublesome times. The rebels are first shown a false image of victory, then a false peace which is prelude to a new conspiracy, and finally a false show of war, when the true grief lies in the King's death. She addresses the audience as her ‘household’; it is a slightly malicious opening jest.

The last abortive rebellion of Henry IV's reign is led by the two symbolic figures of Mowbray and York; Mowbray, the son of Bolingbroke's first public challenger, and York, the prince of the church who echoes Rumour on the ‘still discordant wavering multitude’:

The commonwealth is sick of their own choice; … 
An habitation giddy and unsure
Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.

(I. iii. 87,89-90)

A religious rising in the north was the only rebellion of Elizabeth's reign: as a boy of five, Shakespeare might have seen the levies marching up against the Catholic earls, the Nevilles and Percies. Perhaps some of his London audience had marched too.

To his King's anxious calculations of his enemies' strength, Warwick, who is Shakespeare's countryman and speaks always with the voice of Truth, replies:

Rumour doth double, like the voice and echo,
The numbers of the feared.

(III. i. 97-8)

Like voice and echo, opposed rulers of church and state recall the deposition and death of Richard II, the Archbishop dwelling on the treachery of the multitude who then denounced and would now worship him, Henry dwelling on the treachery of Northumberland, once Richard's friend, then his, and now his sworn foe.

The connection between ecclesiastical and temporal rule is debated when the armies meet. Lancaster says the Archbishop is misusing his position as God's deputy to take up arms against God's temporal substitute, the anointed King.

                                        You have ta’en up,
Under the counterfeited zeal of God,
The subjects of his substitute, my father,
And both against the peace of heaven and him
Have here up-swarm’d them.

(IV. ii. 26-30)

But the treachery of John of Lancaster's ruse is hardly excused by his neat explanation that wrongs will be redressed, while traitors will suffer; and a final blasphemy is not lacking:

Strike up our drums, pursue the scatter’d stray:
God, and not we, hath safely fought today.

(IV. ii. 120-1)

Comment is provided in the last scene of this act by Henry himself:

                                        God knows, my son,
By what by-paths, and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown.

(IV. iv. 184-5)

No one, least of all Bolingbroke, denies the guilt of usurpation or the conflicts it brings. Treachery in the political sphere replaces the mock robberies of Part 1; the presiding Genius is not Valour, but Wit, not Chivalry but Statecraft. God send us His peace, but not the Duke of Lancaster's, the commons might exclaim.

The lament of Hotspur's widow is immediately followed by the appearance of Falstaff's whore; it is one of the telling silent strokes. Doll hangs on Falstaff's neck and tells him whether she sees him again there is nobody cares. The life of the play resides in these common parts, the roles of his followers who do not think of Hal as their future governor. He himself plays the prentice's part: this was a shrewd touch to endear him to all the prentices in Shakespeare's original audience—an important playgoing group. The action of Falstaff's own followers is largely parody. Pistol presents a great parody of the imaginative life; he outgoes even Falstaff's soaring inventions, a wild impossible creature who talks in scraps of playspeech, and feeds on his own mad imagination. If the ghost of Hotspur walks in Part 2, he is named Pistol. It has been said that we always fundamentally talk about ourselves, or aspects of ourselves; so, if Falstaff represents something of Shakespeare's own assessment of himself, may not Pistol be a player's nightmare? A parody of Ned Alleyn's rant, perhaps, but also an embodiment of Shakespeare's deepest fear—a wild tatterdemalion spouter of crazy verses, hopelessly mistaken in all he says and does, thrown off even by Falstaff. Pistol embodies the life of dream, of playmaking at its most distorted and absurd. It is fitting that he brings the deceptive good news of Hal's succession to Falstaff. When the King wakens from his dream of Eastcheap mirth, both Falstaff and Pistol are jailed. Pistol roaring his defiant Spanish tag as he is carried off, in cruel parody of Hotspur's motto, Esperance: ‘Si fortuna me tormenta, spero me contenta.’

The great mythological popular scene of the stolen crown is haunted not by an explicit recollection of Richard II, but an echo of his fate, the sad ceremony by which Bolingbroke unkings himself. Giving shape to his imaginary fears, Henry mockingly hails his son by the new title which for all the audience evoked the ‘star of England’, victor of Agincourt.

Harry the Fifth is crown’d! Up, vanity;
Down, royal state! … 
O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows.

(IV. iv. 120-1,134)

Behind the dying king, the anxious father peers out, as death bores through his castle wall. The man fenced in by office, the body fretted by care, bequeath themselves to dust. Bolingbroke admits that even his expiatory crusade had not been without its prudential aspect; he had known only a ‘supposed Peace’, but he prays for ‘true peace’ at home in his own son's time. And pat to the catastrophe comes the old prophecy's fulfilment—he is to die in Jerusalem, if not quite the Jerusalem his rather stumbling piety expected.

The transmission of office, the demise of the crown as distinct from the death of Henry Bolingbroke, involves Prince Henry in the last death-pangs of his old self. In his brief appearance before the King's last sickness, the Prince is shown with Poins, who, unlike Falstaff, is bluntly honest. The Prince must mock his own greatness, gird at Poins, but half confide in him. Hal of Eastcheap has no right to weep for a father's sickness, and is well aware of it. He takes up the prentice's part and surveys from this vantage Falstaff's descent ‘from a god to a bull’. The encounter is momentary: there is a revival momentarily of the old manner (‘Why, thou globe of sinful continents’) a recollection of Gadshill; and a carefully casual goodbye, whose finality was beautifully suggested in the playing: ‘Falstaff, good night’. This is the Prince at his most sensitive, subtle and inconsistent. When he finally takes up the poisoned gold of the crown and receives absolution from his natural father, he becomes warmly and simply a tearful son in the closet; but in public, wearing the ‘new and gorgeous garment, majesty’, he stands as father to his brothers, son to the Lord Chief Justice, and to Falstaff an image of the Last Judgment itself (the Exhortation of the York Judgment Play might serve as parallel to the rejection speech).

In his fears Henry Bolingbroke had given a ‘character’ of his son, in which sharp changes of mood and irreversible decisions are the leading traits. A strong personality, when its deeps are broken up by an internal earthquake, shows a new and unrecognizable landscape. The ‘noble change’ so coolly predicted in Part 1 is painfully accomplished in Part 2. The Lord Chief Justice, like the Archbishop a symbol of office, represents the better side of the last reign, all that was true in its ‘supposed Peace’. This is how he justified the jailing of the unreformed Prince:

I then did use the person of your father
The image of his power lay then in me.

(V. ii. 73-4)

He suggests that Henry should imagine a future son of his own spurning his own image; and the King allows the argument as ‘bold, just and impartial’. He is no longer an individual, but a power whose image may by delegation reside in other bodies than his own, such as those of Judge or Prelate. The shadows of past and future kings melt away as the Sun of England mounts with measured confidence an uncontested throne.

Yet he sets himself under the law: ‘You shall be as a father to my youth’. Henry, who had played so many parts, now accepts only one. Complete identification of man and office closes the visor of his golden armour upon him, and he becomes the centre of the group of brothers, an impersonal Lancastrian King. Henceforth he has an uncontrollable tendency to speak like a royal proclamation. However, in one jest dexterously combining religious reproof and a recollection of old times, Falstaff is symbolically buried:

Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.

(V. v. 54-5)

In a metaphor derived perhaps from the parable of the tares, the Archbishop of York had seen the fourth Henry's friends and foes growing so inextricably together that he might not pluck up the one without destroying the other. This is not Henry V's problem in weeding his garden now. Falstaff, and that old father antic the law, Justice Shallow, are swept off to prison by Henry's new father and his colder self, John of Lancaster, who, fresh from the beheading of an Archbishop, can hardly see Falstaff's banishment as anything but a ‘fair proceeding’.3 It is a highly conventional scene, the traditional judgment scene for a bitter or moralist comedy, so that even Doll and Mistress Quickly are swept into the net. Rumour is confounded, Seeming is cast off, and Order restored.

At the height of his second military triumph, the capture of Colville, Falstaff boasts, ‘I have a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any word but my name’. This elaborate way of saying that ‘Everyone that sees me, knows me’, by its metaphor suddenly clothes Falstaff in the robe which Rumour had worn in the prologue. Within the play, he is her chief representative; as indeed he admits by implication in a self revealing comment on Shallow: ‘Lord, lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying’.

The delights of the Boar's Head and of Gloucestershire, with their undertones of death and old age sounding through the revelry, like the coming of winter in a harvest play, depict the wide commonwealth, the unthinking multitude of common folk about whom Bolingbroke and the Archbishop have been so loftily eloquent. Among the least of the rout, a little tailor with the ‘only man-sized voice in Gloucestershire’, suddenly echoes one of Prince Harry's proverbs from Shrewsbury: ‘We owe God a death’. Feeble, who outbuys a whole army of Pistols, serves to link the multitude and the throne, as in earlier comical histories such local heroes as George-a-Greene had done.

The audience feels no compulsion to take the side of law and order; indeed the tragic themes predominate in reading, but on the stage this is Falstaff's play. The imaginative life of the action lies less in the sick fancies, the recollections and foreshadowing of Bolingbroke than in the daydreams and old wives' tales of Mistress Quickly and Justice Shallow. Neither Hal nor Falstaff daff the world aside with quite the carelessness they had shown before. More wit and less fun, more dominance and less zest, more shrewdness and less banter belong to these two; humour and gaiety have split off into the life of common men and women. Falstaff's mistaken dream of greatness is shattered and he hears himself reduced to a shadow of the King's imagination; for Henry V stands where his father had stood, for the life of reason and judgment against the life of fantasy.

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.

(V. v. 50-3)

This was the formula by which the sovereign arose from a play—‘Think all is but a poet's dream’, as Lyly had urged Elizabeth. But against the voice of reason and judgment may be set a feminine voice, which was to be heard again pronouncing Falstaff's epitaph:

Well, fare thee well. I have known thee these twenty-nine years, come peascod-time; but an honester and truer-hearted man—well, fare thee well.

(II. iv. 369-71)

Truth resides officially with Henry V, yet in spite of his double triumph (honour, that ‘word’, has been snatched from Hotspur as if it were a boxer's belt, and now the lie and opinion are banished), Kate Percy and Mistress Quickly remain unconverted; while the incorrigible Pistol produces a line which is both a theological definition of Truth or Constancy and a parody of the motto of Queen Elizabeth herself: ‘Semper idem: for obsque hoc nihil est’.

Henry sweeps all the nation behind him, except two women and a few fools. Such exceptions, however, are not to be despised in the world of Shakespeare's England. The uncertainty of the public view of Truth has been demonstrated. ‘Thou art a blessed fellow’, says Truth's champion, Prince Hal, to Poins, ‘to think as every man thinks; never a man's thought in the world keeps the roadway better than thine’. There is no need for an unconditional identification with Falstaff; indeed there is no possibility of it; for the virtue of Shakespeare is to present many incompatibles not reconciled, but harmonized.


  1. The deposition scene was left out of the first printed version.

  2. ‘Hal’ a more vulgar abbreviation may be used only in Eastcheap: ‘Young Harry’ is the familiar form at court. Compare Falstaff's description of himself, ‘Jack Falstaff with my familiars, John with my brothers and sisters, and Sir John with all Europe’.

  3. No one would dream of calling John of Lancaster ‘Jack’.

Robert N. Watson (essay date 1984)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12845

SOURCE: “The Henry IV Plays,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 387-422.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Watson proposes that the Henry IV plays, in addition to being morality plays, also allow Shakespeare to present an analysis of ambition in the private and public arenas.]

At the end of Richard II, Shakespeare's ambitious figures become versions of primal criminals such as Oedipus and Cronus, whose myths associate father/son rivalry with political rebellion. The Henry IV plays use this association to study the evolution of filial identity, the individual's imperative and dangerous growth toward sovereignty. Here, even more elaborately than in The Tempest, Shakespeare offers a sort of morality play about an individual's moral and psychological development; but while it may be helpful to make that allegory explicit in a systematic, Freudian way, it is crucial to remember that the playwright uses it as a merely subliminal resonance to his analysis of ambition. Shakespeare exploits his deterministic power over his play-world to simulate a divinely determined world in which ambition is limited by the constitution of the individual as well as the universe. The psychoanalytic allegory which seems to arise naturally from the narrative events is one more way in which Shakespeare makes us feel that there are deep moral imperatives, not only in the universe but also in its human microcosm, for ambition's rise and fall. A coherent pattern attaches to ambition, which may be experienced in similar ways by an individual psyche at one phase in its development, and by English society at a crisis in its historical evolution. In the Henry IV plays, the private and public experiences of ambition are not only congruent, they are simultaneous, and mutually causal.

The rebels in the Henry IV plays suffer their own versions of the ambitious syndrome when they try to replace the reigning king. In 1 Henry IV, Hotspur and Worcester discuss in suggestive terms the news that Northumberland will not appear for the battle. Hotspur argues that his father will therefore provide

A rendezvous, a home to fly unto,
If that the devil and mischance look big
Upon the maidenhead of our affairs.
Worcester. But yet I would your father
had been here.
The quality and hair of our attempt
Brooks no division.


Worcester's fear makes practical sense, but it also reminds us that Northumberland's absence constitutes the sort of bodily division that generally disables Shakespeare's rebels: It is “a very limb lopp’d off” (4.1.43), as Hotspur momentarily admits. When Hotspur subsequently boasts that “our joints are whole,” and Douglas rejoins, “As heart can think,” the statement is as self-contradictory as Douglas's restatement of the idea: “There is not such a word / Spoke of in Scotland as this term of fear” (4.1.83-85). The Scot has just spoken the word, and the notion of joints as whole as heart can think suggests an unhealthy jumbling of limbs, breast, and brains. The threat to this rebellion's birth is all the greater because Northumberland is figuratively the father of rebellion in these plays, and literally the father of Hotspur, who embodies the rebellious spirit. Without the father's presence at “the maiden-head,” the insurrection seems doomed to a sinister, unnatural sort of birth.

In 2 Henry IV, the implication that rebellion is born only through a dangerous distortion of the procreative process becomes more explicit. Lord Bardolph worries that unless Northumberland's forces arrive, the rebellion will resemble a man's “part-created” construction that must be left “A naked subject to the weeping clouds” of “churlish winter's tyranny.” Though the analogy is to the building of an over-ambitious house, the lines immediately following encourage us to recognize the suggestion, on a secondary level, of an infant exposed to the winter by a paternal tyrant, as Oedipus was by Laius, or Perdita by Leontes. Hastings answers:

Grant that our hopes (yet likely of fair birth)
Should be still-born, and that we now possess’d
The utmost man of expectation,
I think we are so a body strong enough,
Even as we are, to equal with the King.


In the same speech, Lord Bardolph also worries about the empty naming and the vegetative death that often accompany rebellion: an insurrection that uses “the names of men in stead of men,” he argues,

Lives so in hope, as in an early spring
We see th’ appearing buds, which to prove fruit
Hope gives not so much warrant, as despair
That frosts will bite them.

(1.3.57, 38-41)

The abnormal and premature birth of this uprising generates a nemesis consisting of stillbirth, paternal vengeance, diseased nature, disconnected names, and discordant bodies.

In 1 Henry IV Gendower portrays his birth as another archetypal perversion of procreation. The archetype here is not a bodily rivalry with the father that must end in stillbirth or infant exposure, but rather the self-induced Caesarean birth by which the father may be overcome. Such a birth—though, significantly, it is merely a boast in Glendower's case—sometimes signals a classical or Renaissance hero's determination to conquer his natural limitations, to surpass his hereditary constraints. When Glendower claims that various disturbances of nature “mark’d me extraordinary” and above “the common roll of men” at his birth, Hotspur replies with a sarcastic, degraded version of Glendower's personal myth:

Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinch’d and vex’d
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb, which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldame earth, and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth
Our grandam earth, having this distemp’rature,
In passion shook.


Hotspur has twisted Glendower's analogy between his mother's labor and the world's eruptions, which carries with it an implicit claim to autochthonic birth, into its least appealing form—a form which also allows Hotspur to dismiss Glendower's boast, by metaphor as well as tone, as merely hot air, of a particularly unattractive sort.

Figures in English Renaissance literature whose ambitions compel them to claim autogenous or autochthonic status often claim this sort of birth: they carve their own way out of mother-earth in an eruption of air, and in doing so they topple down the old towers or trees of paternal sexual authority. Such births, or rebirths, are in both senses Caesarean.1 Tamburlaine makes a new self by martial assertion, disdaining his “parentage” in order to command a thunderous army who “make the mountains quake, / Even as when windy exhalations, / Fighting for passage, tilt within the earth.”2 Spenser's autochthonic giant Orgoglio, the embodiment of pride and partner of the sexually sinister Duessa, performs a figuratively Oedipal attack to permit his own Caesarean rebirth:

The greatest Earth his uncouth mother was,
And blustring Aeolus his boasted sire,
Who with his breath, which through the world doth pas,
Her hollow womb did secretly inspire,
And fild her hidden caves with stormie yre,
That she conceiv’d.

This derivation makes it all the more suggestive that “all the earth for terrour seemd to shake, / And trees did tremble” when Orgoglio advances on Redcrosse. The giant tears “a snaggy Oke … Out of his mothers bowelles,” and swings it so hard that he could strike down “a stony towre”; the wind from that “thundring” swing, clearly analogous to the force that originally conceived him, strikes down his rival for Duessa (I.vii.7-14)3 When “his dreadful club” reaches his mother-earth, he seems to be planting himself to reenact his birth by his own power:

The idle stroke, enforcing furious way,
.....So deepely dinted in the driven clay,
That three yardes deepe a furrow up did throw:
The sad earth wounded with so sore assay,
Did grone full grievous underneath the blow,
And trembling with strange feare, did like an
earthquake show.


The next stanza compares this blow to Jove's lightning—an impregnating force in myth—which “making way, / Both loftie towres and highest trees hath rent, / And all that might his angrie passage stay, / And shooting in the earth, casts up a mound of clay.” But Orgoglio's club becomes stuck there, permitting Redcrosse to cut off the arm of the giant, whose resulting howls suggest sexual suffering (I.viii.10-11). Toppled towers and severed arms are still towers and arms in the poem, of course, as cigars in dreams may represent cigars. But the close coincidence of these Oedipal and Caesarean motifs strikes me as significant, particularly because it occurs so consistently in the context of ambitious quests for heroic rebirth.

Milton's Satan is evidence that this archetype survives through Shakespeare's lifetime, and again the creature boasting of rebirth is a creature determined to claim that his own energies have conquered the derivativeness, and hence the fatedness, that limited his aspirations. By his incestuous conspiracy with the parthenogenetic Sin, and with their son Death who so resembles his father, Satan has made an open highway in the windy space beneath the earth, where he himself

Toil’d out my uncouth passage, forc’t to ride
Th’ untractable Abyss, plung’d in the womb
Of unoriginal Night and Chaos wild,
That jealous of thir secrets fiercely oppos’d
My journey strange, with clamorous uproar
Protesting Fate supreme.

(Book X, 475-80)4

The birth of the rebel Glendower, which Shakespeare revises from Holinshed's account toward this archetype, associates him with a tradition of windy, ambitious, and self-induced rebirths; the efforts of Richard III, Henry IV, Macbeth, and Coriolanus to carve out their own passages to glory may be associated with, and moralized by, the same sexually fraught tradition.

Other symptoms of the ambitious ailment afflict these rebels. When he hears of his son's death in the failed insurrection, Northumberland himself becomes a furious rebel, calling for an end to natural order, individual identity, and family harmony, in a world that has become merely a stage (2 Henry IV, 1.1.153-59). His allies urge him to eradicate rather than exaggerate those characteristic ailments of their cause. If he will join forces with the Archbishop of York, the instinct against rebellion that rendered his son's troops divided creatures and lifeless shadows can be reversed:

My lord your son had only but the corpse,
But shadows and the shows of men, to fight;
For that same word, rebellion, did divide
The action of their bodies from their souls.


The archbishop would prefer to blame the ambitious syndrome—the disruption of time's normal order and humanity's normal form—on Henry's bad fatherhood. In repressing his subjects' pleas, Henry has bred a multiheaded and sleepless son in their place:

The time misord’red doth, in common sense,
Crowd us and crush us to this monstrous form
To hold our safety up. I sent your Grace
The parcels and particulars of our grief,
The which hath been with scorn shov’d from the court,
Whereon his Hydra son of war is born,
Whose dangerous eyes may well be charm’d asleep
With grant of our most just and right desires.


Unless the bad son Henry becomes the good father Henry by such concessions, Hastings adds, this unnatural procreation of Hydras through death will permanently replace England's lifegiving process of generational succession: “And so success of mischief shall be born, / And heir from heir shall hold his quarrel up / Whiles England shall have generation” (4.2.47-49). Inheritance thus becomes a blight on birth, a doubling and redoubling of miscarriages.

The rebels revealingly describe Henry's violation of his own heritage and Richard's as an archetypal parricide, with themselves in the role of abused parent rather than abusive child:

… being fed by us you us’d us so
As that ungentle gull, the cuckoo's bird,
Useth the sparrow; did oppress our nest,
Grew by our feeding to so great a bulk
That even our love durst not come near your sight
For fear of swallowing.

(1 Henry IV, 5.1.59-64)

The simile uses Henry's warlike approach to confirm his identity as an unlineal child, and even implies that he acts this way precisely because he knows he is not a natural heir. Worcester concludes by telling Henry that he and his fellow-rebels “stand opposed by such means / As you yourself have forg’d against yourself,” and when Henry compares himself to a father-bee murdered by the child (Prince Hal) he has fed to strength, we recognize that Worcester was speaking more wisely than he was aware of.

Henry answers by dismissing these accusations as merely “the garment of rebellion” and the “water-colors” that “impaint” their excuse for insurrection; he thus locates the rebellion in the realms of costuming and painting that so often characterize ambitious identity in Shakespeare. This accusation, too, rebounds on Henry, without losing its validity as an accusation, when the king becomes a thing of costumes and colors at Shrewsbury:

A gallant knight he was, his name was Blunt,
Semblably furnish’d like the King himself.
A fool go with thy soul, whither it goes!
A borrowed title hast thou bought too dear.
Why didst thou tell me that thou wert a king?
The King hath many marching in his coats.
Now, by my sword, I will kill all his coats;
I’ll murder all his wardrop, piece by piece,
Until I meet the King.


Douglas's remarks carry several unpleasant implications for Henry: first, that his own “borrowed title” of king may prove as costly an acquisition as it was for Blunt, and second, that the kingship may itself be only a wardrobe, clothes with no emperor, since his own act of usurpation has made the royal identity so easy to transfer and divide. When Douglas finally discovers King Henry beneath the colors that have become a disguise rather than a proclamation of identity, he finds him only by a process of elimination that is easily mistaken for a process of multiplication:

Another king? they grow like Hydra's heads.
I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
That wear those colors on them. What art thou
That counterfeit’st the person of a king?
The King himself, who, Douglas, grieves at heart
So many of his shadows thou hast met
And not the very King.


Again Douglas raises troubling questions for King Henry. Is there actually any “very King” to be met, in the aftermath of a usurpation, or is there merely an assemblage of borrowed robes, painted colors, and two-dimensional shadows? Is “The King himself” yet one more ordinary mortal “That counterfeit’st the person of a king,” as Henry's answer can be taken to imply?

Douglas alludes to Hydra merely to express his exasperation at the fact that each time he beheads a king, two new kings seem to appear. But this allusion may also serve to remind us that Henry has pitted himself against the same sort of unbeatable foe. By causing the assassination of the one rightful king, he has created two heads (as the factions are often called) that are vying for the throne; if the kingship has Hydra's heads, it is because Henry has initiated a splitting of identity that his counterfeits at Shrewsbury nicely symbolize. The myth of Hydra, at least in the Henry IV plays, seems to be a cautionary myth about inheritance: Hydra resembles a gruesome family tree, and the monster that must be quelled is the fraternal strife that would arise over the division of property each time a person died, were there no system of legacies. Civilization successfully represses this monster until Richard and Henry unleash it by violating that system, leaving each legacy open to deadly contention. Shakespeare reveals an England resembling the primal societies described in Freud's Totem and Taboo and Girard's Violence and the Sacred, societies whose rituals are essential to prevent an endless competition for patrimonies and an endless reciprocity of violence.5 Some seventy lines before the archbishop blames Henry's misdeeds for generating “this Hydra son of war,” Shakespeare prepares us to understand the allusion's larger implications by having the archbishop argue that Henry will not dare to execute the rebels after a negotiated peace, “For he hath found to end one doubt by death / Revives two greater in the heirs of life” (4.1.197-98). As Henry's “buried fear … Richard of Burdeaux” (Richard II, 5.6.31-33) produces the warring heads of Henry and Mortimer, and as Henry's death is expected to produce a war between Hal and some rival, so will the heirs of the archbishop's rebels second their fathers' rebellion, and their heirs will second the seconding, and so on through eternity (4.2.45-49). That is precisely what we see in Shakespeare's version of the War of the Roses, until Richmond cauterizes the wound in God's order (as Hercules cauterized Hydra's severed neck), and thus turns the two heads—the two Houses—miraculously into one.

Henry V's succession provides an interim solution by setting legacies back on a lineal track. That may help explain why Shakespeare has Canterbury describe the miraculous transmigration of Henry IV's solemn virtue into his son, concurrent with the transfer of the royal body politic, as a glorious conquest of “Hydra-headed willfulness” (Henry V, 1.1.24-37). Until his glorious transformation, though, Hal is the unnatural “Hydra son” who threatens to become simultaneously the royal heir and the enemy of royal heritage at his father's death. Hal vacillates repeatedly between his disobedient Eastcheap identity and a noble filial identity. When Hal inherits the unlineal crown, he faces the Herculean task of uniting those conflicting identities, as good and bad son, and as subject and monarch, into a single natural successor. Two crucial scenes, in which Henry's conflict with Hal parallels Hal's conflict with himself, prepare us to recognize the ethical imperatives of that task.

Act three, scene two, of 1 Henry IV begins with Henry's interpreting Hal's misbehavior as a divine punishment for his own misdeeds. Though Henry, as usual, pretends to be slightly uncertain what his own crime might have been, a son's rebellious refusal to rise to the level of his royal blood would be an entirely appropriate rebuke to his father's rebellious insistence on rising to claim that royal heritage. The psychoanalytic maxim that the bad son has bad sons, and the physical maxim that what goes up must come down, both work to subvert Henry's hopes for a royal heir:

I know not whether God will have it so
For some displeasing service I have done,
That in his secret doom, out of my blood,
He’ll breed revengement and a scourge for me;
But thou dost in thy passages of life
Make me believe that thou art only mark’d
For the hot vengeance, and the rod of heaven,
To punish my mistreadings. 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 grafted to,
Accompany the greatness of thy blood,
And hold their level with thy princely heart?


This insistence on blood finding its own level may be Henry's effort to bluster away the fact that “his blood was poor” until he stepped “a little higher than his vow” and usurped Richard's throne (4.3.75-76). Hal's “affections” may indeed “hold a wing / Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors,” making him “almost an alien to the hearts / Of all the court and princes of my blood” (3.2.29-35), but Henry is also on an errant flight from his hereditary place. The system rights itself from within: in the very act of being a punitively bad son to Henry, Hal is said to resemble Richard, to stand “in that very line” of the man whose right it was to place his likeness on the throne (3.2.85-94).6

As Henry becomes caught up in the excitement of scolding his son, his language reveals a recognition that this throne is actually founded on such externalities as costume rather than such internalities as blood. He boasts of clothing himself in the simulation of an inward virtue, and of maintaining his person as if it were a borrowed garment: he won the people's affection when he “dress’d myself in such humility / That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,” yet retained their respect by keeping “my person fresh and new, / My presence like a robe pontifical …” (3.2.51-56).7 Marvell's warning to Cromwell in the “Horatian Ode” that “The same arts that did gain / A power must it maintain” (lines 119-20) seems applicable to Henry here: he discovers that the kingship gained by replacing a natural identity with an artificial one, replacing a person with a garment, can only be maintained by his remaining a polished costume rather than an authentic human being.

The redefinition of kingship implicit in Henry's usurpation is inextricably linked to a redefinition of identity, and one result is that not only Hal, but Sir Walter Blunt, and even Jack Falstaff, can play the role of King Henry IV with some success (2.4, 5.3). If Hal is what his father here calls him abusively, “the shadow of succession,” there is good reason for it (3.2.99). Even Hal's promise that he “shall hereafter … / Be more myself” (3.2.93) has ironic overtones as a response to his father's criticisms, since Henry has just finished arguing that he won the throne by retaining an artificial self, or at least an artificial distance from himself. Whether it is Hal's irony or Shakespeare's, Henry's effort to define a true heir is trapped in a contradiction of his own making.

Finally the king manages to express his ultimate fear, the fear that uncivil disobedience (such as defying a banishment) will become outright murderous rebellion (such as killing a king). The way Henry expresses this fear suggests that he is projecting his own guilty deeds onto Hal, and thus conflating the roles of bad son and bad subject:

But wherefore do I tell these news to thee?
Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,
Which art my nearest and dearest enemy?
Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,
Base inclination, and the start of spleen,
To fight against me under Percy's pay,
To dog his heels and curtsy at his frowns,
To show how much thou art degenerate.


One of the psychoanalytic tenets about this play is that “Hotspur's rebellion represents also Prince Hal's unconscious parricidal impulses. Hotspur is the Prince's double.”8 If this is so, then Hal's denial of his father's accusation represents a classic Freudian compensation-mechanism: the son's avowed wish to protect the father is really a response to his forbidden desire to destroy that father.9 But whether events at Shrewsbury simply demonstrate Hal's filial loyalty, or whether they allegorically anatomize the psychological struggle that precedes and permits such loyalty, the crucial fact is that Hal re-establishes his identity as a true son by defeating Hotspur. He does so, on the figurative level, by retreating with that patricidal alter ego to an earlier developmental phase. There they both struggle for Caesarean rebirth with their swords, both seeking glory, but seeking opposite sorts of glory. Separated from his father, rebelling, “this Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes, / This infant warrior” (3.2.112-13), is doomed to stillbirth in his own blood with his noble name revoked. Hal, in contrast, reverses the usual dangerous pattern of Caesarean rebirth, since his rebirth entails reclaiming, not evading, his lineage:

I will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favors in a bloody mask,
Which wash’d away shall scour my shame with it.


The king is right to take this as a complete answer to the indictment at hand. Hal has discovered a way to prove his royal merit while reconciling blood with garments, and the hereditary self with the adopted self. By drawing the battle back to that quasi-infantile stage, Hal can undo his status as an inferior changeling for “this same child of honor and renown, / This gallant Hotspur” (3.2.139-40). Now it is Hotspur who is abandoned by his father, and Hal who has recovered a healthy lineal identity. The son who was, in several senses, “degenerate,” is now, in the same senses, regenerate.

The same pair of intermingled confrontations—Henry against Hal, and Hal's loyalty against a representation of his rebelliousness—appears again in 2 Henry IV, during the crown-stealing sequence (4.5). Shakespeare's willingness to resurrect the doubts that were apparently put to rest by the end of Part One, and to retain so many elements of the first confrontation, suggests that he considered the psycho-symbolic situation very fruitful for exploring his theme. Again the Oedipal threat arises to punish Henry's usurpation, and again the suppression of that threat, by re-enlisting Hal in a healthy filial role, prepares for the martial victory that will affirm the new royal family's place on the throne.

Through most of Part Two, Hal's filial identity is badly in doubt. He is right, both on a personal and a symbolic level, to break Falstaff's head “for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor” (2.1.89-90): the comparison implies that Henry is a eunuch,10 his procreative powers ruined like those of Shakespeare's other usurpers, and that Hal therefore cannot be his authentic son or a legitimate successor. In the next scene Hal is reminded that the world still thinks his ambitions and rebelliousness preclude his mourning his father's illness (2.2.39-57). This observation grows out of banter about the ways “kindreds are mightily strengthen’d” by illegitimate births, and leads into two discussions about the ambitious ways people distort their kinship. First, Poins mocks people who seize every conceivable occasion to mention some distant consanguinity with the royal family (2.2.110-18); then Hal mocks Poins for his rumored plan to marry Hal to Poins's sister (2.2.127-41). These ambitious claims to royal kinship are recognizable versions, and hence recognizably symptoms, of Henry's unlineal usurpation and the national disease it caused. Hal, in Eastcheap, is trying to cure that disease by actions precisely opposite to the ambitious claims: he evades his close kinship with Henry, and avoids close contact with the seat of royal power. Naturally his father is unable to recognize the corrective character of this conduct, and the misunderstanding over this paradox sets the stage for the crown-stealing confrontation.

As the scene begins, Henry's visage reveals the ambitious man's emptiness and mutability: “His eye is hollow, and he changes much” (4.5.6). Hal is greeted with the information that “The King your father is dispos’d to sleep,” but he soon reminds his father that sleep is forbidden to the ambitious, and reminds us why it is forbidden. Slumber in an unnaturally elevated position—whether literally, as a boy on a masthead (3.1.18-20; cf. Richard III, 3.4.99), or figuratively, as a man wrongfully on a throne—is both difficult and dangerous. As soon as Henry lets go, yields to that natural urge to relax, he also implicitly yields to his natural self, and the crown is taken from him. Hal describes the crown as “so troublesome a bedfellow” (4.5.22), as if it were a restless spouse in the king's bed, then steals that spouse from the king's pillow where it was supposed to remain until death did them part. Again the Oedipal overtones are clear, and again they serve a broader purpose than providing a fragmentary psychoanalysis of a character. The fact that Hal must steal his father's “bedfellow” in order to create his royal new self is the most incisive condemnation of his self-promoting impulse.11

Henry's response when he awakens sharpens our awareness of an Oedipal pattern, adding to the hint of mother-son incest a clear accusation of patricidal impulses (4.5.63-79) and the suggestion that these impulses have been abetted by a subconsciously chosen error of recognition: “Is he so hasty that he doth suppose / My sleep my death?” (4.5.60-61). The patricidal implications would doubtless have been strengthened for much of the audience by the precedent of The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Hal comes to the brink of actually murdering his father for the crown. Henry's first words to his returning son verify that the mechanisms described in Freud's theories about errors and about the Oedipal impulse are both at work here:

I never thought to hear you speak again.
Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought:
I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.
Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honors
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth,
Thou seek’st the greatness that will overwhelm thee.


The wording of this reproach points to all the symptoms of overreaching in Shakespeare, and as Henry points out, Hal's overhasty seizure of the crown would indeed convert what could be a natural inheritance into another usurpation. Hal would, in taking the bedfellow-crown, be fathering his own wishes into substance; he would therefore, like his father, be a sort of ghost or void while seated in that royal place, as a secondary reading of line 94 suggests. He might eventually have to ask, as Richard III does after battling and seducing his way to the throne, “is the chair empty?” (4.4.469). Hal's acquisition of these honors under such circumstances would be, again like his father's, a mere investiture, an act of costuming; and it would preclude Hal's ever becoming fully “ripe” for the throne, since Shakespeare generally suggests that a life forcibly cut off from its source cannot be given vital growth again (see Othello, 5.2.13-15; King Lear, 4.2.34-36). Whether Shakespeare is merely using Henry's speech to remind us of these hazards, or whether he intends us to believe that Henry is at least subliminally aware and expressive of them, the cluster of suggestive wordings at such a crucial moment in the transfer of identities seems significant.

Hal, for his part, hastens to re-establish his position as a natural successor, combining his answer to the charge of ambition with an answer to the charge of patricidal intentions:

Accusing it, I put it on my head,
To try with it, as with an enemy
That had before my face murdered my father,
The quarrel of a true inheritor.


Again, a Freudian might argue that the son who imagines avenging his father's murder derives his pleasure from the premise of the fantasy, and adds the vengeance as a compensatory cover. But Henry is well satisfied with this answer, and asserts that Hal, because he is “a true inheritor,” will be spared the unrest and mere theatricality of his father's reign:

                                                  All these bold fears
Thou seest with peril I have answered;
For all my reign hath been but as a scene
Acting that argument. And now my death
Changes the mood, for what in me was purchas’d
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort;
So thou the garland wear’st successively.


Even this formulation, of course, depicts kingship as a garment, rather than an immanence, to be inherited; and Hal enjoys only a partial immunity to the ambitious disease as a lineal heir to an unlineal throne. His very first lines as king indicate that, as in Macbeth (5.2.20-22), the giant robes of majesty hang incongruously on a successor of questionable legitimacy: “This new and gorgeous garment, majesty, / Sits not so easy on me as you think” (5.2.44-45). Even his heart and its inmost filial sorrow are tainted by the theatrical world his father's role as player-king created:

                                                                      Yet be sad, good brothers,
For by my faith it very well becomes you.
Sorrow so royally in you appears
That I will deeply put the fashion on
And wear it in my heart.


The difficulty in discerning what is sincere feeling here and what is acting alerts us to the fact that this world has only been partly redeemed from its artificialities, and that it will be virtually impossible to return it to a Golden Age. The nation's loss of innocence about identity, like the ambitious man's loss of self that often causes it in Shakespeare, is extremely difficult to reverse.

Perhaps the terrible difficulties that critics have in agreeing on who Hal really is provide a good measure of Shakespeare's success in portraying a world where moral distinctions and distinct identities have clouded simultaneously.12 Is Hal entirely a cynical manipulator of his Eastcheap companions, or does he truly enjoy their kind of life and their version of friendship until the time comes when he must abandon them? Is he a ruthless king, or merely a king who must avoid thinking sentimentally about individuals so that he can be kind to his kingdom as a whole? Significantly, these questions about Hal's personality are intimately connected with questions about his legitimacy as a king (over France as well as England) and as a son (to Falstaff as well as Henry). The problems of kingship and kinship remain as deeply interwoven as they were in Richard III.

One index to the elusiveness of Hal's identity is the number of different names he is given; one indication of his peculiar genius is the way he converts this multiplicity, which shatters Richard II, Henry IV, and Macbeth, into a political advantage.13 From his famous first soliloquy onward (1 Henry IV, 1.2.195-217), Hal seems conscious of an opportunity that his father grasps only sporadically. Henry makes use of theatrical identity in wooing the common people (3.2.39-59) and in sending counterfeits into the field at Shrewsbury, but nearly all of Hal's actions are based on the theory that, if identity must be merely role-playing, he should make the most of it. He wins a new set of adherents to his reign by befriending “a leash of drawers” who “take it already upon their salvation, that though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy, and tell me flatly I am no proud Jack like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy (by the Lord, so they call me!)” (2.4.6-13). By letting them choose his names, he becomes their master. In France, he uses the name Harry le Roy for another strategic incursion into the lower ranks of his subjects.

In his confrontation with Hotspur, Hal's quest for an ideal name becomes deeply interwoven with his quest for a filial identity. Hal fights Hotspur to regain his good name—we may think of Edgar whose “name is lost” until he proves himself a loyal rather than a patricidal son (King Lear, 5.3.121)—and wins “proud titles” by defeating him (5.4.79). But the process of winning back those noble names involves not only a superficial act of loyalty to the father, but also a deep, quasi-allegorical acceptance of the father's role in forming Hal's selfhood. Hal's encounter with Hotspur—like the returning Henry's first encounter with Richard's lieutenants (Richard II, 2.3.69-75)—begins with a dispute over names:

If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.
Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.
My name is Harry Percy.
Why then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales.


There is something archetypal in this combat, where “Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse, / Meet and ne’er part till one drop down a corse” (4.1.122-23): it recalls the symmetrical mythic combats, the desperately serious shadow-boxing between the hero and his Doppelgänger, in which the hero's survival is rewarded with a name.14 England cannot “brook a double reign,” as Hal here tells Hotspur, and a name cannot brook a double occupant; only one of them can be Harry the Fourth's royal heir. In seeking to win the “name in arms” that Hotspur acknowledges is at stake (5.4.70), Hal is actually trying to recapture the names Harry Monmouth and Prince of Wales—in other words, the identities as his father's son and his king's rightful heir. Both were nearly forfeit to Hotspur, as King Henry warned: Hal's relative dishonor left his political succession uncertain, and made his father wish,

                                                            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!
Then would I have his Harry and he mine.


Hal's roles as bad prince and bad son, by jeopardizing his name, have nearly dislodged him from his political and familial patrimonies; to retrieve them he must retrieve the name along with his royal father's love, and become the Harry who succeeds a Harry (2 Henry IV, 5.2.48-49).

Shakespeare emphasizes that Hal's victory over Hotspur is essentially an incorporation rather than an obliteration of the vanquished man's identity. Hal promised to “make this northren youth exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities” (3.2.145-46), and that is what he has done; Hotspur, like Henry IV later, must have “gone wild into his grave” (2 Henry IV, 5.2.123), because all Hal's faults went with him, while his glories revert to Hal. Those glories consist of all the noble public virtues, all the things Hal knows his society and his father admire and expect him to embrace—in Freudian terms, they are the superego. The argument by analogy, especially an anachronistic analogy, is very risky, but in this case it suggests some intriguing possibilities, some deep resonances to Shakespeare's study of a conflict over filial identity. Freud argues that the superego is shaped in the renunciation of the Oedipal desires, and consists essentially of the father's censorious will within the son's psyche; the construction of the superego is at base the son's incorporation of the father.15 Such a superego triumphs on several complementary levels at once when Hal promises to become the glorious Hotspur of the world and simultaneously vows not to rebel murderously against his father.

The standard psychoanalytic interpretation that makes Hotspur the embodiment of Hal's patricidal impulses therefore needs revision. Until Shrewsbury, only Shakespeare, and not Hal, could create such a displaced self; but the battle allows Hal to alienate his own rebellious spirit by both destroying and incorporating the opponent who is both rebel and noble son. When he retreats to a figuratively infantile level to compete with Hotspur for his filial identity, Hal may be retreating to a point prior to the Oedipal struggle and its shaping of the superego. In taking over Hotspur's glories while defending his father, what Hal really appropriates is a loyal filial posture. The fact that Hal can fully incorporate his father's nominal identity only by seizing Hotspur's glories corresponds strikingly to Freud's suggestion that the acquisition of a superego and the incorporation of the father are inseparable transactions.

In 1 Henry IV Hal must defeat Hotspur for possession of his names and the accompanying hereditary roles; to reclaim his hereditary identity in 2 Henry IV, Hal must similarly overcome his base rebellious impulses in order to reject the names Falstaff offers him. Hal accepts the many playful epithets his Eastcheap companions apply to him in place of his actual name, but only in the way that he accepts their clouding of his royal light in general: temporarily, strategically. A king's name, to twist Richard II's phrase, must not be twenty thousand names, and when Falstaff renews the epithets after the coronation, Hal rejects them and him simultaneously (5.5.41-47).

Several critics have observed that the repudiation of Falstaff is the repudiation of an alternative father.16 The names that Falstaff bestows on Hal compromise his transformation into Henry's heir. Rejecting them is a forceful and fitting way of rejecting Falstaff's claim to paternity, which was already rendered dubious by procreative powers so badly abused that Falstaff, not Henry, deserves to be slandered as a eunuch. He spends those powers on prostitutes and “begets” only “lies” (1 Henry IV, 2.4.225). Even the children that his pillow-stuffed whore claims to be carrying are mocked or willed to miscarriage from all sides (2 Henry IV, 5.4.7-15). He taints Hal with a degrading patrimony, claiming credit for making Hal somehow no longer consanguineous with his father or his brother, Prince John:

Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me, nor a man cannot make him laugh, but that’s no marvel, he drinks no wine … Hereof comes it that Prince Henry is valiant, for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, sterile, and bare land, manur’d, husbanded, and till’d with excellent endeavor of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.

(2 Henry IV, 4.3.87-125)

We are invited to recognize that Falstaff does indeed have thousands of such sons, all of whom have belatedly become consanguineous with him. They are what they drink. He is the father of the appetitive id, and those who give themselves over to that force incorporate him and become his more-than-adopted children. With the filial id as with the filial superego, the father is in the son as the son was in the father.

Of course, in claiming that Hotspur and Falstaff correspond suggestively to Freud's superego and id, I do not mean to imply that Shakespeare set out to write a psychoanalytic allegory in the Henry IV plays. Several critics have become understandably testy about the tendency to read literature as if it were secretly a series of morality plays that have lain inert awaiting a Freudian key to the characters.17 But the history these plays describe was made by complex human minds, and the plays themselves were made by and for such minds. Characters who exist as words on a page do not have a superego and an id, but the historical person they are designed to evoke presumably did, and the reader or listener presumably does too. What would be absurd to attribute to Shakespeare's characters may nonetheless be relevant to the responses of his audience. As we watch Hal struggle with his alter egos, “we are made to experience a kind of psychomachia or internal civil war.”18

If Falstaff bears a strong resemblance to what we call the id, then we may legitimately ask what deep associations he might have aroused in Shakespeare's mind and might be capable, whether Shakespeare was conscious of it or not, of arousing in ours. Several of the play's eminent critics have flirted with this issue. Jonas Barish argues that “To banish plump Jack is to banish what is free and vital and pleasurable in life, as well as much that is selfish and unruly,” and that there is therefore an “element of self-rejection in the new king's action.”19 Franz Alexander calls Falstaff a “pleasure-seeking principle” that “the prince must master in himself.”20 W. H. Auden makes it more explicit: “Once upon a time we were all Falstaffs: then we became social beings with superegos.”21 Most other readings of Falstaff's allegorical identity are compatible with the idea that he represents the id. E. M. W. Tillyard lists several such readings: Satan's assistant since the Fall, youthful vitality, incorrigibility, the fool, the adventurer, the Vice, the epitome of the Seven Deadly Sins, the lord of misrule, and “a perpetual and accepted human principle” resembling Orwell's “principle of man's perpetual revolt against both his moral self and the official forces of law and order” which we may love but must banish from within ourselves.22 If we accept the contention of J. Dover Wilson and Bernard Spivack that Falstaff is a version of the medieval Vice, we may still inquire what the medieval Vice was supposed to represent, and how it was intended to engage and rebalance the audience's psychic forces.23 The combination of universality and elusiveness in Falstaff's character invites us to anachronism: we may call him the id if that is the name by which we most effectively understand the force he represents. When some new system for explaining the human psyche emerges, critics will doubtless find another name for Falstaff within it, and another reading of the Henry IV plays arising from it.

The identification of Falstaff with the id provides its most valuable insights at the moment when Hal banishes him, just as the identification of Hotspur with the superego became most valuable at the moment when Hal defeated him. Hal's visible act of loyalty to his father in defeating the rebel Hotspur complements the psychological transaction implicit in that conquest, namely the incorporation of the paternal superego. In the same way, Hal's actual banishment of Falstaff is an act of obedience to, and imitation of, his father, as its precedent in the tavern suggested (1 Henry IV, 2.4.481); simultaneously, on the level of the psychological allegory, Hal is banishing his own id, which urges him to resist the demands of his father and of his social role. The outward and the inward transactions in Hal's moments of crisis are equally real; they are absolutely necessary concomitants to each other under the circumstances. Shakespeare has again shaped a situation where the political and the psycho-symbolic imperatives coincide, giving us the impression of a deep moral truth in a morally resonant universe.

This striking coincidence also encourages us to accept one of the stranger implications in Shakespeare's treatment of ambition: the notion that refashioning one's identity constitutes an Oedipal crime. The theft of Hotspur's honor and the banishment of Falstaff establish Hal as a loyal son and a rightful heir; they represent at the same time his incorporation of the paternal superego and his willingness to suppress his id in accepting the hereditary royal role. The establishment of the superego, according to Freud, is necessary to intercept the Oedipal desires put forward by the boy's id, which might lead to castration or death if they were obeyed.24 The correspondence in Hal between granting the superego power to repress the id, and accepting the hereditary identity, may suggest that an Oedipal desire has been forestalled in both cases, whether it is the literal desire to kill the father and sleep with the mother, or its figurative counterpart in the desire to suppress the self the father made and to let one's deepest wishes conceive a replacement, perhaps in some version of the original womb.

What interests me especially about the banishment of Falstaff, in terms of the psychological allegory, is Hal's use of the Lord Chief Justice as the enforcer of that edict. The notion that this corresponds to the superego's assignment of suppressing the id has been suggested, but its implications have not been fully explored.25 In 1 Henry IV Hal faces the ego's usual problems in dealing with the id and the superego. He must conceal the criminal Falstaff from the sheriff in the tavern, worrying at the same time about the political rebellion taking place in the nation as a whole (2.4.500-45); this recalls Freud's description of the ego as “a poor creature owing service to three masters and consequently menaced by three dangers: from the external world, from the libido of the id, and from the severity of the super-ego.”26 When Hal stands between the dead Hotspur and the supposedly dead Falstaff at Shrewsbury, he has apparently solved that ego's problems. Unfortunately for him, fortunately for admirers of 2 Henry IV, Falstaff simply rises back up from his latency, as the id tends to do, and the superego must be reinvigorated to deal with him. The Lord Chief Justice is essentially a reincarnation of the paternal conscience, and his confrontations with Falstaff early in 2 Henry IV resemble the evasions and encounters of the psyche's mighty opposites. Falstaff declares himself blind and deaf to the Justice's existence, and the Justice replies that Falstaff is indeed insensible or uncomprehending of any moral consideration (1.2.55-69). In their next encounter, the Justice tells Falstaff that “You should have been well on your way to York,” and that he should “Pay [Hostess Quickly] the debt you owe her, and unpay the villainy you have done with her” (2.1.67, 118-20). He tells Falstaff, in other words, to meet his unpleasant social obligations in war, money, and marriage—the standard message of the superego.

Falstaff expects to be fully indulged when Hal becomes king, and Henry IV fears that Hal's id will know no restraint once he acquires the power to indulge it:

For when his headstrong riot hath no curb,
When rage and hot blood are his counsellors,
When means and lavish manners meet together,
O, with what wings shall his affections fly
Towards fronting peril and oppos’d decay!


The metaphor portrays Hal as an unruly horse, which is a symbol of the id from Plato's Phaedrus up through Freud himself, and which here associates Hal with Phaethon, the Renaissance archetype of the disastrously disobedient son.27 Falstaff's response, on hearing that Hal has gained such power, is “woe to my Lord Chief Justice” (5.3.138). But Hal refuses to accept either the name or the role of Falstaff's “sweet boy” (5.5.43); he turns instead to the father of the superego, or more accurately, the superego of his father, embodied in the Justice. We may not enjoy watching this choice, but no one says the suppression of instinctual desires is a pleasant, generous act, only that it becomes a necessary one at maturity. When Hal, feigning indignation, asks how the Lord Chief Justice earlier dared arrest and imprison “Th’ immediate heir of England,” the man replies that he dared as the one who gave the heritage:

I then did use the person of your father,
The image of his power lay then in me,
.....Your Highness pleased to forget my place,
The majesty and power of law and justice,
The image of the King whom I presented,
And strook me in the very seat of judgment;
Whereon (as an offender to your father)
I gave bold way to my authority.


The emphasis on the Oedipal overtones of Hal's deed could hardly be stronger; but the surrogate father against whom he has done violence also offers himself as a surrogate father to whom Hal may submissively return. The Lord Chief Justice warns quite clearly what the consequences might be of not submitting. In this confrontation as in all of Hal's dealings with his actual father, Shakespeare's cautionary pattern looms ominously. The son who disdains his father, the subject who disdains his sovereign, invite similarly violent disobedience from their own sons or subjects:

Be you contented, now you wear the garland,
To have a son set your decrees at nought?
.....Nay more, to spurn at your most royal image,
And mock your workings in a second body?
Question your royal thoughts, make the case yours:
Be now the father and propose a son,
Hear your own dignity so much profan’d,
See your most dreadful laws so loosely slighted,
Behold yourself so by a son disdained;
And then imagine me taking your part.


This exchange, it seems to me, looks all the way back to the birth of civilization. This decisive moment in the re-formation of English society involves the same forces and choices that, according to Freud's furthest-reaching speculations, led to the formation of the first human society: we are watching the superego evolve its authority from the compelling need to prevent endless strife. According to Civilization and Its Discontents, the sons in the Primal Horde suffered an ambivalence much like Hal's, and with like consequences. Their hatred yielded guiltily to love, whether or not they actually committed the patricide they fantasized, when they saw their wish fulfilled by their father's death. That love “set up the super-ego by identification with the father; it gave that agency the father's power, as though as a punishment for the deed of aggression they had carried out against him, and it created the restrictions which were intended to prevent a repetition of the deed.”28 The description of this transaction in Totem and Taboo bears an equally suggestive resemblance to Hal's submission to the Lord Chief Justice. As penance for a patricidal impulse, even one that was never acted on, the son bows in worship to the dead father's surrogate: “Totemic religion arose from the filial sense of guilt, in an attempt to allay that feeling and to appease the father by deferred obedience to him. … They revoked their deed by forbidding the killing of the totem, the substitute for their father.”29 The superego originates from this totemic conversion, Freud argues, and always takes the form of a surrogate father,30 as the Lord Chief Justice does here: Hal urges him to “be as a father to my youth,” then calls him simply “father” (5.2.118, 140).

Freud adds that we re-enact such a transaction in each of our lives: we form the superego by incorporating idealized versions of the self that have been lost as external objects—a dead rival, or, especially, a dead father.31 Hal announces:

My father is gone wild into his grave;
For in his tomb lie my affections,
And with his spirits sadly I survive,
To mock the expectation of the world.


This is an unnatural sort of succession, more the transmigration of a soul than the procreation of a body; but as at Hotspur's death, Hal becomes ideally filial by absorbing the ideal father in his superego. The opportunistic revival of the appetitive impulses embodied by Falstaff has, as I suggested, compelled a reincarnation of the conscience to cope with those impulses. The best part of Henry lives on in his repressive actions, which the Lord Chief Justice both symbolizes and performs; this new father becomes a part of the royal Hal, becomes the new king's censorious agent against Falstaff's pleas, the id's pleas, for special consideration. “The first requisite of civilization,” Freud writes, “is that of justice—that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favour of an individual.”32 The laws of England are not at Falstaff's commandment, as he claims (5.3.136-37), because Hal has installed a new father within his own sovereignty. Such a substitution is possible, however, here as in Freud's analysis, only when the threatening real father is dead, and a surrogate, understood as protective rather than repressive, has taken his place by the son's own will. The Lord Chief Justice says he will now protect Hal (5.2.96), rather than restrain him on behalf of the previous royal father; the same shift occurs from the repressive father in the horde to the protective totem-animal that takes his place, a shift on which Freud comments extensively.

This intricate correspondence between Hal's psychological events and his nation's political events helps to justify the notion that both correspond to the events of human society as a whole. The psychomachia allows Hal's struggle to resemble the struggle of every human mind; its political counterpart may therefore allow us to generalize to the struggle of every human society. Freud argues repeatedly that the individual psyche relives metaphorically the experience of the sons in the Primal Horde, as if phylogeny were recapitulating ontogeny in psychological development, as it was once supposed to do in physical development.33 Societies established throughout history, he also argues, have all experienced their own versions of the Primal Horde's formative trauma.34 Nor is the notion wholly anachronistic. In medieval morality plays, the central figure in psychomachia of the sort Hal clearly undergoes was Humanam Genus; “Mankynde” is the name of an entire species. Shakespeare himself, in the Prologue to Henry V, asks us to “Into a thousand parts divide one man,” and freely to jump

                                                            o’er times,
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history.

(lines 24, 29-32)

At the end of 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare has already tacitly requested admission as such a Chorus.

What the Lord Chief Justice offers to Hal is precisely what the institutionalization of the superego offered to the liberated sons in Freud's Primal Horde: prophylaxis against an eternal cycle of rebellion. Without a surrender of the id to the totemic father-surrogate, the result in virtually any society would be “an ever-recurring violent succession to the solitary paternal tyrant, by sons whose patricidal hands were so soon again clenched in fratricidal strife.”35 The only solution is a law, embodied in the totemic father-surrogate, that distributes rights fairly among the brothers and becomes internalized by each of them as the superego; both this creation of the surrogate, and its internalization, are clearly outlined in Hal's submission to the Justice who promises to end rebellion by even-handedness. Hal has learned the bitter lesson of his father's usurpation, which loosed “this Hydra son of war” not only by the violent precedent it set, but also by Henry's refusal to share the royal privileges among those who helped him overthrow the previous tyrant (2 Henry IV, 4.2.35-40). The Percies resemble the younger brothers in the Primal Horde, who, having assisted in killing the repressive father, find they have no choice (and no qualms) about attacking the repressive new father-figure as well. The dying Henry IV seems to recognize the problem, urging Hal's favorite brother Thomas to nurture their affection so that “noble offices thou mayst effect / Of mediation, after I am dead, / Between his greatness and thy other brethren,” and thereby provide, as if he were an Anglo-Saxon ring-giver,

A hoop of gold to bind thy brothers in,
That the united vessel of their blood,
Mingled with venom of suggestion
(As, force perforce, the age will pour it in),
Shall never leak.


Three scenes later, when Hal actually succeeds his father, his first words to his brothers are a defense against this danger: he encourages them to continue in their communal mourning for the dead father, but assures them that “Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,” that he will not be like the man who murdered all his brothers when he took power (5.2.46-50). Instead, he has taken into himself the protective (and therefore protected) qualities of the totemic father whom the brothers now mourn and reverence unitedly. For England, as (Freud argues) for societies in all times and places, this is the only way to break the violent cycle. Shakespeare has again grounded his English history in the history of all human societies.

Hal thus becomes a sort of St. George, or perhaps a sort of Beowulf, defending England against the monster of fratricide that his predecessors have awakened, whether that primal dragon takes the name of Hydra or Amurath or Cain. Bullingbrook first appears before Richard II to avenge the spilt blood of the Duke of Gloucester, “Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries, / Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth, / To me for justice and rough chastisement” (1.1.98-106). The lurking accusation, apparently well founded, is that Richard (through Mowbray) played the role of Cain against his kinsman; this accusation starts in motion the horrible fratricidal struggle that dominates both of Shakespeare's tetralogies. Perhaps the worst thing about this moral ailment is that it is contagious, and that it is paradoxically congenital to any unlineal inheritance of the throne. When Henry completes the promised vengeance by an indirect murder of his own, he desperately tries to displace his primal culpability onto his agent Exton, whom he sends to wander through the dark world “With Cain” (5.6.43). But the circle cannot so easily be broken. Henry must war with Northumberland, his son Hal with Northumberland's son Hotspur, and when the word of Hotspur's death arrives, Northumberland states the danger only too plainly in bitterly endorsing it:

But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that each heart being set
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead!

(2 Henry IV, 1.1.157-60)36

The crime that “hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,” in the Henry IV plays as in Hamlet (3.3.37), combines patricide, fratricide, and usurpation, in an invitation to endless bloodshed. The same sort of conflation appears in Gorboduc, and in the Elizabethan “Homily against Disobedience and wilful Rebellion,” which warns that insurrection can only lead “the brother to seek and often to work the death of his brother, the son of the father.”37 Half a century after Shakespeare wrote the Henry IV plays, Thomas Hobbes expressed similar fears in terms that anticipate Freud's interpretation of the primal murder.38 So the danger Freud perceived was at least partly visible to Shakespeare's contemporaries, and therefore a plausible subject for Shakespeare's stage.

In forbidding Falstaff (and therefore his own id) from using royal power to gratify his appetites at the expense of others, Hal is reenacting society's first triumph over the force that threatened to destroy it, and renewing English society's will to resist that force. It is natural enough, given the respective occupations of Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice and the relations between the two men, that accepting one as a surrogate father would entail excluding the other; but that natural situation carries a sharp allegorical import. On a realistic level, Hal's suppression of his own unruly impulses allows him to accept the Lord Chief Justice, and that acceptance leads to the rejection of Falstaff. On the level of the psychomachia, the rejection of Falstaff is merely the acting-out of the suppression of the id that we have seen moments earlier in the acceptance of the Justice. We are on shifting levels of allegory that disguise themselves as chronological sequence, as for example when the Redcrosse Knight's battle with Error is essentially an acting-out of a battle he has already fought in traveling through the Wood of Error with Una to reach that dragon, or when Christian and his companions fall into the net of Flatterer only after being coaxed out of the rightful path by flattery and led some distance, in The Pilgrim's Progress.39 Hal's embrace of the Justice and his casting-out of Falstaff can be viewed as a single psychological moment. Time yields to allegory in that archetypal situation, even as that moment in the history of English society becomes suddenly synchronous with the formative moment of all human societies.

The psychomachia lends metaphorical richness to Hal's comparison of his experience of Falstaff to the experience of a wicked dream, in which the appetites of the id run rampant. The self-transformation Hal claims to have accomplished in the rejection speech becomes a slightly presumptuous exclusion of one side of his human heritage, one half of his divided father-figure. The speech shows clear traces of the self-alienation and the wakefulness that characterize the ambitious syndrome, but this is an alienation only from the id, and an awakening only from the dreams of the id:

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awak’d, I do despise my dream.
.....Reply not to me with a fool-born jest,
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.


The precedents of this announcement are not promising: other Shakespearean characters who use such phrases are unhealthily at war with their own natures and with nature itself. Richard III asks Queen Elizabeth to “Plead what I will be, not what I have been; / Not my deserts, but what I will deserve” (4.4.414-15); Richard II struggles to “forget what I have been! / Or not remember what I must be now!” (3.3.138-39). Hal's proclamation may even anticipate Iago's “I am not what I am” (1.1.65). From these moments through his last plays, Shakespeare persistently asks whether we can leave a degrading but natural part of ourselves behind, kill the heart of its father, without inviting a devastating nemesis. He refuses to adopt the notion, offered by most of his sources, that Hal simply underwent a miraculous transformation at his coronation; the problems of identity are too important and too complex for him to accept such an evasion.40 The psychomachia invites us to recognize Hal's self-askesis, his amputation of the facets of his identity that do not fit with his royal role. What I am raising again, from a different perspective, is the vexed question of whether Hal's humanity survives the task of assuming a kingship that is only partly lineal, only partly legitimate in its birth.

If Richard II ends with Henry being brought “Thy buried fear” (5.6.41), 2 Henry IV ends with Hal confronting his buried id; and both cases invite our fear that the triumph may prove Pyrrhic, that the king may have buried an essential part of himself in burying his supposed enemy and assuming the crown. Hal's manipulation of his former companions and his wording of grief for his father seem to lack human grace, and may betoken a lack of human feeling. But this apparent heartlessness, and his bloodless mode of inheritance, unattractive and unhealthy as they may be, represent a plausible way for Hal to fulfill his role as the nemesis generated by Henry's violations, without incurring a similar nemesis of his own. Shakespeare and Hal virtually conspire to find an escape from the vicious cycle of Oedipal justice. Hal's political strategy of imitating the sun by hiding his glory temporarily in Eastcheap corresponds, in timing and symbolic form, to the psychological strategy whereby he merely imitates the rebellious son. He plays the disobedient and potentially patricidal part long enough to punish his father and fulfill the general expectation, meanwhile retaining an identity as a temporarily loyal son to Falstaff, against whom he can later carry out the patricidal violence that Shakespeare's pattern insists he must have inherited. Falstaff, like Richard III, becomes a scapegoat in his dramatic creator's system of poetic justice. Like the Lords of Misrule to whom he is often compared, Falstaff is placed in his exalted role only to allow an outlet for hostilities that would be dangerous to express against the actual sovereign. Then, at Henry's death, Hal reclaims his lineal virtues metempsychotically, with the Lord Chief Justice as the visible father of this immaculately conceived new royal self. Hal proves himself his father's natural son by coming to the royal identity as unnaturally as his father had, without committing his father's crimes against lineage in the process.

But if Hal's genius is his ability to live constantly in the familial and political roles his world demands of him, that is also his torment. The unity of his character must always be its capacity for multiplicity, including an unappealing talent (like his brother John's) for duplicity. His innermost self may be so difficult for critics to locate and define because it is equally elusive for Hal himself. The difference between Hal and other victims of the ambitious pattern is not that he retains a vital inner self—it is not clear that he does—but rather that his theatrical self is hereditary, and that he has the sprezzatura, the art of disguising his artfulness, to make it viable. To inherit his father's role as king, as Henry had warned him (1 Henry IV, 3.2.46-59), he must inherit first his father's theatrical use of his “person,” the arm's-length manipulation of the self. Hal learns this lesson and betters the instruction.


  1. The analogy between births such as Glendower's and Tamburlaine's, and eruptions of trapped air, recalls Lucan's description of Julius Caesar's martial energies: “As lightning by the wind forc’d from a cloud / Breakes through the wounded aire with thunder loud.” James M. Swan, “History, Pastoral, and Desire: A Psychoanalytic Study of English Renaissance Literature and Society” (Ph.D. diss. Stanford University, 1974), pp. 300-302, has interpreted this passage as the source for images of self-induced Caesarean birth in Philemon Holland's Historie of the World (translated from Pliny in 1601) and in Marvell's “The Unfortunate Lover”; he also confirms my longstanding suspicion that the much-debated lines 13-24 of Marvell's “Horatian Ode” allude to a similar action, complete with a pun on Caesar's name. See also C. A. Patrides, “‘Till Prepared for Longer Flight,”’ in Approaches to Marvell (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 35.

  2. Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine, Part One, in The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969), 1.2.49-51.

  3. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, in Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). For the impregnating power of Jove's lightning, see Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. Thomas North (1579), ed. W. E. Henley (London, 1895), IV, 299, 330-331; here again such a conception generates a suggestively Oedipal hero.

  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis, Ind.: Odyssey-Bobbs Merrill, 1962); subsequent citations are from this edition.

  5. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1950), pp. 142-144. In chapter 6 of his Violence and the Sacred, Girard examines the Hydra-like threat presented by twins or doubles, which raise the danger of fraternal rivalry over legacies and even identity.

  6. Norman Sanders, “The True Prince and the False Thief: Prince Hal and the Shift of Identity,” Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977), 30, remarks on the propriety of this resemblance.

  7. Ronald Berman, “The Nature of Guilt in the Henry IV Plays,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965), 27, discusses Henry's use of disguise to gain the throne. See also Righter, Shakespeare and Idea of Play, pp. 126-127.

  8. Ernst Kris, “Prince Hal's Conflict,” in Faber, Design Within, p. 395.

  9. Dreams of saving the father from an assailant, however one wishes to interpret them, are apparently common among young men. Freud, in Totem and Taboo (p. 72), speculates about a mechanism whereby “the original wish that the loved person may die is replaced by a fear that he may die. So that when the neurosis appears to be so tenderly altruistic, it is merely compensating for an underlying contrary attitude of brutal egoism.”

  10. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), p. 125.

  11. The parallel is of course imperfect: marrying one's mother does not become appropriate at one's father's death, as inheriting his title might. John W. Blanpied, “‘Unfathered heirs and loathly births of nature’: Bringing History to Crisis in 2 Henry IV,English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975), 228-229, discusses the displacement of the parricide into the crown; Freud argues that the Oedipal impulse is often displaced into the mother, who is here equated with the crown.

  12. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 33-62, argues eloquently and convincingly that our ambivalence toward Hal is not only permissible, it is essential to understanding Shakespeare's sort of meaning.

  13. Warren J. Macisaac, “‘A Commodity of Good Names’ in the Henry IV Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978), 417-419, comments on the meaningful modulations of Hal's name.

  14. George Steiner, in a conversation in 1978, reported finding such stories in many mythologies, stories of a hero battling through the night against a Doppelgänger, and receiving a name from him in the morning.

  15. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, trans. Joan Riviere, rev. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), pp. 21-29; in Totem and Taboo, this incorporation of the father takes the literal form of a ritual meal in which the patricidal sons consume the father or his totem-surrogate as part of a penitential renunciation of their common deed (p. 142). See similarly Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 76. An interesting sidelight here is Jacques Lacan's theory that the Oedipal conflict resides essentially in a boy's relation to the name (nom, with a pun on non) of the father; see Monique David-Menard, “Lacanians Against Lacan,” trans. Brian Massumi, in Social Text (Fall 1982), p. 90.

  16. Kris, “Prince Hal,” in Faber, Design Within, p. 399, is an early example; see also Faber, pp. 421-422.

  17. Meredith Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), p. 16, cites several such objections.

  18. Edward Pechter, “Falsifying Men's Hopes: The Ending of 1 Henry IV,Modern Language Quarterly 41 (1980), 216.

  19. Jonas Barish, “The Turning Away of Prince Hal,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965), 15 and 10.

  20. Franz Alexander, “A Note on Falstaff,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 2 (1933), 592-606; cited by Barish, Shakespeare Studies 1:16 n. 5.

  21. W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Random House, 1948; rpt. 1962), p. 195.

  22. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, pp. 285-291; the quotations are from p. 289. S. C. Sen Gupta, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 127, calls Falstaff “a symbol of the unrepressed instincts of humanity, which thirst for fulfillment, rebel against repression”; cited by Sidney Shanker, Shakespeare and the Uses of Ideology, Studies in English Literature, vol. 105 (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), p. 65 n. 19. We may add to Tillyard's list the figure of the picaro, cited as an element of Falstaff by H. B. Rothschild Jr., “Falstaff and the Picaresque Tradition,” Modern Language Review 68 (1972), 14-21.

  23. J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (New York: Macmillan, 1944), pp. 18-28; Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 87-91.

  24. Freud, Ego and Id, p. 26, is one of many statements of this theory.

  25. Skura, Literary Use, p. 36, mentions “the obvious psychomachia in the triple world of Henry IV, Part Two, where Hal has to choose between the id (Falstaff) and the superego (the Lord Chief Justice).” Danby, Doctrine of Nature, p. 95, asserts that “In the rejection scene Hal and my Lord Chief Justice stand for Authority; Falstaff is Appetite.” Traversi, Richard II to Henry V, p. 108, sees Hal in 2 Henry IV as “engaged in the more arduous and sober pursuit of self-conquest, externally manifested in his submission to the Lord Chief-Justice”; but on p. 158 he doubts that the Justice is “a sufficient counterpart to the ‘riot’ incarnated in Falstaff.”

  26. Freud, Ego and Id, p. 46.

  27. Sigmund Freud, “The Anatomy of the Mental Personality,” in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. W. J. H. Sprott (New York: Norton, 1933), p. 108.

  28. Freud, Civilization, p. 79. For the sufficiency of a fantasy patricide, see Totem, p. 160, and “Moses and Monotheism” in the Standard Edition of Freud's Works, trans. James Strachey, XXIII (London: Hogarth, 1964), 87.

  29. Freud, Totem, p. 145 and p. 143.

  30. Freud, Ego and Id, p. 28 and p. 38.

  31. Freud, Ego and Id, pp. 18-21; see also p. 44, and his “Mourning and Melancholia,” passim, in Works, XIV (London: Hogarth, 1957); see also Hans Loewald, Papers on Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 270-271.

  32. Freud, Civilization, p. 42.

  33. Ibid., p. 44: “At this point we cannot fail to be struck by the similarity between the process of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual,” and goes on, pp. 44-45, to suggest “that the development of civilization is a special process, comparable to the normal maturation of the individual.” Further, “The analogy between the process of civilization and the path of individual development may be extended … The super-ego of an epoch of civilization has an origin similar to that of an individual” (p. 88). However, we must also heed Freud's warning, on p. 91, that “we are only dealing with analogies and that it is dangerous, not only with men but also with concepts, to tear them from the sphere in which they have originated and been evolved.”

  34. Freud, “The Group and the Primal Horde,” in Works, XVIII (London: Hogarth, 1955) 123.

  35. J. J. Atkinson, Primal Law (London, 1903), p. 228; quoted by Freud, Totem, p. 142 n. 1, as the characteristic problem that the totemic law must solve. See also Freud's “Postscript” in Works, XVIII, 135, on the necessity of this fraternal pact as a preventative to civil war.

  36. For another perspective on these Cain allusions, see Berman, in Shakespeare Studies 1:20.

  37. Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex, Regents Renaissance Drama Series, ed. Irby B. Cauthen, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), 2.1.172-75, 5.2.212-14, and passim, shows this combination of crimes plunging the nation out of civilization and into a welter of bloodshed. Intriguingly, these themes are combined here, as they are in Shakespeare, with occasional suggestions of unnatural birth and the dangers of a usurper's sleep: see 4.1.65-75 and 4.2.181-90. The Homily is quoted by Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 70.

  38. In Leviathan, part I, chapter 13, Hobbes, discusses the difficulty of holding any sort of sovereign privileges in a world where “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.” This parallels Freud's observation that the brothers, though individually weaker, manage to overthrow the father and seize his privileges by conspiring together. A few paragraphs later Hobbes points out the same danger that Freud saw arising from such a conspiracy. In the absence of the father, or a just totemic law that takes his place, the brothers will inevitably continue to battle each other to their deaths: “Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.”

  39. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, I.i; John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress, ed. Roger Sharrock (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1965), pp. 172-173.

  40. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 305, makes note of this deviation from Walsingham and the Famous Victories of Henry V.

Paul Dean (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7092

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Historical Imagination,” in Renaissance Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, March, 1997, pp. 27-40.

[In the following essay, Dean compares Shakespeare's treatment of historical fact and politics in his history plays, focusing on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.]

If there is one view about Shakespeare which can be said to be shared by most of the critics of the last ten years, it is that he is—and not just in the history plays—a political writer. But in this, it is argued, he has no choice: all literature is political, and all criticism, in consequence, ideological. A glance at the editor's introduction to the 1992 ‘New Casebook’ on Shakespeare's History Plays: ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry IV’, aimed at an undergraduate readership, reveals how embedded such assumptions have become: in New Historicism, we read, ‘literature can be seen to enact a type of political discourse’, criticism being a ‘verbal and structural investigation of a range of rhetorical strategies’ aimed at laying bare ‘the conditions of cultural, ideological and political power’. Even this, however, has been felt to be insufficiently engagé by Cultural Materialism in its various forms, especially feminism, in which ‘a politics of culture operates in more or less direct relationship with a committed politics of social and economic action’. At the same time, thanks to the cross-fertilization of literary theory with the work of history theorists such as Hayden White, belief in the possibility of historical objectivity, of the distinction between fact and interpretation, and of historical narrative as a validly autonomous category of writing, has been shattered: ‘All writing is equally historical.’ Fortunately, as it turns out, Shakespeare foresaw all these developments, with the happy result that ‘Shakespeare's history plays are about history in the same way as post-modern thought is about history’.1

Tom McAlindon has recently protested against such an approach, on the grounds that it:

seems at times to participate in the prevalent blurring of all generic distinctions to the extent of dissolving immensely complex artistic structures and consigning them to an amorphous continuum of ideology and discourse. Thus it is apt to evade a question of perennially absorbing interest: what constitutes the unique quality or singular greatness of this particular play?2

We should, I think, heed this caution—without denying that, from the beginning, Shakespeare's history plays show an awareness of a variety of ideological stances. There is a sense in which he is a postmodern historian, at least as such a figure was presented by Gertrude Himmelfarb in a Times Literary Supplement article in 1992:

Formerly, when historians invoked the role of imagination, they meant the exercise of imagination required to transcend the present and immerse oneself in the past. Today, it more often means the opposite: the imagination to create a past in the image of the present and in accord with the judgement of the historian.3

This seems to me a false antithesis. ‘Has justice ever been done to the power of his historical imagination?’ asks Blair Worden of Shakespeare in a recent essay.4 Shakespeare seems to me to combine both kinds of imagination distinguished by Professor Himmelfarb, and to think about time like a philosopher. Mindful, however, of the fact that Shakespeare the Philosopher may be as much of a falsifying abstraction as Shakespeare the Political Ideologue, I shall be taking the Henry IV plays and, to a lesser extent, Henry V and their theatrical political context as a test case, trying to work from particular details.

Another thing I find puzzling about Professor Himmelfarb's remarks is her assumption that ‘the imagination to create a past in the image of the present’ is a specifically modernist ploy. Those words describe historiography as practised by many classical, medieval, and Renaissance historians. Moreover, in the view of the greatest British philosopher of history in the twentieth century (who, however, underrated the sixteenth century's contribution to that discipline)—R. G. Collingwood—the ambition to ‘transcend the present’ is futile: the historian lives and thinks in the present, inescapably, and the life of history is in the historian's mind here and now. To imagine now a past which is our past, so as to make it alive for us now, would hardly have seemed aberrant to Virgil, Ovid, Boethius, Chaucer, Spenser—or Shakespeare. What we have in his work are neither events nor non-events but ‘counterevents’, events as the alchemical imagination has transformed them.5 He is engaged on nothing so banal as dramatizing the past, but on something more heroic and more awesomely difficult: on what Michael Dummett brilliantly calls ‘bringing about the past’.6


Of course, in the sense in which politics is about the organization of human beings into communities, hardly any of Shakespeare's plays lacks a political dimension; yet when everything is political nothing is; there must be distinctions. I cannot go to the other extreme, however, and agree with David Womersley that ‘the political interpretations we offer of Elizabethan literature ought to […] be reducible to, or re-statable as, narratives of potential or accomplished moves made by actual Elizabethan politicians’.7 Such austere rigour would leave hardly anything in the category of political literature. Shakespeare's history plays existed, of course, in a political context in their own day, and have been appropriated repeatedly for political—even, if we must use the word, ideological—purposes ever since. But the politics of the plays are not identical with the politics in them. Graham Holderness's contention that political interpretation only becomes meaningful when one takes sides, and hence that ‘a political criticism should then be a question of judging the political meanings literature generates, evaluating the political potentialities of specific works, and discriminating between reactionary and progressive forms of criticism’,8 misplaces the emphasis because it relegates criticism to the status of propaganda, a matter of partis pris rather than understanding, which is surely foreign to Shakespeare's methods of work. He was committed, not to this or that political position, but to the exploration of what it might mean to have—or to lack—a political position.

Let us consider a familiar set of circumstances. In 1599 a prohibition was issued against the printing of any more English histories without the permission of the Privy Council. Some authors, such as Grenville and Raleigh, reacted by self-censorship, while others, such as Jonson and Hayward, got into trouble, for Sejanus and The Life and Raigne of Henrie IIII respectively. Shakespeare's Richard II was famously hijacked by the Essex faction just before the ban was imposed. Shakespeare, who had acted in Sejanus, no doubt wryly recalled the scene in which Cremutius Cordus is condemned to death by the Senate for writing the wrong kind of history, adulating Brutus and Cassius who are non-persons in Tiberius' Rome. One of Tiberius' toadies, Afer, alleges that Cordus is making a veiled attack on Tiberius. In vain does Cordus plead that discussion of a remote period of history cannot reasonably be construed as a commentary on contemporary events: the Senate is as unconvinced by him as the Council was by Jonson. Cordus, like some modern innocent surrounded by literary theorists, discovers that he is simply not allowed to be apolitical, and that his apparently straightforward historical narrative is perceived to have a subversive ideological subtext. Such paranoia was a living force in Renaissance English society. It was, after all, a play on Antony and Cleopatra, not on an English historical subject, which its author Greville burned out of fear that it was ‘apt enough to be construed, or strained to a personating of vices in the present Governors, and government’;9 Raleigh, languishing in the Tower, reflected ruefully that ‘whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heel, it may happily strike out his teeth’;10 while the second part of Hayward's History of Henrie IIII remained unpublished until 1991.11

By 1599, the new school of ‘politique history’, which grew up following the publication in 1591 of Sir Henry Savile's translation of Tacitus, was well established and had superseded the earlier Tudor—really late medieval—view of history as a storehouse of universal moral exempla. Tacitus and Machiavelli had replaced Cicero and Livy as the models to imitate. (We may see a parallel in the development of Shakespeare scholarship itself in recent years, with a reading of the Histories as Ciceronian ‘mirrors for princes’ replaced by the radical-political approach I have already mentioned.12) This replacement entailed an important change in the understanding of causation. History was still referred to the Divine Will, but was more often scrutinized in terms of purely human agents; God remained the First Cause, but there were now also Second Causes. Plotting is to playwrights what causation is to philosophers,13 and to the history playwright this shift in the causal concept obviously has supreme importance.

It was also in 1599, of course, that Henry V was acted, and in that play Shakespeare presents a concept of historical imagination explicitly, through the chorus. This too has its context, for the role of imagination in history had received attention during the movement from early to late Tudor thought. A world of intellectual development separates the statement, in the Henrician translation of Polydore Vergil's Anglia Historia, that ‘an Historie is a full rehearsall and declaration of things don, not a gesse or divination’,14 from Raleigh's devotion of a chapter of his History of the World (bk. I, ch. 21: 6) to a plea for the ‘liberty of using conjecture in Histories’, and Raleigh's conception of the role of imagination in historiography has been compared to that of Collingwood.15 Blair Worden makes effectively the same point in remarking how the careers of Jonson, Greville, and Daniel ‘remind us of how far historical insight rested […] on a historian's doing what a dramatist does: ask himself how a given character would have thought and acted in a given situation’.16 By 1599 the creative artist's interpretative freedom with historical materials hardly needed defending. Shakespeare's Henry V is a notoriously difficult character to interpret, but this difficulty is built into the play; it is an aspect of our task as well as Shakespeare's, for the Histories typically, as Phyllis Rackin puts it, ‘cast their audiences in the roles of historians’.17 Repeatedly the Chorus implores us to supplement what we see (the historical events dramatized) with our own creative powers, to produce not a synthesis but a complementarity:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them … 

(Prologue, 23-6)

Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege … 

(Act III, 0, 25)

                                                                                                                        Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mock’ries be.

(Act IV, 0, 52-3)

                                                                                                                        But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought … 

(Act V, 0, 22-3)

Notice how these passages insist upon the imagination as a visual faculty: we see physically and with our mind's eye, and the two visions—the representation and the truth it figures—together are the act of imagining. The Chorus, in fact, exhorts us to do what Shakespeare had to do as he worked on his source materials, altering, supplementing, reordering, and filling out—performing acts of imagining which were acts of interpretation.

Not that Shakespeare, in enlisting our co-operation, abnegates his responsibility or licenses any subjective fantasy; what is on the stage is really there. Yet ‘really’ is a slippery word here: it is really the case that certain actors are speaking certain words and performing certain physical movements; but it is not really the case that we are witnessing the battle of Agincourt. We are witnessing an attempt to represent that battle, and the attempt is real: but it is in the nature of an attempt that it must succeed or fail, and must therefore be supplemented by someone's being convinced or not convinced by it. The reality of the attempt (its ‘truth’ if I dare use another slippery word) is not enough: our acceptance or rejection of it is needed before it can be evaluated. This is the logic behind the speeches of the Chorus. I am, of course, aware that widely differing accounts have been given of the function of these speeches,18 but in a sense their ambivalence is the point; the work of historical imagining is like that, a matter of contradictions, elusive, tricky, baffling. Shakespeare would have recognized much in Collingwood's celebrated chapter on ‘The historical imagination’ in The Idea of History—as when, for instance, Collingwood says that ‘The historical imagination […] is properly not ornamental but structural’, or that ‘the imaginary, simply as such, is neither real nor unreal’, or that the historical imagination is an active heuristic force, ‘a self-dependent, self-determining, and self-justifying form of thought’.19


Henry IV is a natural choice for testing the hypothesis that Shakespeare's imagination transcends party ideology while encompassing what it is to have such an ideology, since, manifestly, it was shaped by political considerations in more than one sense of the term. Designed as in some way a response to the earlier play The Famous Victories of Henry V, its portrayal of Sir John Oldcastle as Prince Hal's disreputable companion led to protests from the Oldcastle family, the substitution of ‘Falstaff’ for ‘Oldcastle’ as the character's name, and a counter-play, Sir John Oldcastle, in two parts, of which the second is lost.20 The relationship between these three plays depends on an amalgam of topical satire, political censorship, and religious polemic (the historical Oldcastle was a leading Protestant martyr). Oldcastle in The Famous Victories is so called only once, on his first appearance; he is not a major character, and, as Gary Taylor has pointed out, Shakespeare took some trouble to align the characteristics of his Oldcastle more closely with those of the historical figure, so that ‘the parallels demonstrate that the name of the character, his historical identity, forms a part of the meaning of the extant text’.21 In Sir John Oldcastle itself the Prologue is careful to distinguish the protagonist from a certain ‘aged counsellor to youthful sins’ (line 7). With a striking irony, the name ‘Falstaff’ in Sir John Oldcastle has become the name of a ‘historical’ person separate from Oldcastle: King Henry V, walking abroad disguised, as his namesake had done in Shakespeare's play, muses, ‘Where the devil are all my old thieves that were wont to keep this walk? Falstaff, the villain, is so fat he cannot get on's horse’ (x. 53-5) while the criminal priest he encounters, called Sir John (but nothing can be made of that—it was a conventional name for a priest),22 grumbles that the King, when Prince of Wales, once robbed him, ‘when that foul villainous guts, that led him to all that roguery, was in's company there, that Falstaff’ (x. 82-3). Recurring to the point about ‘reality’ I made in the previous section, we can say that, just as the reality of the historical Oldcastle must be distinguished from that of his stage representation, so the reality of Falstaff as a character in Shakespeare's play must be distinguished from the reality of ‘Falstaff’ as a referent in Sir John Oldcastle, a character external to the play but assumed to have a corresponding reality in the minds of the audience.

It could be argued without undue paradox that both The Famous Victories and Sir John Oldcastle are more entitled to be called historical plays than Shakespeare's,23 for they both stick quite closely to what were thought to be the historical facts of the personal development and public career of Henry V—so closely, indeed, that Shakespeare had to omit direct treatment of what they had dramatized if he was not to fall into repetitiousness. The network of relationships between these plays again shows the intricacy with which drama, politics, and history interact in the Elizabethan period. However, Shakespeare is exceptional, not only in his remodelling of the facts into a more complex structure, but also in his interest in history as an abstract process as well as a repository of plot material. The other two plays have a political-theological interest: Shakespeare alone, it would seem, seized the implications of the fact that a history play is an event in time which is also an event about time, and hence has a philosophical dimension which we apprehend through the dramatic structure. This is one of the marks of his historical imagination, a quality none of his contemporaries possesses in the same way. I shall lead up to a fuller definition of it by way of an apparently minor bibliographical puzzle, which I hope to show has far-reaching consequences.


Two Quartos of 2 Henry IV were printed in 1600, and the first one does not contain what is in modern editions Act III, scene i, the soliloquy of the insomniac King and his conversation with Warwick. Several explanations for this omission have been offered. Until recently it was assumed to be due to compositorial oversight, but in 1987 John Jowett and Gary Taylor argued that the scene was an afterthought on Shakespeare's part.24 Two subsequent editors of the play have disagreed. Giorgio Melchiori argues that the scene was part of what he called the ‘ur-Henry IV’, the original single play which, in his view, Shakespeare expanded into two: while Thomas L. Berger finds this over-speculative, and believes that the scene must have been part of the original conception because, without it, two comic scenes would succeed one another, and this is contrary to Shakespeare's usual practice.25 Several different issues are involved here, but the one which most interests me is the clues to the workings of Shakespeare's historical imagination provided by the debate—the debate in the scene, that is, as well as the one about it. It can hardly be denied that the scene in question raises the discussion of history to a plane of abstraction hardly paralleled elsewhere in Shakespeare's work, and nowhere in Elizabethan historical drama outside it. It is no overstatement to say that Henry and Warwick discuss questions now associated with the philosophy of history.26 Warwick articulates a Neoplatonic idea of time as a ‘necessary form’ whose archetypal nature enables us to ‘create’ the future in our imaginations, to ‘guess’ but to guess perfectly. The King's question ‘Are these things then necessities?’ is unanswered; all we can do is to act as if they were. As Westmorland later advises Mowbray, we must ‘construe the times to their necessities’ (2 Henry IV, IV. i. 102). Such historical imagining produces, not ‘the truth’, whatever that may be, but a balance of probability, a reasonable conjecture, issuing in political decisions which are also acts of faith.

As noted above on the Henry V choruses, there are instructive parallels, I believe, between the historical imagining in the scene and the historical imagining of its author as he felt his way into the material.27 Jowett, Taylors and Melchiori point out that, without III. i, the end of what is now II. iv and the beginning of what is now III. ii would echo each other verbally:

Come—She comes blubbered,—Yea, will you come Doll?
Come on, come on, come on, sir

This, they suggest, supports their view that III. i was not present in the original scheme of the play. But the final words of II. iv are themselves in dispute, since they occur in Q but not in F; and, even if we allow them, III. i opens, ‘Go, call the Earls of Surrey and of Warwick, / And ere they come …’, which also picks them up, and it ends, ‘where these inward wars once out of hand, / We would, dear lords, unto the Holy Land’, which is in turn picked up by III. ii, ‘Come on, come on, come on, sir, give me your hand, sir, give me your hand, sir’. If we are going to go by verbal echoes there is no reason why the scene should not have stood where it is from the beginning. Moreover, on a larger scale, its depiction of a monarch plagued by insomnia comes between Falstaff's ‘the undeserver may sleep, when the man of action is called on’ (II. iv. 378f) and Shallow's ‘An early stirrer, by the Rood!’ (III. ii. 2f). Whether the scene was an afterthought or not, these echoes indicate the workings of an imagination which could pass apparently instinctively from verbal to conceptual interconnections as it brooded over what the prose chronicles called ‘the unquiet time’ of Henry IV.

‘Are these things then necessities?’ Perhaps we make them so, by our choices. Shakespeare seems to show, in the Histories, and above all in the figure of Prince Hal in Henry IV and Henry V, something contrary to the determinism of contemporary theory: that it is what we do and wish to be which shapes the universe we live in. The time which people experience is, in a weird way, like the people who experience it. Hal is such an uncomfortable figure to many people, both other characters and modern readers, because he is a man who embodies the principle of teleology in a world which is otherwise dominated by contingency. That becomes plain in the ‘I know you all’ speech in Part 1, I. ii. Professor Melchiori wants this to be a later insertion too: he says, on no evidence at all, that it ‘has the air of being an after-thought’.28 But why should it not have the air of being a forethought? It is where it is for a purpose, in order to affect the whole balance of our subsequent relationship with Hal and his relationship with other characters.

Nor is this sense of interconnectedness confined to individual scenes. It can occur between quite disparate scenes. Consider, alongside the scene just discussed, the beginning of II. i in Part 1, the conversation between the two Carriers. In dramatic terms the exchange is redundant, but it serves to establish atmosphere and, in its attention to apparent trivia, conveys a sense of the quotidian occupations of the insignificant people of England: we hear of the ‘new chimney’ of the inn, of the enfeebled condition of one of the horses, of the chaos that has come to the management of the inn ‘since Robin [Ostler] died’, of the flea-bites the Carriers have suffered, of the lack of a chamber-pot and the consequent inconveniences, and so on. In its beautiful inconsequentiality the dialogue looks forward to the greater achievement of the Gloucestershire scenes in Part 2, which have been justly compared to Chekhov29 and which revel in reminiscence where the King is troubled by painful memory. Scenes like these, which are the polar opposites of that between the King and Warwick, are essential in creating the illusion of a three-dimensional ‘ordinary’ world in which political action takes place. Yet the Carriers, Shallow and Silence, Henry and Warwick also represent complementarities, and no account of Shakespeare's historical imagination can be fruitful which does not hold both types of scene in mind. We are not helped to appreciate this by occasional failures of imagination on the part of editors. The First Carrier tells us that Robin Ostler ‘never joyed since the price of oats rose; it was the death of him’ (II. i. 12f). Professor Bevington is ready with his note: ‘This ostler […] was ruined by an inflation in costs that outpaced his revenue. The price of oats more than doubled between 1593 and 1596-7, after which it again fell.’ But this is the kind of information we both need and do not need to know. It explains the allusion of the remark while leaving its mysterious poetry completely untouched. People like the Carriers live in a world where time can be measured fairly precisely—‘an it be not four by the day, I’ll be hanged’—but also by things like the installation of new chimneys or by changes in the prices of things which affect them. The King's method in Part 2 is different: within the space of a few lines we have ‘’Tis not ten years gone […] and in two year after […] It is but eight years since’ (III. i. 52, 54, 55). It is beside the point for Professor Melchiori in his note to correct the arithmetic with the comment ‘Shakespeare is deliberately manipulating historical time’. Yes indeed, but more profoundly he is asking what ‘historical’ time is, and is returning two answers: it is the external framework of chronology and it is time as internally experienced. Silence knows that it is ‘fifty-five year ago’ that Shallow arrived at Clement's Inn; but when Falstaff says that he and Shallow ‘have heard the chimes at midnight’ (2 Henry IV, III. ii. 207, 211f) he is not evoking a particular passing from one day to another day, but savouring a generalized memory of revelry and youthful energy that lives now only in his memory—and also, perhaps unconsciously, thinking ahead to death (compare Falstaff's mysteriously evocative ‘I shall be sent for soon at night’, V. iv. 87f). This is both beautiful and unbearably sad, but it is inevitable and at least evidence of the persistent reality and continuity of experience. Every act of remembering and recreating, Shakespeare's included, is an exercise of the historical imagination which is the act of fitting, to echo a celebrated distinction of Collingwood's, the insides of events to their outsides.30

Sooner or later, writers on the Henry IV plays have to consider the question of their genesis. I do not find this question a particularly gripping one insofar as it retreats from understanding the plays we have to trying to reconstruct hypothetically plays we do not have. Modern discussions of the matter derive from Harold Jenkins's lecture The Structural Problem in Shakespeare's ‘Henry IV’ (1956) and very few of them add much to his conclusions. The most innovatory theory has come from Professor Melchiori in a number of studies now collected and extended in his book Shakespeare's Garter Plays, which develops, sometimes in a boldly conjectural way, Jenkins's original proposals.31 I accept Jenkins's conclusion that Shakespeare did indeed intend to write a single play in which the dual victory of Hal over Hotspur and Falstaff would be shown, but that this schematic plan was jettisoned, probably during the writing of Act IV, and a new ending devised which would make a self-contained play while still leaving open the possibility of a sequel if the piece proved popular. When it did, Shakespeare incorporated the remaining chronicle material, which was less than had been available for Part 1, obliging him to expand the comic episodes. No one can seriously maintain that the result is a single ten-act play, and the arguments urged in support of that view by Tillyard and Dover Wilson seem to me simply untenable. The structural parallels between the two parts, as Jenkins shows, make an artful compromise between crude repetition and developed variation. In his words, ‘The two parts are complementary; they are also independent and even incompatible.’32 What needs emphasizing is that, whether or not there may be a ‘structural problem’ for us, there certainly was one for Shakespeare, and that the concept of overlapping was his solution. He had to fit Part 2 to Part 1 to some degree, and this imposed a number of constraints upon him. Like Hal, he was working within a teleological frame in which the end was known, and in which details had to be organized to lead up to that end. I like to think that he reflected upon the ways in which his own freedom of creative action had been shaped by his previous decisions; and if I were really going to speculate I should make a connection between this and that midnight conversation with which I began this section. For, of course, Shakespeare employed the liberty of conjecturing counterevents as well as the Sidneian ‘bare was’ of historical record.33 He not only altered historical facts in Henry IV (by making Hal and Hotspur the same age, for example); he invented Falstaff. And when, in Act V, scene iv of Part 1, ‘Sir John riseth up’, the freedom to counterfeit (a key word in that scene) in its etymological sense, creating something opposed to something else, rises with him. ‘Fact’ and ‘fiction’ share a common root, in Shakespeare's imagination as in etymology: something done, something made about what was done, reflect upon each other ceaselessly. The references to Henry V at the beginning of 1 Henry VI, and to Henry VI at the end of Henry V, make of Shakespeare's career as a history playwright what they make of history itself: a perpetuum mobile between glory and chaos.


Where, it may be asked, does this leave Shakespeare the political thinker, the dramatist of ideology? Before addressing that question we ought to acknowledge that our understanding of Renaissance politics is still being formed and cannot be predicated upon the politics of our own time. I referred at the beginning of this article to David Womersley's work on political readings of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts. He has made a formidable case against assuming that modern understanding of political transactions and preoccupations can simply be read back into the writings of Renaissance scholars: we need to recognize the alien character of their thought-processes rather than to acclaim them as familiar and anticipatory of our own.34 Working from the Folio categories, G. K. Hunter proposed to define a history play as ‘a play about English dynastic politics of the feudal and immediately post-feudal period’.35 ‘About’, of course, is a relative term. I think a valid distinction may be drawn between the kinds of political exploration we see in the two tetralogies. It does make sense to talk about the Henry VI trilogy as ‘about’ dynastic politics, as Michael Hattaway has shown in his New Cambridge editions. He is absolutely right to stress the plays' secular vision of political behaviour, their demystification of monarchy, their opposition of dated chivalry to ‘modern’ feudalism, and their preference for efficient to final causes, and to characterize their ‘radicalism’ etymologically as ‘an ability to root out the causes of political dilemmas, to demonstrate the partiality of contesting explanations of particular events’.36 As he also points out, their scepticism about teleology or providence (tellingly given an exceptionally ineffectual champion in the person of Henry VI himself) leads to a rich multiplicity of causalities and representational modes, with allegory, mythography, emblem, and carnival prominent aspects of the dramatic technique. They move only gradually towards psychological inwardness and then (even in Richard of Gloucester) in a way which looks primitive when set against the second tetralogy, where the distribution of emphasis is so different. There are one or two places where I cannot share Professor Hattaway's views, notably when he writes that Shakespeare's art in the Henry VI plays is one of ‘demonstration, rather than, as it had been in the hands of medieval chroniclers, an art of interpretation’.37 I find this very surprising given the care with which he has shown the resourcefulness and scope of Shakespeare's interpretative skills, and conversely his rejection of any reading of the plays which makes them doctrinaire. They are as much products of historical imagination as any other plays by Shakespeare. Nor can I accept his parallel between the Cade and Falstaff scenes as offering a ‘vision both of the limits of government and of the consequences of aristocratic factionalism’.38 Cade, while more complex than is sometimes allowed, can never move or disturb us as Falstaff can, nor can we ever warm to him. By the time Shakespeare created Falstaff he had left such relative simplifications behind.

Structural differences between the two tetralogies are a significant pointer to their varying outlooks on political behaviour. The Henry VI trilogy, as Professor Hattaway says, has a processional character which looks back to the medieval mystery cycles,39 while ‘the liaison des scènes is figurative rather than causal’.40 The Henry IV plays do not regress to providential explanations (Henry V does, but not unironically), but their structural sophistication is remarkable41 and, in my view, connected to a new direction in Shakespeare's thinking about imagination. Politics ceases to be a matter of factions or class divisions and becomes rooted in individual psychology. If David Womersley is right to claim that ‘political transactions in the reign of Elizabeth seem in the first instance to have been transactions between individuals’ and to conclude that ‘in England in the late sixteenth century there was no public domain of politics’,42 one has to say that Shakespeare had reached a similar conclusion. Politics, a gestural activity in his early work, is a mental activity in his later. I have tried to make the case for him as an inclusive thinker whose historical imagination works by overlapping units of construction large and small, playing off opposites against each other until the whole of Henry IV resembles a spectrum in which continuity and differentiation are simultaneously perceptible.

Shakespeare had understood what A. N. Whitehead was to perceive early in this century: that time as we experience it is not a mechanical framework but a continuum of durations. When I visit, say, York Minster, my experience occupies a certain amount of clock-time but it overlaps with the experiences of other visitors, with my own experiences of earlier visits, and, on the theological plane, with the experiences of thousands of visitors down the centuries. Time, as Marjorie Grene puts it in her exposition of Whitehead, ‘is not one dimension, but a host of them’ which ‘overlap in an undetermined and, for any single knower, non-determinable number of ways’; and she adds that in any one event there may be ‘thousands of intricately interlacing temporal rhythms’.43 This reverberant phrase might well be applied to Shakespeare's history plays. The concept of process familiar to him from The Faerie Queene (it goes back, of course, much further than that) was of nature as at once a stable order and as a kaleidoscope of change, and he seems to have conceived of time in a similar way. Consider two moments in which his monarchs reflect upon time. In 3 Henry VI, II. v. he shows Henry longing for the security of a completely mechanistic system of reckoning time, individual minutes aggregating into a whole life, and, conversely, dreaming of dividing up a single day into so many hours for its appointed tasks. ‘So minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years, / Pass’d over to the end they were created, / Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave’ (lines 38-40). Now consider Richard II, V. v. Richard moves from time as musical rhythm to time as the rhythm of ‘the music of men's lives’, a music he has turned into discord: ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me, / For now hath time made me his numb’ring clock’ (lines 41-50). The clock is no longer a machine, it is Richard's physical body, his emotional distress figured as the tolling of the bell. To pass from Henry VI to Richard II is to pass from time as external mechanism to time as felt experience—Richard does not experience just time but ‘my time’ (line 58).44 The Henry VI plays, and their interest in overlapping, are the fruit of that realization of time as process.

Marjorie Grene concludes her discussion of Whitehead with the observation that ‘time itself, as lived time, is telic’—as it is for Hal. We are the creatures of our past, so far determined but also free to create, building on that past, the future which beckons us but which we also draw toward ourselves by what Grene finely calls ‘the protensive pull of our transcendence which is the core of conscious life’.45 That, I think, is how Shakespeare went about creating the political world of his history plays and it is also the most important thing he shows in them.


  1. Graham Holderness (ed.), Shakespeare's History Plays: ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’ (London, 1992), 11, 13, 10, and 22.

  2. Tom McAlindon, ‘Tragedy, King Lear and the politics of the heart’, Shakes Surv, 44 (1992), 85-90.

  3. Gertrude Himmelfarb, ‘Telling it as you like it: postmodernist history and the flight from fact’, TLS, 16 October 1992, 14. Mary Warnock makes analogous criticisms of postmodernists from a philosophical point of view in her Imagination and Time (Oxford, 1994), 95-6.

  4. Blair Worden, ‘Shakespeare and politics’, Shakes Surv, 44 (1992), 8.

  5. I borrow the term ‘counterevent’ from Paola Pugliatti, ‘“More than history can pattern”: the Jack Cade rebellion in Shakespeare's Henry VI, 2’, J of Med and Renaiss Stud, 22 (1992), 455. Sec, further, her book Shakespeare the Historian (London, 1996), which appeared after my own paper was completed.

  6. Michael Dummett, ‘Bringing about the past’, Philos Rev, 73 (1964), 338-59, reprinted in Robin Le Poidevin and Murray MacBeath (ed.), The Philosophy of Time (Oxford, 1993), 117-33.

  7. David Womersley, ‘Sir Henry Savile's translation of Tacitus and the political interpretation of Elizabethan texts’, Rev Engl St, NS 42 no. 167 (1991), 340.

  8. Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (London, 1992), 43.

  9. Quoted by Joan Rees, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, 1554-1628: A Critical Biography (London, 1971), 30.

  10. Raleigh, Selected Writings, ed. Gerald Hammond (Manchester, 1984), 149.

  11. The First and Second Parts of John Hayward'sThe Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII’, ed. John J. Manning (Camden Fourth Series, vol. 42; London, 1991). The editor's introduction gives a detailed and illuminating account of the Privy Council's treatment of Hayward and other suspected partisans of Essex. See further David Womersley, ‘Sir John Hayward's tacitism’, Renaiss Stud, 6 (1991), 46-59.

  12. This point is made by Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (London, 1991), 35. Her first chapter (pp. 1-39) is an outstanding discussion of the development of historical thought in Renaissance England, with full reference to previous work. See also Manning's edition of Hayward, pp. 34-42.

  13. I have discussed this matter more generally in ‘Shakespeare's causes’, Cahiers Elis, 36 (1989), 25-35.

  14. Polydore Vergil's English History, ed. Henry Ellis (London, 1844), 26.

  15. Stephen Greenblatt, Sir Walter Raleigh: The Renaissance Man and his Roles (Yale, 1973), 135-6. Collingwood is also invoked by Wilbur Sanders in his excellent chapter ‘Literature as history: with some questions about “historical imagination”’, in The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1968), 1-19. Pugliatti, Shakespeare the Historian, 31, notes Hayward's interest in narrative technique and his apparent acceptance, with Raleigh, of the historian's interpretative liberty in the cause of art.

  16. Worden, ‘Shakespeare and politics’, 8.

  17. Rackin, Stages of History, 28.

  18. For a recent discussion, taking in earlier views, see Andrew Gurr's edition of Henry V (Cambridge, 1992), 6-16.

  19. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946), 241, 249.

  20. The Famous Victories and Sir John Oldcastle are now conveniently available in Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge (eds), The Oldcastle Controversy (Manchester, 1991), from which I quote.

  21. Gary Taylor, ‘The fortunes of Oldcastle’, Shakes Surv, 38 (1985), 96. That Shakespeare's character was intended to evoke precise historical resonances is also argued by E. A. J. Honigmann, ‘Sir John Oldcastle: Shakespeare's martyr’, in John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton (eds), ‘Fanned and Winnowed Opinions’: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins (London, 1987), 118-32.

  22. Corbin and Sedge (eds), The Oldcastle Controversy, 17, argue that this Sir John is ‘a surrogate “Oldcastle/Falstaff” vice-figure’. Richard Helgerson, in Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago, 1992), 236, seeks to distinguish between Falstaff as surrogate father to Hal, and Oldcastle and Wrotham as victims of monarchy: but Falstaff is ultimately a victim too.

  23. A comparable conclusion emerges from Helgerson's brilliant discussion of the Elizabethan history play, which makes clear the divergence between Shakespeare's preoccupations and those of the authors of The Famous Victories, Sir John Oldcastle, and other ‘populist’ dramas: Forms of Nationhood, 195-245.

  24. John Jowett and Gary Taylor, ‘The three texts of 2 Henry IV’, Stud in Biblio, 40 (1987), 36.

  25. The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, ed. Giorgio Melchiori (Cambridge, 1989), 3, 5, 9-12, 201; The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, 1600, ed. Thomas L. Berger (Oxford, 1991), xiii-xiv.

  26. I repeat here some remarks from my essay ‘Forms of time: some Elizabethan two-part history plays’, Renaiss Stud, 4 (1990), 428.

  27. The same suggestion is made by Pugliatti, Shakespeare the Historian, 126-30, whose discussion of the whole episode is excellent.

  28. King Henry the Fourth, ed. Melchiori, 12.

  29. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama (London, 1988), 106; Barbara Everett, ‘The fatness of Falstaff: Shakespeare and character’, Pr Br Acad, 76 (1991 for 1990), 127.

  30. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 213. Warnock, Imagination and Time, has some pertinent remarks on Proust's distinction between ‘the artificial meaning we give to the past when we deliberately attempt to recall it’ and ‘the significance it has when we relieve the past through spontaneous memory. Then and only then, according to Proust, the meaning of the past comes with our recollection and shows us the truth’ (pp. 137-8).

  31. Giorgio Melchiori, Shakespeare's Garter Plays: ‘Edward III’ to ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ (Newark, N.J., 1994), 21-73.

  32. Harold Jenkins, ‘Structural problem’, reprinted in G. K. Hunter (ed.), ‘King Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2’: A Casebook (London, 1970), 171.

  33. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London, 1965), 110.

  34. Besides Womersley's articles cited above, notes 7 and 11, one should also note his ‘Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III: a new theory of the English texts’, Renaiss Stud, 7 (1993), 272-90, with its reservations about the ‘reductive and distorting influence’ of some recent scholarship on sixteenth-century historiography in ‘its tendency to distract scholars from the study of historical writing to the study of that beguiling abstraction, “historical thought”’ (289 n. 61).

  35. G. K. Hunter, ‘Truth and Art in History Plays’, Shakes Surv, 42 (1990), 15.

  36. The Second Part of King Henry VI, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge, 1991), 7.

  37. Ibid. 7.

  38. Ibid. 20.

  39. The First Part of King Henry VI, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge, 1990), 9; see also Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977), 31-56.

  40. First Part of Henry VI, ed. Hattaway, 8.

  41. See the fuller account in Dean, ‘Forms of time’, 426-30.

  42. Womersley, ‘Sir Henry Savile's Tacitus’, 335.

  43. Marjorie Grene, The Knower and the Known (Calif. 1966), 246. This inspirational work first suggested to me the importance of overlapping as a concept. Once again, my argument complements that of Paola Pugliatti, who calls attention to the importance of the image of the border—and of its transgressions—in the narrative and construction of the Henry IV plays (Shakespeare the Historian, 108-9).

  44. Compare the extraordinary scene in Woodstock, ed. A. P. Rossiter (London, 1946), in which Richard discovers that he has reached the age of majority when he hears his own birthdate read out of the ‘English Chronicles’ as 1365: ‘KING: 1365 … What year is this? GREEN: ‘’Tis now, my lord, 1387.’ (II. i. 109-10). If the author was not joking, this is an embarrassing piece of clumsiness, almost Hollywood standard, which makes an instructive contrast with Shakespeare's Richard's internalized growth to maturity.

  45. Grene, The Knower and the Known, 245, 252.

This article is a revised version of a paper given to the Renaissance Graduate Seminar at York University in February 1993 at the kind invitation of Professor Jacques Berthoud. I am most grateful to him and to Dr John Roe for their comments on that occasion.

All Shakespeare quotations are from the one-volume Oxford Complete Works, general editors Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1988).

Paul A. Gottschalk (essay date 1974)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4737

SOURCE: “Hal and the ‘Play Extempore’ in I Henry IV,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 337-48.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Gottschalk presents an analysis of Prince Hal's character by examining the tavern scene in Henry IV, Part I, noting that this scene is crucial to Hal's development as a hero.]

The great tavern scene of I Henry IV (II.iv) is the longest of the play and the most elaborate, ranging over five hundred lines from the gulling of Francis and the attempted showing-up of Falstaff to the Sheriff's sudden entry and Hal's imminent departure for court. Understandably, the scene has attracted a number of critical studies relating its parts to one another or to the play as a whole,1 and certainly its richness and complexity warrant any attempt to clarify the aesthetic unity that lies beneath. Yet for all this complexity, the scene progresses smoothly enough, looking back toward Gadshill in its first half and forward to the royal palace in the second, back toward Hal's disgrace and forward to his redemption. This shift coincides with what, in view of the impending confrontation of Hal with his father, is clearly the crisis of the scene: the staging of the “play extempore,” in which first Falstaff and then Hal assumes the role of King Henry lecturing his truant son. The importance of this episode has already been underlined in Richard L. McGuire's “The Play-within-the-Play in I Henry IV” (Shakespeare Quarterly, 18 [1967], 47-52), where it is treated, indeed, as the crisis in Hal's development as hero. Dealing with the play extempore as an example of the Elizabethan play within a play, McGuire states that Hal attains “discovery of self through pretense” (p. 52), that, in acting out his role of King, he comes to realize it is time for the change he had predicted in his soliloquy of I.ii and thus time at last to reject Falstaff. In response to Falstaff's mock plea against banishment, Hal's final words in the episode—“I do, I will”—are spoken “as Prince and King” (p. 50). “This short reply after much rhetoric and repetition,” says McGuire, “underlines the change in character and the finality of the renunciation” (p. 50).

Despite its humor, then, the play episode is highly serious drama, and McGuire's study is important in showing how this may be so. Yet this study is itself somewhat distortive. The play episode is not technically a play within a play at all; for that reason, we shall see, it cannot lead to “discovery of self through pretense” and thus is not crucial in the way that McGuire suggests.2 Both the nature of the play episode as play and its function as Hal's crisis need to be reexamined.

Indeed, the very notion of Hal's crisis in this play is problematic. McGuire's interpretation becomes puzzling the moment we apply the principle that change of character onstage can be indicated only by change in the personage's avowed attitude, by change in his actions, or by comments from other characters. The last we do not find until the King's praise of Hal in Act III and Vernon's in Act IV. As to change in attitude, Hal's “I will” is no more than a summary of his soliloquy at the end of I.ii, in which he first reveals his intention to renounce Falstaff and his companions. Finally, if Hal's words “I do” promise a present change in his actions, as at first they seem to do, the promise remains unfulfilled. When, moments later, the Sheriff enters seeking Falstaff, Hal lies to protect his friend.3 As soon as his interview with his father is over, Hal returns to the tavern, and his exploits there merely perpetuate the humor of earlier scenes. And when at the end of the play Falstaff claims credit for killing Hotspur, Hal acquiesces in the deceit:

For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.


Hal has not renounced Falstaff in the play episode. Falstaff continues to woo Hal, Hal to contemn Falstaff (as he did in his first lines of the play) but also to sport with him and, when the chips are down, to help him. In short, nothing has happened—and nothing does happen subsequently in the play that would not have occurred had the play scene never taken place. The play episode is not a “discovery of self through pretense,” because Hal has discovered nothing that he did not already know in I.ii. It is not a crisis in character because his character shows no change.

In the play scene, nothing really happens. Indeed, we might ask ourselves, what could happen? Hal has already made his crucial commitment to regality in Act I; he carries it out in Act V and again in Act V of Part 2. Between the moment of decision and the moment of action, what is there to dramatize? Shakespeare was to work again at that problem in Hamlet, but Hal is not like Hamlet. If we analyze dramatic character into potential to perform a given action and probability of performing it, we see that in Hamlet the discrepancy between these two is enormous. The horizons of Hamlet's character are so vast, his potential for a wide variety of actions so broad, that the probability of his committing any one action is proportionately nebulous. In Hal, however, potential and probability are virtually identical. While Hamlet's character doesn’t organize around his task, Hal's does. His time, too, is out of joint, but on the whole he seems quite pleased that he was born to set it right.

Therefore, I Henry IV is a play without a normal climax.5 Shrewsbury is at once its moment of crisis and its moment of resolution. Hal's royal identity and his merely provisional relationship with Falstaff are announced in the soliloquy of I.ii, not as a grasping towards identity, as in Hamlet's soliloquies, but as a moral fait accompli. But this identity is latent. Throughout almost all of both parts of Henry IV it remains in solution, invisible to Hal's companions, but not manifest until, first at Shrewsbury and then in the final rejection of Falstaff, it crystallizes openly and irrevocably.

Shakespeare's strategy in the play is to hide the inevitable fulfillment of Hal's character from Hal's contemporaries while revealing it to us. It is the same technique he had used shortly before in Richard III. Richard, however, must overcome a long series of obstacles on his way to success, while Hal faces only one crucial act in each part of Henry IV: the battle with Hotspur and the rejection of Falstaff. So although the basic problem of plot is much the same in Richard III, Henry IV, and Hamlet, the solutions differ, for Hal's character is simpler than Hamlet's and his goal closer than Richard's. Shakespeare's solution in I Henry IV is to provide Hal with three analogous episodes of promise, episodes that seem to build toward the ultimate fulfillment of Shrewsbury while in fact doing little or nothing to bring it about. Each episode is followed by an apparent moral relapse to further maintain the suspense. First comes Hal's promise to himself in the soliloquy of I.ii, followed by the robbery at Gadshill; then the play episode, a promise to Falstaff, followed by Hal's protecting Falstaff from the Sheriff; and finally the throne room scene, in which Hal promises allegiance to his father—and then procures Falstaff his commission in the royal army.

To further the illusion of progress, these episodes are climactically arranged. The soliloquy is mere statement, completely hidden from all other characters in the play, and represents Hal's potential at its most latent. In the play episode Hal's regality becomes more overt, but only in the apparent context of play and only in the world of the tavern. In the throne room scene, however, the early promise of the soliloquy becomes a solemn oath to the King: it is both overt and totally serious. Finally, at Shrewsbury, the promise is fulfilled in action. When, therefore, McGuire says, “we never again see Falstaff and Hal together as they were before the play-within-the-play” (p. 50), he is right, but the stress must be laid on the “we never see”: although the relationship of Hal and Falstaff is consistent throughout, the point of view from which it is shown us systematically shifts.6 Thus, these promissory episodes do not simply mark time until Shrewsbury. If they are not crises, they are moments of heightened definition in the developing portrait of the young man who will be King.

The play episode begins its contribution to this portrait by bringing the immediately antecedent action into new focus, just as the soliloquy of I.ii refocuses the action of that scene. There, however, the effect is quite clear: Hal simply detaches himself morally from his companions (“I know you all …”). But here Hal must ultimately detach himself not only from Falstaff, the embodiment of amoral irresponsibility, but also from Francis and Hotspur, each in his own way an embodiment of loyalty so blind that it becomes irresponsibility too, of a different sort from Falstaff's but no less dangerous.7 Yet, as in the earlier scene, Hal at first seems to be moving further and further away from commitment as the scene progresses, as he transposes the many-faceted world of I Henry IV into play. First, he plays at being a tapster, a Francis. Then, as Francis's single-minded simplicity reminds him of Hotspur's, he prepares to play that worthy: “I prithee call in Falstaff. I’ll play Percy, and that damn’d brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife” (II.iv.122-124). There follows the attempted trapping of Falstaff, in which the reality of thievery becomes play (Falstaff's disguise of valor, complete with costume: the bloodied garments and hacked swords) within play (Poins and Hal having robbed the robbers—and with their own costumes of buckram) within play (“By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye”), the momentary butt of which is Hal himself, ironically most out of touch with the hopes of the theater audience just when Falstaff claims to have recognized the true Prince by instinct. The playfulness of the scene culminates in Falstaff's proposal, “What, shall we be merry? Shall we have a play extempore?” There is a momentary jockeying for position as Hal answers, “Content—and the argument shall be thy running away,” and Falstaff retorts, “Ah, no more of that, Hal, an thou lovest me!” (ll. 308-313). We scarcely have time to ponder Falstaff's conditional before the Hostess bursts in to announce that a nobleman has just arrived from the court. Falstaff is sent out to speak with him, returns with word that Hal is to go to court in the morning, and begs Hal to “practise an answer” for the King (l. 412). Hal's reply seems to revive the momentarily interrupted atmosphere of play and, finally, to bring into it the two chief remaining figures from the world of Henry IV: Hal as Prince, and the King himself. “Do thou stand for my father,” Hal tells Falstaff, “and examine me upon the particulars of my life” (ll. 413-414). A skit of some sort has been in the offing throughout the entire scene—first one on Hotspur and Lady Percy, then on Falstaff's running away, now on an event that has yet to occur: the confrontation of Henry IV and Prince Hal.

What makes this skit unusual among Elizabethan and Jacobean plays within plays is precisely that it is a “play extempore”: both characters create their own roles as they go along. What is more, we see with increasing clarity that what the roles—and role-playing itself—mean to each is quite different.

For the chief temptation that Falstaff poses as a vice-figure is to reduce all things to play. The humor of the “men in buckram” episode stems from the very havoc that Falstaff's narration plays with reality as he creates a world where honor, valor, and mathematical identity itself are mere shadows, a world that denies the earnestness, practicality, and logic that are the forte of the two Henrys. Now in the play extempore Falstaff, sensing impending danger, begins to move the King himself into this unreal world; he makes Henry speak “in King Cambyses' vein,” and in Euphues's as well.8 McGuire suggests that the style is Falstaff's conception of kingly speech, that he is trying to be realistic,9 but Falstaff has a very precise, self-conscious awareness of the rhetorical figure he is cutting: he is not imitating kingly speech, he is parodying it, reducing kingship to literary convention, making reality a fiction. Thus, King Henry's agony over Hal's truancy becomes, in Falstaff's hands, a ludicrous exercise in euphuism. And that is precisely Falstaff's point. Falstaff's rhetoric picks up some dignity only when he turns to his own praises, and then changes again as he breaks off and addresses Hal more directly: “And tell me now, thou naughty varlet, tell me where hast thou been this month?” (ll. 473-475). The shift is deliberate and effective. Its friendly, teasing informality places Hal's offense precisely in the light in which Falstaff wants it to be considered.

Finally, Falstaff's reaction when Hal “deposes” him takes his dangerous lack of earnestness a step further. If, as McGuire suggests (p. 50), his chief concern is to maintain his position by having Hal “practise an answer,” he might reasonably be concerned that Hal has not done so. But his reaction to the “deposition” indicates that that is not what is on his mind at all: “Depose me? If thou dost it half so gravely, so majestically, both in word and matter, hang me up by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or a poulter's hare” (ll. 478-481). His concern is for the pure virtuosity with which he has played his role. He does not even embrace the opportunity to show Hal how the Prince should speak to the King but here again, as with the men in buckram, abdicates prudence and gives himself to the jest of the moment: Hal as king speaks of grievous complaints against the Prince, and “‘Sblood, my lord,” replies Falstaff indecorously, “they are false! Nay, I’ll tickle ye for a young prince, i’ faith” (ll. 488-489). Role-play becomes his world, its practical implications forgotten. The game, to borrow from Dr. Johnson, is the Cleopatra for which he loses the world and is content to lose it. If Falstaff's hope lies in maintaining the verisimilitude of the play, he has undermined his hope. But if his hope—and the chief temptation he presents to the Prince—is to reduce the serious to play, the real to unreal, we see him here in a moment of triumph, and the Prince, if he does not counteract this temptation, in a moment of extreme moral danger.

When Hal “deposes” Falstaff, the crisis of the scene has arrived: “Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for me, and I’ll play my father” (ll. 476-477). First Falstaff acts the king, and now Hal will. But whose king will he act? If Falstaff's—that is, if he turns kingship into play—then the play world dominates political reality for Hal, and Falstaff wins.

But Shakespeare has already indicated that Hal will mean something radically different when he acts the king. We begin to see the difference at the very moment that the world of the skit first begins to separate itself from the reality of Eastcheap, the moment that real objects become props. “This chair shall be my state, this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown,” proclaims Falstaff. “Thy state,” replies Hal, “is taken for a join’d-stool, thy golden sceptre for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich crown for a pitiful bald crown” (ll. 415-420). Dr. Johnson wished that Hal's reply had been omitted, in that “it contains only a repetition of Falstaff's mock-royalty.”10 But Hal is repeating the lines with a difference. Falstaff is more interested in the props than in what they symbolize (“This chair … this dagger … this cushion”) while to Hal the props as such are remote and what they represent foremost in his mind: not only does he reverse Falstaff's syntactic order, citing the royal object before its stage symbol, but he refers to the object specifically (“thy state”) and to the symbol indefinitely (“a join’d stool”), while his adjectives build up into an eloquent climax (“Thy state … thy golden sceptre … thy precious rich crown”). Falstaff transforms the crown into a cushion; Hal sees the cushion but thinks of the actual state, scepter, and crown of England.11 In these two apparently similar speeches of Falstaff and Hal, the throne and the Falstaff world are implicitly debating the issue shortly to be raised in greater earnest: the relative reality of each to the other.

The second intimation that Hal will play the king with a difference comes when Falstaff concludes his king speech: “And tell me now, thou naughty varlet, tell me where hast thou been this month?” and Hal makes no answer. Indeed, what sort of an answer might he make? Falstaff presumably hopes for the sort he himself would give, one that would reduce the whole problem to felicitous jest. But Hal does not reply in the role Falstaff has assigned him; he will not mock himself. Instead, deposing Falstaff, he himself becomes king,12 and his first words indicate in their terseness and sobriety the seriousness of the confrontation that is to occur in III.ii:

Now, Harry, whence come you?
.....The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.

(ll. 484, 486-487)

And when Falstaff breaks his role to heighten the jest—“Nay, I’ll tickle ye for a young prince, i’ faith”—Hal turns the jest back to seriousness: “Swearest thou, ungracious boy? Henceforth ne’er look on me” (ll. 488-491).

In the lines that follow, one could debate whether Hal is speaking as the king or as himself. McGuire observes that Hal's tirade against Falstaff, though it is rant, is what Hal conceives to be kingly rant (p. 49); yet it is also reminiscent of the contempt that Hal has shown for Falstaff earlier in the scene:

Call in ribs, call in tallow.

(l. 125)

These lies are like their father that begets them—gross
as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou clay-brain’d guts, thou knotty-pated
fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch—

(ll. 249-253)

The tone is darker, but the style remains much the same. The ambiguity is resolved, of course, in the epiphanic moment when Falstaff pleads “banish not him thy Harry's company” and Hal replies, “I do, I will” (ll. 526, 528). McGuire says that here Hal is speaking “as Prince and King,” but, we have seen, Hal as prince never rejects Falstaff. Rather, he is speaking first as player-king and then in his actual role of future king, and we see that the two roles are continuous, that, in fact, Hal hasn’t been acting at all. And that is his response to Falstaff's transformation of the serious into play: he has transformed play back into reality. This reality comes bursting in on them in the form of the Sheriff, and Falstaff, falling asleep behind the curtain, hides from it both in deed and in spirit. Meanwhile, the Prince has the last word on the thievery game—which he cancels by returning the money—and moves on to his encounter with his father, an encounter that will take place as predicted.

There is not, then, a single play extempore in I Henry IV: there are two, Falstaff's and Hal's, each moving away from the actual present, but one toward the unreal, the other toward the future. This ambivalence is possible precisely because the play is extemporaneous, without script or predetermined action. In genuine plays within plays, as in any regular play, the action is presented as autonomous, the events portrayed as beyond the control of either actor or spectator. A play creates its own world; whatever its relevance to the real world, there can be no question of identity. The actor, as Antonin Artaud puts it, is “entirely penetrated by feelings that do not benefit or even relate to his real condition.”13 and so is the actor-analogue of a play within a play. But neither actor in the play within I Henry IV possesses such autonomy. There is no script, no mimetic a priori, and both must shape their roles from whole cloth out of their own characters, their own penchant for involvement in the action that they portray. By its very nature, the play cannot be seen as separate from them.

Falstaff becomes absorbed in the play; as we watch him, the dimension of the actor behind the role sometimes fades away. “Play out the play,” he cries, with the sheriff at the door. “I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff” (ll. 531-532). And indeed we cannot define Falstaff solely as the shrewd, ambitious parasite that he would appear without the roles that he continually plays. It is the wholeheartedness with which he plays them, the enthusiasm with which he invests his whole personality in the unreal and the impossible, that sets him aside from the other vice characters and eirons that inhabit the world of drama. But in the world of Henry IV he is dangerous precisely because he testifies to the primacy of the play world and thus to the unreality of the political.

Hal, on the other hand, is ultimately not playing at all. The fictional world he creates is, in fact, not fictional. It is separated from actuality not as an object of the imagination but as an object of prediction. The poet, as Sidney observes, does not affirm, but Hal's half of the skit ends on a mimetic affirmation which he immediately extends into the reality of the future: “I do, I will.” It has often been suggested that the play scene parodies the encounter of King and Prince in III.ii,14 but that, in effect, is merely what Falstaff wants it to do, since the end of parody is to undermine the serious; Falstaff wants the tavern to define the throne room. Hal brings about the precise opposite. The destiny that defines his character transmutes play into sudden prophecy: the duties of the throne define this moment in the tavern. For the second time, and through the very medium that threatens it the most, Hal's latent regality becomes manifest.

If the play episode does not mark a major shift in Hal's character, it does mark a major shift in the point of view of the play itself. The skit begins by showing us Hal's duties under the aspect of Falstaff; it concludes by showing Falstaff under the aspect of royalty. And it is thus that we shall see Falstaff henceforth, for England is not playing his game, and his actions as he carries a bottle of sack into battle, leads his men to slaughter, and stabs the dead Hotspur, justify the Prince's disgust. From now on, and throughout Part 2 as well, Falstaff stands in the shadow of royalty until at last, fulfilling his prophecy of the play extempore, King Henry V banishes him and commits himself, as he knew all along that he must, to an action in which Falstaff can play no part.


  1. See Fredson Bowers, “Hal and Francis in King Henry IV, Part 1,” Renaissance Papers, 1965, publication of Southeastern Renaissance Conference (Durham, N.C., 1966), pp. 15-20; Waldo F. McNeir, “Structure and Theme in the First Tavern Scene of Henry IV, Part One,Essays on Shakespeare, ed. Gordon Ross Smith (University Park, Pa., 1965), pp. 67-83; and S. P. Zitner, “Anon, Anon: or, a Mirror for a Magistrate,” SQ, 19 (1968), 63-70. An ambiguously entitled essay is F. M. Salter's “The Play within the Play of First Henry IV,Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd ser., vol. 40, sec. 2 (May, 1946), 209-223, which deals with the relation of the comic to the historical plot.

  2. McGuire is disputing Dieter Mehl's point that plays staged by protagonists and involving “startling shifts of identities” are “a distinctly Jacobean feature” (“Forms and Functions of the Play within a Play,” RenD, 7 [1965], 41-61, at p. 50). But Mehl seems to mean shifts from role-playing to actuality in such a way that one “may sometimes wonder whether the characters are still acting their parts or speaking in person” (Mehl, p. 50), rather than shifts in the character itself. As we shall see, neither situation applies to I Henry IV, though the latter comes close.

  3. McGuire takes issue with McNeir (p. 79), who says that “the whole world of Falstaff hangs in the balance” pending Hal's words to the Sheriff, McGuire maintaining that Hal has already in effect made up his mind in the play episode (p. 50 and n.). But that this moment is in fact tense on the stage and that Hal does not resolve the tension by renouncing Falstaff here and now calls precisely into question what he means by “I do, I will.”

  4. The word “grace” marks the shift between these lines and Falstaff's final rejection: “Make less thy body, hence, and more thy grace …” (Part 2, V.v.56). Here, as throughout, I follow the argument of G. K. Hunter, “Henry IV and the Elizabethan Two-Part Play,” RES, n.s. 5 (1954), 236-248, that Shakespeare took responsibility for the thematic coherence of the two parts of Henry IV even if he did not originally plan for the second; certainly, Hal's rejection of Falstaff is predicated in Part 1: see Harold Jenkins, The Structural Problem in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth (London, 1956), reprinted in R. J. Dorius, ed., Discussions of Shakespeare's Histories (Boston, 1964), pp. 41-55.

  5. See Fredson Bowers, “Shakespeare's Art: The Point of View,” in Literary Views, ed. Carroll Camden (Chicago, 1964), pp. 45-58.

  6. Note that whereas Hal's encounter with his father (III.ii) seems to us to mark a major estrangement of Hal from Falstaff, in fact Falstaff's position is consolidated once the interview is gotten over: “I am good friends with my father, and may do anything. … I have procured thee, Jack, a charge of foot” (III.iii.203-204, 208-209).

  7. For a development of this point, see Bowers, “Hal and Francis in King Henry IV, Part 1,” pp. 18-20.

  8. See notes in the New Variorum edition of I Henry IV, ed. Samuel Burdett Hemingway (Philadelphia, 1936), pp. 161-164. Arnold Davenport sees an additional parallel in both substance and style to the dialogue on love vs. kingship in II.ii of Lyly's Campaspe, where Hephestion upbraids Alexander for wishing to relinquish his royal station and duties over the love of an unworthy captive girl (“Notes on Lyly's ‘Campaspe’ and Shakespeare,” Notes and Queries, 199 [n.s. 1, 1954], 19-20), while G. B. Harrison sees a parody of the style and repertory of the Admiral's Men (“Shakespeare's Actors,” in A Series of Papers on Shakespeare and the Theater, Shakespeare Association [London, 1927], pp. 62-87, esp. pp. 76-79). All three arguments suggest a reduction—for those in Shakespeare's audience who detect the allusions—of the serious to play.

  9. Thus, when the Hostess interrupts, “he must silence her, the symbol of his bawdy-house, tavern-frequenting aspect of character, before he may imitate Henry Bolingbroke and speak to Hal” (p. 49).

  10. Cited in Hemingway, ed., New Variorum edition, p. 159.

  11. See Richard Farmer's observation (cited in New Variorum, p. 160): “This is an apostrophe of the prince to his absent father, not an answer to Falstaff,” which is a necessary complement to McNeir's comment that “the signs of Falstaff's assumed royalty in throne, sceptre, and crown are reduced by Hal's literal directness to what they are—a joined-stool, a leaden dagger, and a bald crown” (McNeir, p. 77).

  12. For the dramatic effectiveness of this visual stage metaphor, see McGuire, p. 49.

  13. “The Theater and the Plague,” in The Theater and Its Double, tr. Mary Caroline Richards (New York, 1958), p. 24. Even in such an extreme case as The Spanish Tragedy, this general principle holds true for the play within the play insofar as we see Hieronimo as playing Soliman: the role is analogous to reality and will erupt into reality, but it is not identical to it. If it were, there would be no suspense in the play within The Spanish Tragedy.

  14. For an able counterargument to this view, see McGuire, pp. 49-52.

Barbara Everett (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16441

SOURCE: “The Fatness of Falstaff: Shakespeare and Character,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 76, 1990, pp. 109-28.

[In the following essay, Everett explores the origin and development of Falstaff's character in Shakespeare's history plays, with an emphasis on the political significance of his appearance in Henry IV.]

One day early in the 1590s a clown came on to a London stage, holding a piece of string. At the end of the piece of string there was a dog. It’s hard not to think that some in this first audience, realizing what an extraordinary thing was happening, put down their oranges and concentrated.

The dog, possibly the first on the Elizabethan stage, I want to leave where it is for a moment. My main subject in this lecture isn’t Launce and his dog (for this is, of course, the first entry of the clown in The Two Gentlemen of Verona): but the much more complicated character who, charged by the Lord Chief Justice with having led astray the Prince of Wales, answers: ‘The yong Prince hath misled me. I am the Fellow with the great belly, and he my Dogge’. No one now quite follows this joke, which may be an airy reference (to distract attention) to the Man in the Moon. What is more interesting than Falstaff's ancient joke is his capacity to make us listen to him while he tells it. We concentrate.

Falstaff can get away with this debate as to who precisely, as between him and the future King of England, is whose dog, because the Henry IV plays give him peculiar authority. This is an authority that works not only inside the plays but outside them as well. One of the few early stories, rare but trustworthy, that come straight from Shakespeare's own theatre-world, reports that when Falstaff walked out on to the stage the groundlings stopped cracking their nuts so that they could hear him better. From the time of this well-known anecdote up to the beginning of our own critical period, some 60 or 70 years ago now, Falstaff was widely agreed to be the dramatist's greatest character.

We now tend not to believe in Character in general, or in Falstaff in particular. The time-span of this disbelief can probably be synchronized with the full professionalizing of literary studies into the academic: the process by which the thing worth knowing was standardized into the thing capable of proof. The Shakespeare industry has brought into a kind of perfection something begun perhaps as early as the First Folio's categories, which made the Falstaff plays Histories and Launce's play a Comedy.

Those decades during which Shakespeare studies have matured in our own time have been governed by a concept of History primarily political and constitutional. The King is dead; long live the King. As a result, certain inflexible presuppositions are lodged in even the best of the earlier academic work on Shakespeare's Histories: and I am thinking here of basic studies of the 1940s and 1950s, like Dover Wilson's The Fortunes of Falstaff, or useful popular books like Tillyard's on Shakespeare's History Plays, both still with a certain influence.

These early studies, with their monarchical interests, tended to be strongly conservative in their attitudes. They worked to defend the rejection of Falstaff. In the course of time, they generated in opposition a series of essays implicitly radical in their attitudes. Looking back to Bradley's very fine, and essentially liberal, praise of Falstaff, Auden's and Empson's essays (for instance), like Orson Welles's film, Chimes at Midnight, make a brilliant case, in different ways, for the old Knight's generous, even loving, even saintly cast of character. Yet these remarkable studies, like more recent writing with a radical stance (Greenblatt's powerful essay ‘Paper Bullets’ would be a case in point) do little to dislodge the intellectual bases of more conventional criticism: they merely reverse them. Stress on the whole Tudor Myth, concern with the source-materials which Shakespeare took from contemporary historians, whether primarily ‘for’ the Prince or ‘for’ Falstaff, prejudges the actual form and substance of these plays.

Scholarly criticism of the Henry IV plays is haunted by an interesting problem of structure. There is marked difference of opinion as to whether they constitute one or two dramas, whether the second is separate, a continuation, or a sequel—whether envisaged from the beginning or enforced by the success of what became Part One. These questions appear to depend on a decision to define plot in political terms. Both parts of Henry IV are commonly described as working in terms of what is called its main plot—which is to say, the story about how Henry IV overcomes rebellion in his kingdom. The sub-plot describes how Henry's son Hal, on his way to becoming the great and good Henry V, at once helps his father and also defeats riotous impulses in his own character and in his companions, the chief of them Falstaff.

The trouble with this main plot is that it leaves much of the actual and fascinating substance of both plays to be known as the sub-plot, which merely entertains by its account of the adventures of the Prince's riotous group. Even those most firmly appreciative of the Henry IV plays often display not only the anxiety about structure I have mentioned, but a tendency to praise in terms which have a tell-tale imprecision, a sheer inaccuracy: words like ‘epic’ and ‘panoramic’ recur disturbingly. Both are attempts, I suspect, to categorize what is always thought of as the realism of these plays—a realism made synonymous with randomness and used to explain how the greatest character in Shakespeare, or one so considered for centuries, comes to be lurking in a sub-plot.

Other odd circumstances attend Falstaff's connexion with the political. It is now generally accepted that the character was invented under the name of Oldcastle, but that Shakespeare's acting company was forced to alter this name after protest from powerful descendants of the original or historical Oldcastle. Yet political incaution of this kind hardly characterized Shakespeare in general: he was a writer with a prudent tendency to keep his hands clean. Moreover, and odder still, Shakespeare took his name, ‘Oldcastle’, from a major source for the comic side of his play, the rambling and formless but not lifeless chronicle drama called The Famous Victories of Henry V, where the knight Oldcastle is one of the small group of companions of the wild young Prince. The interesting thing is that Shakespeare borrowed the apparently dangerous name, while taking no other attribute whatever from the character. The people in The Famous Victories after all have no attributes. They do not rise, strictly speaking, to the level of the characterized.

Shakespeare created Falstaff; and the role had no real sources except a name. The name I shall return to. The character's chief attributes are startling in their apparent incompatibility. He has an extreme, wittily fantastic and talkatively humorous intelligence. And this free mind is—paradoxically, according to the stock physiology of the age—united to an enormous body. That Hal's Vice-like and riotous tempter, the ever-thirsty if in practice rarely gluttonous Falstaff, should be a ‘whoreson round man’ of course makes sense. But I want to record an impression that, just as the character becomes preposterous as the offspring of a subplot, so is his fatness something more than an incidental attribute. Falstaff is fat necessarily. Certainly we may say that the groundlings fell silent because of his superlative free-wheeling play of wit, enthrallingly dangerous in a political milieu. But perhaps they also fell silent when he first walked on to the stage: entranced to find the simple individual body (and so much of it!) given a star part in the drama of History.

Here I want to turn back to Launce's dog, still there on the stage of the early 1590s. There aren’t, so far as I know, many other acting dogs in the considerable amount of Renaissance drama in English that has come down to us. There is one—and it doesn’t seem likely that Ben Jonson was uninfluenced by Shakespeare when, in Every Man Out of His Humour, only a few years after the earlier comedy, he gave a dog to his foolish country Knight. Jonson's Knight doesn’t just have a dog—he totes around a cat as well, though we never see her because she isn’t let out of her bag. And the dog too might have been better off in a bag, because before very long he is poisoned off. So much (Jonson may have felt) for Shakespeare.

Despite the cat at home—‘wringing her hands’, Launce the fool tells us, for grief of the parting—there is no invisible cat on stage to challenge the solitary splendour of Shakespeare's dog. Moreover, he survives. In fact, he triumphs. Launce does everything for the creature he calls his ‘servant’. ‘I have’, he says crossly, ‘sat in the stockes, for puddings he hath stolne’; he has ‘stood on the Pillorie for Geese he hath kil’d’. And lastly, the dog has a name. He’s called Crab, presumably short for crab-apple, for his Petrarchan-mistress-like hardness and bitterness of heart: he is, reports Launce regretfully but still dotingly, ‘the sowrest-natured dogge that lives … this cruell-hearted Curre’.

The Two Gentlemen illustrates through its pair of gentlemen and their ladies the crazy if beautiful things romantic love can make human beings do; and its plot is merely a dazzle of love's permutations and possibilities. The perplexed and innocent feeling of the clown for his dog is the matching shadow of that dazzle. Both more and less than ‘gentlemanly’, his experience limited to an acquaintance ‘with the smell before’ and yet given (as in the remark about the stolen puddings) thought-provokingly Scriptural verbal cadences, the fool is without argument a fool, and hardly a holy one; yet he is happy, and we are glad he is happy, a man who gets what he wanted.

This early comedy, full of weaknesses as it is, is none the less decidedly agreeable on the stage: and its intrinsic affectionateness focuses on Launce and his dog. All the play's Elizabethan paradoxes of love shimmer round the clown and finally embody themselves in the entirely original figure of the dog. We have to say ‘figure’ rather than ‘character’. In the first place, Crab can’t talk. Talked-at, his silence promises the huge capacity to contain meaning which is common to all true theatrical presences. He is, beyond analysis: to be is as much the dog's function as it is Hamlet's. He is character as an end more than a means, the thing in itself: a dog (Gertrude Stein might have said) is a dog is a dog. Or, as Shakespeare himself put it with some desperation in a Sonnet, ‘You alone are you’. Opaque, incurable and absolute, the beloved is.

Dogs can’t talk; and they can’t act, either. Qua dogs, they aren’t gentlemen, aren’t civilized, don’t tell lies and don’t betray. It’s this pleasant lack of the complicit that makes animals amusing in their domestic relations. To quote another and finer Modernist, about another and subtler animal, one of T. S. Eliot's ‘Practical Cats’, ‘He will do / As he do do / And there’s no doing anything about it!’ The basic joke about the Petrarchan ‘cruell-hearted Curre’ depends on a shared understanding of writer and reader, or actor and audience. The first onstage dog, like all his successors, must have been the kind of reliable creature that can be counted on to do little worse than sit on the boards and smile and pant and thump his tail. If the dog's silence says something about his own nature, then his simple recalcitrance—his inability to be either good or bad to order—says something about ours, as loving beings and as audiences. Our loves are not meaningless, but we do imagine things.

The clown seems almost to perceive this when he acts out his departure from home, casting himself and the dog: ‘I am the dogge: no, the dogge is himselfe, and I am the dogge: oh, the dogge is me, and I am myselfe’. He can try in this way to rationalize and mutualize their relation, despite his protest that, unlike the compassionate cat, the dog did not ‘shedde one teare: he is a stone, a very pibble stone, and has no more pitty in him then a dog’. The circularity is instructive. The clown is thinking through things more than philosophically difficult. The animal gains our and the fool's feeling by natural sympathy, and holds it by equally natural (natural to him) resistance to sympathy: ‘No, the dogge is himselfe’. Like the future Cleopatra's superbly theatrical hold on the heart, Crab's opacity is of the essence. He is real enough to attract and compel startled attention, but obdurately bodily or thingy enough never to bore the imagination by satisfying it.

In his ‘I am the dogge’, the clown is wrestling, in words of one syllable, with the issues that give the Sonnets all their love-metaphysics. But his words also help any critic in the effort to analyse what we mean by ‘character’ in Shakespeare's plays: a factor inimitably itself and thingy (‘No, the dogge is himselfe’) yet also boundlessly giving to the imagination (‘Oh, the dogge is me, and I am my selfe’). The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a mild, small play, not much revered (it seems) by any critic; but every time it is performed, an audience will be riveted by a character which is also a non-character—an actuality, life itself standing at the centre of the comedy, wagging its tail. Dr Johnson, who praised Shakespeare because there was always a way out from his fictions ‘to nature’, may have included among his meanings something like this.

I want to suggest that Shakespearean character-creation is from the beginning an exemplifying of this unique process: that a character in his work is less a person than an insight, but an insight embodied into brilliant forms of the real. The dramatist's characters, that is to say, are supremely observed. But they are observed in a special way: they are not merely social, but recognizably opaque, essentially thingy. They are poetically embodied into forms which oddly compel our dreaming loyalty, whatever decisions of morality may seem to intervene—‘I am the dogge’.

The most splendid case of this in Shakespeare's early drama is of course the King known as Richard Crookback. The chronology of the early writing being as vexed as it is, it’s hard to say whether Richard III precedes The Two Gentlemen of Verona. But the character has all the compelling, attention-focusing quality I am trying to define, and it derives from more than the glittering eye which holds the theatre from the beginning, the index of a mental force unmatched in these early Histories. Richard's real power surely emanates—as the sinister wooing of Anne will at once make plain—from what is crookedly yet straightforwardly physical in him, from the symbolic (though of course historical) crookback in itself: from the oddly undeceptive, doggish body that humps and thumps its way forward to the dead centre of the stage, saying first by its sheer presence what it thinks at last aloud: ‘Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I’.

A sweeter proposition altogether, Bottom too has something in him of this heroic physicality. The idea of Bottom as a character is hampered by the problem of his name—which didn’t mean what we think it means until two centuries later. The word ‘Bottom’ for our lower parts was an 18th-century euphemism. Yet A Midsummer Night's Dream, which layers together our night-time with our daytime selves, has a place in it for euphemisms: the gentle, decent, arty artisans who are Bottom's companions agree that ‘You must say, Paragon. A Paramour, God bless us, is a thing of naught’.

Poor Bottom, an innocently dreaming egoist, a would-be artist, becomes in the wood by night what we would now call a donkey. But that word is another 18th-century euphemism. Elizabethans would have said roundly that Bottom was an ass. And they pronounced that word exactly as they said the word arse, one of their two current terms for what we call the bottom. The other term, Shakespeare was to use later on (he clearly wasn’t incapable of it) for the name of one mean and degraded as Bottom never is, in a far darker, more realistic comedy, Measure for Measure: where the servant to the Bawd is named Pompey Bum. The word itself Shakespeare certainly introduces into the earlier comedy, where, after Bottom has just left the stage at his first appearance, Puck is made, with a degree of firmly stated earthiness, to introduce the word into the first of the fairy scenes, in his story of the old woman falling off her stool. The poetic effect of the clash of worlds is marked.

The evidence suggests that Shakespeare did think of Bottom in these not unfriendly terms, giving him, from all sorts of propriety, dramatic and otherwise, a decent euphemism, decided on because of its first and last letters (the profession of weaver would obviously follow). And he did so, surely, because he saw the euphemized, civilized Bottom as tender and funny, with the Queen of the Fairies draped adoringly round his stupidity, in a way that the character's own refined self would have been shocked by if he could ever have conceived it, but which the poet's own even more refined self saw as a good, human (which is, creaturely) truth about love.

I don’t want to work through all the dramatist's earlier characters: the most brilliant of them all, Shylock, has subtleties that can’t and shouldn’t be cut down to a sentence or two. But the fastidious and intellectual money-lender isn’t an exception to the physicality I’m talking about here: Shylock focuses this hardest and most Marlovianly bejewelled of all Shakespeare's comedis in his incantatory, ironic, highly personal utterance, extreme in its hatred and speaking of human brotherhood: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimentions? … if you pricke us, do we not bleede?’ There is a Shakespearean depth of meaning in the way this most abstract and conceptual drama of money is at the same time peculiarly physical, directed towards acts of love, its plot turning on a pound of flesh.

The pound of flesh brings us in sight of that ‘Tunne of Man’, Sir John Falstaff. I’ve been arguing that throughout Shakespeare's developing power of characterization, the physical has a special place: from Crab the dog to Richard Crookback, then to Bottom, then to the magnificently delineated yet isolated Shylock, and then the ‘fat old man’ himself. I have made a deliberate decision hardly to quote from or to illustrate Falstaff's fatness in this lecture, only to try to explain it—and this, for a specific reason. The brief phrases I’ve already quoted come, of course, from Hal in the Tavern Scene of 1 Henry IV, before he goes on to detail ‘that Trunke of Humors, that Boulting-Hutch of Beastlinesse, that swolne Parcell of Dropsies, that huge Bombard of Sacke’ and the rest.

It’s striking that this flyting of Hal's is no more (or less) vivid than Falstaff's own winningly modest, ‘plumpe Jacke’. Earlier in this same scene, recalling his thinness at Hal's age (‘I could have crept into any Aldermans Thumbe Ring’), Falstaff has lamented, ‘A plague of sighing and griefe, it blowes a man up like a Bladder’. This is ridiculous, of course. And yet the fact is that the character does indeed seem to do a good deal of waxing and waning. Like the ‘Jet Ring Sent’ by the poet John Donne, there is ‘nothing more endless, nothing sooner broke’ than our sense of Falstaff's fatness. The brilliance of these plays, in short, is that they give a kind of metaphysical witty status to Falstaff's fatness—at once all human solidity, and yet as subject to Shakespeare's magical conjuring skills as a vanishing rabbit. The character is absolutely large and ultimately present, the whole round world in person—the Globe. But he is best evoked in the theatre by an actor's illusion, and elsewhere, by the individual reading imagination.

Explanations are probably easier than illusions. There are sixteenth-century intellectual movements in terms of which we should perhaps see Shakespeare's art of bodies. On many fronts, as in some revival of the ancient skill in bas-relief, figures begin to solidify, and to grow out of their backgrounds. The whole humanistic period, as recent studies of Rabelais have shown, counterpoises its abstraction by an immersion in the physical. Aesthetic Mannerism in Europe inaugurated a vision intoxicated with relativities, and at ease in a world of giants and dwarfs. But to these large mental contexts, imagining a newly material universe, there needs to be added one simpler factor. Shakespeare's discoveries would probably not have been perfected by a writer who had not acted for years on the public stage: a process which induces awareness of the body as few others can. On stage, the visible public self can seem to the inner consciousness of the actor or speaker to grow, like Falstaff, ‘gross as a mountain’, to become a ‘huge hill of flesh’. It is a notable fact that Richard, Bottom and Falstaff are all natural actors; the reserved Shylock mimics others; even Crab the dog is a kind of joke about what T. S. Eliot might have called, ‘acting and not-acting’. In a memorable autobiographical study, an actor—Simon Callow—has described the long discipline of learning to act as a ‘re-inventing’ of the physical self, an actual ‘re-birthing’. This is the context from which Falstaff was ‘borne about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head, and something a round belly’.

It may be possible to go further than this, and to give some details of (so to speak) the character's birth certificate, under the name Oldcastle. I’ve already mentioned the dramatist's major source for the Falstaffian incidents in the three later Histories, the raw but not unentertaining Famous Victories of Henry V: a work which strikes many scholars as so bad as to lead them to argue that Shakespeare must have had to hand a text fuller than that which has come down to us. This is theoretical, however. On the evidence that we have, Falstaff took nothing but his original name, Oldcastle, from the source play. The change of name proceeded from (or so we now assume) the forceful if foolish protest by descendants of the original Oldcastle. This whole political incident now attracts a good part of the interest of scholars and critics in the second cycle of Histories. But none seems to have asked why Shakespeare bothered to retain the name of a personage from whom he took so little. Nor does any apparently go on to wonder why so generally cautious a man as the dramatist now seems could have got himself into trouble by dabbling in a political scene he was at most other times so careful to avoid.

One simple answer offers itself, which may solve the second problem in meeting the first. The name, Oldcastle, was suggestive and important enough for it to be stated as early in the play as possible, hence Hal's ‘My old lad of the Castle’. But it doesn’t seem to have mattered that the writer dropped it for 2 Henry IV and after. Efforts on the part of editors to replace the name in editions may be a waste of energy: all its virtue (as we say in cooking) has gone into the character. Therefore the name and the character are consonant with each other.

Shakespeare incautiously failed to observe the political bearings of the name because its literal and metaphorical sense excited him more: it may even for a while have served as some kind of poetic guideline. The name's resonances, I would suggest, were a matter of a whole late-medieval iconology of the Castle in itself. As fortification, the Castle was central to the entire militaristic feudal culture. But over the centuries, the fortress gradually changed its function. By the sixteenth century, many were ruinous, and others had been transformed into palaces, mansions or just ordinary large houses. (It’s perhaps instructive that in Shakespeare's period the words ‘castle’, ‘mansion’ and ‘house’ approximate and grow near to synonymous: a fact which permitted the witty apophthegm of the great Elizabethan jurist, Sir Edward Coke, who seems first to have coined the axiom, ‘A man's house is his castle’, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium). As the old castles were altered in their uses, so too the symbolic meanings of the Castle grew different. Once a symbol of power, of the mailed fist, the image of the Castle was internalizing itself, even representing the battle for virtue on the part of the human spirit, castled within and conscious of its own body.

Some glimpse of this context, both linguistic and cultural, can be seen in Shakespeare's Sonnet 146, ‘Poore soule, the center of my sinful earth’. In this poem, the soul inhabits the body as a medieval Lord might have done an embattled castle, struggling with ‘these rebell powres that thee array’, and ‘Painting thy outward walls so costlie gay’. With a rapid transition the castle becomes a short-leased house: ‘Why so large cost having so short a lease / Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?’ The sestet of the poem welcomes ruin: the spirit needs death, the death of the body.

Though there are some fine and touching things in it, Sonnet 146 is not the poet's best: its conventional images are unhandily played with, and unsuccess makes the whole curiously unconvincing. It’s hard for a reader to reach the end without feeling some impulse to answer as old Falstaff does Dol in Part Two of Henry IV: ‘Peace (good Dol) doe not speake like a Deathshead: doe not bid me remember mine end’. Dol has been recommending that he should ‘leave fighting on dayes, and foining on nights, and begin to patch up thine old Body for Heaven’. Variable and human as both characters are, this moment of quiet in a scene of sometimes savage, always wonderfully funny farce is extraordinarily compelling as the sonnet perhaps is not. The comparison of play and poem says something simple about the nature of Shakespeare's genius. It needs to embody, to build the contradictions of existence into people and moments as richly ambiguous as this one. The poet isn’t most at home sorting out the iconology of the Castle in religious sentiments. Falstaff needs to be fat.

One touching phrase in the poem, the ‘fading mansion’, is revealing, because it has (I suspect) a word-play on the first syllable of its noun. The fading mansion is manhood, the ruinous castle where men live all their lives: those who live by the sword, dying by the sword. These resonances are a living part of Shakespeare's dramatic vision in his Histories. In the Henry IV plays, a royal usurper, even a Cain-like brother-murderer, spends his troubled reign thinking of Jerusalem. In short, the name Oldcastle in his source perhaps suddenly articulated for the poet all the meanings of History—of men alive and embodied in what we call ‘History’—that he wanted to bring together. At their centre was a magnificent old reprobate, Sir John Oldcastle/Falstaff, who is also one of the names of Everyman.

I have used here the phrase, ‘What we call “History”’, in recognition of the fact that we can mean different things by it. The history Shakespeare took from his sources has been called ‘the Tudor Myth’. What he did with it is a large question. History plays may be the dramatist's first work. Indeed, he probably invented the form, planning his first tetralogy (the Henry VI's and Richard III) with immense ambition and originality. The ecclesiastical and political censorship of the time lending distance a certain enchantment, he took his historical subjects from the years before the ascent to the throne of his own Queen's grandfather, Henry VII. And, as is well-known, he deals with the chronologically later kings in his earlier sequence. The Richard II-Henry IV-Henry V sequence, written towards the end of the 1590s, takes him back historically into the further past, Henry V being of course the father of Henry VI.

This reversal has interesting effects. It intensifies that play of memory and irony which all retrospective art brings into play. The triumphant story of Henry V is acted out in the knowledge that Henry V's son Henry VI has already—in the past of the audience and in the work of this dramatist—thrown away the spoils of his father's victories, and with his mixture of uncertainty and good principle submerged his kingdom in civil war. As a result, Shakespeare's own sense of History is always, and increasingly, circular, individual and ironic. It says that nothing is final; it says that—as the sub-title of Henry VIII would finally have it—All Is True.

It is commonly agreed that the Henry IV plays are the poet's finest Histories. It is also commonly agreed that they are the least historic—they depend least on historical sources. We need perhaps to put these agreements together. These are Shakespeare's best Histories because the least historical. I spent a good deal of time at the beginning of this lecture stressing the importance to Shakespeare's developing art of characterization of a non-character: a dog. The academic, even the professional literary intellect can impose its own categories on Shakespeare's work, confusing the vital with the important and the important with the large. The poet's genius is an intrinsic and effortlessly intelligent sureness with symbols and the other media of his art: media not always explicitly recognizable as having the status of the political and historical.

The central presence of the historically factual in these plays ought not to deflect us from seeing what is special in them—their strangeness, their originality, their identity as imagined works. Falstaff's fatness matters in them; there is a substantive point to the character's challenge of the Prince's authority, with his ‘I am the Fellow with the great belly, and he my Dogge’. I will give one example of the plays' originality from outside these two characters. Scholarly commentators have done excellent work on the dramatist's adaptations and alterations. Most mention for instance that Shakespeare radically changes the age of Hotspur, historically twenty-three years older, to make him of Hal's generation. He therefore becomes the young man's rival, his mirror-image or alter ego.

But it is interesting to go further than this. When the heroic Harry Hotspur is dead, his grieving young widow (a marvellously vivid character in both parts, and essentially invented by Shakespeare) describes the husband she loved as having had an intensely real physical identity:

                    speaking thicke (which Nature made his blemish)
Became the accents of the valiant.

Whether this means stammering, or lisping, or merely fiercely rapid stumbling speech, everyone did it (says Lady Hotspur) just to be like him. In Shakespeare's hands, through Lady Hotspur's desolate words, a dead History comes alive. Like a haunting literary presence, the historical Hotspur has turned into a living and wholly human stutter.

One simple way of explaining the splendour of these plays is to say that they are full of Falstaff's fatness—they are full of people, newly defined as Falstaff is defined. In terms of stored resources suddenly and fully utilized, Shakespeare seems to have travelled a startling distance in 1 Henry IV from Richard II, that exquisite unpeopled verse exercise, a thin play in the sense that the Henry IV's are fat. It is of course relevant that Richard II is written wholly in verse, while the Henry IV plays invent a new and magnificent prose, widespread in the plays and different with every character who uses it. Particularly in a raffish urban milieu, it is a prose that characterizes, identifies, realizes.

Many critics react appreciatively to what they feel as an intense reality and variety in the Henry IV plays. But they may be driven by a deference to what is in appearance historical and political in them to speak with a puzzled generality of what is called ‘epic’ or ‘panoramic’ breadth of life. It is perhaps worth recalling that these are dramatic worlds with specific lineaments. The two Henry IV plays, like Henry V, are in fact so little panoramic as to omit those major elements of their audiences, both Elizabethan and modern, the middle classes—from which the dramatist himself came. Sociologically these dramas concern themselves only with the Court and the Tavern; they are about power and the lack of it. Their world is of the Castle: medieval, militaristic and male. In this last respect they are actually less ‘panoramic’ than the earlier Histories. Hugely-peopled, with more characters in each than Hamlet, the two parts of Henry IV hold only a quartet of brilliant female cameos, Ladies Percy and Mortimer, Mistress Quickly and Dol Tearsheet, all powerless either in high or in low life. Loved by her husband, Lady Percy can’t influence his life, and Lady Mortimer can’t even be understood by hers.

Certainly the Falstaff plays give an image of the real hardly achieved elsewhere in Shakespeare's first decade. Indeed, the very nature, intensity yet elusiveness of this sense of the real earns them the title of (perhaps) his first and best early tragicomedies, the two parts of Henry IV seeming actually to explore the possibilities of a mode first (Part One) comic, then (Part Two) tragic. A condition of this truthfulness is an expressiveness within laws almost ruthlessly maintained. The fine experience of randomness in these plays, so exhilarating and absorbing, at the same time proceeds from considered decisions and exclusions. The superb dawn scene before Gadshill (1 Henry IV, II.i), with its ‘Charles waine … over the new Chimney’, its country dankness and its fleas, its smell of urine, its gammon of bacon and its roots of ginger, is where it is to serve as a quizzical alternative to ‘Gadshill’ itself, juxtaposing to the systematic thieveries of high life the mere fleabites of the low.

With this mention of Gadshill I want to pause briefly to give some sense of what I mean by the peculiar decisions and exclusions of the Henry IV plays: for the Gadshill incident, essentially invented by the poet and given elaborate treatment, throws a surprisingly clear light on to the historical in this First Part. It’s first necessary to say that perhaps the most initiatory of the academic studies of these plays, and for a long time the most influential, Dover Wilson's The Fortunes of Falstaff, is an admirable piece of scholarship spoiled by those innocent snobberies, those deferences to politics believed to characterize Shakespeare's Histories, which were formerly too often found in English studies. Supporting his case for the severe loyalism of 1 Henry IV, Dover Wilson quotes with approval an earlier scholar's description of Prince Hal as ‘a man among animals’, only preferring to the word ‘animals’ (which he finds ‘too modern’) the term ‘pack of scurvy rascals, inhabiting a sphere altogether remote from that to which Hal rightly belongs’. (Falstaff he incidentally downgrades by proposing that as the Fool he was played by Kempe—a judgment possibly shaky: Much Ado's Beatrice too would perform many of the functions of the Fool, but would hardly be likely to be played by Kempe.)

The phrase ‘a man among animals’ mixes social snobbery with a speciesism Crab the dog would have been amused by. It seems to me wrong in other ways as well. Shakespeare worked with intensity in 1 Henry IV to locate the Prince as a ‘man among men’. This has both private and public interlocking meanings, of which the public most directly affects Gadshill: but because they do interlock, it is worth remembering the private as well. I mentioned earlier the monosexuality of the plays' world. By confining female companionship to Mistress Quickly, and by excluding any hint of that homosexuality suggested in (for instance) Troilus and Cressida, this throws into a more brilliant light the relation of Falstaff and Hal, and the conditions in which friendship survives or dies in the world at large.

Innumerable studies have quoted Falstaff's opening question, ‘Now Hal, what time of day is it Lad?’, with an interesting discussion of his and the Prince's different notions of time and its proper use. None as far as I know bothers with the word, ‘Lad’—a word which Housman's usage has of course made largely unhandleable now, even apart from the passing of Edwardian and earlier social conditions. ‘Lad’ was, like ‘fellow’, in Shakespeare's time a word of kindly contempt, used to those younger or lower in the social scale than oneself. In using it to the Prince—whose irritation sparks the wit of his response—Falstaff is manifesting from the first his cheerfully arrogant resistance to social hierarchy. That this might amount to more than what Dover Wilson calls his ‘sauciness’ is made plain by the odd but functional scene at II.iv, where Hal teases Francis the naïve tavern drawer. Poor Francis has the helpless corruptibility of the wholly powerless; he is spellbound in an instant by the Prince's mere murmur of ‘a thousand pound’, that talismanic ghost- or dream-fortune which haunts these two plays. Francis simply can’t forget the Prince's rank and status, and think of him as a person. It takes a Falstaff, tough enough to exist, at least for the moment, in the free kingdom of his own fatness, to maintain something like real feeling for this prodigal prince.

But Hal is a man among men in a public sense as well as a private one. At least in the only text in which we have it, the source-play, The Famous Victories, notably lacks Shakespeare's value of human feeling, the world of relationship and its terms and treacheries. And it opens only after the Gadshill incident, which we hear about at some distance. This incident Shakespeare chose to bring into the foreground and to make the basis of his Falstaff's character in action, giving four whole scenes to it—it becomes, indeed, something almost like a play-within-the-play.

Why did Shakespeare like it so much, this story of thieves who rob rich travellers, and of a prince who robs the thieves? Hal comes well out of it: he sends the money back and protects Falstaff. But the incident, playful escapade as it is, shows Hal a thief, all the same. Like Hamlet (who also found friends among ‘thieves of mercy’, pirates), Hal could, quoting the Book of Common Prayer, call his hands ‘these pickers and stealers’, recognizing a guilt both largely human and specifically royal. The Histories are haunted by the figure of Cain, thief and brother-murderer; and Hal is after all the son of the usurper who ‘seized the crown’ from Richard.

His soliloquy at I.ii, beginning with the words ‘I know’, endows the Prince with responsibility, almost with guilt: sooner or later he will enter the world of power natural to him and win virtue by making ‘offence a skill’. At the battle of Shrewsbury, the play's climax, he articulates his relationship with the near-fraternal Hotspur:

                              All the budding Honors of thy Crest
Ile crop, to make a Garland for my head.

He has done what he promised his father earlier, made Percy ‘but my factor … / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf’. And Hotspur, dying, understands what has been done: ‘O Harry, thou hast rob’d me of my youth’.

Yet Hotspur is of course essentially no different in his politics: he is merely given the beauty of the historical loser. The historians used by Shakespeare called the reign of Henry IV ‘troubled’, one of ‘unrest’. In the drama, that trouble and unrest internalize, changing from the accidentality of data to the necessity of vision. Henry the King himself, politician and usurper, dreaming of Jerusalem, generates the ambiguities reigning everywhere in these plays. In this First Part, the poet has invented Gadshill as an ironic mirror of the great world of power which Henry rules over, and which the political rebels envy, pursue, but won’t defer to. Prince, rebel and Fool; reticent Hal, heroic Hotspur and wise Falstaff, all alike and equally make ‘offence a skill’. We may call Hal's honour true, Hotspur's a dream and Falstaff's non-existent, but the only honour the play knows is Honour Among Thieves.

Wholly characteristically, Falstaff knows this: ‘A plague upon’t, when theeves cannot be true one to another’ (II.iv). These profoundly sceptical conditions release the play's stereotyped hierarchies; conventions are shaken free into a glitter of relativities. 1 Henry IV is as fine as it is because of the depth with which it shows Hal as no other than a man among men. These are the terms on which he must learn his fidelities, infidelities, and historical survivals. And this is a world in which a man's supremacy is as individual to him as is Falstaff's massive body, his rapid mind.

I earlier made the suggestion that Falstaff's original name, Oldcastle, may have held in itself a certain potency for the poet. It carried with it, perhaps, to an Elizabethan imagination alive to language, something of the late-medieval and chivalrically militant world of this play, a world—as Shakespeare's own was still—of ‘fading mansions’, ruinous castles. An architectural historian, conceding that the psychic image of the Castle must be predominantly one of terror and aggression, has suggested that there may still be an aesthetic beauty in castles: that these fortifications may now, from their aspect of security, their defensive function, reveal to the mind an image of what he calls (in a fine phrase) ‘stored energy’.

The debates on the structural problems of Parts One and Two of Henry IV may reflect difficulties in coming to terms with their great originality of form. They possess what Coleridge called ‘form as proceeding’, as against ‘shape as superinduced’: a form which has some relationship to Falstaff's massive, natural and always (theoretically) waxing and waning body. Though the Second Part is, if anything, even more original than the First in its loose expressive deliquescence of form, the First Part has always given more pleasure. And the enjoyment it gives might be glossed by the historian's aesthetic image of the Castle. Part One of Henry IV has above all a ‘stored energy’, a beautiful weighing of violent and indeed aggressive forces against each other. The play is everywhere in a state of active self-balance: Kings and subjects, fathers and sons, robbers and robbed, usurpers and rebels, exchanging roles but never out of true.

The political ambiguities of 1 Henry IV allow no escape, but they do afford what might be called suspension. ‘Time, that takes survey of all the world / Must have a stop’—and both stop and survey are the play. When the brisk but adoring Lady Percy asks her husband what carries him away, he answers laughing, ‘Why my horse my love my horse’. This hint on the play's part about the natural, unarguable Crab-the-dog-like energies of youth is balanced by the very different but equally unarguable detachment in the historical memory of reader or audience: a detachment suddenly explicit in the Second Part of the play, when the tired old King says that life is so terrible to the eyes of experience that it can’t be thought about, there is nothing to do but ‘shut the book, and sit him down and die’. Such vitality and such sadness work together in a fashion more like music than politics.

The actor's autobiography I mentioned earlier happens to remark that ‘There is nothing in a play but the characters’, and though this is an actor's reaction, he is quite right: but he might not have said it about The Famous Victories, or many other scores of plays of the period. The Henry IV plays, and especially the First Part, enthrall because their actors are all characters: Falstaff may be greater than Glendower, or Mistress Quickly, or Cousin Silence, or Feeble, the woman's tailor, but they are hardly less intensely realized. In these plays, something rare and Shakespearean and hugely important to the literary tradition that followed was being achieved.

Moreover, this full translation of drama into character seems dependent on a quality of vision more than dramaturgical. 1 Henry IV is a world of men of action, acting upon each other, struggling throughout for mastery, yet in the process each man becomes less destructive than autonomous. The world of action has become, in its way, purely contemplative. Concomitantly, and in simpler terms of behaviour, the play's combatants battle (to borrow another phrase from Coleridge) ‘as in a war-embrace’. Lovers quarrel laughing, or talk different languages to each other; fathers and sons fall out from sheer affection; rivals imitate each other. Centrally, of course, there are Hal and Falstaff, fighting and flyting and planning betrayal, perhaps the richest, the most human, but also the most worldly portrayal of friendship in Shakespeare's works. And always, playing off against the powerful, cool and withdrawn royal boy, is the man Falstaff, perpetually making a kind of grumbling, smiling peace within himself, between the cumbersome body and the incomparable mind.

Part One of Henry IV brilliantly succeeds by turning History into a tension of relationships, which we may think of, as we wish, as private or public: the sort of political history the dramatist was handling made these interchangeable—among the rebels, for instance, Lady Percy is Mortimer's sister, and Lady Mortimer is Glendower's daughter. Such a world permits the play to celebrate love and friendship snatched, like Hotspur's flower, ‘Out of this Nettle, Danger’. The terms of the feeling which unites the characters are a vivid disinterest or dissociation combined with alert attention to the other. It is this element of dissociation that makes arguments about Falstaff curiously irrelevant. Moral criteria only obtain as conditions are laid down; a person may flee from the plague without being a coward, nor is a soldier necessarily cowardly who takes part in an orderly military retreat. Falstaff is no more a coward at Gadshill than Crab the dog is hard-hearted.

But at Shrewsbury there is a change. Throughout this First Part, Shakespeare has naturalized history and politics into a living world in which Falstaff's fatness has its place. Success and succession are all about growth, about movement upward, with the thrusting energy of Hotspur's flowering nettle. The play sets us in that world envisaged by the poet's fifteenth Sonnet, where ‘every thing that grows / Holds in perfection but a little moment / … Men as plants increase / … at height decrease, / And were [wear] their brave state out of memory’. Part One is a kind of historical comedy, in which everyone gets as near as may be to having what he wants (the idealistic Hotspur would have found life horrifying, had he survived). But it is comic only because the clock stops, the action is suspended, the sheriff is shut out, the fighters are ‘Cheared and chekt even by the self-same skie’.

In Part Two, naturally enough for a second part, the clock starts again. It has often been pointed out how far this almost tragic Second Part is dominated by the power of Time. Age and disease darken the scene. Hotspur is gone, Hal little on stage. There begins here that ‘rejection’ of Falstaff which is the climax the whole Second Part moves towards, in which the newly crowned Henry V rebukes and dismisses his old companion. Even Bradley, in what may be the best essay ever written on the Henry IV plays, sorrowfully assumes that the dramatist has willed and even rigged this rejection, has degraded his character through this play and on into the diminished and different (though still enjoyable) horseplay of The Merry Wives. There may be something that qualifies this. I have suggested the effect of the autonomous in the characterization of these plays: and the Falstaffian decline is surely similarly powered from the inside, like an illness that proceeds from his great bulk.

The turning-point is that obscurely disturbing moment at Shrewsbury, at the end of Part One, in which Falstaff stabs the dead Hotspur, his ‘new wound in your thigh’ bringing an odd erotic shame to the incident: some fleshing has taken place. Devoid as these plays are of any homosexual feeling, the sheer fatness of Falstaff, most male of men, allows him some of the soft freedoms of the female role; and now, some of its betrayals, too. It’s a striking minor fact that at the very beginning of this play Shakespeare has remembered from the chronicles the detail of the Welshwomen's emasculation of the enemy dead in battle.

Early in Part One, the old Knight had turned on the Prince an ironic reversal of his own role as tempter: ‘Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing: and now I am (if a man should speake truly) little better then one of the wicked’. There is always a lurking truth in these floating ironies Falstaff is expert in. The shadow of their friendship is a double corruption. However much Sir John chooses—from some point of view that is anarchic or democratic or Elizabethanly aristocratic—to feel himself outside or even above Hal's royalty, he depends on it, just as he does on the Prince's youth. As Hal is involved and committed at Shrewsbury, so for the first time is Falstaff too. The battle that kills Hotspur and brings alive Hal does both to the old Knight. He dies in some part of his intellectual detachment, and rises from that death a survivor, to lose Hal's friendship by stealing his glory: ‘Ile follow as they say, for Reward. Hee that rewards me, heaven reward him. If I do grow great again, Ile grow lesse. For Ile purge, and leave Sacke, and live cleanly, as a Nobelman shold do’.

The quarrelling friendship of Hal and Falstaff is, like other relationships in Part One, in its tension a high-wire on which both safely run and somersault. Falstaff's last-act stabbing of Hotspur is also a tragicomic betrayal of the Prince which cuts the wire. In Part Two neither he nor his circumstances are ever quite the same again. There are subtle adjustments of tone: the old Knight, now decisively poorer yet grander, grows faintly but pervasively ambitious, snobbish, with an eye to the main chance, talking Court talk in a manner never quite certainly enough ironic. His fatness loses its easy airy poise, its grace of imagination, and begins to solidify, greasily, into unnerving realisms of social class and gender. For the first time in this always dangerous territory, the old man's bulk begins to be touched by the queasily androgynous: as when, self-mockingly boasting about his wit, Sir John ‘walks before’ his new Page, ‘like a Sow, that hath o’erwhelmed all her litter, but one’.

The stagger in the rhythm of that line is telling. The change in Falstaff is more than tonal, it is situational; and it is dictated by his new separation from the Prince, who growing up towards his royalty, is often a felt absence, a silence here. When he does appear, Hal is colder, Falstaff more demanding; Hal withdraws, Falstaff presumes. The entire play is more erotic than Part One, and there is a trace of the erotic in the power-game of relationship the two have started to play.

The action of Part Two, while we wait for the rejection that we know must come, is anything but boring. But it possesses a marked rhythm of entropy or running-down, a centrifugal loss of energy. The contrast with Part One is obvious. The world is one where, as in the Sonnet, men ‘were [wear] their brave state out of memory’—or even that ‘great world’ of King Lear which ‘wears out to naught’. Everywhere in this Second Part of Henry IV, we sense imbalances. No longer made brilliant by the Prince's bright hostilities, Falstaff has to talk to his own minimal Page; to a faceless, unindividuated and unshakeable old man, the Lord Chief Justice; to the coarsely savage Tearsheet and the wonderfully dizzy Quickly, whose human weight of farce and pathos almost upstages the Knight; and Shallow and Silence, the two country cousins.

These last two inhabit a Gloucestershire estate that grounds in itself much of what the closing phase of the play is saying, a back-of-beyond at once sad and preposterous, hilarious and charming. Both true and fantastic (not even Elizabethans saw Gloucestershire as on the main road North from London), their estate, with Davy's wistful hope ‘to see London once ere I die’, achieves a provinciality that is suddenly Chekhovian. This is not a place merely satirized by the dramatist, as it is patronized by Falstaff. It has its own ludicrous, deathly beauty, a mildewed richness: the strength of a Feeble who disturbingly achieves the heroic, telling the ruinous Falstaff that he owes God a death, and the surprise of a Silence, flowering through wine into an unstoppable music.

As at the end of the play Falstaff stands waiting for Hal, the new King, he talks troublingly of ‘new Liveries’ and of a borrowed ‘thousand pound’, of his travel-stained clothes, ‘this poore shew doth better’—acting out a love: ‘thinking of nothing else, putting all affayres in oblivion, as if there were nothing els to bee done, but to see him’. Stirring as it is, this is all hypothetical, a rhetoric—‘Painting thy outward walls so costlie gay’. In the course of the Second Part, Falstaff's fatness might even be said to have gone into such shows, becoming an outer man only. Its true spirit has, in some way not easy to articulate, flowed out of him into the London tavern's noise and fury of ‘Swaggerers’, and the gone-to-seed energies of a country estate, where Feeble is hero and Silence sings: all the vagrant forms of life which almost mimic, in reverse, those ‘by-paths and indirect crookt ways’ by which, Bolingbroke has said, he ‘met his crown’. Power is leaving Falstaff by the same routes. Part Two begins with Rumour bringing ‘smooth-Comforts-false’, and it may be that it ends, for fat Falstaff, in nothing but words.

There is, of course, life in the old dog yet, though some of his admirers find his third translation, into the sharp caricature of The Merry Wives, so disheartening as to make them prefer the fourth: the death-bed Falstaff of Henry V. That the old Knight died of a broken heart I don’t find it altogether easy to believe; it’s less difficult to accept Shakespeare's genius in hiding whatever happened to be the truth—and death-beds should be reticent—behind the lush sentimentality of the small group of crooks who talk about it in Henry V. Yet they are marvellous crooks, and the involvement of the hard with the soft in the narration brings back that recognizable tension that reigns in Henry IV.

Everything in Falstaff's reported death-scene is supreme and ambiguous. More than one scholar has pointed out that the poet seems clearly to be recalling an account of the death of Socrates. But that grave and noble demise of a philosopher is so rendered by Quickly as to keep straying into quibbles obscurely sexual: ‘A bad me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the Bed, and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone: then I felt to his knees, and so upward, and upward, and all was as cold as any stone’.

This inimitable mix of the Socratic with the farcical-erotic is a poetry entirely right for the tragicomic passing of the brilliant fat Falstaff. And it is echoed in the pride with which Mistress Quickly locates the old Knight in ‘Arthurs Bosome, if ever man went to Arthurs Bosome’. The more orthodox would have sent him to Abraham. But Arthur was the founder of knighthood; he was moreover to Elizabethans the King of Romance. This made him, in the view of hard-headed classicists of the time, the representative of that whole realm of archaic folly which (they thought) goes along with love. This hint of Romance, and the Socratic, and the helplessly physical jokes coming through the tenderly lamenting babble of Mistress Quickly about stones, make us look back, in fact, down a great decade of invention to a clown holding a dog on a piece of string, and complaining that as to heart, he is a ‘stone, a very pibble stone, and has no more pitty in him then a dogge’.

In the Tudor Myth of History, Prince Hal has the authority and the moral right on becoming King to reject Falstaff. It is probably good that he does so, for History's sake. But with a gesture new at every re-playing of these later Histories, Mistress Quickly hands Falstaff over to the feeling of reader or audience, on whose imagination, after all, this whole hearsay death-bed depends. The old dog stands up, shakes itself, and wags its tail in the air of reality.

Matthew H. Wikander (1992-93)

SOURCE: “The Protean Prince Hal,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 26, Number 4, Winter, 1992-93, pp. 295-311.

[In the following essay, Wikander discusses the ambiguity surrounding Prince Hal's character as it is portrayed in the Henry IV plays. The critic observes that Hal is fully prepared to assume his place as rightful king from the beginning, and that his ultimate transformation at the end is revealed to the audience in his earliest speeches.]

“Presume not that I am the thing I was,” King Henry V, no longer the familiar Prince Hal, tells Falstaff. “For God doth know, so shall the world perceive, / That I have turn’d away my former self” (2 Henry IV V.v.56-58).1 Many critics have been vexed about the nature of the “former self” that he tells Falstaff he has turned away. The bald declaration of Hal's agenda in the soliloquy in Part 1, certainly, makes it clear that Hal has never been really in thrall to Falstaff, never really a member of the criminal rout at the tavern. In Part 2 he wearily wastes his time with them. When he “please[s] again to be himself,” he tells us, he will “imitate the sun” (1 Henry IV I.ii.197, 200): but if he has not been himself in the tavern, who has he been? What was he doing?

“Go, you thing, go!” Falstaff dismisses the hostess in Part 1. “Say, what thing? what thing?” she cries, and when Sir John calls her a beast, she pursues the issue: “Say, what beast, thou knave, thou?” “What beast? Why, an otter.” “An otter, Sir John,” Prince Hal interrupts, “why an otter?” “Why? she’s neither fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to have her” (III.iii.115-16, 124-28). Yet it is not the hostess but Hal who has been the amphibian in the play. Here in III.iii, he has just returned from convincing his father of his loyalty and zeal. He is flourishing in both of his environments, the tavern and the court.

The amphibian has its own complex range of suggestion. “[P]oor monster,” Viola pronounces herself, neither man nor woman; her brother, lost at sea, was last glimpsed “like [Arion] on the dolphin's back,” in amphibious linkage (Twelfth Night II.ii.34, I.ii.15). Sir Dauphine Eugenie finds himself among a riot of amphibians in the list of persons in Ben Jonson's Epicoene, along with Madame Centaure and Sir Thomas Otter, “a land and sea captain.” Mistress Quickly, vigorously repudiating the name of otter in 1 Henry IV, falls into Falstaff's trap: “Thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!” (III.iii.129-30). Viola, in a more homiletic vein, blames her attractive outside, her masculine garb: “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (II.ii.27-28). Viola's sentiment here is in sympathy with the antitheatrical writings of the period, with their rejection of disguise and repudiation of the amphibious boy actors of the public stage. More vigorously aligned with that tradition of antitheatrical thinking is Jonson's representation of Morose's house of babble, a cacophonous theater in which the key revelation turns on the person of the boy actor himself. On the other hand, Hal, until he repudiates “the thing I was,” seems content to be an otter; like Francis the apprentice shuttling from one room to another, he is continually promising “Anon, anon” while shuttling between his two worlds.

The linkage between the otter, the “thing” that Hal was, and the boy actor points towards an indeterminacy in Hal. Like the boy actor or the apprentice, he is at a liminal phase of his development, neither fish nor flesh. As such, he joins the ranks of dubious creatures that Jonas Barish has grouped together in his important book The Antitheatrical Prejudice: Proteans and Chameleons, common seventeenth-century vilifications for actors.2 Proteus figures frequently in antitheatrical writings in the seventeenth century; Barish quotes, for example, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. It is all too common, Burton tells us,

To see a man turn himself into all shapes like a Chameleon, or as Proteus transform himself into all that is monstrous; to act twenty parts & persons at once for his advantage, to temporize and vary like Mercury the Planet, good with good, bad with bad; having a several face, garb, & character, for every one he meets; of all religions, humours, inclinations; to fawn like a spaniel, with lying and feigned obsequiousness, rage like a lion, bark like a cur, fight like a dragon, sting like a serpent, as meek as a lamb, & yet again grin like a tiger, weep like a crocodile, insult over some, & yet others domineer over him, here command, there crouch, tyrannize in one place, be baffled in another, a wise man at home, a fool abroad to make others merry!3

Such hatred of the indeterminate, the ambiguous, and the improvisatory epitomizes the antitheatrical tradition in Western philosophy. Its exponents, Barish reminds us, are not only “hard-shelled, mole-eyed fanatics,” but also “giants like Plato, Saint Augustine, Rousseau, and Nietzsche.” Following Plato, antitheatrical writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries celebrated simplicity and integrity: “Simplicity means purity, stability, and health,” in Barish's words: “Complexity spells impurity, instability, distemper.” “Perhaps,” Barish concludes, “the antitheatrical prejudice reflects a form of self-disgust”: “Human existence can hardly avoid resembling in basic ways the experience of actors in the theater, and human consciousness can hardly escape the tinge of bad faith this introduces into our actions, the incitement it gives us to wish to be admired, stared at, made much of, attended to.”4 While Barish's study is limited to philosophers who have written explicitly against the institution of theater, he does find antitheatrical theater in some of the latest experiments of the postmodern stage.

Expressions of distaste for theater and challenges to traditional mimetic modes, though, are common in the Renaissance and neoclassical drama as well as in the late modern drama. Hal's repudiation of the “thing” he was, of his festive or amphibious other self, postulates an unknowable real self, a true self, that has been concealed throughout his two plays and that may, indeed, remain unknowable in Henry V. Hamlet, rejecting the “actions that a man might play” and insisting upon “that within which passes show,” pushes antitheatricalism further (Hamlet I.ii.84-85). He refuses to be known theatrically—by his actions, his cloak, his sighs, his tears. “Theatre has mimesis, not as its method, but as its subject matter,” David Cole has argued.5 Building on Barish and Cole, it is possible to argue that expressions of antitheatrical sentiments by characters in plays constitute a playwright's critique of theatrical mimesis. The unease we feel about the Protean Hal is an unease about theatrical mimesis, written into the plays. To the extent that Hal is a kind of otter, a cipher like Viola into whom significances can be all too easily read, criticism of Hal and of his reformation has tended to reveal rather the critics' attitudes toward mimesis than to pin down Hal's elusive essence.

While Prince Hamlet rejects utterly the proposition that a true self, an own self, can be publicly known, Prince Hal wants to be known most fully in his public self. “I do; I will,” Hal announces in the Boar's Head tavern when Falstaff urges him that to “banish plump Jack” is to “banish all the world” (1 Henry IV II.iv.479-80). There is nothing of Hamlet's riddling uncertainty in the expression of this resolve. Hal has fully prepared the audience in the theater (as opposed to his drunken onstage audience) for his resolution in his famous first-act soliloquy:

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyok’d 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 wond’red at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.


Hamlet envisions self-revelation as impossible, but Prince Hal sees it as a cosmic coup-de-théâtre in which he will reveal himself to be at one with his iconic image, as the blessed sun of heaven, the son of England, the prodigal son returned—as, in short, the resolution of that impossible paradox, a Christian king. In his first soliloquy he proposes a narrative, a way of seeing his career, that transforms him into the answer to history's desire for fully legitimate authority.

Legitimation, Hayden White has argued, is specifically the task of history in the theory of Hegel. “Only in a State cognizant of laws,” Hegel wrote, “can distinct transactions take place, accompanied by such clear consciousness of them as supplies the ability and suggests the necessity of an enduring record.” As White paraphrases it, “the reality that lends itself to narrative representation is the conflict between desire and the law.” Historical studies, by Hegel's definition, have a specific subject matter: “those momentous collisions between existing, acknowledged duties, laws, and rights, and those contingencies that are adverse to this fixed system.”6 In Hegelian terms, the project of historical narrative is the legitimizing of authority, the self-definition of the state.

But Hal is not Hegel, and historical narrative and popular drama are different genres. His method, we note (and not for the first time, for critics like Anne Righter and James Calderwood have led the way here), is theatrical.7 Upholding the unyoked humor of idleness is what professional actors do: Hal will present himself as a surprise not only to his erstwhile companions, but also to the audience. “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill,” he promises, “Redeeming time when men think least I will” (I.ii.216-17). The skillful acting of offensive behavior is what attracts the audience's eyes to the public stage. When Hal says, “I know you all,” the actor speaks through the character directly to us. Hal knows what we want—a fully fledged vision of a triumphant, true prince—and he knows how to give it to us. “By how much better than my word I am, / By so much shall I falsify men's hopes” (I.ii.210-11): we may feel ourselves caught short by this description of Hal's strategy, because it suggests an element of fraud. The hopes he will falsify, of course, are those of his criminal friends (we can hear, if we listen, Falstaff's name in the line itself). But he will also surprise and dazzle his audience, falsifying their expectations to the extent that the expectations themselves fall short in imagining their consummation.

Hal achieves his objective of appearing in iconographic or emblematic triumph in a surprising way. It is in the rebel camp that we see his first convert. Hotspur asks Vernon, who has just returned from a parley with the royal forces, about Hal: “the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales, / And his comrades, that daff’d the world aside / And bid it pass.” Much to his surprise, what he gets in reply is a mannerist painting, a highly decorated emblem (or impresa) of the true prince. “All furnish’d, all in arms,” reports Vernon (although we in the theater know that none of the Eastcheap gang has reformed along with Hal):

All plum’d like estridges, that with the wind
Bated like eagles having lately bath’d,
Glittering in golden coats like images,
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cushes on his thighs, gallantly arm’d,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel [dropp’d] down from the clouds
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus,
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.


“No more, no more!” Hotspur cries out. The images pile together here, with a range of reference from the heraldic (the estridge, or ostrich, is special to the Prince of Wales) to the mythological (the taming of Pegasus was considered in Renaissance iconography to be an allegory of self-mastery, triumph over the appetites, and statesmanship). That the witness who testifies to the transformation of the madcap Hal into a gallant feathered Mercury is a member of the rebel forces only adds to its potency. Hal is amphibious here, but he inhabits now the elements of air and fire.

Hal presents himself as master of his situation, both as prince and as actor. But there are moments in the play when the richly ambiguous world of seeming appears to confound him. At the end of 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal seems actually to be taken in by Falstaff's sham death. He is baffled upon returning with his brother John to find the fat man up and Hotspur over his shoulder. But he gilds the story with a lie, and as a result loses sufficient credibility to make Part 2 necessary. And in Part 2, looking at his sleeping father, the Prince makes the same mistake. Like the funeral orations over Hotspur and Falstaff, his speech as he takes the crown is undercut by Hal's inability to tell false death from real. “This sleep is sound indeed,” Hal pronounces,

                                                            this is a sleep
That from this golden rigol hath divorc’d
So many English kings. Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness
Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously.
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which, as immediate from thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me.

(2 Henry IV IV.v.35-43)

Hal's leaping to a conclusion here is especially revealing of the moral historiography of his agenda. As he staged his victory in 1 Henry IV to conform to our expectation that the prodigal prince should triumph over both Hotspur and Falstaff in an instant, so here Hal scripts his succession. “Place and blood” and, later on, “lineal honor” are the keynotes here. For Hal's plan to succeed, he must inherit the crown, not earn it; the transaction must be as private and mysterious as conception itself. It is not for the legitimate prince to “study deserving” like the bastard Edmund. By claiming the crown through right of blood alone, and by doing so secretly, with none but the dead king by, Hal replaces his father's crime of usurpation with a mystic rite that proclaims the king's two bodies to be one.

In the process, he attempts to satisfy the craving for narrative, historiographical coherence that he aroused in the audience with the soliloquy. More to the point, an audience to the play has desired this consummation more devoutly perhaps than he has, especially an audience that has experienced the frustrations of Richard II and 1 Henry IV. For Hal has been England's sweetest hope in two special senses: first, he can resolve the dilemma proposed in Richard II, where the blood of Edward III is wasted by both the lineal successor, Richard, and the usurper, Henry. Hal's succession will not be parricidal. Second, Hal figures not simply a dynastic but a historiographical hope. He can move us from a kind of history that is cyclical and (finally) nihilistic in its vision to a kind of history that is linear and leads to a coherent moral ending, the crowning of Henry V and the banishment of Falstaff. But the sense we get in the whole of 2 Henry IV that we have seen all this before threatens a linear narrative line, and Hal's secret rite, to his revived father's eyes, seems an utterly Bullingbrookian maneuver.

Just as Falstaff refuses to be dead and permit the prince's reformation to glitter untarnished, so too the deathbed scene in 2 Henry IV does not fit the prince's plan. Not only are we reminded of Falstaff's revival as King Henry awakes, but we notice that somehow the play has coerced Hal into re-enacting his father's highly significant gesture in the abdication scene in Richard II. “Here, cousin, seize the crown,” Richard prompts there, and Bullingbrook, unhappily, must theatrically act out his crime (Richard II IV.i.181-82). “Where is the crown?” cries Henry when he awakes. “The Prince hath ta’en it hence” (2 Henry IV IV.v.57, 59). Like father, like son, the third play in the sequence suggests. An inheritance has changed hands, legitimized by the family gesture of seizing and taking.

Hal has set himself a task of legitimation, and Vernon, at least, cannot see the young man without seeing the true prince. Yet the moments in which he most triumphantly enacts his legitimation, as he transcends the vanity of Falstaff and Hotspur at the end of Part 1 and as he succeeds to his father's crown in Part 2, take place without witnesses and in error. Hal promises a transformation that will be sudden, devastating, miraculous. But what is most surprising about his triumph in Part 1 is his reversion into idleness.

A common answer to Hal's disappointing performance has been to side with Warwick's assessment in Part 2 that Hal was maturing, growing up, going to school:

The Prince but studies his companions
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,
’Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be look’d upon and learnt, which once attain’d,
Your Highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated. So, like gross terms,
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 other,
Turning past evils to advantages.


Warwick's interpretation of Hal's conduct is reminiscent of Renaissance defenses of theater, which tend to be similarly reductive and homiletic. But to accept it, curiously, is to adopt an antitheatrical stance towards Hal's agenda in the play. To the extent that Hal's own agenda is narrative, not theatrical, and that it has its greatest successes offstage, such a stance is appropriate. Hal is not, in this view, a true amphibian, but merely a visiting swimmer.

For Thomas Van Laan, for example, only Falstaff can be allowed the fluidity, the liminality, of the actor:

Falstaff's is a world for playing roles for pleasure, as many as possible, and the more innovative the better; the emphasis falls on the role of the playwright-actor. In the heroic world, however, such role-playing would be unequivocally evil. There the ideal consists of finding one's proper role from an approved list of existing possibilities and striving to fulfil it satisfactorily by obeying its dictates. In Falstaff's world, all roles are possible because none is crucial. In the heroic world, only certain roles can be tolerated, and one of them, that of king, matters more than all the others.8

Van Laan's distinction between a “heroic world” and “Falstaff's world” of play is well-taken, but what are we to make of “unequivocally evil?” The main tenet of Plato's antitheatricalism is that the proliferation of roles identifiable with the actor is socially destabilizing. Is the antitheatricality here Van Laan's, or Hal's? To condemn Hal for merely playing, not being, the true prince is to miss the complex engagement of theatrical and iconic conventions in Hal's playing.

James Calderwood finds a more subtle distinction in dramatic modes: Falstaff is a “rebel” to the “realism” of the play's genre of history play, bringing into it the rules of his own brand of festive comedy, threatening “a secession of the theatrical from the mimetic aspects of the play.”9 The distinction between “theatrical” and “mimetic aspects” of what is after all a play suggests that somehow the theater itself can be reduced to the status of improvisatory clowning and banished in favor of serious business. The strongest exponent of this hard-nosed approach, though, is not Calderwood but Richard Levin, who rejects Falstaff as though his own soul were at risk. Falstaff is dangerously immature, he argues, because “Falstaff does want to make all the year one continuous saturnalia, this being the ritual corollary of his perennial childishness and obliviousness of time which is brought out most forcefully in his parallel attempts to extend his misrule into the serious climaxes of both parts of Henry IV, and in the Prince's parallel rebukes.” For Falstaff's “timeless, static world,” Hal must learn to substitute a world of real time.10

Certainly Hal has a right to complain about Falstaff's festive irruptions into the serious parts of his plays. Hal's project is making moral sense of himself, staging his reform so that it is maximally surprising. To be fully known, for Hal, is to be known as a true prince, casting off his followers as the sun dissolves the mists “in the perfectness of time.” His problems with corpses that refuse to stay dead suggest that Hal is so successful in making others see him iconically, as prodigal son or ideal prince, that he has a tendency to read others iconically as well. They are also, of course, problems with timing: as long as King Henry lives, Hal cannot be allowed to be fully seen as England's sweetest hope. The theater complicates the promulgation of his image, but in the end it is the medium in which his image can be most luminous.

Subscribing wholly to this luminousness is an older tradition, and it tends to do so without reference to the worlds of the stage at all. Tillyard, of course, celebrates Hal as a true prince without irony; for Joseph A. Porter, Warwick's analogy to a language-lesson is the key to Henry V's emergence from Hal as a “many-tongued monarch who, using a wide range of language purposefully and responsibly, initiates a reign of ‘high … parliament’.”11 Porter seems to adopt in a quite literal way a “Whig view of history” as Henry V becomes a parliamentarian. If revisionist history does not permit us in the antitheatrical Puritans of the early seventeenth-century to glimpse the later parliamentary forces, Porter, by focusing so exclusively on language as speech and eschewing talk of spectacle, reveals a different kind of antitheatrical bias. “Many-tongued” is not quite the same as Protean: this Hal has an ethical, sincere self, which he can fluently express.

There is division, too, among those critics who believe that Hal has a sincere self and those who believe he does not, especially in the way in which the prince works with readily recognizable iconography. Robert B. Pierce describes the royal interview (1 Henry IV III.ii) as richly satisfying in this way: “In the parable, the Prodigal Son restored to his father is man restored to God, and in the Elizabethan system of correspondences the king is to his kingdom as God is to the universe. Hal's reconciliation with his father symbolizes a larger commitment to all that is good and orderly in the world.”12 Striking a more cynical pose is John Wilders, who argues that in III.ii the prince is only acting: “The winner in this game of deception is Hal, who deliberately impersonates the prodigal son and feigns the false impression he knows his subjects have formed of him in order that, eventually, they will be convinced by his equally contrived reformation.”13 More positive in his attitude towards theater (and less eager to appear naively sucked in than Pierce) is John Blanpied, who sees Hal as having the nature of “an ‘actor,’ with all the doubleness the term implies”; his “dramatic genius lies in his coolly playing the prodigal son.”14

Hal has played more than the parabolic role of the prodigal son. He has also arrogated to himself a large number of exclusively theatrical models, especially as drawn from morality plays. “Hal may be Lusty Juventus, counseled by Vices and Virtues, gradually learning to be the true prince and the savior of the commonwealth,” muses Alvin Kernan, “but Vices and Virtues like Falstaff and Hotspur speak with such ambiguous voices that it is difficult to tell which is which, and ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’ is so complex a character, and the nature of rule so mixed a business, that we are left wondering whether the restoration of the kingdom represents a triumph of morality or of Machiavellian politics.”15 The evocation of old morality patterns in the rejection of Falstaff is, for John Cox, a mimetic enactment of real, historical use of those patterns in Elizabethan image-management. “Whatever the truth about the relationship, the most important thing for Hal is that it be defined in the categories of morality drama, because those conventions are such effective conveyors of the broad generalizations about his supposed moral development that Hal wishes his people to believe about him as he proceeds in securing his power.” Hal is as scrupulous about his image as Elizabeth and as Essex: as he comes to power, “the heroic king is exactly like the chivalric heroes Shakespeare really knew: utterly opaque in his ability to charge his single-minded quest for political dominance with the compelling vision of a social ideal.”16 Here Hal's virtuosity is seen to intersect with real-life Renaissance self-fashioning.

For Frank Whigham as for Cox, the issue of sincerity is beside the point. Protean virtuosity, Whigham reminds us, was necessary for courtiers; George Puttenham's “numbing catalog of deceits suggests that the smallest daily acts of courtly life have an infinitely varied symbolic weight (and hence are vulnerable to differing interpretations).” Whigham points, in his analysis of Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie, to a theatrical—tragic—dimension: “Who would not pity and fear this our chameleon?”17 Whigham's attention, like that of the courtesy tracts he studies, is upon the courtier; the courtier's attention is upon the prince, and the adaptability and suppleness that courtiers must cultivate is irrelevant to the prince himself. That is, the more closely Prince Hal can be seen to recall “chivalric heroes” like Essex, the more he appears to be a competitor for power, the less he can lambently appear to be a true prince. The tragic competitor for power in the Henry IV plays is Hotspur, and he is less chameleon than parrot, an inflexible but loquacious “paraquito,” as his wife puts it (1 Henry IV II.iii.85).

By reminding us of the theatricality of daily life, Cox and Whigham help to collapse the distinctions between theater and life that troubled earlier critics. But this new historicist claim can become exaggerated. David Kastan asserts that theater itself “enacts, not necessarily on stage, but in its fundamental transaction with the audience, the exact shift in the conception of authority that brings a king to trial and ultimately locates sovereignty in the common will of its subjects.”18 By showing that kings are like actors playing roles, in other words, the seventeenth-century English theater legitimized the seventeenth-century English regicide. Kastan's article is a corrective to the totalizing language of Stephen Greenblatt's famous invisible bullets; he reclaims for the English theater subversion without containment. But in the process he accepts the word of the antitheatrical writers of the age for what theater could do, what theater could make people do. “New historicist and cultural materialist critics of Renaissance drama tend to share with Phillip Stubbes and Thomas Nashe the assumption that the theater mattered to the shape and direction of English society,” Paul Yachnin has recently observed.19

Whigham's sense of the pathos of the courtly climber and Cox's insistence on Realpolitik signal a more moderate engagement of the theater's confusion of realms. Blurring of distinctions, confusion of realms, as the antitheatrical argument runs, is endemic to the theater, and Kastan reveals the power of this argument as he transforms it into historical narrative. The ambivalence that many critics feel about Hal's acting is similar to the ambivalence they must feel about Shakespeare's institution. The problem is first and foremost historical: the peculiar institution of the early-modern English theater is a phenomenon that we cannot grasp phenomenologically. “Between a drama and its meaning,” Herbert Blau puts it, “… particularly an older drama, there is always the distance of history, which moves fast in the space of perception between the desire for meaning and the currency of any play.” Blau imagines “some contribution to scholarship from science fiction” that could actually take us back to seventeenth-century London, so we “could see what ‘they’ saw.” “It should be obvious that to have been there is, in some definitive approach to meaning, a rather dubious privilege.”20 By insisting upon the complexity of plays in performance and by stressing the dubious quality of extracting meaning from performance, Blau puts us in much the same dilemma as does Prince Hal.

To extract a moral meaning from his glittering reformation, we have to endorse Vernon's narration (in the face of our own witnessing of Hal's continued sponsorship of Falstaff); to ratify the eulogy over the panting and, to us, obviously undead fat man; to approve of snatching the crown away from the sleeping king. It is the fact of performance itself that blurs the contours of Hal's performances. Hal's agenda, the historical narrative in which he reveals himself like the sun, is in conflict with the theatrical means of its production. Approaching meaning is indeed a dubious activity, when the desire for meaning that Hal provokes and indulges is so often, like Vernon's vision, set before our inner eyes as wishful seeing.

Attempting to make sense out of Hal's acting embroils both scholars and audiences. The plays do not help by identifying acting, through Falstaff, with fraud and deceit. The rejection of Falstaff could be a rejection of bad, fraudulent acting (or excessive, festive overacting); but then we are forced to endorse the Protean skills of Hal. And it is his kind of acting—the kind that the other inhabitants of his world (and a number of critics) can read iconically, accept, be convinced by—that antitheatrical thinkers would see as by far the more dangerous kind of acting, the kind of acting that leaches into real life.

“If we seriously consider the very forme of acting Playes,” William Prynne argues, “we must needes acknowledge it to be nought but grosse hypocrisie.” Quoting “sundry Authors and Grammarians,” Prynne forges the etymological link to “stile Stage-players, hypocrites; Hypocrites, Stage-players, as being one and the same in substance; there being nothing more familiar with them, then to describe an hypocrite by a Stage-player; and a Stage-player by an hypocrite.” Prynne sticks to “Latine Authors”; had he turned to the Greeks, he would have discovered a closer connection.21 On the ancient Greek stage, as Gerald Else has pointed out, the professional actor—the actor who was not the tragedian, the actor who was only an actor—was dubbed the answerer, or hypokritês.22 “Let the end try the man,” Prince Hal declares cryptically to Poins, refusing “all ostentation of sorrow” despite the fact that his “heart bleeds inwardly” at the fact of his father's illness. “What wouldst thou think of me if I should weep?” “I would think thee a most princely hypocrite,” Poins rejoins, and the prince ruefully agrees: “It would be every man's thought, and thou are a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks” (2 Henry IV II.ii.47-57). So the prince is in a sense doomed to act the part of indifference to his father's sickness lest his true feelings be interpreted as feigned. “Behold how like a maid she blushes here!” Claudio exclaims against Hero in Much Ado About Nothing; “Would you not swear, / All you that see her, that she were a maid, / By these exterior shows?” (IV.i.34, 38-40). That Hero looks modest becomes an index of her immodesty; for Hal to appear saddened by his father's sickness would be similar proof of his inward joy. Every man would think so—just as every man thinks he knows the truth about Hero.

Theatrical mimesis itself is misleading, the antitheatrical thinkers tell us. Students, laboriously rehearsing the conflict of appearance versus reality, seem to agree. The problem, of course, is that sometimes things are as they appear. The basic assumption of theater is that appearances somehow do reveal realities, and it corresponds to the assumption in the Anglo-American legal system that the degree of doubt be reasonable. To consider appearances as always misleading is to consider too curiously much of the time. The difficulty is knowing when to trust an appearance and when not to trust it. As Poins confidently declares what he knows every man knows, and what the audience knows to be at least simplistic, if not dead wrong, we face a vortex of theatrical antitheatricality. The choruses of approval or disapproval about Hal's behavior cannot avoid the language of antitheatricality, for to judge Hal ethically is to judge him as a real person, and as the interlude with Poins points out, every man confronts a hall of mirrors here.

This is true even when the attempt is to offer a balanced perspective. “[N]ot quite the paragon some would have him nor the heartless prig others see,” Robert Ornstein says, staking out a middle ground: “Like a clever Elizabethan shopkeeper, Hal knows how to display the merchandise of his behavior in such a light that it appears richer than it is.”23 Tarring the theater with the brush of commercialism, Ornstein is able to accept Hal without embracing him. So, too, according to Jean-Christophe Agnew, did the Stuart courtiers dodge the contagious commerciality of professional players by sealing them off in the world of the antimasque.24

The new historicist blurring of the boundaries between theater and life allows us to see broad ramifications in the problem of Hal's acting as it branches away from Falstaff's towards Essex's, Queen Elizabeth's, and our own. Drawing from Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, we can assert that we are always acting, always playing roles, managing our images.25 As Bruce Wilshire has argued, however, Goffman's notion of role-playing is nominalist: “He construes as manifest appearance, as one real thing, the character played by the actor, whereas the actor himself must be another particular thing, just momentarily hidden by the character he plays.” This sounds like Hal, imitating the sun behind the base contagious clouds. Wilshire sees Goffman as antitheatrical: given his nominalist premises, Goffman “must see the actor's artistry as a kind of deceit. Inevitably, then, he must construe role-like activity offstage as a kind of deceit.”26 Acting in everyday life becomes hypocrisy, and, as we have seen, critics who praise Hal's acting skills, like Blanpied or Wilder or Greenblatt, tend to see him as Machiavellian, although not to agree on the moral weight this should bear.

“Theatre reveals, but does not reveal at all clearly the limits of its ability to reveal,” Wilshire says. “Does theatre reveal what is the case or only what we would like to be the case? The distinction enshrined by the question is grossly misleading. For what could be more actual than the dreams and desires we do have? How can we know ourselves unless we know what these are? Theatre is peculiarly apt to reveal them.”27 Again we can find Hal, teasing the audience's desire for a true prince, its dream of a prodigal son, lurking in the general statement of the problem. The plays dramatize a powerful ambivalence about what theater can reveal about our dreams and desires. What further complicates the problem is that the dreams and desires revolve around the problem of kingship.

The Henry IV plays are ambivalent about theater insofar as they are ambivalent about kingship, and they are ambivalent about kingship insofar as kingship is theatrical. (We can say the same about the criticism of the plays, too.) Prince Hal presents his transformation from prince to king as a miraculous change, planned from the outset and well worth waiting for. The premature self-coronations (over Falstaff and over the sleeping Henry) merely whet our appetite. As king, Hal becomes Shakespeare's most successful public man, Henry V. Critics who argue the issue of King Henry V's sincerity or opportunism miss the point. Kings are ambiguous beings, unavailable to public knowledge: this is the truth ensconced in the doctrine of the king's two bodies, one of which is a body physical and visible to the eye, one of which is a body politic, visible everywhere but by no means a mortal body like ours.

In a different sense, actors also have two bodies, one of which belongs to them personally as ours do, and one of which belongs to the role. “No, that’s certain, I am not a double man,” says Falstaff with Hotspur slung over his shoulder; “but if I be not Jack Falstaff, then am I a Jack” (1 Henry IV V.iv.138-39). Here the true prince confronts a parody of his own plan to use Percy as a factor, engrossing up glorious deeds on his behalf. Falstaff has taken the true prince's heroic part (just as—“Depose me?”—the prince took away Falstaff's royal role in the tavern scene.) He embodies theatrical vitality, the theater's resistance to the moral scheme of Hal's narrative of legitimation.28 But he goes further. Falstaff here, as in the tavern scene, plays Hal and shows Hal himself reduced to the most ridiculous level, to the “thing” he has become.

Antitheatricalism, Barish argues, tends to find its fullest expression in times when the theater is prosperous, “when it counts for something in the emotional and intellectual life of the community.”29 Theater counts for little nowadays, except in the emotional and intellectual life of its practitioners and its scholars. Critics' and audiences' struggles to make sense of Prince Hal mirror his struggle to make moral, historical sense of himself in the ambiguous world of his plays. This is appropriate to the myth of Proteus: once you have grasped and held on to him, the truth he tells you is about yourself.


  1. 2 Henry IV, quoted from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). All subsequent quotations from this and other Shakespeare plays are incorporated in the text.

  2. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1981), pp. 99-126. Here we might also reflect upon the dorado, or dolphin-fish, “celebrated for its beautiful colours, which, when it is taken out of water, or is dying, undergo rapid changes of hue” (OED, s.v. ‘Dolphin,’ 2).

  3. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (New York, 1927), p. 53, as quoted by Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. 102.

  4. Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, pp. 2, 25, 476-77.

  5. David Cole, The Theatrical Event: A Mythos, a Vocabulary, a Perspective (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1975), p. 161.

  6. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 12, 30.

  7. Ann Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962); James Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’ (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1979).

  8. Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 150.

  9. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad, p. 88.

  10. Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 143, 146.

  11. Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1979), p. 115.

  12. Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971), p. 174.

  13. John Wilders, The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 90.

  14. John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1983), p. 163.

  15. Alvin B. Kernan, The Playwright as Magician (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 116.

  16. John D. Cox, Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 120, 127.

  17. Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1984), p. 130.

  18. David Scott Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), 474.

  19. Paul Yachnin, “The Powerless Theater,” English Literary Renaissance, 21 (1991), 51.

  20. Herbert Blau, The Audience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 48-49.

  21. William Prynne, Histriomastix (1633; rpt. New York: Garland Publishing, 1974), pp. 156, 158-59.

  22. Gerald Else, The Origin and Early Form of Greek Tragedy (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 59.

  23. Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 138.

  24. Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 148.

  25. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959).

  26. See Bruce Wilshire, Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre as Metaphor, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 274-81, for his critique of Goffman; my quotation is from p. 275.

  27. Ibid., p. 252.

  28. Phyllis Rackin, in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), concentrates on the way the actor's bodily presence on stage works to undercut the historical record's determination to separate “past from present, writing from speech, fact from fiction, nobles from commoners” (p. 222).

  29. Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. 191.

Criticism: Language

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10135

SOURCE: “Uneasy Lies: Language and History in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 359-85.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Macdonald traces the development and use of language in Shakespeare's history plays, focusing on Henry IV, Parts I and II,and examines the linguistic conventions that sustain and govern the vision of kingship as portrayed in these plays.]

There has always been uncertainty about what we call Shakespeare's “histories.” The genre (if it is a genre) seems inherently unstable under critical scrutiny, always threatening to become something else, to slide over into other generic modes about which there is firmer agreement, to become simply tragedy (Richard II) or comedy (1 Henry IV), or dramatic satire (2 Henry IV). Yet, with the possible exception of early work like The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare seems never to have been willing to accept the traditional genres quite as he found them, and the evidence of impurity, even in the lighthearted romantic comedies, is well known. We will never find in the Shakespearean canon the kind of generic purity that a more strictly classical temperament would consider indispensable.

Yet something does distinguish Shakespeare's histories, particularly the mature work of the second tetralogy here to be considered. I hope I will not be accused of tautology in saying that the “something” is a scrupulous concern for history, for by “history” I do not mean a narrative of events, the “story” of the past, but a concern with processes and the inner necessities of historical change, the mechanisms of transition, the deep and nearly invisible shifts in thinking and assumptions that form the basis of what we call in retrospect, and partly for interpretive convenience, “epochs.” History in this sense was, for Shakespeare, not a compilation of events (set down in the chronicles in apple-pie order), on which he could hang a series of brilliantly conceived (if fundamentally ahistorical) dramatic characters. It was, rather, an extra-personal—if not quite impersonal—phenomenon, playing itself out in different registers in the huge cast of characters that peoples the tetralogy. I am aware that it is not usual to credit Shakespeare with this kind of sophisticated historical understanding; indeed, it is only in our century that it has become usual to credit him with sophistication at all.1 Yet I do so, for once we have abandoned the “native wood-notes wild” hypothesis, rich and complex vistas are open to us. Protests about over-reading often mask a nostalgia for a simple and “natural” Shakespeare, whose small Latin and less Greek are part of his charm. I believe that no reading which makes sense can fairly be called an over-reading.

Because I have said roughly what I mean by history, and because I will refer to “myths” in what follows, I had better say roughly what I mean by myths. I mean neither those colorful tales of gods and goddesses in ancient times, nor “archetypal” patterns in the plays themselves, but, quite simply, the stories men tell one another to achieve political order and consensus. Let me begin by proposing a theory, itself perhaps a myth of origins, which suggests why it is that men speak of kings as “anointed,” as deputies elected by the Lord, and what they hope to accomplish by speaking in this by no means inevitable fashion.

Say that the language of sacred kingship arises in response to a fundamental contradiction in the feudal system as Shakespeare understood it. That contradiction may be brought to the surface by wondering why a feudal system should have a king at all, for feudal society is marked by the formation of many centers of power, independent families with bands of retainers, each internally bound together by blood ties and comitatus loyalty. To speak of a centralized monarchy in a situation which yields, in effect, a number of private armies verges on paradox. I make no attempt to explain (for I really do not know) why it is that monarchies arise in the first place. Perhaps the explanation implicit in 1 Samuel.viii, that the presence of a common enemy leads a pluralistic tribal society to seek centralized leadership, is as good as any. My subject is not, in any case, the origin of monarchy, but the linguistic conventions that sustain it, the conventions that attempt to manage certain fundamental contradictions which threaten disruption.

It seems clear that in a feudal system the language of sacred kingship does not begin by naming those powers and perquisites that are naturally present in the person of the king and in the monarchic institution, but by naming precisely those that are not naturally present. The king is not called “God's anointed,” one does not speak of the divinity that hedges a king because the king really is supreme and untouchable, but because he is patently vulnerable, because in many ways his position is the shakiest one in the pluralistic feudal world. If there is something shrilly hysterical about Richard's manic swing from the extreme position that sees the king as inviolate and inviolable, to the equally extreme position that sees him as the quintessential victim (kings may be deposed, slain in war, poisoned by their wives, killed as they sleep—“all murthered,” says Richard), there is yet the force of insight in his extremity. And we remember that the phrase about the divinity that hedges a king comes from the fratricidal Claudius of Denmark, the most unanointed, so to speak, of Shakespearean monarchs. We may admire (some may even envy) the cool arrogance it must take for one in his position to use the phrase, but we will scarcely accept it from him without protest.

The vocabulary is thus deployed in an attempt to patch up a contradiction, to redress an imbalance, to achieve political consensus. As long as the achieved consensus remains virtually unanimous, as long as it is taught early on to the young, like the very language on which it depends for transmission, it can continue to masquerade, however uneasily, as a description of the nature of things. Thanks to an apparently incorrigible tendency of the human mind to confound culture and nature,2 it will be understood not as a collective fabrication of the social order with discernible historical origins, but as a part of the metaphysical order handed down from on high at the creation.

But such consensuses are notoriously fragile. Any essentially secular and social construct, which has managed to get itself promoted to the status of the nature of things, so that it is viewed as the original creation of God and an expression of His will, is liable to be asked for its credentials, to prove that its origin lies in the mind of God, and not, as it seems to do as a matter of fact, in the minds of men. The initiative may well come from a child, who has as yet to master the language of the social order to the point where it is part of his unconscious stock-in-trade. In fact, as we shall see, it is more accurate to say that such a child has not yet allowed that language to master him. “The emperor has no clothes,” the candid child observes in Andersen's tale. He has not yet come under the sway of the bizarre notion that the emperor's word is as good as the fact; and, not being subject to this mastering assumption, he will not be surprised to learn that the insane project of appearing in public stark naked originated with an unscrupulous tailor in possession of a bright idea. In what follows, we will encounter the emperor in the slender person of King Richard II, the child in the more robust person of Henry Bullingbrook, and the tailor in the huge bulk of Jack Falstaff.

What follows also falls into three parts, corresponding roughly to the dialectical moments of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The first part ends with Richard, whose thesis has collided with the antithetical Bullingbrook and his fellow conspirators, including Hotspur. The second ends with Hotspur, who has now become the antithesis of an antithesis in that he is engaged in conspiracy against the very Lancastrian throne he has previously helped to establish. His veering about expresses what will happen to Bullingbrook as Henry IV, and it is on the complex figure of the new king, traversed by contradiction, yet attempting a reluctant and uneasy synthesis, that the third part comes to rest. The triadic structure of my argument thus seeks to reveal some unsuspected similarities among three heterogeneous and apparently ill-sorted figures, and to plot those figures as three points converging.


Briefly, what the emperor learns from the child and what Richard learns from Bullingbrook is that you don’t need any water at all (let alone all the water in the rough, rude sea) to wash the balm off an anointed king. The usurpation brings to awareness the essentially secular, fabricated character of the political order. The awareness arrives with the force of Platonic anamnesis, the unforgetting of what we knew all along; in contemporary terms it effects what Freud called the return of the repressed. Amidst the wreckage of the institution of sacred kingship, Richard must learn, somewhat in the manner of Molière's bourgeois gentleman, that he has actually been speaking prose all his life. His words have no privileged efficacy, certainly not the magical force that the old consensus seemed to confer upon them. Perhaps even more important, his power to silence others depends solely on their acquiescing in being silenced. Here is Thomas Mowbray responding to Richard's sentence of banishment:

A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,
And all unlook’d for from your Highness' mouth.
A dearer merit, not so deep a maim
As to be cast forth in the common air,
Have I deserved at your Highness' hands.
The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo,
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
.....Within my mouth you have enjail’d my tongue,
Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips, … 

(I.iii.154-62, 166-67)3

These are the words of an old loyalist, assenting to the underlying assumption that the king's speech (his sentence in a number of senses) has force. But even in this apparently unproblematic, ritualistic tribute to the king's verbal efficacy, there lurk certain troubling hints of what has been repressed, and now fairly clamors for expression. For in saying that he deserves a better fate at Richard's hands, Mowbray must allude, whether he intends to or not, to his loyal silence concerning Richard's conniving in the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, a very real silence that precedes any ritualistic sentence of banishment and the merely metaphorical silence attendant upon it. Richard has “enjail’d” Mowbray's tongue in the perfectly ordinary sense that he has gotten him to promise to keep quiet about the murder of Woodstock. That Mowbray now abides by this promise is not the result of some mysterious power inhering in the words of the king, but the result of his loyalty and sense of personal honor. And it is precisely on this prior silence, the product of the give and take of political conspiracy, that such power as Richard has very materially rests.

It is remarkable that Shakespeare nowhere passes moral judgment on the murder of Woodstock. It may, indeed, and for all we are told, have been the smartest thing to do in the circumstances. Perhaps it has been Richard's only means of consolidating his power, hard won from the Lords Appellant in the previous decade. But what really interested Shakespeare was that the move, whatever its merits, was truly political, a matter of agreements, trade-offs, the give and take of bargains. Whatever the circumstances of Woodstock's death, and whoever is implicated, Richard has not brought it about by a magical decree. But in banishing Mowbray, Richard attempts to take refuge in the notion of the king's magical and ritual power. In so doing he becomes embroiled in enormous difficulty, for he attempts to solve a real problem by imaginary means.

This is not to deny, of course, that there will be plenty of occasions when it will be expedient and shrewd for the king to speak as if he had not only magical powers, but a virtual monopoly of divine vengeance. Henry IV will do this repeatedly, usually with an eye for contingencies, and very much alive to the possibility that no one will believe him. But this is still to speak politically, to use the vocabulary of sacred kingship as a special language aimed at bringing about secular solutions. It is not to embrace as truths those things the special language enables you to say.

But Richard does not use the language of sacred kingship: he allows it to use him. In surrendering himself entirely to the assumptions inherent in the system, he represses the altogether pertinent fact that the divinity that hedges a king is an ambiguous concept. If there really is such a divinity, it hedges a king in two senses: it hedges him in, and it hedges him off; it at once protects him, and sets real limits to his power. It is surely the second meaning that Richard has forgotten in his attempt to cover political action with ritualistic and magical means, to deny the palpable contradiction of a divinely anointed king engaging in political maneuvering.

This is perhaps Richard's real abdication, that in insisting on his role as rex, he forgets he must also be dux,4 and the scene later on (IV.i), where he actually gives Bullingbrook the crown, is but the seal and capstone to it. Richard's attempt to deny the historical and political character of his world is no more successful than most attempts at repression, though it is only in the heightened vision of drama that the repressed returns with the signal clarity with which Henry Bullingbrook returns to England. But there is much that is deeply and humanly moving about Richard's failure, and it is certainly a mistake to read his tragedy simply as a tragedy of character, the collapse of a shrill and rather precious neurotic in a situation that could have been successfully managed by a different personality. Shakespeare certainly differentiated Richard's personality profoundly, he certainly succeeded in creating a compelling and complex dramatic person, but this should not obscure the fact that it is Richard's distinct and unenviable role to enact and clarify certain paradoxes that do not stem from his idiosyncrasies, but are latent in the political order.5 He must live those paradoxes for all to see, and not the least of these is the fact that the more he insists on his power as the anointed king, the less real power he wields.

Richard is abetted in contradiction by his friends quite as much as by his enemies. There is much talk of flatterers and flattery in Richard II, and the Lancastrian faction is fond of conjuring the bogey of hypocritical and ill-intentioned friends, who are leading the king astray for self-serving reasons. But a careful search of the play will fail to turn up any clear-cut examples of such friends. It is as if the Lancastrians, in speaking of evil flatterers, were trying to evoke the world of the first tetralogy with its stage villains and quasi-devils, as well as its saviors. Such talk has ultimately the effect of reminding us of the altogether different world we have entered with the second tetralogy. That world is too stubbornly concrete to yield to the simple moral patterns that men try to impose on it.

Evidence of this concreteness is partly furnished by the inadequacy of the existing idiom to manage the complexities of the actual, historical situation. Those critical of Richard are, willy-nilly, his flatterers quite as much as those who remain loyally silent. Here is Gaunt, for instance, advising Richard from his deathbed:

Now He that made me knows I see thee ill,
Ill in myself to see, and in thee, seeing ill.
Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick,
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Commit’st thy anointed body to the cure
Of those physicians that first wounded thee.
A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head,
And yet, [incaged] in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.


In the very act of denouncing flatterers, Gaunt is constrained to use the language of sacred kingship, to speak of the king's anointed body, and to suggest the analogy between the health of that body and the health of the land as a whole. It is not that Gaunt wishes to flatter Richard (quite the opposite), but that the only language available to him contains and supports the contradictions and confusions in the system of sacred kingship that are emerging with the return of Bullingbrook. Gaunt's deathbed speech is in reality a tissue of proverbs and homilies, all a good deal too neat to manage the concrete complexities of the historical moment:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspir’d,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small show’rs last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.


It is not that Gaunt's string of proverbs does not contain some truth, but that it is not prophetic in any useful sense. His speech becomes, with its iterations and heavy emphases, an attempt to conjure an England which, if it ever existed at all, is now certainly dying along with Gaunt himself:

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings.
.....This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas’d out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

(II.i.50-51, 57-68)

We will meet this relatively flat-footed repetitiveness in the discourse of others: it is always an indication that the speaker is in the presence of a concrete circumstance he has no real power to control. Gaunt's concluding wish that his death might be a sacrifice to relieve England of scandal contains the residue of magical thinking. If there is a way out of difficulty, it lies not in magical expiation, but in facing language and the ambiguities it generates, perhaps in working through those “inky blots and rotten parchment bonds” that Gaunt simply wishes away in contempt.

The homiletic idiom is bankrupt in the world of Richard II, for it has no power to govern the ways in which men really behave. Bullingbrook significantly ignores it. Not for him the consolations of philosophy:

Teach thy necessity to reason thus:
There is no virtue like necessity.
Think not the King did banish thee,
But thou the King. Woe doth the heavier sit
Where it perceives it is but faintly borne.
Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honor,
And not the King exil’d thee.


This begins to anticipate Polonius, and it has about the same success in restraining Bullingbrook as Polonius' wise saws have in restraining Laertes. Bullingbrook will not pretend that he has banished the king: he will, indeed, banish him. My point is simply that Richard is not the only one in the play who unreflectingly allows the established idiom to speak in him, rather than using that idiom in all self-consciousness as a means to a political end. Richard's volatile personality drives him to extreme positions, to be sure, but those positions do have the merit of exposing the contradictions inherent in the established idiom that everyone else is willing to leave unexamined. Thus to Aumerle's and Carlisle's gentle promptings to action, Richard characteristically responds with a metaphor that he does not quite recognize as a metaphor:

So when this thief, this traitor Bullingbrook,
Who all this while hath revell’d in the night,
Whilst we were wand’ring with the antipodes,
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.


Richard takes the extreme position that, if what the language of sacred kingship seems to be saying is really true, if he really is God's anointed, then he should not have to lift a finger to retain his kingdom. Battles are, of course, not won with glorious angels in heavenly pay, but Richard's uncompromising stand, by taking the established idiom at its word, at least tests that idiom, ultimately finding it inadequate to the real and historical facts of the matter. Having wrung from the idiom a confession of its real inadequacy, Richard will go on to remake a poetic language which, if impotent, is still in touch with a tangible world:

In winter's tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks and let them tell [thee] tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid good night, to quite their griefs,
Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds.
For why, the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent of thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out,
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal-black,
For the deposing of a rightful king.


This is in many ways the discourse we have known all along, and Richard's characteristic extravagance, his narcissism, his tendency to see himself as a character in a story (“For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings,” III.ii.155-56) are fully in evidence. But what is in some respects the most extravagant image of his farewell to his queen, the image of the firelogs weeping at his fate, is grounded in observation of the concrete. Anyone who has ever watched a green log burn will know what he is talking about, and anyone who has built a fire with green wood will know that it can “weep” a fire out. This is a fundamentally sounder metaphor (and Richard treats it as a metaphor, and nothing more) than talk of angels in heavenly pay. Green logs are real. Angels must remain a supposition.

It is not, of course, that Richard achieves an idiom adequate to political realities, though he does achieve an authentic idiom. He rises to a self-conscious mastery of language that no one else in this play approaches. Richard perhaps glimpses the fact that language, like magic, must be discounted before it can become effective. The man who invokes divine vengeance and expects a prompt bolt of lightning may have a long wait in store for him. He hasn’t, after all, completed the trick, for though he may well and truly have sawed the lady in half, he hasn’t put her back together again. To insist on what is ultimately fictional power ends up in exposing real weakness. But real weakness, properly managed, may result in real power. It is certainly possible, for instance, to invoke divine vengeance, and all the while be perfectly clear in your mind that divine vengeance has a reputation for unreliability, that it frequently fails to materialize, and, that when it does, it has a notorious tendency to miss its mark. The question here will be the expediency of invoking divine vengeance in the first place. If the truculent and fractious persons with whom you have to deal happen also to be superstitious, you might well murmur something about heavenly retribution. And if something fairly momentous has already happened, a decisive battle, say, the victor may choose to call his victory divine vengeance with relative impunity. He invokes it, in effect, after the fact.

But these are matters for the precocious child and the unscrupulous tailor. The emperor, for all his achievement of an authentic poetic idiom, turns his back on history. Who is to say that he does this out of a neurosis the like of which we will never know? For it is not just that Richard fears history: history really is a fearful thing. It tells us, not only that actions and events are irreversible, but that we initiate those actions and events, and must bear their consequences. We are all of us at times aware of having all too much power, aware that our words really do make a difference, though it is assuredly not by magical means that they do. It may be futile to work magic, but, given the continuous pain of historical consciousness, it may not be altogether inexplicable that one in Richard's position should try.


It would be in some ways convenient to say that we have done with the emperor and are now at liberty to concentrate on the child and the tailor. But the dialectical process in which the past is continually reassumed in the present, the veering about which so often accompanies political upheaval, makes it a difficult matter to forget the emperor entirely. The name of Richard becomes a rallying cry for faction in the vigorous world of the two parts of Henry IV, and the memory of the old order, now at enough of a distance that it may be readily sentimentalized, will continue to fascinate even those who have been most materially involved in pulling it down.

To be sure, the discoveries effected by the usurpation are experienced at first as an enormous liberation. So much energy is, in fact, set loose that the man responsible for its liberation, now Henry IV, seems in certain private moments overwhelmed as he contemplates the huge and unruly rabbit he has plucked from what looked like an ordinary-sized hat. He is a man, and in this he is like most of us, not entirely happy about bearing the consequences of his irreversible historical actions. A king who is in the curious position of having denied that the king's words have any privileged efficacy, who has rightly seen that the power of the word lies in its context and not in itself, will be hard pressed to keep his discovery a secret. Certain implications of the usurpation are not lost on John Falstaff, for instance, and he will not fail to point out some embarrassing correspondences in the scheme of the new order. Here he is, trading lines with Prince Hal, admitting quite frankly that he is a thief; in fact, as he says, thievery is his vocation, and “’tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation” (1 Henry IV, I.ii.104-5). Under other circumstances we would not allow this outrageous extension of the word's reference; we would argue that the criteria in virtue of which we apply the word “vocation” are simply not present in the area of thievery. But if the man now sitting on the throne has, indeed, stolen his crown, has he not in some sense sanctioned the extension of reference that we would otherwise be prone to disallow? If the king resents being called a thief (and he surely does), must he not buy the silence of thieves by allowing them to call their thievery a vocation? Here is Richard's old problem with Mowbray fantastically compounded, for presumably Richard had a choice about entering into conspiracy with Mowbray, though, as we have seen, once in conspiracy he was powerless to get out again. But in a very real sense, Henry, in choosing to steal the crown, has relinquished his freedom to choose his confederates, for he depends on the silence of all who speak English and have the wit to understand the situation he has created. This is perhaps a historical consequence of the usurpation that he has not foreseen.

As Henry enters, willy-nilly, into uneasy alliance with pick-pockets, footpads, and similar unsavory types, he must notice not only the presence of unforeseen consequences, but also the absence of certain institutions of convenience generated by the old order that he has swept away with such apparent ease. Consider, for instance, the oath, that locutionary act by means of which men bind themselves, on pain of personal discomfiture, to carry out specific performances. Here is a sampling of oaths, selected not quite at random from the literally hundreds that stuff the language of 1 Henry IV:

1. By the Lord, and I do not, I am a villain.


2. I’ll make one, an’ I do not, call me villain
and baffle me.


3. By God, he shall not have a Scot of them,
                              No, if a Scot would save his soul, he shall not!


4. An’ it be not four by the day, I’ll be hang’d.


I choose these because they represent a situation, not at all uncommon in the play, where an oath is given and then immediately contravened. The first two, and the clearest examples, are Falstaff's. With the first he swears to reform his wicked ways; with the second, a mere five lines later, he swears to join Hal in stealing a purse. Falstaff makes the outrageous contradiction highly visible by invoking the same penalty (being reduced to the rank of villain) on two incompatible performances. We should be exceedingly wary of believing (as Hal seems to do here) that Falstaff has been caught out, that the contradiction is inadvertent. He displays the contradiction, invites our attention to it, precisely in the way he will later underscore a patent fabrication by multiplying men in buckram suits (II.iv.191 ff.). In that later instance Hal will accuse him with some heat of lying about his exploits. The accusation imprudently overlooks the fact that Falstaff's exaggerations are clearly designed to be seen through. He isn’t lying, he claims implicitly, but spinning a yarn, and to accuse a yarn-spinner of lying is to make yourself look something of a sore-headed spoilsport. One of the weakest kinds of triumph is to think you have caught a man in a lie, and then have him show that he was only trying to entertain you. The stakes are perhaps somewhat lower in the matter of Falstaff's contradictory oaths, but the principles are similar: catch him out, and you become a killjoy; let the contradiction pass unremarked, and you seem to connive in degrading the whole institution of promising. This real dilemma, conjured up with a couple of apparently casual oaths, suggests that Falstaff's verbal skill is of a very high order.

Not so with the next oath in our sample, which belongs to Hotspur. He is denying his Scottish prisoners to King Henry, and doing this with some force; but fifty lines later, when Worcester has broached the conspiracy against the King, he agrees without demur to deliver them up unransomed. He is by no means aware of the contradiction; he has simply forgotten, in his characteristically hare-brained way, that he has promised anything at all.

The shrewd man may very well break a promise: this is the case with our last oath, which belongs to the unnamed carrier in II.i. He swears that it is four o’clock in the morning (if it is not, he will be hanged); he even offers supporting astronomical evidence: “Charles' wain is over the new chimney” (l. 1-2). Yet when the thief Gadshill, about whom the carrier has every reason to be suspicious, asks him the time, he says “I think it be two a’ clock” (l. 33). He is very wisely denying a potential highjacker information about a time when he may expect to find portable property on the road. This is clearly more important in the circumstances than the very remote possibility that anyone will actually offer to hang him for contravening his initial oath. Perhaps the worst that can happen is that Gadshill will glance at Charles's wain over the new chimney and conclude that the carrier is lying. But that risk is certainly worth taking: if it succeeds, the advantage gained is real; if it fails, the consequences are trivial.

But no such careful calculation informs the promises that Hotspur makes and breaks. It may be argued that genuinely to forget a promise is not the same as to break it, and that the forgetful man enjoys a certain moral superiority over the consciously duplicitous one. But there is, for all that, a very high price to be paid for this moral superiority, for you deliver yourself over, body and soul, to those with a deeper understanding of the institution of promising, to those who are more than willing to suffer your old-fashioned talk about honor and justice and right, and then let you pay, for an hour or so of chivalric masquerading at Shrewsbury, with your life. The day belongs, even as it did in Richard's time, to the man who thinks in and through the language he speaks, and not to the man who allows that language to think in him.

The day belongs, in short, at least in the world of 1 Henry IV, to Falstaff. He has fully mastered one of the lessons that Richard has to teach, that weakness, properly managed, may result in real power. Another characteristic locutionary act in the play, one closely related to the oath, is the boast, an assertion of personal power peculiarly vulnerable to deflation:

We steal as in a castle, cock-sure; we have the receipt of fern-seed,
we walk invisible.
Nay, by my faith, I think you are more beholding to the night than to
fern-seed for your walking invisible.


I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?


But, as the devil would have it, three misbegotten knaves in Kendal
green came at my back and let drive at me, for it was so dark, Hal, that thou
couldest not see thy hand.
These lies are like their father that begets them, gross as a mountain,
open, palpable.


The difference between Falstaff's boast and those of Gadshill and Glendower is simply that Falstaff offers his in full awareness of the way in which it renders him vulnerable. Indeed, his vulnerability is so obvious that the prudent man will be wary of it, and suspect that it conceals a trap.

In 2 Henry IV, Falstaff will speak of turning “diseases to commodity”: “’Tis no matter if I do halt, I have the wars for my color, and my pension shall seem the more reasonable. A good wit will make use of any thing” (I.ii.245-48). It is a good description of Falstaff's strategy in general, for he is continually presenting himself as weak and vulnerable in order to gain advantage. Asked to impersonate the king in a play ex tempore (and much of Falstaff's behavior elsewhere might be described as a play ex tempore, for he is above all a brilliant improviser), he elects to do the part “in King Cambyses' vein,” that is, in the patently artificial and old-fashioned ranting style of Thomas Preston. Falstaff embraces incompetence (and King Cambyses' vein turns out to sound oddly like the euphuistic prose of John Lyly) in order to play what is in fact a deep and complicated game. For in presenting himself as a clumsy actor, Falstaff manages to insinuate with utter impunity the very disloyal suggestion not only that the real king is a player-king (because he has no lineal title to the office of anointed king which he now fills), but that his monarchical impersonation is transparent and unconvincing. The style of Thomas Preston (or John Lyly) is the appropriate one for the part of King Henry precisely because it is artificial and obvious:

That thou art my son I have partly thy mother's word, partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villainous trick of thine eye, and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip, that doth warrant me. If then thou be son to me, here lies the point: why being son to me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries? a question not to be ask’d. Shall the son of England prove a thief and take purses? a question to be ask’d.

(1 Henry IV, II.iv.403-10)

Falstaff avoids any unseemly explicitness, but the nimble play with the homophones “sun” and “son” is rather dazzling. To the ear, the phrase “son of England” is indistinguishable from “sun of England,” a well-known locution for the reigning monarch. It is a question to be asked, since the present sun of England has, indeed, proved a thief, and not of paltry purses, but of a throne. Falstaff's pretended vulnerability reveals Henry's very real vulnerability at a deeper level.

To speak effectively in the new world created by the usurpation requires the exploitation of all the figurative resources of language, of irony, of understatement, of wary hyperbole and deft paronomasia. The days are gone when simple grandiloquence of the “This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land” kind will do. When in the deposition scene of Richard II Bullingbrook asks Richard if he is contented to resign the crown, Richard's riddling reply; “Ay, no, no ay” (IV.i.201), is something more than idle play with the homophones “ay” and “I.” Richard has come to realize that a language that can only speak of either/or, that can generate no discourse governing the in-between, is inadequate to cover the complex of feelings he is now experiencing. His equivocation is the true expression of his inability to answer Bullingbrook's bald question with anything like the clarity Bullingbrook seems to require.

The changes of history demand changes of language, and to survive in the world of the two parts of Henry IV is to learn to speak in ways that are adequate to the occasion. Much of Hal's “education” in the course of the plays, if that is what it is, may be described as his attempt to master new languages, to be able to “drink with any tinker in his own language” (II.iv.19); to be able to speak like Hotspur (“‘Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he, and answers, ‘Some fourteen,’ an hour after; ‘a trifle, a trifle,’” II.iv.106-8); to speak like a king; or to speak like himself:

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyok’d humor of your idleness,
Yet herein will I imitate the sun.

(1 Henry IV, I.ii.195-97)

The homophonic play (which at this early stage, when Hal tends to sound a bit smug, may not be fully conscious) suggests “imitate the son.” The real task, in the shifting and ambiguous world created by the usurpation, is to be yourself. This is not a matter of the “naturalness” of manner tirelessly recommended in books of etiquette and treatises on how to succeed. It is a rigorous process of learning the languages of others and inventing a language of your own. When in the first reconciliation scene, Hal replies to his father's long sermon on the proper behavior exemplified by his aristocratic ancestors, his reply is anything but casual: “I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord, / Be more myself” (III.ii.92-93). And we will not be surprised to find him at the very end of Henry V learning yet another language, this time the French of his affianced Kate.

It is those who do not grow in language, who do not submit themselves to its shifting substance and stubborn materiality, who are defeated by history in the world of the Henry IV plays. Hotspur is first in this group, because, for all his eloquence, he has a thoroughly naïve relation to the language he speaks. There is so much in him to remind us of the new order that it is easy to underestimate the extent to which he abandons himself to the aristocratic myths of the old order. Yet his gaze is basically retrospective, and it is in his casualness with language, and particularly in his unreflective relation to the institution of promising, that we can discover his allegiances most clearly. Here is Hotspur in soliloquy, congratulating himself warmly on the excellence of the anti-Lancastrian conspiracy:

By the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was laid, our friends true and constant: a good plot, good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends. … Is there not my father, my uncle, and myself? Lord Edmund Mortimer, my Lord of York, and Owen Glendower? is there not besides the Douglas? have I not all their letters to meet me in arms by the ninth of the next month?

(1 Henry IV, II.iii.15-19, 23-28)

We should be suspicious of Hotspur's way of upping the verbal ante here (“a good plot, good friends. … an excellent plot, very good friends”), for, as the example of Richard made clear, you can’t make a thing so by saying it, nor a friend true by heaping him with honorific adjectives. Wishes are not horses, they are words, and that is why beggars have to walk. Hotspur's touching faith in the written promises of his fellow conspirators, in the letters he has in hand, is rather cruelly rewarded when, of the good friends he mentions here, all but two fail to show up and do battle.


I do not want to leave the impression that in Richard's day (or any other) no one broke promises. We have seen that a man's word is never in fact a magical guarantee of anything, and that men keep promises because, for whatever reasons, they choose to keep them. We have been concerned with the institution of promising, a matter of consensus, not a matter of some mysterious power actually present in words. It is doubtful that any society can securely maintain for long the collective fiction that words bind when men choose not to be bound. Too much happens to contradict it: divine vengeance invoked will fail to materialize, men under oath will continue to renege after consulting private interest. But this sensible and hard-headed view should not obscure the fact that there are in every society a few people who believe the myth of verbal magic some of the time, and still others who would like to believe it. There is often a very fine line between wishing something were so and believing you can bring it about by wishing. We are all liable at times to confuse imagination with power, which is one reason why words must be discounted if they are to have any real power at all. Perhaps kings are particularly vulnerable, since they tend to be surrounded by flatterers, by men who see it as their job to support the confusion. If the king does not smell them out, as Lear finally does on the heath, he may come to believe that he really is everything. But we know that this is a lie; the king is not ague-proof.

King Henry, shrewd man of the new order that he is, is yet not immune to this danger. He is certainly capable of wishing, and his wishes are revealing. He wishes, for instance, that his eldest son would behave better, be an old-fashioned gentleman like Northumberland's son Hotspur:

                                                            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!

(I Henry IV, I.i.86-89)

Henry is perfectly in possession of himself here, and we shall hardly credit him with a belief in fairies on the basis of these lines. They hint, however, at a genuinely dialectical phenomenon in which a process begins to veer back on itself, in which the man who succeeded in pulling down the old consensus now looks back on its ruins in search of those consolations mere history refuses to provide. In his first reconciliation with Hal, Henry will speak a language which on one level is designed to scold a wayward boy, but which is nonetheless obliquely eloquent of Henry's own longings for order and clarity, for an unambiguous world where good and evil are readily identifiable and rewards and punishments are symmetrically distributed. There is a conundrum implicit in the lines that follow, which turns out to be as pertinent to the relationship between kings and their subjects as it is to the relationship between parents and their children: who will scold the scolder?

I know not whether God will have it so
For some displeasing service I have done,
That in his secret doom, out of my blood
He’ll breed revengement and a scourge for me;
But thou dost in thy passages of life
Make me believe that thou art only mark’d
For the hot vengeance, and the rod of heaven,
To punish my mistreadings. 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 grafted to,
Accompany the greatness of thy blood,
And hold their level with thy princely heart?

(1 Henry IV, III.ii.4-17)

This language, on careful examination, proves to be full of odd displacements and skewed emphases. Henry calls his own misdoings “mistreadings”; he speaks vaguely of “some displeasing service” for which God must be angry with him. But these misdoings he so evasively names were once called usurpation and regicide, and still would be if some were empowered to speak freely. Henry's language thus reduces what are (by some standards) enormities to mere misdemeanors, at the same time that it takes Hal's misdemeanors (which amount, after all, to some youthful pranks and a couple of drinks with the boys) and promotes them to enormities—“such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts.” We recognize in Henry's catalogue the same technique of repetition and adjectival onslaught that we remarked in Gaunt's deathbed speech and in Hotspur's soliloquy. And those features are here, as elsewhere, the surest sign that words are at odds with a reality the speaker has no real power to control.

In the heady days of the usurpation, Henry certainly did not behave like a man who believed that transgression would be punished swiftly by the efficient operation of the cosmic machine. Yet here he speaks of God breeding “revengement and a scourge,” of “hot vengeance, and the rod of heaven,” terms which are, by the way, oddly out of proportion to the kinds of sins one can legitimately call “mistreadings.” The return of the repressed, which no political revolution ever succeeds in doing away with, operates with full force in these lines, for even as Henry struggles to mitigate his sense of sinfulness by calling usurpation and regicide “mistreadings,” his conviction of guilt is bound upon him afresh with the inflated terms he chooses for divine vengeance. It is further remarkable that not once does Henry suggest that God might punish Hal for Hal's misdoings—remarkable because, after all, Hal is the one who incurs blame for his own actions, whether we choose to call them sins or the youthful sowing of wild oats. The reasonable expectation that Henry is warning Hal of divine displeasure is so powerful that it is something of a struggle for us to see what Henry's lines are really saying. Henry speaks of his own punishment, and in so doing betrays a wish for the moral order he has in another sense denied.

It is understandable that a man who begins by discovering an intoxicating freedom—even thrones are there for the taking—should come to long, deep in his soul, for the very sanctions he has daffed aside. Historical consciousness is painful precisely because it cannot generate a stable and symmetrical world. In the new order Henry is nominally the most powerful man in the land, yet he can not even control the behavior of his own flesh and blood. Meanwhile, he has relinquished the consolations of the old order, among them a language that seemed to enable men to speak with authority and conviction about a symmetry of crime and punishment. Henry is perhaps not the only man who would—even at the price of his own punishment—buy back that symmetry if only the balefulness of history would allow.

The tinge of nostalgia in Henry's speech, which becomes much more than a tinge as he sickens throughout the second part of Henry IV, is indicative of a general inertia in language. On account of this inertia, language tends to lag behind the rapid changes of historical movement; it tends to continue to be governed, in the face of massive upheaval, by a previous harmony. This retrograde character of language is particularly in evidence in the second part of Henry IV, where it afflicts even the verbally nimble Falstaff. It puts visible strain on certain words whose meanings are beginning to be placed in doubt by history, words so common that they seem, without question, to designate a readily distinguishable segment of reality. “Gentleman” is such a word, and when the Lord Bardolph arrives at Northumberland's castle with a glowing report of rebel victory, he does not hesitate to guarantee the truth of his report by invoking the breeding of the gentleman from whom he has had it:

I spake with one, my lord, who came from thence,
A gentleman well bred and of good name,
That freely rend’red me these news for true.


That the good news proves utterly false is an early indication that the word “gentleman” is no longer the powerful guarantee that it once was.

The second part of Henry IV, even more than the first, shows us a world in which the old aristocrat no longer finds himself alone. There is an extremely vital and energetic underclass in the plays, and it makes itself increasingly known to the higher orders. The petit bourgeois merchant, the tradesman, the seller of various commodities (a word very much in the process of changing its meaning in this historical watershed) are all jostling for position and asserting their rights.6 This cast of characters is largely invisible, hardly more than a succession of names and occupations cropping up here and there in the speeches of the main characters, yet they are somehow more real than the country folk with label-names (Mouldy, Wart, Shadow, Feeble) who actually appear on stage. There is, for instance, the witty physician who says of Falstaff's urine sample that “the water itself was a good healthy water, but for the party that ow’d it, he might have moe diseases than he knew for” (I.ii.3-5). There is Master Tisick, the deputy, and Master Dumbe, the minister, impressive men in the eyes of the Hostess. There is, above all, Master Dommelton, the independent mercer, who refuses Falstaff credit:

Let him be damn’d like the glutton! Pray God his tongue be hotter! A whoreson Achitophel! a [rascally] yea-forsooth knave, to bear a gentleman in hand, and then stand upon security! The whoreson smoothy-pates do now wear nothing but high shoes, and bunches of keys at their girdles, and if a man is through with them in honest taking up, then they must stand upon security. I had as live they would put ratsbane in my mouth as offer to stop it with security. I look’d ’a should have sent me two and twenty yards of satin (as I am a true knight), and he sends me security!


Falstaff encounters here a stubborn reality, which refuses to credit an older language (the words “gentleman” and “true knight”) with the power to guarantee that it once had. Falstaff encounters increasing difficulty, even with the gullible Hostess:

As I am a gentleman!
Faith, you said so before.
As I am a gentleman! Come, no more words of it.


It is not a little ironic that Falstaff should find himself using a language that has become partly obsolete, for he has been active in discrediting it. Not only have his escapades put the integrity of knighthood in doubt; his profound playing with language has suggested the very transformations that here inconvenience him. When, as in the first part, “squires of the knight's body” become “squires of the night's body” (I.ii.24), it is not certain whether thieves shall be taken for knights, or knights for thieves. In some sense Falstaff's attempt to give thievery a good name has gone awry in the second part, and succeeded only in giving knighthood a bad one. But what is of real interest is the extent to which Falstaff clings to an idiom whose power has been substantially reduced in the face of historical change. The world of the first part is concerned with a transitional period in between two consolidated orders, a time when the vocabulary of the vanished order still has a certain power, even though the system on which it rested has been virtually dismantled. But such a situation must be inherently unstable. The old appraisive terms are increasingly met with a healthy skepticism on the part of the newly independent underclass, and are in the process of being discarded or redefined. The period when the man skilled in language can seem to rule the world is necessarily short-lived. Language cannot be appropriated permanently, because it is not, finally, property. It is “vulgar” in the literal sense, held in common, and Falstaff's dwindling power in the second part is largely due to the public's decreasing willingness to credit his vocabulary with the power conferred upon it by the vanished order.

We see the tendency to cling to the idiom of the old order nowhere more clearly than in the private moments of Henry IV himself, the very man who has been most practically involved in bringing the old order down. In his first reconciliation with Hal in the first part (III.ii), the fact that he invokes the old standard of aristocratic blood and speaks of Hal's “affections, which hold a wing / Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors” (l. 30-31) is remarkable, but not ultimately surprising. The king's nostalgia for the very order that his actions have so profoundly denied is simply a measure of the historically generated divisions within the man, divisions that are close to the surface in his famous soliloquy in the second part:

How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep! O gentle sleep!
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why li’st thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ’larum bell?


We detect here a rather sentimental portrayal of the lower orders, some members of which we have just seen in anything but peaceful repose. The thrust behind Henry's speech is a pastoral longing, and we suspect that his emergent “nostalgia for the bottom” comes not from his sense of the responsibilities attendant upon high station, but from the guilt of having acquired that high station in the first place. Envying the lower orders is a pastoral alibi for the guilt of continuing to possess things got by doubtful means. Pastoral is an aristocratic myth aimed at covering up the real character of a longing for the bottom, and the surest sign of this is that pastoral always wants to have it both ways: it wills a simple life and the perquisites that go with high station. Shakespeare elsewhere pokes a good deal of fun at this willed contradiction in pastoral,7 but here Henry's embracing of the contradiction is simply the sign of his divided allegiance. He would like to go on speaking the language of the old order, while enjoying the advantages of the new.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”: this familiar, sententious utterance contains a telling pun, one that we have already seen Falstaff exploiting adeptly at Shrewsbury in part one: “Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath, and so was he, but we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock” (V.iv.145-48). In the world after the usurpation, the head that wears a crown will always lie, however uneasily, for possession of the crown depends upon a fabrication. That this has always been the case is made clear by the example of Richard, but in the old order perhaps the lie of anointed kingship was not always an uneasy one. At least it had the tacit support of a consensus. In sweeping away that consensus, Henry acquires an uneasiness that will hereafter be part of the business of ruling.


  1. At the outset I should like to make clear my debt to Sigurd Burckhardt in much of what follows. His “Swoll’n with Some Other Grief: Shakespeare's Prince Hal Trilogy” in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 144-205, takes much the same view of history as the one propounded here. Joseph Porter's The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) came to my attention after I had written this article, but I note that we agree about a number of points about speech acts in the Lancastrian plays.

  2. Mircea Eliade remarked, “In this total adherence, on the part of archaic man, to archetypes and repetition, modern man would be justified in seeing not only the primitives' amazement at their own first spontaneous and creative free gestures and their veneration, repeated ad infinitum, but also a feeling of guilt on the part of man hardly emerged from the paradise of animality (i.e., from nature), a feeling that urges him to reidentify with nature's eternal repetition the few primordial, creative, and spontaneous gestures that had signalized the appearance of freedom.” See The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (1949), tr. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series XLVI (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), p. 155.

  3. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). All subsequent quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from this edition.

  4. For a succinct statement of this duality in monarchy see Otto Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age, tr. Frederic William Maitland (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 30-37.

  5. One such paradox is the doctrine of the king's two bodies, thoroughly discussed by Ernst Kantorowicz in The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957). See especially chap. 2, “Shakespeare: King Richard II,” pp. 24-41.

  6. For an excellent discussion of the shifting meanings of words in history, and specifically of the word “commodity,” see Quentin Skinner, “Language and Social Change” in The State of the Language, ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), pp. 562-78.

  7. C. L. Barber remarked in discussing As You Like It that Touchstone's discussion of the shepherd's life (III.ii.13-22) “mocks the contradictory nature of the desires ideally resolved by pastoral life, to be at once in the court and in the fields, to enjoy both the fat advantages of rank and the spare advantages of the mean and sure estate.” See Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (1959; rpt. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), p. 227.

D. J. Palmer (essay date 1970)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7411

SOURCE: “Casting off the Old Man: History and St. Paul in Henry IV,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 315-36.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Palmer points to several instances in the Henry IV plays that anticipate Prince Hal's reformation at the end of Part II, drawing parallels between the words of the apostle St. Paul and those of the Prince.]


Biblical quotations abound in Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays, and most of them are made by Falstaff, whose allusions, as Richmond Noble says, “are the aptest in the whole of the plays.”1 They are also, of course, singularly profane in Falstaff's mouth, and his “damnable interation” of Scripture, we may suspect, is a relic of his former identity as Sir John Oldcastle, the name of Prince Hal's riotous companion in that execrable play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. It seems that after borrowing the name of his fat knight from the older play, Shakespeare subsequently rechristened him as Falstaff out of deference to the family feelings of Oldcastle's Elizabethan descendant, Lord Cobham.2 For the historical Oldcastle, as the Epilogue in Part Two tells us, “died a martyr, and this is not the man.” He was in fact a Lollard burned at the stake for his faith during the reign of Henry V, and honoured by the more zealous Protestants of Shakespeare's day as one of the early heroes of their cause. A familiarity with the Bible was therefore particularly, if scurrilously, appropriate to the first Sir John, and no doubt this irreverent representation of his ancestor as a pseudo-puritan offended Lord Cobham as much as the imputation of cowardice.

Prince Hal, however, knows his Bible at least as well as Falstaff, and in the concluding couplet of his soliloquy at the end of the first tavern scene,

I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will,


editors have noted the echo of St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians:

Take hede therefore that ye walke circumspectly, not as fooles
but as wise,
Redeeming the time: for the days are evil.


The aptness and full significance of this allusion, however, remain to be explored. Preserving an essential distinction between the fool and the wise man, Hal's resolve “to make offence a skill” parallels Falstaff's virtuosity in avoiding reproof by turning offence into an ingenious and apparently harmless display of wit, while Hal's promise to redeem the time follows Falstaff's mock-determination, “I must give over this life, and I will give it over” (1.2.92). The soliloquy clearly has an important dramatic function: it distinguishes the Prince at the beginning of the play from the wild youth that others, including Falstaff and the King, suppose him to be, and in so doing it puts an entirely new complexion upon the traditional legends of the riotous Prince, such as those represented on the stage in The Famous Victories.

As Falstaff says, but in two senses that he is not aware of, “the true prince may, for recreation sake, prove a false thief” (1.2.149). Behind Falstaff's back, Poins and Hal plot the Gadshill robbery as a “jest,” “for recreation sake,” to prove Falstaff himself “a false thief,” that is, a liar and no thief at all. But at a deeper level in the play, the “recreation” signifies that “reformation” which Hal promises in his soliloquy at the end of this scene. The soliloquy therefore states the central business of both plays, to show us the process by which Hal is to redeem the time; it also insists that Hal's “reformation” will be not so much an amendment of life, as a “recreation” of his true identity in men's eyes. “Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit,” Falstaff tells him at the abrupt end of the “play extempore,” “thou art essentially made without seeming so” (2.4.476). Moreover, this “recreation” of the true Prince also reflects Shakespeare's artistic and historical purpose in the two plays, which are themselves presented to us “for recreation sake.”

Hal's allusion to the words of St. Paul is thus at the heart of the dramatic structure. It is no accident that the Eastcheap community is described to Hal in Part Two as “Ephesians, my lord, of the old church” (2.2.143), for when Hal's promise to redeem the time is eventually fulfilled at the end of Part Two, his rejection of Falstaff (“I know thee not, old man”)5 again recalls the Apostle's injunctions to the Ephesians:

That is, that ye cast of, concerning the conversation in the
time past, the olde man, which is corrupt through the deceivable lustes,
And be renewed in the spirit of your minde,
And put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousnes,
and true holines.
Wherefore cast of lying, & speake everie man trueth unto his neighbour:
for we are members one of another.


Paul speaks of a metaphorical “olde man,” the unregenerate Adam in the self, and Hal addresses an all too substantial counterpart, but one surely well qualified to recognise the appropriateness of the text. If we can suppose so, Shakespeare's old man must have found the Biblical context as a whole particularly galling:

Let no man deceive you with vaine wordes: for suche things commeth
the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.
Be not therefore companions with them.


And be not drunke with wine, wherein is excess.


The page in the Geneva Bible which Hal seems to have had particularly in mind bears the heading over its double columns, “Put on the new man … Awake from slepe,” words which must have struck a responsive chord in the imagination of the author of A Midsummer Night's Dream (where Bottom himself, in his garbled fashion, has occasion to recall the Apostle on the subject of dreams and visions):6

Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that slepest, and stand up from
the dead, & Christ shal give thee light.


So Hal says in his rejection speech:

I long have dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awak’d, I do despise my dream.


If there is an ironic echo of this image of awakening and standing up from the dead at the end of Part One when Falstaff arises from the dead on the battlefield (“Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die is to be a counterfeit,” 5.4.114), then it is also remembered in Hal's last interview with his dying father in Part Two, when he mistakes sleep for death and prematurely removes the crown to the distress of his waking father. “Ye were once of darkenes,” says Paul (5:8), and it is true that Hal was formerly one of the “squires of the night's body” (Part One, 1.2.23), but when he assumes the crown, he will “have no fellowship with the unfruteful workes of darkenes, but even reprove them rather” (5:11). Finally, Hal stands up from the dead, not only as his father's rightful successor, but in his renewed existence on Shakespeare's stage.7 The history play itself is redeeming time.

Henry IV therefore owes considerably more to St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians than the passing reference noted by the commentators. The use of these allusions to relate the beginning of Part One to the end of Part Two reinforces the arguments of those who regard the two plays as structurally unified although individually self-contained. The theme of time's redemption and the renewal of life also links the two plays with the comedies. In addition, it does not seem likely, as some have suggested, that Hal's soliloquy in the second scene of Part One is an interpolation inserted when Shakespeare was revising the play, since the very phrase which carries such a burden of dramatic significance, “redeeming time,” is integrated with the language of Part One as a whole, as well as being carried through to Part Two.


The influence of the earlier Tudor morality drama upon the structure of the Henry IV plays has often been observed. In treating the theme of Hal's “reformation,” Shakespeare naturally turned to the “prodigal son” motif of the interludes, and Falstaff is actually referred to in terms of the leading comic character of the morality plays, as “that reverend vice.” More specifically, Paul A. Jorgensen8 has pointed out that one such interlude, Lusty Juventus (c. 1550), anticipates Shakespeare in making the same allusion to St. Paul:

Saint Paul unto the Ephesians giveth good exhortation,
Saying, walk circumspectly, redeeming the time,
That is, to spend it well, and not to wickedness incline.

Jorgensen also notes that this text was introduced into the Homily for Rogation Week, where many in Shakespeare's audience must have become familiar with it. But his explanation of the text “as meaning to take full advantage of the time that man is given here on earth for salvation,” however theologically correct, falls a long way short of its significance in relation to Hal's situation and purpose, because it overlooks the primary importance of the etymological association with buying and selling. Even the lines from Lusty Juventus paraphrase “redeeming the time” as “to spend it well.” Strictly the word means “buying back,” as in redeeming a debt: in the language of the pawnshop, even today, it has no theological overtones.

The marginal glosses to the text in the Geneva Bible explain the word in these terms:

Selling all worldlie pleasures to bye time … In these perilous dayes & crafte of the adversaries, take hede how to bye again the occasions of godlines, which the worlde hathe taken from you.

So in his soliloquy Hal says he will “pay the debt I never promised” (1.2.202), and the language of settling debts is heard throughout Part One.

The days of Henry IV are indeed evil and perilous, as the King's speech opening the play makes clear. The disastrous consequences of the deposition of Richard are felt throughout the land, in “the intestine shock And furious close of civil butchery.” In an attempt to redeem his guilt, the King has vowed a crusade to the Holy Land,

Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d
For our advantage on the bitter cross.


To walk circumspectly (or rather to march “in mutual well-be-seeming ranks”) in the path of his Redeemer is the vow that Bolingbroke will never redeem; the very act of usurpation was that of an oath-breaker, and the rebels know him as a man who will not pay the debt he promised.

After the succeeding tavern scene and Hal's soliloquy, the rebels are introduced, and Hotspur exhorts his companions to purge the dishonour of their complicity in the usurpation:

Yet time serves wherein you may redeem
Your banish’d honours, and restore yourselves
Into the good thoughts of the world again.


In their very different context, Hotspur's words echo those of Hal's resolve in the soliloquy of the previous scene. Worcester finds another motive for rebellion, in self-defence rather than high principle, but he also uses the language of redemption:

To save our heads by raising of a head:
For bear ourselves as even as we can,
The King will always think him in our debt,
And think we think ourselves unsatisfied,
Till he hath found a time to pay us home.


The first three scenes of Part One therefore establish the theme of “redeeming time” in relation to each of the play's three worlds: the court, the tavern, and the rebel camp. The talk of dues and payment heard in the tavern scenes must also be related to the major preoccupations of the play. Falstaff, for instance, “will give the devil his due,” but his other accounts must be settled by Hal on his behalf:

Why, what a pox have I to do with my hostess of the tavern?
Well, thou hast call’d her to a reckoning many a time and oft.
Did I ever call thee to pay thy part?
No; I’ll give thee thy due, thou hast paid all there.


At the end of the second tavern scene, when Hal discovers in the pocket of the sleeping Falstaff the outstanding account for that “intolerable deal of sack,” he also speaks of the money taken at Gadshill, which “shall be paid back again with advantage” (2.4.528).

Thus, when Hal promises his father in the interview scene of Part One to “redeem all this on Percy's head,” the appropriateness of his analogy has by this point been well established in the play:

Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.


The interview scene closes with the King's line, “Advantage feeds him fat while men delay,” which is Falstaff's cue to begin the following scene with a reference to his fancied loss of weight (“Do I not dwindle?”) suggesting also the dwindling of his role in the increasing imminence of more urgent affairs. He makes another vow of amendment, echoing that we have just heard from Hal: “Well, I’ll repent, and that suddenly, while I am in some liking” (3.3.5). He was, he says, virtuous once, and “paid money that I borrowed—three or four times.” So too before the battle of Shrewsbury, Falstaff confides his fear to the Prince before launching upon his “catechism” of honour:

I would ’twere bed-time, Hal, and all well.
Why, thou owest God a death. (Exit)
’Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day.
What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? … What is
honour? A word. What is that word? Honour. What is that honour? Air? A trim


These illustrations demonstrate how central is that Pauline phrase, “redeeming time,” to the play's concern with the proper time for settling debts of one kind or another. The very language of the play is coloured by this Biblical allusion, which in its sense of redeeming a promise relates to the many oaths that are sworn and foresworn in the course of the action, and so to the idea of honour, (honour is “a word,” but a word that should be kept), while the phrase also expresses that sense of time as a commodity spent well or ill in the play. When the days are evil, and the time is out of joint (“Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,” sighs the King in the play's opening lines), the idleness of the tavern life with its “play extempore” (“What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?” as Hal demands of Falstaff), is contrasted with the hasty impatience of Hotspur:

O gentlemen, the time of life is short!
To spend that shortness basely were too long
If life did ride upon a dial's point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.


“The time will come,” Hal promises his father, and with a sense of mounting urgency in the play, the hour arrives at Shrewsbury: “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” For the dying Hotspur, “life, time's fool, And time, that takes survey of all the world, Must have a stop,” but for Hal in his triumph, “the day is ours” at the end of Part One and his father acknowledges, “Thou hast redeem’d thy lost opinion.”


“Redeeming time when men think least I will,” Hal speaks not of being renewed in the spirit of his mind, but rather of renewing his reputation in the minds of others. He intends to “falsify men's hopes,” to “show more goodly and attract more eyes.” Hotspur has a similar understanding of honour, as being restored “into the good thoughts of the world again,” though of course he has a misplaced conception of how this is to be achieved. What men think, both collectively as the world at large, and as particular individuals, is of crucial concern throughout both plays. Facing his father's suspicion that he is even in collusion with the rebels, Hal replies,

Do not think so; you shall not find it so:
And God forgive them that so much have sway’d
Your Majesty's good thoughts away from me!
I will redeem all this on Percy's head.


Such a sustained association with men's thoughts suggests that for Shakespeare the word “redeem” not only bore its etymological sense of settling a debt, but also, through a species of pun, attached itself to the meaning of “deem.” To be restored from disgrace into men's good thoughts is thus to be “re-deemed.”

“I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be bought,” says Falstaff to Hal (1.2.80), and honour and reputation in Part One have had as much to do with what men call one as with what they think of one. A man is known by his name, and Falstaff is a master of giving good names to bad things:

Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art King, let not us that are squires of the night's body be called thieves of the day's beauty; let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.


The Ephesians were worshippers of Diana, and so Falstaff can argue, “’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation” (1.2.102). Does not St. Paul exhort the Ephesians to “walke worthie of the vocation whereunto ye are called” (4:1)?

Talk of being “called” to a reckoning, to a “strict account” (e.g., 1.2.48, 3.2.49, 5.1.128, all quoted above) is thus related to the importance of names and titles in the play. What a man is called by, and what he is called to, are, in the strict meaning of the word, his “vocation,” and to be worthy of his vocation as Prince is Hal's chief concern in Part One. When he reappears in the tavern after the Gadshill robbery, he shows a wry sensitivity to the names he is called by the potboys:

I have sounded the very base-string of humility. Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers and can call them all by their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis. They take it already upon their salvation that though I be but Prince of Wales yet I am the king of courtesy; and tell me flatly I am no proud Jack, like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy—by the Lord, so they call me—and when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads of East cheap. They call drinking deep, dyeing scarlet; and when you breathe in your watering, they cry “hem!” and bid you play it off. To conclude, I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life.


There follows the jest with Poins at Francis' expense, an episode that seems to have baffled satisfactory interpretation. But to understand the point of Hal's joke, we should note his reference to being called “a Corinthian,” for the Corinthians, like the Ephesians, were exhorted by Paul to mend their ways, and offered advice on vocation:

Let every man abide in the same vocation wherein he was called.
Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it; but if yet thou maist
be free use it rather.

(I Corinthians, 7:20-21)

So in stage-managing his play extempore with Francis, Hal plays upon the multiple meanings of “vocation,” calling his name, and talking of his calling, while Poins calls him to a reckoning:

Come hither, Francis.
My lord?
How long hast thou to serve, Francis?
Forsooth, five years, and as much as to—
(within). Francis!
Anon, anon, sir.
Five year! by’r lady, a long lease for the clinking of pewter.
But Francis, darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture
and show it a fair pair of heels and run from it?


In Francis, Hal is parodying himself as a fellow-Corinthian and a fellow-apprentice, and the repetition of “Anon, anon, sir,” like the stage-direction at the end of the joke, “Here they both call him: Francis stands amazed, not knowing which way to go,” dramatises Hal's critical reflection upon his own neglect of his vocation: “Away, you rogue! Dost thou not hear them call?” It is certainly Hal's private joke as far as both Francis and Poins are concerned, and one that expresses a very different mood from the confident, even complacent, tone of the soliloquy at the end of the first tavern scene. He is close here to the mood of Hamlet's “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”

Hal's problem is to seem what he is, to be given his due, and to be called by his proper name (“Prince Hal” itself reflects an indecorous mixture of formality and familiarity). He is, in Falstaff's words, “essentially made without seeming so,” a peculiar irony for one whose title is “heir apparent.” It is small comfort to hear from Falstaff in jest what he would claim from all men in earnest:

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye. Why hear you,
my masters: was it for me to kill the heir apparent?


Unfortunately, it is only too true that Falstaff knows the Prince no better than “he that made ye,” his own father. But the “open and apparent shame” which the Gadshill adventure was intended to fix upon Falstaff is thus turned instead upon the Prince himself.

In the self-assured vein of his soliloquy, Hal compared himself to the sun,

That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at.


Ironically, this “policy” of withholding oneself from the public eye to be the more admired is the very same argument which his father uses to reproach Hal for keeping low company (and the irony is doubled when we recall that in Richard II it was this Bolingbroke who courted popular favour in an undignified fashion: “Off went his bonnet to an oyster wench”). The premises of Hal's self-justification are thus invalidated in the interview scene, and it is a much chastened Prince who now promises in the plainest terms,

I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord,
Be more myself.


On Shrewsbury field, the King shamefully lends his name and identity to others to protect himself in battle, and when Douglas encounters him and supposes he is addressing yet another decoy,

                                                            What art thou
That counterfeit'st the person of a king?


the question cuts deeply into Bolingbroke's dubious claim to the title. By contrast, Hal's decisive encounter with his namesake begins with a declaration of his true identity:

If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.
Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.
My name is Harry Percy.
Why then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales.


Seen on the stage, Hal is quite literally now in his true colours, bearing over his armour the heraldic insignia of the heir apparent. This transformation was earlier described in what are surely the play's most magnificent lines, spoken by Vernon in answer to Hotspur's scornful enquiry about “the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales, And his comrades that daff’d the world aside And bid it pass”:

                                                                      All furnish’d, all in arms;
All plum’d like estridges, that with the wind
Bated like eagles having lately bath’d;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
As gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cushes on his thighs, gallantly arm’d,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat
As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus,
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.


All the “wild” and “wanton” energies of youth, associated in legend with the “madcap Prince,” are here beautifully assimilated to the imagery of natural vitality, and transcended by the picture of the rider on his horse, the traditional emblem of disciplined energy and good government. Hal has “put on the new man.”


Hal's tribute to Hotspur, also reported by Vernon,

He gave you all the duties of a man,
Trimm’d up your praises with a princely tongue;
Spoke your deservings like a chronicle,


reminds us that the chronicle, the record of history, is the final arbiter of reputation. The chronicler himself, “redeeming time,” gives honourable men their due, restoring them into the good thoughts of the world again. Shakespeare's treatment of Hal's “reformation” in terms of men's judgements of him rather than any sudden moral conversion on his part reflects his attitude to the stories of the Prince's reprobate youth as unauthoritative material, distinct from the authentic matter of historical record. The very existence of these stories must have demonstrated to Shakespeare how prone are men's minds to invent and credit fiction and to entertain conjecture—a phenomenon which as poet and dramatist he naturally exploited, and which throughout his work was obviously one of his deepest and most abiding interests.

As Vernon says, the Prince is “So much misconstrued in his wantonness” (5.2.69). The lines in which Hal protests to his father,

                                                  in reproof of many tales devis’d,
Which oft the ear of greatness needs must hear,
By smiling pick-thanks and base newsmongers,


follows Holinshed's account of the supposedly riotous youth as a fabrication, so many “tales” and “slanderous reports”:

Whilest these things were a dooing in France, the lord Henrie prince of Wales, eldest sonne to king Henrie, got knowledge that certeine of his fathers servants were busie to give informations against him, whereby discord might arise betwixt him and his father: for they put into the kings head, not onelie what evil rule (according to the course of youth) the prince kept to the offense of manie: but also what great resort of people came to his house, so that the court was nothing furnished with such a traine as dailie followed the prince. These tales brought no small suspicion into the kings head, least his sonne would presume to usurpe the crowne, he being yet alive, through which suspicious gelousie, it was perceived that he favoured not his sonne, as in times past he had doone.

The Prince sore offended with such persons, as by slanderous reports, sought not onelie to spot his good name abrode in the realme, but to sowe discord also betwixt him and his father, wrote his letters into everie part of the realme, to reproove all such slanderous devises of those that sought his discredit.9

Even the word “pick-thanks” is taken from Holinshed: “Thus were the father and sonne reconciled, betwixt whome the said pick-thanks had sowne division.”10

“Let no man deceive you with vain words”: it is certainly appropriate that in the tavern world, which has attached itself to history by “slanderous report,” Falstaff should be the embodiment of lies, “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” In his account of the men in buckram, we see the very process by which history is translated into fiction, and his “play extempore” bears the same relationship to Shakespeare's history play as the unlicensed tales of the wild Prince do to the authentic versions of the chronicle. Falstaff habitually takes the Lord's name in vain; he also takes in vain all titles of honour: they are “a word,” no more.

It is supremely ironical, but presumably a sheer coincidence, that a play so deeply concerned with the “commodity of good names” and “vocation” should have run into difficulties over the name and reputation of its chief slanderer. When Shakespeare redeemed Oldcastle from the posthumous ignominy of his stage identity, he baptised the fat knight after the cowardly figure of Sir John Fastolfe, who had made a brief début in the poet's first history play, and was there condemned as one who

Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honourable order.

(The First Part of King Henry VI, 4.1.42-3)

Even this reincarnation was to provoke some complaint that Shakespeare had taken another good name in vain, and later in the seventeenth century Thomas Fuller tried to do for Sir John Fastolfe what Shakespeare had done for the Prince, to rescue him from ill-fame:

Now as I am glad that Sir John Oldcastle is put out, so I am sorry that Sir John Fastolfe is put in, to relieve his memory in this base service, to be the anvil for every dull wit to strike upon. Nor is our Comedian excusable, by some alteration of his name, writing him Sir John Falstafe (and making him the property of pleasure for King Henry the fifth, to abuse) seeing the vicinity of sounds intrench on the memory of that worthy Knight, and few do heed the inconsiderable difference in spelling of their name.

(The Worthies of England, 1662)11

The difference in spelling, however, is sufficient to achieve a certain propriety in the first syllable of Falstaff's name.

Hal keeps his promise to call Hotspur to “so strict account That he shall render every glory up,” and in his defeat Hotspur surrenders his “proud titles” to the Prince. But what is the nature of the honour so won by Hal at the end of Part One? There is little glorification of Hal's victory; it is rather the hollowness of Hotspur's conception of honour that is stressed. Hal's generosity to his dead enemy is certainly noble:

Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave
But not remembered in thy epitaph.


But far from coveting the admiration of men's thoughts at the end of the play, Hal is contemptuously acquiescent in Falstaff's demand to be given the official credit for Hotspur's fall:

For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.


The Prince, one feels, is more genuinely concerned about his personal relationship with his father, and more deeply affected by the pointless death of the young Hotspur; he is content to let the rest go, just as he orders Douglas to be set free without claiming ransom. Hal has come a long way since the desire of the soliloquy to “show more goodly and attract more eyes.”

In the eyes of true judgement (and in the theatre Shakespeare flatters us with this vantage point), such a refusal to court public esteem will commend itself all the more favourably. “Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me,” says Falstaff, even as we watch him desecrate the body of Hotspur. If honour lives only in men's eyes and opinions, it is a very ambiguous and unstable commodity, as Hal has now learned:

An habitation giddy and unsure
Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart

(Part Two, 1.3.89-90)

When the days are evil, where does true judgement of honour reside? This, however, is where Part Two takes up the story.


Lord Cobham, and Thomas Fuller too, might well have turned against the poet himself Rumour's words in the Prologue to Part Two:

Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.


Indeed, with an aggressive swipe worthy of Ben Jonson, and striking the discomfiting note which is characteristic of this play, Rumour identifies “the still-discordant wavering multitude” with his present theatre-audience:

But what need I thus
My well-known body to anatomize
Among my household?


Here in the theatre Rumour recognizes his home, the place where men's judgements and imaginations are exercised upon the illusions they see and hear. Rumour is the presiding spirit of Part Two, and Falstaff is his Apostle: “Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying” (3.2.294). But the course of the play is to fulfil the words of that other Apostle, “that ye cast of, concerning the conversation in time past, the olde man, which is corrupt through the deceivable lusts … and put on the new man”:

Wherefore cast of lying, & speake everie man trueth unto
his neighbour: for we are members one of another.

(Ephesians, 4:22-5)

With Hotspur gone, the prevailing mood of Part Two is set by its old men: Northumberland, Falstaff, the Lord Chief Justice, that other Justice, Shallow, and of course the King himself. There is much talk of sickness and death, and the time is burdened with memories of the past and anticipations of things to come. As the Archbishop of York says, “The commonwealth is sick of their own choice … What trust is in these times? … Past and to come seems best; things present worst” (1.3.86-108). Even more than was the case in Part One, the days are evil, and “we are time's subjects” (1.3.110).

Hal's reappearance in the tavern, after his personal triumph at the end of Part One, is a reversion that defeats our expectations, in a play full of false anticipation. The “weary” Prince who makes his entrance in 2.2. is a very different figure from the buoyant confident youth who promised to redeem the time in Part One, and who there seemed about to “witch the world with noble horsemanship.” He now appears oppressed, in accord with the disenchantment of this old men's world, and bitter in his self-reproach. “What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name,” he says unflatteringly to Poins, whose equally bald rejoinder raises the very question in our minds concerning Hal's apparent relapse after his achievement on Shrewsbury field:

How ill it follows, after you have laboured so hard, you should talk so idly! Tell me, how many good young princes would do so, their fathers being so sick as yours at this time is?


Stung by the reproof coming from such a quarter, Hal's reply goes to the heart of the play's concern with slanderous rumour, opinion, and men's judgements:

Marry, I tell thee it is not meet that I should be sad, now my father
is sick; albeit I could tell to thee—as to one it pleases me, for fault
of a better to call my friend—I could be sad and sad indeed too.
Very hardly upon such a subject.
By this hand, thou thinkest me as far in the devil's book as thou
and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency: let the end try the man. But I
tell thee my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick; and keeping
such vile company as thou art hath in reason taken from me all ostentation
of sorrow.
The reason?
What wouldst thou think of me if I should weep?
I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
It would be every man's thought; and thou art a blessed fellow
to think as every man thinks.


With the death of the King imminent, a sudden display of grief from his successor would be construed as hollow indeed, particularly in one whose former estrangement from the court was on every tongue of Rumour. The very depth of Hal's genuine feelings for his father, far more than a mere politic concern of the Prince for his reputation, cannot tolerate the prospect of such an imputation being put upon the most intimate relationship of his life. But this is indeed what happens later in the play, when Hal's misprision of his father's sleep leads to the King's misprision of Hal's motives for removing the crown:

I never thought to hear you speak again.
Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.
I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.
Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe?


In Part One, Hal's vow to redeem the time signified the need to recover an essentially personal esteem, to be recognised for what he is, “heir apparent.” In this sequel, the course of time is to lead him, not to his true name and vocation, but to a new name and vocation as King. Now “redeeming time” signifies a duty to the nation as a whole, for the time is out of joint, and the sick commonwealth must be rejuvenated, the divided realm reunited as “members one of another”:

Then you perceive the body of our kingdom
How foul it is; what rank diseases grow,
And with what danger, near the heart of it.
It is but as a body yet distempered
Which to his former strength may be restored
With good advice and little medicine.


The Hal of Part One fulfilled his vow by defeating young Hotspur; in Part Two, it is the old man who must be cast off, though not in the sense that the King suspects.

“You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young,” as Falstaff says (1.2.165). The old indeed totally misjudge the young, and in harbouring very similar expectations of Hal, one in fear and the other in hope, both the King and Falstaff misconstrue the times to come:

The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary, th’ ungirded days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
For when his headstrong riot hath no curb,
When rage and hot blood are his counsellors,
When means and lavish manners meet together,
O, with what wings shall his affections fly
Towards fronting peril and oppos’d decay!


But Hal's youth has no more “headstrong riot” in it than the youth of Justice Shallow: “Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent! and to see how many of my old acquaintance are dead!” (3.2.32-3). Time past and future lives in “forms imaginary,” and Shallow's wonderful reminiscences (“every third word a lie,” says Falstaff) exemplify how natural it is to turn history into mythology and legend.

The consciousness of time in Part Two is developed into the idea of history itself, as the play looks both before and after, through the long memories of old men and through their anticipations of the future. In this respect the dialogue between the King and his wise counseller Warwick in 3.1. is of central significance. Reflecting ruefully upon the former allegiances of Richard's time between men now bitter enemies, the King sees “the revolution of the times” as merely the flux and mutability of Nature, in which man is helplessly and unpredictably tossed and turned by “necessity”:

                                                            how chances mock,
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book and sit him down and die.


In his reply Warwick advances a different conception of history, not as some impersonal, inscrutable decree in “the book of fate,” but as an essentially human process, analogous to Nature's laws of organic growth rather than to lawless mutability:

There is a history in all men's lives,
Figuring the natures of the times deceas’d;
The which observ’d a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, who in their seeds
And weak beginning lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time;
And by the necessary form of this … 


Warwick's point of view lends quite a different significance to the idea of historical “necessity”; instead of being mere victims of blind circumstance, as the King supposes, men can and must direct their lives by reaping advantage from experience. It is Warwick who later correctly prophesies that

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 other,
Turning past evils to advantages.


Hal's progress through both plays demonstrates that life is not “time's fool,” as Hotspur believed, but a meaningful and purposeful relationship between past and future. What will appear to Hal's contemporaries (and to legend) as a sudden and unpredictable “revolution of the times” has been presented to us a wise use of time on Hal's part, and also a process of developing wisdom and insight from the moment of that over-simplified, over-confident view of things expressed in the soliloquy at the beginning of Part One. Hal is to inherit a usurped crown and its attendant evils, that have driven his father into his grave, and he is to succeed, not by “indirect crook’d ways” but by the “plain and right” inheritance of the “hatch and brood of time” from “the times deceas’d.” Youth does not usurp age, although age may often suppose so, and feel itself cast off. In the larger design of the play, and of Nature, time is redeemed as youth matures, and assumes the burdens which age can carry no more. Shakespeare's reading of history in Part Two, like that of Warwick, is related to the wider perspectives of natural processes.

When at his father's death Hal puts on the new man with “this new and gorgeous garment, majesty,” he is royally proclaimed by a stage-direction which indicates his change of name, habit, and company: “Enter KING HENRY THE FIFTH, attended.” In losing his father he has also cast off the old man:

And, Princes all, believe me, I beseech you,
My father is gone wild into his grave,
For in his tomb lie my affections;
And with his spirits sadly I survive,
To mock the expectation of the world,
To frustrate prophecies, and to raze out
Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down
After my seeming.


Such sad mockery of expectation is seen in the rejection of Falstaff, which we have been led to anticipate from the very start, but which we actually witness with a feeling of regret, for in banishing the old man, as in burying his father, Hal has also cast off his youth.


  1. Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (1935), p. 169. An indispensable but far from complete treatment of the subject.

  2. See Introduction to The First Part of King Henry IV (new Arden Shakespeare), edited by A. R. Humphreys (1960), pp. xxxix-xlii.

  3. Quotations of Shakespeare's text are from The Complete Works, edited by Peter Alexander (1951).

  4. Quotations from the Bible are from The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison, Milwaukee, and London, 1969).

  5. “I know you not” is also the Bridegroom's reply to the foolish virgins (Matthew, 25:12).

  6. “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was” (4.1.20-2). Cf. I Corinthians, 2:9.

  7. A well-known Elizabethan tribute to the power of the history play to restore the dead to life and so to redeem the time is Thomas Nashe's allusion to Shakespeare's Henry VI Part One in Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Divell (1592):

    How would it have ioyed braue Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and haue his bones new embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least, (at seuerall times) who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding?

    Quoted in E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (2 vols., 1930), II.188.

  8. Paul A. Jorgensen, Redeeming Shakespeare's Words (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962), pp. 52-69.

  9. Humphreys, ed. cit., p. 177.

  10. ibid, p. 179.

  11. Quoted in Chambers, II.244.

Robert G. Hunter (essay date 1978)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4099

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Comic Sense as It Strikes Us Today: Falstaff and the Protestant Ethic,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 349-58.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Hunter theorizes that the rejection of Falstaff in the Henry IVplays dramatizes the victory of the Protestant ethic, presenting the evolution of Prince Hal as a triumph of the principles represented by this moral code.]

If there are such things as antibodies (and I am told that there are), then let there be such things as antiembodiments and let Falstaff be one. Let him also be an embodiment (there is plenty of room), for Falstaff embodies a large part of my subject, Shakespeare's comic sense. Simultaneously he antiembodies the Protestant ethic. What he is, it is not. What it is, he is not. Did Shakespeare's comic sense serve the body politic by generating Falstaff in an attempt to immunize comparatively Merrie England against those foreign organisms, the Puritan Saints? If so, the attempt failed, and Shakespeare knew it would. The Henriad, I will maintain but not demonstrate, dramatizes, in the rejection of Falstaff, the victory of the Protestant ethic, presenting that social triumph as a psychological event, the decision of Henry the Fifth to labor in his vocation, to do his duty in that royal station to which it pleased God to call him.

Thus Falstaff came into being, almost four centuries ago, during the first insurgency of the Protestant ethic and, perhaps, in response to it. Today we are celebrating the bicentennial of one of that ethic's more elaborate offspring. And do we not sense today that we are living through the decadence and disappearance of the ethic, that we watch going down the great drain of history what Shakespeare saw coming up it? What will take the ethic's place? That seems to me one of today's more nagging questions, and I haven’t the vaguest notion of its answer. But we might explore the question by consulting the comic sense of our particular oracle. Let us have a look first at the ethic and then at Falstaff as antiembodiment of it.

The phenomenon that I claim Falstaff antiembodies is authoritatively described and accounted for by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber identifies the main characteristic of that ethic as “worldly asceticism … a fundamental antagonism to sensuous culture of all kinds.” He sees the ethic as the result of two theological causes, one Lutheran and one Calvinist. The Lutheran cause is the “conception of the calling.” In reacting against the monastic ideal Luther did not entirely repudiate the worthiness of ascetic self-denial. What he did was to replace the insistence upon withdrawal from the world with a “valuation of fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume.” To this exaltation of the importance of laboring in one's vocation was added the Calvinist notion of absolute predestination. If you believe that humanity has been irretrievably divided into the elect and the reprobate, then it becomes a matter of some importance to convince yourself that you are a member of the right group. “In order to attain that confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives certainty of grace.” As a paradoxical result, Protestantism, which proclaims that works are useless as a means of gaining salvation, ends by finding them “indispensable as a means … of getting rid of the fear of damnation.” “Getting rid of fear” is a key phrase for an understanding of the psychological power of the Protestant ethic and of Falstaff as a compendious alternative to that ethic. Hope of eternal life gets rid of the fear of death. Faith in our election gets rid of the fear of eternal damnation, and contemplating the success of our worldly activity ratifies our faith in election. Success is evidence of salvation. The Protestant ethic is a superb strategy for getting rid of those fears which are inherent in the human condition, fears of time, of death, and of damnation. It is one of the greatest in what Freud calls “the great series of methods devised by the mind of man for evading the compulsion to suffer.”

Falstaff is an anthology of such methods. I count and will try to define five, taking them in the order Shakespeare presents them to us. The first I label “living within appetite,” the second “play,” the third “success,” the fourth “carnival,” and the last, “hope.” Of these the first, second, and fourth are in direct opposition to the ideals and practices of the Protestant ethic. The third and the last are distorted imitations of Protestant ethic methods and I will call them serious parodies, though it makes me uneasy to claim that anything about Falstaff is serious.

The first of Falstaff's methods is the most effective and also the most difficult to sustain. It is common to all of us, originates in infancy, and antedates the fear of time itself. Our first clock is appetite, and time first presents itself to us as that which intervenes between appetite and its satisfaction, and its rebirth. The time we thus perceive through appetite is circular in nature, a time of eternal return. A day is that which separates breakfast from breakfast. There is nothing to fear in time thus perceived as circular, as the element in which pleasure, the satisfaction of appetite, takes place. And much in the reality we begin to perceive outside our bodies appears to confirm the truth of time's circularity. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down and hasteth to the place where he arose. Spring, summer, autumn, winter—spring. Not much of this appetitive, circular time has passed, however, before its passing forces upon us the knowledge that our understanding of time is incomplete. The bodies whose appetites we have satisfied change permanently. Today is not yesterday despite the similarity in breakfasts. Summer returns but last summer will never return. Time, we find, is rectilinear, the shortest possible distance between birth and death. With that discovery our fear of time is born, and our minds must devise methods for evading the suffering in that fear. The method of the Protestant ethic is to glorify time's rectilinearity, to proclaim time the element not of pleasure, but of duty, of the worldly achievement that ratifies faith in our election. This, however, is not Falstaff's way.

Henry IV, Part One opens with the King doing desperate battle against the implacability of rectilinear time. “Find we a time” is his plea. A time for peace, for the establishment of order, for the crusade, the achievement that will expiate Richard's murder and convince the King that his soul is saved after all. The second scene begins when Falstaff first waddles into our consciousness on the line, “Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” a question whose total banality inspires Hal to a rather wonderful tirade on the question: “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?”, a question that Hal himself proceeds to answer: “Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses …” Hal's conditional answers his interrogative. Falstaff's clock is Falstaff's paunch and the time it tells is circular, revolving from thirst to sack to thirst to sack. From hunger to capon to hunger to capon. From lust to wench to lust to fair, hot wench. Falstaff copes with the fact of time's linearity by stoutly denying it, by doing his best to live his life within the circular time of appetite. Such a life would be a life without fear of time, but of course no moderately conscious life can be so lived. It’s not just that capons, sack, and wenches refuse to arrive on schedule—though that is annoying enough. The rectilinearity of time is constantly being forced upon our unwilling minds. Even our best friends are in the habit of saying things like “gallows,” and when we try tactfully to change the subject to something pleasant like “a most sweet wench,” they refuse to cooperate and we end up depressed, “as melancholy as a gib cat, or a lugged bear.”

When this happens to Falstaff, he moves to his second strategy. He answers the reproaches of his superego with the exhilarating language of play—purely verbal play at first. Falstaff copes with melancholy by playing with Hal at finding similes for it: a gib cat, a lugged bear, an old lion, a lover's lute, the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe, a hare, the melancholy of Moor-ditch. Having thus put the forces of his conscience on the defensive, he proceeds to polish them off by employing his favorite play method, role-playing. Falstaff has the ability to make anything appear ridiculous by pretending to be it. Here he represses his own tendencies to contrition by pretending to be contrite: “But Hal, I prithee trouble me no more with vanity … thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal, God forgive thee for it: before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing, and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked.” What Poins calls “Monsieur Remorse” is Falstaff's first and in some ways best role. Nowhere does Shakespeare make it clearer how the humorous man copes with the certainty of death and the possibility of damnation. By parodying his own fears, Falstaff answers the challenge Hamlet gives the skull of Yorick: he makes us laugh at that. But of course it is not just himself that Falstaff is mocking here. Monsieur Remorse is pretty clearly a Puritan gentleman. He is one of the Protestant Saints whom the Prince of Wales has so far misled as to make him doubt his own election and fear that his conduct indicts him as little better than one of the reprobate. Not only does Falstaff's role-playing purge him of his own melancholy, it accuses the Protestant ethic of being a role that the Puritan thinks (or pretends to think) he is playing in earnest. But it is not only the specific mockery, the parochial satire that the Protestant ethic would find offensive. Falstaff's roles release him from the depressing confines of reality and that, unless done religiously, will not do. Play in all its forms, from morris-dancing to the great Globe itself, is an inadmissible alternative to laboring soberly in one's vocation. But Falstaff, homo ludens, goes on playing. On Gadshill and in the tavern his roles increase and multiply: the young desperado ripping off the fat chuffs who batten on the commonwealth (“They hate us youth”); the battered survivor of a better time who sees a virile world of courage and honor among thieves degenerating, disintegrating around him: “Go thy ways, old Jack, die when thou wilt—if manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon the face of the earth, then am I a shotten herring …”; and Sir John Fairbanks, Sr., driving before him two, four, seven, nine, eleven men in buckram; and finally, of course, the King, the Prince, himself. So Falstaff's Protean mind copes with itself, represses and escapes its fears by becoming not dying Jack Falstaff but anything and everything, turning all things to laughter.

But again this is not enough. On the morning after the night before the body whose appetites have been so assiduously satisfied informs the Protean mind that time is rectilinear and he is but Falstaff and a man: “Do I not bate? Do I not dwindle? Why, my skin hangs about me like an old lady's loose gown. I am withered like an old apple-john.” And we get a reprise of Monsieur Remorse, rather more Romanist in his second version, I think. Clearly, sterner measures than play are called for. Living in appetite is the strategy of the infant. Play is the strategy of the child. Falstaff is never such a fool as to put away childish things. He knows he needs all the strategies he can get. While retaining the two I have already identified, he moves to those of the mature man and specifically to an antiversion of the Protestant ethic itself. Having parodied the remorse of the Puritan, he now more seriously parodies its results: the determination to labor in one's vocation.

When, in their first scene, Hal interrupts the finer flights of Monsieur Remorse to ask Jack Falstaff where they should take a purse tomorrow, he gets the reply, “‘Zounds, where thou wilt, lad, I’ll make one.” Upon which the prince observes, “I see a good amendment of life in thee, from praying to purse-taking.” Monsieur Remorse's rejoinder is a model of Christian forbearance: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal, ’tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation.” If one wished to be unfair to the Protestant ethic (and I do), one could say that Weber's description of the shift in Christian morality from the medieval exaltation of the monastic ideal to the seventeenth-century Puritan enshrinement of capitalist worldly asceticism is encapsulated in Hal's phrase “from praying to purse-taking.” Falstaff's methods in purse-taking are not commercial and therefore his calling is not lawful. But he is not really a highwayman either. The night's exploits on Gadshill are closer to play than to vocation, an especially exciting game of cops-and-robbers. Ordinarily and whenever possible, Falstaff combines the crafts of the professional soldier and the confidenceman. He combines them very successfully. The £300 that he extorts from reluctant draftees compares favorably with the £250 Shakespeare is estimated to have made in a good year and very favorably indeed with the £20 annual salary of the Stratford schoolmaster. And Falstaff is a success on the battlefield as well. He does his duty by leading or somehow chivvying his soldiers into a position where they can be thoroughly peppered, and then he distinguishes himself by stabbing the corpse of Hotspur in the thigh. Does he expect anyone to believe that he and not Hal has killed Harry Percy? It doesn’t matter, for there are distinct orders of success in lying. A liar may succeed because he is believed or because he cannot be contradicted. Falstaff is content with the more modest degree, and thus he achieves one of those reputations, common enough in fields other than the military, for having done something or other at some time or other.

The result of these successful labors is the Sir John Falstaff of Henry the Fourth, Part Two: Jack Falstaff with his familiars, John with his brothers and sisters, and Sir John with all Europe. Such are the secular rewards of laboring in one's vocation—self-fulfillment and a sense of one's identity confirmed by the respect of the community. And there is no strategy more successful than success for concealing from us our participation in the common human condition. For the Puritan, of course, the rewards of such laboring also include the conviction of one's election and a consequent faith in one's eternal salvation. Falstaff does not go that far, not by some distance. Indeed, his profession is an extension of his play. He has added a new dimension to his role-playing and has begun to pretend really to be what he is pretending to be. To what extent that makes him different from the rest of us, including the ethical Protestants, I must leave it to the subtler masters of the dramaturgical school of social psychology to decide. My point is that as a technique for dealing with our fears of time and death, becoming Sir John with all Europe works very well. Monsieur Remorse is no longer needed to repress the natterings of the superego. Being Sir John is enough.

Or almost enough, for again the body reminds us of our inevitable predicament. The owner of Sir John's urine may have more diseases than he knows for, but Sir John is aware of a good number of them: “A pox of this gout! or a gout of this pox! for the one or the other plays the rogue with my great toe.” That great toe, long invisible to its owner's eye, is transmitting the body's tedious message: you cannot conquer time. Falstaff's fourth method for jamming that communication is related to all of the previous three. Carnival is an attempt to regain occasionally and temporarily the bliss of living within appetitive time. It is that period which society sets aside for sanctioned play, for humor, wit, and role-playing. It is the necessary holiday in which we may rest from doing our duties in that station to which it has pleased God to call us. Except, of course, that the Puritans recognized no such necessity. They were opposed to Carnival, but they were equally opposed to Lent—not because they found its lugubrious self-denials distasteful (though they knew there was no merit in them) but because they thought it should be Lent all the year round. Once more, Sir John embodies a different point of view. After a hard day's labor devoted to evading the Lord Chief Justice, placating Mistress Quickly, devising methods for bilking Master Dommelton the slops-maker, and avoiding the importunities of a dozen sweating captains—after such a day, the warrior deserves his repose. Wine, women, and song, sack and canary, Doll Tearsheet and Sneak's noise—all the components of an ideal saturnalia are present in the great festive scene of Henry IV, Part Two. But Shakespeare is here aiming to present us with the real as well as the ideal, and real saturnalia has indecorous results: vomit, urine, syphilis, and violence. Our women enter talking of wine and its effects and when asked how she is doing now, Doll replies, “Better than I was—hem!” That “hem,” I suspect, is Shakespeare's suggestion to his boy-actor that he should indicate audibly but nonverbally why Doll is doing better than she was. Sir John enters with song: “When Arthur first in court,” and urine: “Empty the jordan.” A bout of wit follows between Doll and Falstaff on the subject of who is responsible for whose venereal disease. The episode with Pistol brings us to violence and Sir John's valor inspires Doll to ask her little, tidy, Bartholomew boar-pig when he will leave fighting a-days and foining a-nights and begin to patch up his old body for heaven. Carpe diem is a motto of carnival, but one of the things we ask of saturnalia is that it make us forget why it is that we want to seize the day. Doll's comment is malapropos and her most flattering busses cannot make Falstaff forget the consequences of linear time: “I am old. I am old.” And finally, in spite of the fun and games with Hal and Poins, it looks as if Shakespeare were going to let Falstaff be frustrated by age and time and by the demands of his vocation, for “The man of action is called on” and must leave the sweetest morsel of the night unplucked. Farewells must be said: “Well, fare thee well. I have known thee these twenty-nine years, come peascod-time, but an honester and truer-hearted man. …” I thoroughly agree with the Arden editor's note on peascod-time: “The precision with which Mistress Quickly dates a 29-year-old meeting is entirely touching.” Just how entirely that is, however, can be understood only if one apprehends the bawdy of “peascod,” and to do that one must reverse the syllables. Doing so emphasizes that the time that finally triumphs here is appetitive and circular. Bardolph reenters with a command: “Bid Mistress Tearsheet come to my master.” Poins was wrong: desire has not outlived performance. Codpiece time comes round again and Plump Jack lives!

This is a heartening conclusion to a brilliant scene and yet we suspect Shakespeare of suggesting that Falstaff is coming to the end of his strategies. This suspicion is strengthened by the King's magnificent speeches in the next scene on the book of fate, the revolution of the times, and the necessity of meeting one's necessities. The scene that follows informs us that old Double is dead and John of Gaunt, who loved him well, is dead and death is certain, very sure, all shall die, and that the one way left of coping with that perception seems to be to let one's shallow mind wander quickly to the price of a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford Fair. Yet Falstaff continues to labor cheerfully in his fraudulent vocation, and it is not until act 5, scene 3 that we discover that he has been doing battle with time and the prospect of death by employing one strategy more than the four we have already examined. Pistol interrupts senility's saturnalia in Gloucestershire with news of yet another death: the old king is dead as nail in door. Falstaff, whom Shallow and Silence have kept quietly amused to this point, now explodes with excitement: “I am Fortune's steward … I know the young King is sick for me … the laws of England are at my commandment … woe to my Lord Chief Justice!” This is the revelation of a life illusion. Since the first time we saw him in the second scene of the Henriad, Falstaff has never repeated to Hal or us his speculations on what will happen when the Prince becomes the King. We realize that he much overestimates Hal's devotion to sack and laughter, but we have small reason to know, until we find out, that Falstaff thinks Hal's accession will put the laws of England at Sir John's commandment. What here stands revealed is Falstaff's last strategy, his secular, temporal version of a religious faith in one's election to eternal salvation. Falstaff copes with his condition by living in hope, as which of us does not. We must cling to our faith in that intervening event (the doctorate, tenure, the professorship, retirement) which will with millennial effect transform the quality of our existence. Delusive hope was included in Pandora's box lest we should despair and destroy ourselves. What kills Sir John is the destruction of his delusive hope and the consequent knowledge that his future does not exist.

He would have died anyway. Falstaff, like everybody else, is killed by death. But that death is designed by Shakespeare to show us something. The King kills Falstaff's heart, but what impels the King to do so is the desire to do his royal duty by laboring in his vocation. I lack the time to demonstrate why I think Henry of Monmouth stands for the Protestant ethic but I believe that, consciously or not, Shakespeare has transposed into his early-fifteenth-century action the uncompleted spiritual and political struggles of the 1590s. Hal's psychomachia is a battle between Carnival and Lent, and Falstaff is on the losing side. Hal and the Protestant Ethic reject Falstaff, but Shakespeare does not reject Falstaff nor does he reject Hal for rejecting Falstaff.

Falstaff defines the Protestant Ethic by being what it isn’t, but also by being a different variety of what it is: a means of coping with the fears engendered by the realities of the human condition. The ethic defeats Falstaff because of the superior strength that derives from the religious faith on which it is based—a faith that enables it to cope with our fears by denying that the realities that inspire them are ultimately real, by asserting that linear time will give way to eternity and that death is a transition to eternal life. Falstaff's being what he is, however, poses a great question to the ethic's answer: may not the ethic's faith be as illusory a strategy as any of Falstaff's, finally a form of delusive hope itself? Hal, in accepting his necessary form, must reject Falstaff because the Protestant ethical form cannot encompass the question Falstaff poses. But Shakespeare's art can and does. It encompasses, as always, question and answer and the questioning of the answer. And the questioning of the questioning, for what is the Falstaff action but a demonstration of the inevitable inadequacy of the strategies of which his character is composed? Shakespeare's sense, whether comical or tragical or tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, seems to me to be always interrogative. For me the great thing about Shakespeare's art is its ability simultaneously to reveal and accept our inadequacies, above all the inadequacy of our answers. The motto carved on the temple of our particular oracle is, “Your answers questioned here.”

Jonathan Crewe (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6538

SOURCE: “Reforming Prince Hal: The Sovereign Inheritor in 2 Henry IV,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 21, 1990, pp. 225-42.

[In the following essay, Crewe disputes critical thinking that denies substantive reformation in Prince Hal's character. Instead, Crewe proposes, the subject of reform is continuously revisited in both parts of Henry IV, making it difficult to define successful reformation in the political context of the plays.]

The “matter of Hal's redemption,” as A. R. Humphreys, the Arden editor of 2 Henry IV, calls it, may now seem too stale or tainted for further consideration.1 It has certainly been discussed at length, and to go on talking about it now is to risk the charge of reviving the ideological discourse of the centered, sovereign, masculine subject. Resisting this possibility is in fact one imperative of a developing critique in Shakespeare studies, the stakes of which are declared to be high.2 This risk aside, the notion of Hal's reform may still seem question-begging. The most influential current arguments deny that there is any substantive reform of Prince Hal's character. These are the arguments, associated mainly with Stephen Greenblatt, which insist on Hal's role-playing, and hence on the theatricality of his madcap character and of the metamorphosis he effects in 1 Henry IV.3

Instead of confronting these arguments directly, I shall simply point out that, for better or worse, their privileged text is 1, not 2, Henry IV.4 The definitiveness of this theatrical reading of Prince Hal, based on 1 Henry IV, is implicitly challenged by 2 Henry IV, and then again by Henry V. In each of these plays the matter of Prince Hal's reform is reinvestigated, while the reform itself is reattempted, either by Hal in his own person or—interpretively—by others on his behalf.5 Yet the repetition of the reform-attempt begins to call for its own accounting. Its apparent compulsiveness (or sociopolitical compulsoriness) implies that a good deal is invested in it, not just by Hal, but by those in the plays who expect it of him—and then also by Shakespeare, by subsequent interpreters, and perhaps by a political imperative of “reform” that Shakespeare receives and transmits. At the same time, the sheer fact of repetition makes it increasingly difficult to imagine in what successful reform would consist.

In fact, 2 Henry IV confronts us with just those issues. As already noted by the Arden editor, the play proceeds as if the reformation effected (or enacted) by Prince Hal in 1 Henry IV had never happened. In his own eyes, in his father's eyes, and evidently in the eyes of the world, Prince Hal is still the unreformed scapegrace prince.6 This seemingly burdened prince keeps anticipating—or is it desperately resisting?—his own reform right up to the moment of his father's death:

O, let me in my present wildness die,
And never live to show th’incredulous world
The noble change that I have purposed!


What is implied by such deferral, resistance or incapacity? What is at stake in reform? What is to be understood by the noble change Hal claims to purpose—and with which he is credited by his father at the moment in which the crown changes hands?7

These questions will lead on to further questions if, as I believe, 2 Henry IV reveals a deepening Shakespearean preoccupation with mechanisms of “legitimate” change and succession, not just in the historical narrative of the Henry plays, but at every level including that of his own textual composition.8 What I suggest, in effect, is that the fluid, somewhat facile, theatrical and/or metamorphic dynamics of reform invoked in 1 Henry IV, enabling Hal as “Renaissance prince” to effect his own spectacular transformation at Shrewsbury, come into question in 2 Henry IV. On one hand, mysterious resistances to reform surface in the latter play, while on the other hand the ever-questionable attainment of reform is staged in such a way as to pose more fundamentally than in 1 Henry IV the question of Hal's legitimizing transformation: in what does it consist, or how, faute de mieux, is it managed? While no simple counter-model to that of spectacular metamorphosis necessarily emerges, 2 Henry IV reopens the question of change-as-reformation; in doing so, it calls upon us to discover new interpretive resources or at least adapt existing ones to deal with the important as well as time-honored question of this reform.

To begin with a sidelong glance at some interpretive leads that I shall not pursue, it could be argued that the inconclusive repetition of Hal's reform in 2 Henry IV skeptically exposes the emptiness or unthinkability of the historical reform-scripts Shakespeare inherits, or even of the Prince Hal character he inherits from earlier texts. Enough Pyrrhonism is in the air Shakespeare breathes—and in the Rumor prologue to 2 Henry IV—for this to be entirely possible. Shakespeare's apparent derealization of reform in 2 Henry IV could also be an effect of its displacement. The failure of “reform” to materialize where one is looking for it, for example in the life of Prince Hal, does not mean that it simply fails to materialize. Indeed, Greenblatt implies that a displacement of reform is effected in the Henry plays. Prince Hal's onstage reform may be empty in the sense of being merely played, yet “reforming” Prince Hal also becomes the one who, occupying the inside/outside position of the master-anthropologist in relation to the realm, will learn all its languages before substantively re-forming it as Henry V.9 The reform, in other words, will not be the interior one that Prince Hal undergoes as a character, but the one he effectively imposes as a centralizing, homogenizing, and nationalizing ruler, appropriating and transmuting all the wild, polyglot diversity of an unreformed Britain. Yet this critical displacement of reform, which is also a strong, conservative reclamation of it, again relies primarily on 1 Henry IV, and confirms the tendency in Shakespeare criticism to read 2 Henry IV as a straightforward narrative and logical extension (if not a diminished repetition) of 1 Henry IV. The surprising annulment, however, of the previous play's reform action in 2 Henry IV constitutes a virtual starting over. Implicit in this curious new beginning is the suggestion that the reform-mechanisms of 1 Henry IV, which Prince Hal has exploited with a certain opportunistic brilliance, are no longer effectual—or were so only in appearance. These seemingly discounted mechanisms of “reform” will include theatrical metamorphosis, in which Hal has certainly been adept, but also various equivalent forms of facile change or exchange troped in 1 Henry IV and consciously manipulated by Hal. It is he, after all, who appropriates and reverses his father's thesis that he is a misbegotten changeling while Hotspur is the real princely son. It is he who thinks that characters can be “reformed” by positional changes since they are not real in the first place. It is he, finally, who thinks that the commodity-form of character enables one to be exchanged for another (Harry Percy for Harry Monmouth), or enables a good composite character to be acquired through the appropriation of others' desirable properties, including, as Hotspur complains, their “stolen” youth. Yet if none of this has really worked, we may have to conclude that reform doesn’t mean change or exchange, nor does it mean the staged appearance of change. What then, to repeat the question, does or could it mean in 2 Henry IV? How are we to construe it?

Let us briefly recall some of the data concerning the young Henry V that Shakespeare incorporates and revises. Various chronicle accounts of the young Henry V, including near-contemporary ones, mention not just that the unconstrained prince was a reveller, but that he gathered a formidable popular following which included gentry and commoners. Most Tudor accounts of Henry V, including those in Elyot's Boke of the Gouernor (1531), Redmayne's Vita Henrici Quinti (1540), Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), and Stow's Annales (1592) mention Henry's having given the Chief Justice a box on the ear, but also mention punishments that include the young Henry's imprisonment and dismissal from the Privy Council (Humphreys xxix-xlii). The assault on the Chief Justice was, in other words, taken seriously as the political gesture of a popular usurper-manqué threatening to repeat his father's history. In The Famous Victories the young Henry behaves, as Humphreys puts it, like a hooligan, though this so-called hooliganism can also be read as a legitimate popular politics of festive (and theatrical) revolt. Recognizing here a difficulty of critical description, but perhaps also of dramatic characterization, we might say that Shakespeare produces a disconcertingly censored and/or agreeably refined version of the young Henry V of folklore, chronicle, and The Famous Victories of Henry V. At all events the Arden editor describes Hal's alleged madcap revelling in 1 Henry IV as harmless, and as essentially nonexistent in 2 Henry IV (Humphreys xli). This is a marked departure from the sources on Shakespeare's part—or, to put it differently, it is a conspicuous rewriting of the young Henry. Insofar as Shakespeare renders the wild prince surprisingly tame or inactive—and apparently less political—he may appear self-defeatingly to void the dramatic action of reform by removing in advance any real need or occasion for it.

Despite this apparent voiding, a persistent “need” for reform as well as an action supposedly effecting it continues to be inscribed in 2 Henry IV. As external or objective conditions giving rise to this need vanish, however, the need itself may increasingly seem to belong to an order of shared psychic compulsion rather than political or moral obligation. Indeed, the tame, passive, and increasingly ironized Prince Hal who finds himself subject to the widespread demand that he reform begins to resemble his chronological near-twin in the Shakespearean canon, namely Prince Hamlet, an “inward” protagonist oppressed and divided by a troublesome demand.

Such an interior shift, in which psychic (in)action is “substituted” for physical and/or overtly political action, is by no means unusual in Shakespeare. Yet it is not necessarily a shift from the political to the psychological. Rather, it is a move in which, characteristically, the psychic interior is politicized while the political exterior is correspondingly psychologized—that is, subjected to psychic “laws.”10 This crossing isn’t one in which the differentiated and prima facie opposed realms of the political and the psychological are simply deconstructed, but rather one in which a certain reciprocal reconstruction is effected between these orders without the difference between them ever being effaced. A proposal simply to shift from political to psychoanalytic reading of 2 Henry IV would accordingly be misplaced; what is required, I believe, is a reading that takes account of this putative crossover. Whether we want to speak in the final analysis of a psychologized politics or a politicized psychology, it is in such hybrid terms that the reform action of 2 Henry IV takes on whatever degree of intelligibility can be claimed for it. That, at least, is the proposition according to which I shall now proceed.11

Whatever initial effect of unintelligibility may be produced by the reform-action(s) of the Henry plays does not arise from any shortage of models and contexts, historical and otherwise, for Prince Hal's reform. Well-recognized models, which are neither fully discrete nor fully successive, include those of a New Testament theology of the “new man,” of medieval psychomachia, of disciplinary humanist pedagogy, and even of ego-psychology. Coercive vectors of reform include those of Renaissance subject-formation, of censorship and “courtly” refinement in the public theater, and—broadly speaking—of what Norbert Elias has called the civilizing process.12 The dominant model that has been applied to Hal's reform is also, however, one that renders it less rather than more intelligible: this is the model of the prodigal son.13 The prodigal-model is a tellingly failed one partly because it is not a narrative of primogeniture—of the scapegrace eldest son who is nevertheless to be the sovereign inheritor—but if anything a narrative somewhat subversive of that rigorously “unjust” principle. It is above all a model that acknowledges no parricidal impulse or dynamic in the process of reform and hence of “legitimate” or “authentic” succession. If anything, once again, that dynamic is forestalled, or displaced into sibling rivalry and reconciliation, in the prodigal son story. This refusal in any sense to license parricide is the condition on which patriarchal law and order properly so called can be maintained.

The action (or inaction) of reform in the Henry plays conspicuously does take account of the parricidal moment in the process of sovereign succession. So, implicitly, do the chronicles in presenting the young Henry as a usurper-manqué who raises his hand against the paternal lawgiver in the person of the Chief Justice. So does The Famous Victories, in which Hal's impatience for his father's death is an explicit motif, assimilated to his general wildness.14 This parricidal recognition is accompanied in 2 Henry IV by an increased emphasis, rising to the pitch of apocalyptic hysteria in a late speech by Henry IV, on Hal's “wildness” as covert murderous savagery rather than mere youthful excess. In the eyes of Henry, the ailing, threatened father, the son's wildness constitutes an unreformed interior that must always be socially dissimulated. Correspondingly, any innocuous revelling or even show of reform on the part of Prince Hal will be taken as dissimulation, the hidden content of which can be expected to emerge once he has succeeded to the throne. Thus Henry IV prophesies a wild apocalypse brought on by the unreformed, and perhaps unreformable, prince:

Harry the fifth is crown’d! Up, vanity!
Down, royal state! All you sage counsellors, hence!
And to the English court assemble now
From every region, apes of idleness!
Now, neighbour confines, purge you of your scum!
Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
The oldest sins the newest kind of ways?
.....… the fifth Harry from curb’d licence plucks
The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog
Shall flesh his tooth of every innocent.
.....O, thou wilt be a wilderness again,
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants!


Despite its prophetic hysteria, Henry's vision isn’t wholly inconsistent with the expanded potentiality given in 2 Henry IV to resistant wildness and the “need” to reform. Nor is it inconsistent with the threatened tragic declension of wildness from relatively harmless masquing and revelling in 1 Henry IV to savagery in 2 Henry IV. In other words, it is not just the issue of parricidal succession, but of a corresponding predatory “wildness” resistant to any transformation—a wildness anterior and interior to civility, to the process of lawful inheritance, and to legitimized political rule—that 2 Henry IV appears to take more seriously than does its predecessor. As this issue surfaces, the historical contingencies of Bolingbroke's “parricidal” usurpation and Hal's wildness may seem increasingly to belong to an order of necessity—in which case Henry IV's prophecy may also begin to sound like hysterical denial.

Insofar as succession is conceived to be wild in 2 Henry IV, and to be so of necessity, its dynamic may seem to originate or inhere in the male character or specifically male agency, not as a natural fact but as the consequence of what I have already referred to as a politicized psychology or psychologized politics of sovereign succession. It is this agency that is “missing” in 1 Henry IV, and from the reform that would, in effect, make Hal the inheritor in a theater-state. Under the “post-theatrical” regime of 2 Henry IV, the sovereign inheritor will be required to reform in order to legitimize himself, but will also (contradictorily) be required not to reform in order to succeed. Moreover, the paternal demand for reform will seem like an effort to forestall rather than facilitate succession by taming—emasculating—the sovereign inheritor. Under these circumstances, Hal's constant anticipation and deferral of reform become intelligible, as do his curious paralysis and avoidance of his father. Yet it is not through Prince Hal and his father alone that the difficulties or even contradictions of reform are precipitated out in the play. Falstaff is exultantly unreformed and unreformable; he and his cronies, fond recallers of their wild youth, help at least as much as do Prince Hal and his father to unpack reform in the play.

At one level, the Falstaff-Shallow-Silence episodes function as a wickedly satirical exposure of “original” male deficiency rather than wild excess. There is no need to belabor the point that the wild youth of Shallow and Silence is a nostalgically recalled condition, denied by their contemporary, Falstaff. Their wild youth as unreformed students belongs to a commonplace nostalgic script, beloved of the law-abiding elderly. No need either to belabor the point that, insofar as Falstaff has claims to be the real wild man of the play, he is a wild old man. If anything, wildness is more plausibly the social condition of the old man than the young one, and it is more plausibly a function of social denial, marginalization, and conscious impotence than of any supposedly untamed or untamable excess in the “true” male character. In this satirically reductive setting, the name of Fall-staff speaks him no less than do those of Shallow and Silence.

The genuinely funny satirical comedy, as distinct from festive heartiness, of the Falstaff-Shallow-Silence episodes may thus seem to contest the “wild” male character and its ontological violence of agency as well as the process of succession in which it is justifyingly subsumed. Yet the zero-point of final reduction is one at which we never quite arrive. Or, more accurately, the satirical vanishing-point of “wild” maleness turns out to be indistinguishable from its mythic origin, glimpsed in and through Falstaff's alleged recall of the young Shallow:

I do remember him at Clement's Inn, like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring. When a was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife. A was so forlorn, that his dimensions to any thick sight were invisible; a was the very genius of famine, yet lecherous as a monkey, and the whores called him mandrake.


What this strange “recall” produces is a subhuman or inhuman grotesque of indeterminable sex, or of no sex at all, like the bare, forked animal Lear thinks he sees on the heath. (The apparition here is fully in keeping with Elizabethan folklore regarding the mandrake root: it can look male, female, or androgynous; human or non-human.) Apparently open to any construction—or to no determinate one—the root-like apparition of the young Shallow may all too literally mock any aspiration to get to the root of the matter of reform in terms of gendered character. What we find at the end of the line is literally a root.

At the critical moment, however, the interposition of a “thick-sighted” observer relativizes and equivocates any ontological determination. Furthermore, while the stark-naked Shallow is seen from the start as a remainder—a cheese-paring—rather than a bodily totality, and while he is always and already subsumed in an order of figurative likeness—he is cheese-like, radish-like—this characterization through deficiency is tantamount to masculine recharacterization in terms of insatiable appetite rather than substance or “matter.” Appropriately, it is Falstaff who effects this particular recharacterization. He assimilates any male sexual deficiency to a psychic and bodily economy of “prior” starvation, while, as characteristically, he recalls Shallow in the guise of an edible vegetable—a garden radish—and thus as an object as well as subject of insatiable appetite. It is left to the whores to translate this garden radish (ironically?) into the exotic and erotically mythologized mandrake root. Exotic sexual desire is thus superinduced upon domestic appetite in a novel etiology of the ontologically violent male character. It is evidently in terms of this prior “deprivation” and consequent appetite that greedy Falstaff not only resists reform, but considers himself entitled (and driven) by “law of nature” (3.2.326) to make a regal mouthful of such dace as Shallow—or Prince Hal as inheritor of the kingdom. If it were to be suggested that Falstaff fails in his more extravagant ambitions because he is captive to a dysfunctional conception of ontological necessity and empowerment, it should be recalled that an intuition of the same drive may inform Henry IV's prophecy that Hal's reign will be one of unbridled appetite: “fleshing the tooth on every innocent.”

The point to be made here is that the “need” to reform as well as the sources of resistance to it remain curiously undetermined and overdetermined in 2 Henry IV without ceasing to be invoked as crucial to the play's action(s) and outcome(s). I have already suggested that this situation gains a certain intelligibility if it is critically linked to what I have called a psychologized politics or politicized psychology of masculine sovereignty; this linking does not constitute an explanation so much as an attempt to (re)situate the problem where it belongs. At a minimum, the “return” of an ontological violence seemingly displaced from 1 Henry IV is at issue in 2 Henry IV, as it is in Julius Caesar and Hamlet. That this attempt to resituate isn’t wholly misplaced is suggested by the terms in which Hal's “reform” and the royal succession are finally staged—or perhaps, faute de mieux, stage-managed. This event transpires in the complicated bedroom scene between Hal and his father.

Briefly to reprise, Prince Hal's reform in 1 Henry IV, climactically staged on the battlefield of Shrewsbury, may seem, in the extended perspective offered by 2 Henry IV, like a dress rehearsal. There, Prince Hal stages his own spectacular apotheosis for such wondering “choral” onlookers as Vernon, but also kills his rival-twin Hotspur in an act of virtual Brudermord, unbestraft in this case. (Falstaff finishes off the job but also decodes it, as the saying goes, by wounding Hotspur in the groin.) Hal then gives full credit for the deed to Falstaff in a way that conveniently masks the doer from most of those onstage if not from the audience. It is as if Henry IV sees through just this dissimulation of savagery; his deathlike sleep in 2 Henry IV accordingly seems like a device of entrapment designed to make Prince Hal show his murderous hand—as Henry believes Hal has done when he seizes the crown and tries it on.

Furthermore, as Henry IV approaches his end, he increasingly sees Prince Hal not just as the feral harbinger of universal wildness/wilderness (wild-boy as wolf-boy) but, in a totalizing projection of sovereign male appetite and desire, as the original totemic despot reborn: a savage “Amurath” rather than a gentle Harry. (Though this is not what Warwick understands to be happening, his observation that the Shakespearean Prince Hal is studying his companions to “gain the language” [4.4.69]—to engross all language?—is consistent with this dread.)15 As if confirming this anticipation, toward the end of the play as well as Henry's life, Hal is suddenly everywhere onstage in the guise of sibling-delegates including the notoriously “cold” Prince John; in Henry's view, however, he also threatens to consume those sibling-agents along with everyone else in the kingdom. This feared outcome is what Henry attempts to forestall by belatedly imploring his son Clarence to become Prince Hal's civilizing mediator while sentimentally fabricating a more humane (if still disturbingly “mixed”) character for Prince Hal:

For he is gracious, if he be observ’d,
He hath a tear for pity, and a hand
Open as day for melting charity:
Yet notwithstanding, being incens’d, he’s flint,
As humorous as winter, and as sudden
As flaws congealed in the spring of day.


These scarcely tractable anxieties, which threaten to bedevil any smooth or consensual transfer of power between a threatened father and a supposedly unreformable son, are, however, mitigated by a certain identification on Henry's part with Prince Hal: identification in the sense both of sympathetic recognition and recognition of likeness. Indeed, Henry's dread is also the projection of an unsatisfied appetite upon Prince Hal: specifically, an appetite for the power that he has desired but conspicuously failed to concentrate in himself during his troubled reign. The differences between himself and Prince Hal on which he keeps harping are thus undercut, even in his own mind, by the perception of likeness:

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them.


This part of his conjoins with my disease,
And helps to end me.


It is partly Henry's recognition of likeness that allows a political settlement of the parricidal succession to transpire between him and Hal. It allows Henry to be reconciled to his own deep mortification, and to displacement by one who can be a surrogate-success as well as a rival. It allows Hal's reform to be effected in a mode of vertical rather than horizontal exchange, Harry for Harry again. It allows Henry's own putative hunger and wished-for engorgement to be glimpsed, even as it does Hal's putatively corresponding insatiable appetite:

How quickly nature falls into revolt
When gold becomes her object!
.....For this [fathers] have engrossed and pil’d up
The canker’d heaps of strange-achieved gold.


Finally, since the “wildness” to be reformed does not constitute a category of absolute difference, or definitively characterize anyone in particular, its putative form and location can be shifted around in the process of settlement.

Briefly, what this situation allows is that wildness in its various aspects as criminality, natural excess, inordinate appetite, and even fulminating disease can consensually be transferred from the scapegrace son to the father as original usurper, on one hand allowing it to be buried with the corpse and on the other permitting the instantly reformed son to become the legitimate heir. Hal can then ostentatiously place himself under the paternal law, embodied in the Chief Justice, and begin laying down the law himself. As soon as Henry “confesses,” the reforming and legitimating bargain is sealed:

For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth. It seem’d in me
But as an honour snatch’d with boist’rous hand.


The sole acknowledgment of this parricidal “boisterousness” will not only be in the past tense, but will occur in the moment in which the violent hand is being transferred for burial from son to father.

This relatively diplomatic transaction does, however, have a price. It is paid by neither party to the transaction, and the payment exacted is such as to suggest that the dynamics of the play do indeed belong to a psychologized politics or politicized psychology of specifically masculine sovereignty. In the complicated transfer we witness, the Oedipal scenario is conspicuously reconstructed as one of exclusively male agency, empowerment and succession. It is Prince Hal as inheritor who, in a state of sublime innocence or Machiavellian callousness, reads the Oedipal situation as one in which the woman is always and already displaced by the crown as substitute-object, which is to say as object substituted for her, but also as object constituted in her likeness:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polish’d perturbation! golden care!


Syntactically, as Hal presumably doesn’t register, it remains undetermined which bedfellow is troublesome to which, yet the woman has been displaced by the crown as the pursued and piously denied object of appetite, while the void figure of the feminine (res nulla) has been appropriated and transmuted into the substantial figure of masculine sovereignty.16 If this displacement and transmutation of the woman can’t be effected without a remainder of “feminine” meretriciousness or troublesomeness, that remainder can in turn be identified as the cause of any violent disturbance, not just in men but between them. Indeed, it enables the crown to be incriminated as the real parricidal agent, threatening and coming between generations of men, but also, once identified as the source of the trouble, facilitating their diplomatic reconciliation:

Accusing it, I put it on my head,
To try with it, as with an enemy
That had before my face murder’d my father,
The quarrel of a true inheritor.


“The quarrel of a true inheritor”—the bad yet still seemingly “necessary” parricidal one—is realigned to become the good quarrel of the inheritor with the intermediate parricidal agent/object, while this object can in turn be reclaimed as the sullied/solid currency of a benign transaction between father and son. What is sacrificed to the settlement of parricidal succession is evidently the woman; what is appropriated for it is women's agency. Political Shakespeare with a vengeance.17

This version of reform as parricidal transfer and place-changing, in which the parricide is also backdated to Henry's usurpation of Richard II, is of course no more absolute or final than the theatrical metamorphosis enacted in 1 Henry IV. It is undone again in Henry V, while the brutal exclusionary reduction of the woman is “liberalized” inasmuch as Henry V's legitimation turns out to depend on the lawfulness of female inclusion in the royal line. Henry V must also eventually confront a French Catherine as potentially troublesome and usurping bedfellow, whose language he is far from having engrossed, and in relation to whom his provincial tongue seems disabled. Moreover, in the process of translation during the courtship, language is punningly “engrossed” again in the sense of being resexualized; this dirty talk isn’t Henry V's forté.18

Inconclusiveness notwithstanding, what I should like to suggest in conclusion is that our critical tendency to elide or “forget” 2 Henry IV in this tetralogy, at the same time critically and affectively privileging 1 Henry IV, is related to an apparent displacement of ontological violence and corresponding, agreeable theatrical facilitation in 1 Henry IV. This tendency to overlook 2 Henry IV is heightened by a certain critical tradition in which its disillusioning traits, including the waning, sickening, or fading in it of the bright stars of 1 Henry IV, are emphasized, as is the devaluation of the royal currency. Yet in addition to getting down to some Realpolitik glossed over in 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV marks the “return” of an ontological violence neither fully locatable nor fully erasable in the contexts of Shakespeare's production. It is the critique of such violence, which cannot be regarded as fully performed even if it is desired in our own political and professional contexts, that recalling 2 Henry IV facilitates.


  1. By “matter” Humphreys means primarily the extensive chronicle materials on which Shakespeare draws in the Henry plays (as in the traditional phrase “the matter of Britain”), but the term resonates beyond that denotation (xix). His term “redemption” appropriately invokes the religious and morality-drama context(s) of Hal's putative betterment. My choice of the term “reform” emphasizes secular contexts, including that of a disciplinary, character-forming humanism. Mention of Hal's “reformation” will, however, recall the Protestant epoch in which the play was written. See also Dickinson 33-46.

  2. This critique is widely implied in radical new historicism and/or feminism, partly in response to the reading of Prince Hal in Stephen Greenblatt's “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion.” Traditional readings subject to this critique would include all ego-psychological ones as well as C. L. Barber's festive-political reading, in which Prince Hal progressively manifests his “sovereign nature” (192-221).

  3. “Invisible Bullets” is the locus classicus for this argument. It does envisage some changes in Prince Hal in 2 Henry IV, but not of the positive kind associated with self-improvement.

  4. The theatrical reading depends partly on Hal's self-unmasking in the “I know you all” soliloquy in 1 Henry IV (1.1.192-214). The revisions effected in 2 Henry IV suggest that this speech embodies the young prince's fantasy of masterful knowledge as theatrical knowledge, soon to be dispelled.

  5. Interpretively by various interested characters in the Henry plays, including the politic archbishop of Canterbury in Henry V, who finds that, at the moment of Henry IV's death, Hal's “wildness, mortified in him / Seem’d to die too … consideration like an angel came / And whipp’d th’ offending Adam out of him / Leaving his body as a paradise” (1.1.27-31). Quite soon, however, the clerics get down to postlapsarian business, which consists in making a preemptively large contribution to Henry's military budget.

  6. This peculiarity is extensively discussed by Humphreys, who properly relates it to the problem of the relationship between 1 and 2 Henry IV. While questionably accepting that “redemptions” do occur in both plays, he concludes that “naturalistically speaking these twin-redemptions are an incoherence, [yet] dramatically and by folktale or morality canons they are acceptable” (xxviii). Humphreys concludes, moreover, that the two versions of Hal's “redemption” are radically incompatible: while the playful version in 1 Henry IV comes from Daniel and The Famous Victories, the serious, father's-deathbed version comes from Holinshed.

  7. “Noble change” is a peculiarly resonant phrase. While the change effected in 1 Henry IV hardly merits the description “noble,” the phrase invokes such change in the field of the play's representation but also in contexts such as those of Elizabethan upward mobility, of disciplinary humanism, of ruling-class appropriation of popular culture and theater, and even of self-sacrificial assumption of the burden of kingship. It is understandable, then, that the process of noble change may seem at once bafflingly complex, compulsory, and subject to endless resistance. I shall deal with the question largely in terms of the play's representation rather than of its implied contexts.

  8. Jonathan Goldberg's Writing Matter enables us to conceive of this particular displacement of the reform-action. It could be said that the action is displaced to the level of Shakespeare's “reforming” authorship and textual revision, to which considerations similar to those of Hal's reform may apply. Under this assumption, questions regarding Shakespeare's authorial “character” and the notoriously troublesome text of 2 Henry IV take on paramount importance. The process of “theatrical legitimation” that Timothy Murray sees being pursued by Jonson as author and editor is also, mutatis mutandis, pursued by Shakespeare.

  9. The republication of Greenblatt's “Invisible Bullets” in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England brings it under the purview of new categories of displacement, circulation, etc.

  10. The apparent phenomenon of the interior shift generally results in a critical shift toward psychological (psychoanalytic) reading of Shakespeare. What can easily be overlooked is the simultaneous shift in the other direction in Shakespeare, such that the represented political world seems increasingly governed by psychological “laws.”

  11. I take it that implicit recognition of psychologized politics and/or politicized psychology has been widespread during the past decade, notably in politically conscious Freudian (often feminist) criticism. This is the critical recognition which, without necessarily crystallizing into a fully coherent model, informs my discussion. An essay that importantly embodies this recognition with reference to Shakespeare is Jacqueline Rose, “Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure.

  12. The pertinence of courtesy literature and conduct books need hardly be insisted upon. Part of Hal's “reforming” consists in his “fashioning” (self-fashioning?) as a courtier and a gentleman. However, see Elias for the most sweeping contextualization of this process.

  13. We have been taught to recognize the sophisticated refinement, allegorization, and economic transcription of the prodigal reform-model during the English sixteenth century by critics, notably including Helgerson and Hutson. Nonetheless, my point stands.

  14. I don’t assume that “wildness” is mere code for parricide in the play; rather, parricide appears to inhere in a more diffuse wildness. It is around parricide, nevertheless, that diffuse wildness seems to become centripetally organized toward the end of the reform-action in 2 Henry IV. Harold Jenkins notes that the young Henry V is not just a historic figure but a folkloristic wild-boy, hence some of the “trickiness” of his reform in the Henry plays (Humphreys xxvi-xxvii). A pervasively invoked “wildness” in the Henry plays can sometimes be construed as that of the wild sign in an otherwise stable signifying system, or of the wild card—the joker—in a pack otherwise stably denominated. If Hal is the character most often associated with these forms of wildness, perhaps especially as the changeling-figure in 1 Henry IV, he is by no mean exclusively so. Part of the difficulty in staging any reform-action is the elusive, bound ary-crossing character of this “wildness”; however, the “solution” in 2 Henry IV depends on this mobility.

  15. Here it is pertinent to recall that “engrossing” means writing in the sixteenth century—Shakespeare's all-engrossing mastery of the language clearly makes him a threatening figure for the paranoid or even just anxious interpreter.

  16. Some of my locutions here are indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. It would appear that the transactions she identifies “between men” can occur vertically between father and son as well as horizontally between sibling-like rivals. See also Berger and Holland.

  17. The atrocities ascribed to the Welshwomen at the beginning of 1 Henry IV include mutilation of men's corpses on the battlefield. Sure enough, this “unmanly” power will be appropriated and re-gendered by Falstaff-Hal in the killing of Hotspur. The falling-silent and disappearance of women in the course of the so-called Henriad (the English epic-manqué constructed by modern critics) is conspicuous.

  18. Some of the oddity of Prince Hal's character comes from his overt sexual apathy idle Falstaffian talk of his sexual adventures notwithstanding. The repression of an indeterminate sexuality, which will include at least a homosexual component, is inevitably to be suspected. The word “wild” could be applied to homosexuality, though not exclusively to it as a sexual practice, in the sixteenth century (Bray 25-27).

Works Cited

Barber, C. L. “Rule and Misrule in Henry IV.” In his Shakespeare's Festive Comedy A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959. 192-221.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Psychoanalyzing the Shakespearean Text: The First Three Scenes of the Henriad.” Parker and Hartman 210-29.

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men's Press, 1982.

Cohen, Walter, “Political Criticism of Shakespeare.” Howard and O’Connor 18-46.

Dickinson, Hugh. “The Reformation of Prince Hal.” Shakespeare Quarterly 12 (1961) 33-46.

Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield, eds. Political Shakespeare: New Essays In Cultural Materialism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Drakakis, John, ed. Alternative Shakespeares. London: Methuen, 1985.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: The Development of Manners. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Urizen, 1978.

Faber, M. D., ed. The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare. New York: Science House, 1970.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V.” Dollimore and Sinfield 18-47.

—. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Helgerson, Richard. The Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.

Holland, Norman. “Introduction to Henry IV, Part 2.” Faber 411-28.

Howard, Jean E., and Marion F. O’Connor, eds. Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Humphreys, A. R. “Introduction.” 2 Henry IV. Shakespeare xi-xci.

Hutson, Lorna. Thomas Nashe in Context. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Murray, Timothy. Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in Seventeenth-Century England and France. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Parker, Patricia, and Geoffrey Hartman, eds. Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. New York, Methuen, 1985.

Rose, Jacqueline. “Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure.” Drakakis 95-118.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of King Henry IV. Ed. A. R. Humphreys. The Arden Shakespeare. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1998)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12838

SOURCE: “The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 176-206.

[In the following essay, Hunt offers an account of the coexisting Catholic and Protestant elements characterized in Falstaff, King Henry IV, and Prince Hal, arguing that this mixture of traits does not impede any of these characters' attempts to reform themselves.]

Granted the late-medieval, early fifteenth-century settings of Shakespeare's 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, theater audiences are not surprised by the large number of references in these plays to Catholic practices and beliefs.1 What has proved problematic for commentators is the coexistence of Catholic elements with explicitly Protestant traits in Shakespeare's characterizations of Falstaff, Henry IV, and Prince Hal/Henry V. In what follows, I argue that different forms of this mixture either impede or undermine these characters' attempts during the Second Henriad to reform themselves ethically and spiritually, at least until a noteworthy blend of Catholic and Protestant traits enables King Henry V in the aftermath of Agincourt to achieve a relatively successful transformation of character. Many plays of Shakespeare are syncretic in matters of religion: Othello, for example, reflects a mixture of Protestant predestinarian and Catholic voluntaristic theologies.2 Having apparently committed himself in his portrait of Falstaff to satirizing the proto-Protestantism of his character's Lollard namesake Oldcastle, Shakespeare at the same time resolved to give the plays of the Second Henriad a late-medieval air, and hence perhaps found characterizations built upon a mixture of Catholic and Protestant components inevitable. What does not appear inevitable in the Second Henriad, however, is the sustained, thoughtful manner of the many critiques of Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Protestant Reformation entailed by the blend of antithetical religious traits within characters trying to reform themselves. Whether by accident or design, this dramatic phenomenon poses a question: how can individuals reform themselves in societies—like Shakespeare's—wherein Catholicism remained a strong threat to Protestantism by positing a contradictory route to reformation?3 An answer to this question emerges from Henry's third and most successful attempt at reformation. Getting to that end involves starting with Falstaff.

Falstaff's name in original performances of 1 Henry IV was Sir John Oldcastle, a conjuration of the Lollard martyr of the late fourteenth century. Shakespeare's apology concerning Falstaff in the Epilogue of 2 Henry IV—“for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man” (29-30)—clinches the earlier proto-Protestant allusion in Hal's calling Falstaff “my old lad of the castle” in 1 Henry IV (1.2.41).4 Elizabethan godly Protestants thought of the Lollard Oldcastle, executed for his purported attempts to purify English Catholicism and make the Word of God more meaningful to the masses, as a saint.5 Falstaff at one point tells Hal that the Prince is “indeed able to corrupt a saint” (1.2.90), ironically subverting the memory of the saint Oldcastle by reference to his namesake's tavern vices. Shakespeare's apology apparently grew out of objections that Oldcastle's Elizabethan heirs Sir William Brooke and his son Sir Henry Brooke raised over Falstaff's travesty of the Lollard's memory, including Falstaff's proto-Protestantism.6 A detail strengthening Falstaff/Oldcastle's mock Protestantism involves his implication that men and women are to be saved by faith rather than merit (based on works): “O, if men were to be saved by merit,” Falstaff comically says in an age when men were thought to be saved by merit, “what hole in hell were hot enough for [Gadshill]” (1.2.105-06). By Shakespeare's time, the dictum that Protestants primarily relied upon faith rather than merit acquired through spiritual good deeds had become a cliché.7 Falstaff, skeptical about being saved by merit, seems to rely upon his self-serving belief—a Lutheran tenet attributed by Elizabethan Protestants to the Lollards—that undemonstrated faith alone can save him near the end of a hedonistic life void of good deeds.

This reading suggests that Falstaff's Protestantism occasionally mocks central tenets or practices of Reformation Protestants. Falstaff's Reformation Protestantism is implied by his pronouncement that “’Tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation” (1.2. 102-03). However, the “vocation” in which Falstaff “labors” is thievery. Falstaff misapplies Matthew 12:33 when he says of himself, during his playlet with Hal, “If then the tree may be known by the fruit, as the fruit by the tree, then peremptorily I speak it, there is virtue in that Falstaff” (2.4.423-25). If Falstaff were known by his fruits, he would be known by his deeds of theft. Gadshill tells the Chamberlain that the thieves, including Falstaff, “pray continually to their saint, the commonwealth, or rather not pray to her but prey on her, for they ride up and down on her and make her their boots [booty]” (2.1.80-83). Latent in this punning judgment lies a criticism of Reformation Protestants' rape of a sainted Catholic commonwealth, their plunder of its material wealth. The critique of Protestantism deepens when mention is made of these thieves' plan to waylay “pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings” (1.2.123-24).

Finally, Falstaff could be any one of a number of Protestants walking the streets of Shakespeare's London when he says, “I would I were a weaver; I could sing psalms or anything” (2.4.130-31). (Concerning this utterance, David Bevington notes that “many psalm-singing Protestant immigrants from the Low Countries were weavers,”8 and Clifford Davidson notes that the practice had caught on among craftsmen such as weavers in England.9) Falstaff's “Elizabethan” Protestantism unequivocally surfaces in his hypocritical condemnation of “whoreson smoothy-pates [who] do now wear nothing but high shoes and bunches of keys at their girdles” (2 Henry IV 1.2.37-39)—in other words, of short-haired Puritan tradesmen of the later sixteenth century who have bartered their faith for commercial success (something that Falstaff would doubtless be willing to do). Shakespeare's playing fast and loose with Falstaff's stage Protestantism, his making it of several ages and thus no age, makes it vaguely generic.10 A combination of Oldcastle and the Elizabethan Puritan, Falstaff is both old-fashioned and progressive. On the one hand, the Falstaff constructed by Reformation allusions is too late to be a character actually involved in the events of Henry IV's late-medieval England. On the other, the Lollard Falstaff/Oldcastle comes too early to profit spiritually (even if he sincerely wanted to) from the godly Reformation of religion occurring in later Tudor times.

The paradox is evident in the play's dialogue. The first dialogue involving Falstaff that auditors hear in 1 Henry IV stresses his out-of-dateness, his not knowing the time of day, his being out of sync with the natural sequence of day-night activities (1.2.1-12). He quotes the old-fashioned fustian tragedy, popular in the 1570s and 1580s but dated by the time of Henry IV's production. And he styles himself as one of “Diana's foresters,” a minion “of the moon” (1.2.25-26): epithets that link him with Queen Elizabeth, and thus tie him to an era which, in 1596-97, when 1 Henry IV was first performed, was clearly drawing to a close. Told by Hal to hide behind the arras from the sheriff, Falstaff laments that he once had “a true face and good conscience … but their date is out” (2.4.496-98). All these lines emphasize Falstaff's belatedness, which will hinder his attempts to reform.11

Evidence exists that Falstaff's weak faith, usually deferred, at moments kindles a genuine desire to repent and reform himself. “Do I not bate? Do I not dwindle?” he asks Bardolph: “Why, my skin hangs about me like an old lady's loose gown. … Well, I’ll repent, and that suddenly, while I am in some liking. I shall be out of heart shortly, and then I shall have no strength to repent. An I have not forgotten what the inside of a church is made of, I am a peppercorn, a brewer's horse” (3.3.2-9). These lines suggest that Falstaff's proto-Protestant faith is not nearly strong enough to overcome ignorance and vices that Elizabethan Protestants typically thought of as Catholic. Like any proto-Protestant before the advent of the sixteenth-century Reformation, which made the Bible available in national languages, Falstaff has imperfectly learned much of his religion from biblical tableaux woven into wall hangings hung in taverns and other buildings. Moreover, on the battlefield at Shrewsbury he misuses the Catechism to rationalize cowardice, a dramatic fact made easier by the inability of late-medieval men to read it in English in an accessible book of devotions. Falstaff is a thief because he is idle, afflicted by a slothful, hedonistic temperament. If he in some minds represents merry Old England, it is a dissolute late-medieval Catholic England of Elizabethan Protestant imagination. Its dissolution is evident when Falstaff tells Prince Hal that “An old lord of the council rated me the other day in the street about you, sir, but I marked him not; and yet he talked very wisely, but I regarded him not; and yet he talked wisely, and in the street too” (1.2.82-86). Commentators on 1 Henry IV have long recognized Shakespeare's ironic allusion here to Proverbs 1:20-24, to Wisdom which cries out in the streets but to deaf ears. If Falstaff is deaf to biblical wisdom, or if he misapplies it, the fault lies not wholly in his character but partly in his historical date. As a liar, thief, drunkard, and wencher, Falstaff stands in need of the personal spiritual reformation that Shakespeare's countrymen dated from the Protestant Reformation beginning in the first half of the sixteenth century. And yet, as noted above, Shakespeare problematically identifies Reformation Protestantism with thievery, with plundering the riches of a “sainted” commonwealth.12 So portrayed, this flawed Protestantism does not promise his successful reformation of stereotypical Catholic vices, simply because it seems to participate in them.

It is difficult to overstimate Falstaff's need for spiritual reformation. The bankruptcy of Falstaff's saving faith symbolically reveals itself in 1 Henry IV in the gross disproportion of his notorious debt—only “one halfpennyworth of bread” to two gallons of sack in the itemized tavern bill (2.4.529-36), only a symbolized bit of the transubstantiated body of Christ in relation to an excess of his blood. This grotesquerie underscores the enormity of Falstaff's addiction to pleasure at the expense of life-sustaining nourishment (that scrap of bread), an obsession that apparently keeps him from the true nourishment of the redemptive bread and wine served in church. By several devices, Shakespeare underscores Falstaff's great need of reformation for salvation. Falstaff perjures himself by claiming his lies about the Gadshill robbery are true, “or I am a Jew else, an Hebrew Jew” (2.4.177). Falstaff says that Bardolph's red nose constitutes his unconventional memento mori: “I never see thy face but I think upon hellfire and Dives that lived in purple; for there he is in his robes, burning, burning” (3.3.31-33). Yet in fact the postulated light in Bardolph's face serves Falstaff's vices, as a beacon at night between taverns (3.3.40-48). “God reward me for it!” (3.3.48), Falstaff blasphemously exclaims regarding the sack that he has bought Bardolph, and that he fancies fuels the nasal torch lighting his drunken way. “But thou art altogether given over,” Falstaff pronounces of his crony, “and wert indeed, but for the light in thy face, the son of utter darkness” (3.3.35-38). A godly Protestant auditor, however, might object that the flame in Bardolph's face signifies that Bardolph is a “son of utter darkness.”

Throughout the Second Henriad, Shakespeare offers no evidence for Falstaff's conclusive repentance and reformation. In 2 Henry IV, Poins states that “the immortal part [of Falstaff] needs a physician, but that moves not him” (2.2.98-99). The Page touches on Falstaff's “Catholic” dissoluteness when with tongue-in-cheek he tells Hal that the company which Falstaff keeps in the tavern consists of members “of the old church” (2.2.142)—that is to say, “good fellows of the usual, disreputable fellowship.”13 Playgoers might think that the process of Falstaff's authentic reformation begins with his inclusion of himself in his condemnation of old men's addiction to the vice of lying, made as a preface to his clear-sighted correction of Shallow's history of his youth (2 Henry IV 3.2.302-26, esp. 302-03); but this apparently honest basis for personal reformation dissolves with his declaration that he will bilk Shallow out of his “land and beefs” (3.2.326-31). “If the young dace be a bait for the old pike, I see no reason in the law of nature but I may snap at him” (3.2.328-30), Falstaff concludes in proto-Darwinian fashion.14

The Hostess's memorable account of Falstaff's death confirms audiences' impression that this character never does get around to reforming himself until it is too late. On his deathbed, Falstaff may babble of green fields (Henry V 2.3.16-17), evidently his musings on Psalm 23; but the fact that he “babbles” suggests that his meditation is incoherent, directionless. He may cry out “‘God, God, God!’ three or four times” (2.3.18-19), but the Hostess urges him not to think on God (as though he will live). Falstaff may cry out against sack and women in his last hours (2.3.26-35), and, feverish (“rheumatic”), he may talk of the “Whore of Babylon” (2.3.37-38) (as though he seeks to die a proto-Protestant condemning a personification of the Church of Rome);15 but all playgoers hear is evidence of his guilt, and nothing of his reformation. An upwardly progressive chill takes hold of Falstaff's body, and he dies before he can genuinely repent.16 Thus the Hostess's blackly comic malapropism in her uttered conviction that dead Falstaff lies in “Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom” (2.3.9-10) aptly suggests the lack of Christian salvation in Falstaff's end.17 Rather than to Abraham's salvific bosom, Falstaff in the Hostess's confused mind goes to that of a patron of secular chivalry.18

Shakespeare's characterizations of Prince Hal and later Henry V include and develop a critique of Protestant and Catholic traits working at cross purposes in the matter of personal reformation. As he formulates it, Hal's intended reformation appears mainly politico-ethical in nature. But Elizabethan playgoers would also have considered it spiritual, for Hal's misbehavior has consisted of those vices of the flesh that Reformers especially thought required amendment for the sinner's Christian salvation. This statement holds true even if a calculated Machiavellian program for personal political advancement wholly motivates Hal's performance of the sins of the tavern and brothel (a vexed question in the play), for the wages of sin are death, regardless of a person's reasons for sinning.19

Hal presents his calculated scheme for political advancement in 1 Henry IV in his notorious soliloquy in act 1. In this speech, playgoers hear a stereotypical Protestant distrust of sloth, valuing of work, and curtailment of holiday:20

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
.....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.

(1.2.189-90, 198-201)

Hal's employment in his soliloquy of the pointedly Protestant word “reformation” (1.2.207) for his planned conversion strengthens the identification in his case of Protestantism and the distrust of sloth, valuing of work, and curtailment of holiday.21 Hal intends his projected reformation of idleness and vice into a strict moral life to play its part in “Redeeming time” (1.2.211)—not simply the wasted time of the prince's life thus far but that of the exhausted, dissipated age of Henry IV's England as well.22 Redeeming lost or wasted time by hours and days strictly regulated by religious meditation but mainly by serious productive work for the benefit of one's material life and soul as well as for the commonwealth became a hallmark of Tudor Protestantism.23

But even as stereotypical vices of Catholicism mingled with Falstaff's proto-Protestantism and could be said to undermine it, so a similar medley taints Hal's expression of his intention to reform and calls the authenticity of his resolution into question. “And like bright metal on a sullen ground,” Hal states,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.


With this language Hal conceives of his future reformation as mostly show with little substance, as something that, “glittering,” superficially hides faults but dazzles beholders' eyes. Superficially, the metaphor makes Hal's purposed reformation a jewel glittering the better for the foil/fault set under it, enhancing it by contrast. But granted this primary meaning, playgoers can also hear the phrase “glittering o’er my fault,” applied to Hal's intended reformation, as signifying that it will amount to golden, dazzling show deceptively covering his fault beneath it. Interpreted this way and considered within the matrix of the Second Henriad's Protestant critique of Catholicism, Hal's reformation conjures the image of those golden glittering icons of Catholicism, which by Elizabethan times had been smashed by reforming Protestants and condemned by their Elizabethan sons and daughters because their visual splendor once deceived gullible Christians.24 Thus Shakespeare implicitly criticizes the idol worship latent in Hal's conception of his reformation. The taint of stereotypical Catholicism emanates as much from the articulated details of Hal's planned reformation as it does from the characterization of the degenerate idle holiday life that he expects to amend.

Shakespeare further undermines the Protestantism of Hal's intended reformation by involving him in Falstaff's and his cronies' thievery. Their robbery concerns—to repeat and slightly revise Gadshill's words—“pray[ing] continually to their saint, the commonwealth, or rather not pray[ing] to her but prey[ing] on her, for they ride up and down on her and make her their boots [booty]” (2.1.80-83). Hal joins the flawed Protestant Falstaff to pillage a “sainted” commonwealth, which was the later activity of Henry VIII, Cromwell, and their confederates, who sacked the Catholic monasteries.25 The phrasing indicts Hal's projected reformation and its Protestant overtones.

As previously stated, Reformation Protestantism had by Elizabethan times made itself a religion of salvation by faith versus salvation by stereotypical Catholic deeds. Henry IV's planned medieval crusade against infidels in the Holy Land not only would divert armed aggression from himself to enemies outside England; leading troops there would also amount to a Catholic deed of penance for his part in Richard II's death. A different and more Protestant and modern kind of penitential deed constitutes Prince Hal's vehicle for his scripted reformation (at least in his account to his father of the projected process). Hal wishes that Hotspur's honors “were multitudes” (3.2.143), so that during calculated single combat with him he might

                                                            make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
This in the name of God I promise here.(26)


By means of these savage deeds, Prince Hal “will wear a garment all of blood / And stain [his] favors in a bloody mask, / Which, washed away, shall scour [his] shame with it” (3.2.135-37). Hal's words certainly ring with vindictive anger, traceable no doubt to his intense frustration over hearing his father and others praise Hotspur at his expense. But his notion that washing slain Hotspur's blood from his face shall scour shame from his countenance suggests that this deed of combat represents an act of personal penance.

But this method of redemption gets called into question by the negative overtones that it acquires in act 4 of 1 Henry IV. Hal's chosen war-like vehicle of reformation possesses overtones of Catholic iconolatry. Vernon tells Hotspur that armed Hal and his comrades appear

All plumed like estridges, that with the wind
Bated like eagles having lately bathed,
Glittering in golden coats, like images. … 


Resembling “gilded statues” (Bevington's gloss of “images”),27 Prince Hal and his followers appear like those Catholic icons hated by Reformers, gilt images of all show and no worth that encourage idolatry.28 Hal's pronouncement near the end of 1 Henry IV firmly clinches the association in the Second Henriad between a glittering exterior and falsehood. “For my part,” he tells Falstaff, who claims single-handedly to have killed Hotspur, “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (5.4.155-56). The Chorus of Henry V makes explicit a pun latent in Shakespeare's use of the word “gilt” throughout 1 and 2 Henry IV. Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland—all three traitors to Henry V—have, according to the Chorus, “for the gilt of France—O, guilt indeed!— / Confirmed conspiracy with fearful France” (2.Chorus.26-27). Playgoers can read this identification of guilty falsehood and glittering gold back into most of the distinctive appearances of the Catholic-icon imagery of the Henry IV plays.29 Idol-worship, regarded from a Reformation Protestant viewpoint, convicted worshipers of guilt by misleading them into a false faith.30

In part 1, Hal's projected reformation of character becomes convincing for King Henry IV not through any evidence of his son's saving faith but through Hal's chivalric deed of rescuing the king from Douglas's assault (5.4.39-58), which becomes Hal's unlooked-for act of filial atonement. Furthermore, once Hal has killed Hotspur and captured Douglas, he sets his prisoner free, ransomless, rather than executing him because

His valors shown upon our crests today,
Have taught us how to cherish such high deeds
Even in the bosom of our adversaries.


Bloody deeds rather than evidence of inner faith or morality save an ethically questionable man's life in a case of double-standard justice (other traitors such as Worcester and Vernon are quickly put to death). Hal perhaps favors Douglas out of gratitude for the effect that his capture has had on the Prince's relationship with his father.

Granted the several ways by which Shakespeare invites auditors to question the nature of Hal's reformation in 1 Henry IV, theater audiences are not surprised by his lapsing in 2 Henry IV into his former, dissolute life of the street and tavern.31 Disguising himself as a tavern waiter, sneaking back to the Boar's Head (thus violating a promise made to his father) simply to observe Falstaff ridiculously in love, Hal is interrupted, once he discloses himself to argue with Falstaff, by Peto, who tells him that Henry IV needs the reputed slayer of Hotspur, Falstaff, to quell the remaining rebels. “By heavens, Poins, I feel me much to blame,” Hal confesses,

So idly to profane the precious time
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapor, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare unarmèd heads.
Give me my sword and cloak. Falstaff, good night.


Prince Hal has fallen into his former prodigal way of living partly because Falstaff cleverly wrested from him the credit for killing Hotspur, the deed upon which Hal's scripted reformation depended for its long-term credibility.

If early fifteenth-century England, rent by rebellion and relatively hard economic times, is ever to become a nation reformed, then the reformation of its monarch would seem to be a necessary precondition or corollary of the event.32 This precondition initially concerns the character of Henry IV rather than that of his son. That Henry IV wants to be known as a reformer king becomes apparent in part 1 when Hotspur admits that this monarch “takes on him to reform / Some certain edicts and some strait decrees / That lie too heavy on the commonwealth” (4.3.80-82). The specter of a morally unreformed Henry VIII haunted Tudor Reformers in their efforts to purify their national religion.33 Henry VIII's lapses were particularly egregious, since in himself he had married the pope and monarch into a prototype of the Reformer king. King Henry IV foreshadows this prototype when he says of his calculated absences from the public eye, “Thus did I keep my person fresh and new, / My presence, like a robe pontifical, / Ne’er seen but wondered at” (3.2.55-57). When Prince Hal begs pardon of his father for his prodigal youth, Henry IV's weighty response, “God pardon thee!” (3.2.29), is simultaneously a totalitarian monarch's pronouncement and a priestly absolution from God the Father.

Nevertheless, in Henry IV's case the blend of spiritual and secular power in the monarch proves unstable. This king vacillates between playing the parts of God's ordained agent and God's victim, the latter a wretched man who suspects that God has bred his scourge out of his own blood in the form of a prodigal son who indirectly punishes him for crimes against Richard II (3.2.4-11). The man who would be a priestly monarch yearns to atone for his sins by means of a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem, and yet he dies in the Jerusalem room of Westminster Abbey, as though a punster deity were mocking him.34 Certain episodes of 1 and 2 Henry IV predictively rehearse the Reformation scenario of the absolutist monarch and pontiff confronting each other. Act 4, scene 4, of 1 Henry IV shows Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York, busily planning to muster allies to defend himself from Henry IV should the other rebels fail at Shrewsbury. Like Popes Clement VII and Paul III as they faced Henry VIII, Shakespeare's Archbishop of York becomes an adversary of the English nation so that he might purge the realm of the moral diseases incurred by the ambitions of an absolutist monarch who would appropriate pontifical roles for himself (2 Henry IV 4.1.41-87).

Thus Shakespeare gives playgoers the impression that, if Prince Hal is to become in some sense a Reformation monarch, he ought not to follow his father's example. Hal's personal reformation seems to occur authentically when he becomes king and accepts the Lord Chief Justice as his father. “The tide of blood in me / Hath proudly flowed in vanity till now,” newly crowned King Henry V announces:

Now doth it turn and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods
And flow henceforth in formal majesty.

(2 Henry IV 5.2.129-33)

When Henry V coolly rejects the bloated image of his own former vices, Falstaff, he does so in language that suggests a just-completed personal reformation. “Presume not that I am the thing I was,” he tells Falstaff, “For God doth know, so shall the world perceive, / That I have turned away my former self” (2 Henry IV 5.5.56-58). In this reforming vein, Henry V has banished his tavern companions from his presence “till their conversations [their behavior] / Appear more wise and modest to the world” (2 Henry IV 5.5.101-02). This personal reformation of Henry V appears to be the basis for claims that he is “a Christian king, / Unto whose grace our passion is as subject / As is our wretches fettered in our prisons” (Henry V 1.2.241-43). He is a ruler who, in the Chorus's estimation, invites his subjects to imitate the actions of “the mirror of all Christian kings” (Henry V 2.Chorus. 6).35

A stereotyped Catholic foil accentuates the Protestant nature of Henry V's second reformation of character in an apparently conclusive way. Ely marvels that Henry V could have quickly developed integrity while living dissolutely, but he finds precedence for the possibility in Nature:

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbored by fruit of baser quality;
And so the Prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness, which, no doubt,
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty.

(Henry V 1.1.61-67)

“It must be so,” Canterbury agrees, “for miracles are ceased. And therefore we must needs admit the means / How things are perfected” (1.1.68-70).36 It was a Reformation Protestant—not a late-medieval Catholic Archbishop—who believed that “no miracles occurred after the revelation of Christ.”37 By the late sixteenth-century, belief in the continued occurrences of religious miracles had, in Protestant opinion, become a stigmal badge of Catholicism. With the Protestant subscription to the ceasing of miracles came a corresponding opportunity for self-fashioning, for the godly life of relative self-perfection. That this is Henry V's new life is the burden of the Archbishop's slightly earlier speech:

Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th’ offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T’envelop and contain celestial spirits.


Archbishop Canterbury's memorable metaphor of the functioning beehive (1.2.183-206) is no metaphor if such self-fashioning is possible, but a likely reality, for this self-perfection, even if relative, among a large portion of the citizenry and their magistrates, including their “emperor,” would realize obedience in a harmoniously working commonwealth.38 According to the Archbishop, honeybees

                                        have a king, and officers of sorts,
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home;
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad;
Others, like soldiers, armèd in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor,
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice with his surly hum
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.


A Reformation Protestant commonwealth could identify with this society, mainly because it celebrates the individually and socially redemptive benefits of proper work. The soldiers' war-work finds its justification in the “singing masons'” and “civil citizens'” transformations of their plunder into the commonwealth's food-stuffs and architecture. And while auditors might feel sorry for the plight of the heavy-burdened porters, reconsideration suggests that even this painful work, necessary to society, saves the laborers, for those who do not work die. By framing his picture of a commonwealth with “magistrates, correct[ing] at home” and a sober judge ordering a drone's execution, Canterbury underscores the justice of this world of work, wherein the emperor especially is “busy” in his majesty. Elizabethan Protestants would thus have found understandable the efficiency of the Archbishop's ruler, Henry V, by means of the Archbishop's flattering implication.

Despite these positive portrayals of Henry V's second, more authoritative reformation, troubling undercurrents swirl through it. For one thing, it—as previously mentioned—is crafted partly on the rejection of his former Falstaffian self: the Prodigal within him (2 Henry IV 5.5.56-59). The father in the biblical parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) accepts the formerly profligate but now reformed younger son and blesses him. Since the prodigal Falstaff and Prince Hal's low-life companions have not reformed themselves, King Henry cannot be blamed for rejecting them until they give evidence of character reformation (5.5.66-71). But he can be blamed for the hypocrisy of terming Falstaff and his cronies the “misleaders” of his youth (5.5.64), for audiences of the Second Henriad know that, from the beginning, Hal cleverly allowed himself to be “misled” by Falstaff so that his purposed reformation would look better. Traces of an old, ethically troubling duplicity in Henry V's rejection of Falstaff beg the question of the complete honesty (or authenticity) of his second reformation.39 If as a “model” Christian king Henry V controls his passions, the effect produced occasionally suggests an unpleasantly cold man.

Moreover, Shakespeare evokes aspects of the Tudor Reformation at the beginning of Henry V in order ironically to show King Henry subverting one of the Reformation's principal benefits. Appreciating this claim involves initially grasping certain correspondences between the life and times of Henry VIII and those of Shakespeare's Henry V. Shakespeare's countrymen could consider these parallels stronger than those between Henry IV and the great Tudor monarch. Both Henry V and Henry VIII were fond of disguising themselves to trick others. In 1540, Henry VIII disguised himself, traveled to Rochester, met the newly arrived Anne of Cleves, embraced and kissed her, talked with her, and then later, undisguised, returned to her.40 Both kings warred against the French. “In 1513, as part of the propaganda campaign to justify his invasion of France, Henry VIII commissioned an English translation of Tito Livio's Vita Henrici Quinti. … Henry VIII took his model sufficiently to heart to ride about his raindrenched camp in France, encouraging his soliders on the night before they set out to engage the French.”41 Both personally participated in the siege of a French city (Henry V at Harfleur, Henry VIII at Boulogne). Like Henry V, Henry VIII mercifully killed no one after the besieged city had surrendered (4,000 Boulognese departed unharmed). Like Henry V at Agincourt, Henry VIII at Boulogne achieved a miraculous victory. In the first French attempt to retake Boulogne, which pitted 14,000 Frenchmen against 5,000 Englishmen, many French troops died with little English loss of life. Like Shakespeare's Henry V, Henry VIII thanked God for this apparent martial miracle and ordered a Te Deum to be sung.42 Both kings were reformers of religion who executed men for corrupting it (Shakespeare's Henry V executes Bardolph for stealing a pax). Both kings had to contend with northern rebels, including the Percies (Henry VIII was confronted by the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-37). Finally, both Henry VIII and Henry V shared the same name: “To his people [Henry VIII] remained to the end ‘Bluff King Hal’.”43

Dramatic similarities in Shakespeare's portraits of Henry V and Henry VIII suggest that the playwright intellectually linked these monarchs and their reigns. Even as Shakespeare shows Henry V disguising himself in false identities to his advantage, so in the playwright's later King Henry VIII he shows this monarch entering “habited” as a shepherd in a masque to dance with an unsuspecting Anne Bullen and with impunity savor her physical beauty (1.4.65-109 and s.d.). Like Shakespeare's King Henry VIII, Henry V enjoys the privilege of uncannily knowing his enemies' plots against him. Concerning the imminent treason of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey, Bedford says that “The King hath note of all that they intend, / By interception which they dream not of” (Henry V 2.2.6-7). This mysterious political foresight anticipates and resembles Shakespeare's Henry VIII's, when the later ruler with the assistance of Dr. Butts, from a superior hidden vantage point, sees Gardiner and members of the Privy Council mistreating the king's agent, Cranmer. Even as Henry VIII later providentially detects his favorite Wolsey's treachery, so Henry V's prescience discovers the homicidal plot of Scroop, “the man that was his bedfellow, / Whom he hath dulled and cloyed with gracious favors” (2.2.8-9). The association of the two Henrys in Shakespeare's mind accounts for the resemblance between Henry V's formulation of Scroop's Judas-like betrayal and Henry VIII's angry conception of Wolsey's sin. “What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop,” Henry V begins,

                                                            thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage, and inhuman creature?
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coined me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practiced on me for thy use.


Nowhere else in the Shakespeare canon but in King Henry VIII 3.2 does the betrayal of the most trusted, rewarded inner counselor of a king acquire these archetypal Luciferian connotations. Having read Wolsey's missent inventory of his wealth secretly acquired, often at the king's expense, and the Cardinal's letters to the Pope, wherein he promotes his own ambition, a disillusioned Henry rejects the man he had “kept … next [to his] heart” and leaves Wolsey to—in his own words—fall “like Lucifer” (3.2. 158, 372).

The relevance of events in the reign of Henry VIII for those in Henry V's memorably materializes after the Archbishop of Canterbury actually uses the historically charged word “reformation” to convey Henry V's revolution of character:

Never was such a sudden scholar made;
Never came reformation in a flood
With such a heady currance, scouring faults;
Nor never Hydra-headed willfulness
So soon did lose his seat, and all at once,
As in this king.


In the dialogue that follows this reconstruction, Shakespeare begs the question of the relationship between Henry V's acknowledged reformation and the fifteenth-century analogue of a defining event of the English Protestant Reformation: Henry VIII's appropriation of the Catholic Church's immense, mainly dormant wealth. In the play, Canterbury refers to the fact that Parliament currently considers passing a bill originally introduced during Henry IV's reign. Under it, Henry V would become the beneficiary of the largest part of more than one-half of the Church's English possessions. In Canterbury's words,

                                        all the temporal lands which men devout
By testament have given to the Church
Would they strip from us, being valued thus:
As much as would maintain, to the King's honor,
Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights,
Six thousand and two hundred good esquires,
And, to relief of lazars and weak age
Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil,
A hundred almshouses right well supplied;
And to the coffers of the King besides
A thousand pounds by th’ year. Thus runs the bill.


Henry V, like Henry VIII after him, would profit personally from the conversion of Catholic wealth into thousands of new aristocratic entitlements that he could bequeath to secure loyalty as well as into an additional one-thousand pounds annually for the royal coffers. More important, the proposed dispossession of the Church will be justly beneficial, for a hundred new almshouses will be built from the proceeds of the rechanneled wealth (as though the Church has hoarded riches uncharitably). By promoting passage of the bill, Henry V can genuinely be styled a Christian king.

But the Bishop of Ely expects that King Henry will block the legislation, simply because he is “a true lover of the holy Church” (1.1.24). Concerning “this bill / Urged by the Commons” (1.1.71-72), Canterbury asserts that the new king “seems indifferent, / Or rather swaying more upon our part / Than cherishing th’exhibiters against us” (1.1.73-75). Essentially Canterbury bribes Henry V by privately offering him a sum of money greater than the Church ever at one time gave an English monarch (but certainly less than the wealth diverted to the king by the provisions of the pending bill) if he will wage war in France to reestablish the English claim to that throne (which Canterbury attempts to justify through a murky explanation of the Salic law).44 (Actually, embedded in the Archbishop's earlier allegory of the beehive is the subtle argument that the emperor wages “foreign” war to plunder the enemy [“velvet buds”] for domestic foodstuffs and building materials. Were Henry V to hear this veiled rationale and respond to it by pillaging the French, the Church would need to give even less money to the monarch for domestic use.) Whatever the case, both Henry and Canterbury tacitly understand that the king's acceptance of the Archbishop's private offer effectively kills the Parliament bill. Thus Henry V neglects a great spiritual good—the hundred new almshouses that his championing the parliamentary reform might accomplish. In this respect, his behavior does not testify to the profound spiritual dimension of his personal reformation as reported by Canterbury and others. Like Henry VIII after him, Henry V opens himself to the criticism that Catholic wealth redirected to his own and other noble strongboxes mainly serves the ends of militant personal glory and material gain, acquired under the jingoistic aegis of public good.45

Nevertheless, in the latter acts of Henry V, identifiably Reformation Protestant traits surface in the king that more than compensate for (or supersede) earlier troubling behavior. King Henry abandons his questionable practice of Machiavellian policy to tell the Dauphin's herald Montjoy humbly that he has resigned himself and his cause to God, and he does so in words that eschew bragging for a repentant plain idiom:

                                                            For, to say the sooth,
Though ’tis no wisdom to confess so much
Unto an enemy of craft and vantage,
My people are with sickness much enfeebled,
My numbers lessened, and those few I have
Almost no better than so many French,
Who when they were in health, I tell thee, herald,
I thought upon one pair of English legs
Did march three Frenchmen. Yet, forgive me, God,
That I do brag thus! This your air of France
Hath blown that vice in me. I must repent.
Go, therefore, tell thy master here I am;
My ransom is this frail and worthless trunk,
My army but a weak and sickly guard.
Yet, God before, tell him we will come on,
Though France himself and such another neighbor
Stand in our way.


A spirit of Protestant Calvinism informs King Henry's repentance of vain speech and his conception of his earthly being as a “frail and worthless trunk.” Regarded in this context, the following utterance from his later St. Crispin's Day speech rings authentically:

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.


The adversity of suffering hardships in France has begun to refine Henry's character into figurative gold.

Moreover, Henry V's conviction that “Every subject's duty is the King's; but every subject's soul is his own” (4.1.176-77) squares with the historically later Protestant greater emphasis upon the Christian's individual responsibility for confirming his or her salvation by daily charities and godly behavior unmediated by either a priest or religious ritual. (Catholic doctrine admitted some penitential deeds unmediated by a priest or ritual, such as penitential combat, but their number was far fewer than the total possible under Protestantism.) In a Protestant spirit, Henry implies that no outside authority such as a monarch or an institutionalized Church can vouch for the purity or sin of a person's soul. Henry V's non-Catholic notion of individual responsibility for the health of one's soul derives from his recently matured sense of personal accountability for his soldiers' lives and the welfare of English citizens. Henry disguised as a common soldier has told Bates that the king's “ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man” (4.1.105-06). When Henry thus vigorously forswears worship of the idol Ceremony, his denunciation acquires the value of a Protestant vilification of a stereotypical Catholic trait:

And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshipers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!


Henry V goes on to say that the idol Ceremony is basically a hollow god, attractive only in its superficial trappings.

Still, Henry's proto-Protestant reformation of character does not satisfy his anxious belief that he stands in need of certain Catholic rituals of penance. The night before the Battle of Agincourt, a worried King Henry V prays,

                                                            Not today, O Lord,
O, not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interrèd new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.


Despite this and one other vestige of Catholicism (see below), a distinctly Protestant spirit animates Henry V's St. Crispin's Day oration/sermon, inspiring his outnumbered troops to perform Herculean feats of arms at Agincourt. The inspiration of Christians chiefly by means of a central sermon-like speech became identified with Reformation Protestantism. Understanding the proto-Protestantism of Henry V's “sermon” to his soldiers involves appreciating its non-Catholic message of a democratic leveling of hierarchical privilege delivered via Christian language and ritual. His speech can be considered a sermon partly because it is delivered on the feast day of St. Crispin and is focused on the two saints Crispin and Crispinian. It amounts to a sermon designed, through brilliant rhetorical means, figuratively to put the spirit of Christian martyrs into enervated, apprehensive English soldiers. (By contrast “Saint” Oldcastle's spirit never did inhabit and purify the mountain of flesh, Falstaff.) In keeping with this day of martyrdom, Henry urges English survivors of Agincourt to show later generations their scars (as though they were those of near-martyrs). Superficially, this behavior resembles Catholic relic-veneration. Nevertheless, the names of the “host”—the English soldiers (4.3.34)—shall then be “Familiar in [their] mouth[s]” (4.3.52), as though they formed a symbolic rather than transubstantiated salvific body that auditors will ingest (through the story of Agincourt retold).46 In this context, the Communion chalice is recalled by the “flowing cups” in which the “host”—“Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, / Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester” (4.3.53-55)—is “freshly remembered.” Like the regularly repeated Last Supper-Communion story of salvation through Christ, the immortalizing narrative of English St. Crispin's Day shall, according to Henry, recur “From this day to the ending of the world” (4.3.58).47 And like the story of Christ's redemption commemorated by the Host and cup of wine, Henry's celebrated miracle of St. Crispin's Day gains its authority and transmits it through the original shedding of blood. “For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (4.3.61-62), Henry V asserts: “be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (4.3.62-63). Henry's words vaguely evoke both the language of Christ to the thieves on either side of the cross and the details of the Last Supper. Imitating the life and death of Christ/Henry radically transforms and elevates a devotee's identity.48

Certainly Henry V's extravagant imitation of Christ puts him at risk for the charge of blasphemy.49 In fact, he could be accused of inviting his troops to idolize him. Nevertheless, the Protestant insistence that the process of salvation applies equally to the foot soldier as to the king, if each is elect, surfaces in Henry's willingness to shed his royalty to stoop and join soldiers who spiritually distinguish themselves through their martyr-like willingness to shed their own blood for England. A warmth has replaced within Henry V a certain coldness he displayed during earlier moments of extreme self-control, such as that of Falstaff's banishment. The St. Crispin's Day's “sermon's” leveling of aristocrats to make all men plain brothers becomes a Protestant feature of Henry V when Shakespeare artfully makes its opposite a Catholic practice: the Catholic French warriors' blood in the Constable's words may be “spirited with wine” (3.5.21), but that wine never gets figuratively transformed into an immortal brotherhood of blood because the French embody an aristocratic hauteur. This icy attitude informs the King of France's battle oration, the complementary antithesis of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day exhortation. His oration fails to invigorate because it is little more than a mechanical, snobbish catalogue of pedigrees:

Up, princes, and with spirit of honor edged
More sharper than your swords, hie to the field!
Charles Delabreth, High Constable of France,
You Dukes of Orleans, Bourbon, and of Berri,
Alençon, Brabant, Bar, and Burgundy,
Jaques Chatillion, Rambures, Vaudemont,
Beaumont, Grandpré, Roussi, and Faulconbridge,
Foix, Lestrelles, Boucicault, and Charolais,
High dukes, great princes, barons, lords, and knights,
For your great seats now quit you of great shames.
Bar Harry England, that sweeps through our land
With pennons painted in the blood of Harfleur.
Rush on his host, as doth the melted snow
Upon the valleys, whose low vassal seat
The Alps doth spit and void his rheum upon.
Go down upon him—you have power enough—
And in a captive chariot into Rouen
Bring him our prisoner.


One might object that King Henry, despite his rhetoric of brotherhood, reveals a trace of the French king's class-consciousness when he reads the Agincourt English casualty-list:

Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Keighley, Davy Gam, esquire;
None else of name, and of all other men
But five-and-twenty.


But before we accuse him of hypocrisy, we need to realize that he is reading a list of English dead prepared formulaically by someone else. The fact that Henry just before he reads the English casualty-list recites a note of French dead (4.8.80-102)—a note which begins with princes and nobles and descends through “knights, esquires, and gallant gentlemen” and that includes a catalogue of most of the aristocrats chanted by the French King—reinforces the impression that too much should not be made of his manner of naming English dead.

Henry V's possession of two qualities the French king lacks further suggests his more generous attitude toward slain English troops. The French king's image of his aristocrat warriors hurtling down upon Henry's army like alpine snow, burying valleys beneath, betrays two characteristics of the speaker fatal to his cause—his lack of empathy with his common mercenaries and French gentry (much of that “melted snow”) and an extreme disdain for simple folk (the French aristocratic avalanche will “spit and void [its] rheum upon” a “low vassal seat”). Never uniting with the rank and file of his army, the late-medieval, feudalistic Catholic King of France goes down to defeat.

Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech thus becomes more Protestant through comparison with its Catholic complement. Furthermore, Henry's address to his troops gets associated with Protestant labor in the implicit contrast of Protestant work with Catholic idleness when Westmorland prefaces the speech by exclaiming, “O, that we now had here / But one ten thousand of those men in England / That do no work today!” (4.3.16-18). For the English, Agincourt's “feats” of war (4.3.51) will amount to work of a kind far different from the Catholic saying of beads or lighting of candles. Henry V echoes Westmorland's word “work” in a proto-Protestant spirit when he says, “We are but warriors for the working day. / Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched / With rainy marching in the painful field” (4.3.109-11). Once again Shakespeare evokes the stage Catholic imagery of a glittering (“gilt”) outside only to deny it; Henry's troops are muddied, appropriate for a Protestant “working day.” Beginning with his act 1 soliloquy in 1 Henry IV (1.2.198-201), Henry has from time to time characterized fighting as a holiday game; but on the eve of Agincourt the odds against the English, their weakened, unreinforced state, and the monumental significance of the impending battle make work rather than game combat's appropriate referent. Finally, unlike the precious bones in an often-sold Catholic reliquary, Henry's bones, if he is killed in battle, shall in his estimation yield the French little if they try to sell them (4.3.123-25); for since he clearly intends to die fighting rather than risk capture (4.3.124), they will be shattered by warfare and unsuitable for enshrinement.

Henry V's St. Crispin's Day “sermon,” charged with Protestant overtones, works a miracle, the English victory at Agincourt with only twenty-nine English dead (three of whom are noblemen) to ten-thousand French dead (of whom sixteen hundred are mercenaries and the rest French nobility, knights, and “gentlemen of blood and quality” [4.8.80-106]). This miraculous preservation of English lives prompts Henry to exclaim, “O God, thy arm was here! / And not to us, but to thy arm alone, / Ascribe we all” (4.8.106-08). “Take it, God,” he concludes, “For it is none but thine” (4.8.111-12).50 “For miracles are ceased,” the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed at the beginning of the play, “And therefore we must needs admit the means / How things are perfected” (1.1.68-70). As noted earlier, the belief that miracles ceased after the revelation of Christ was a major tenet of Reformation Protestantism. The miniscule loss of English life at Agincourt, incredible to reason, suggests that the age of miracles extends to encompass the fifteenth century. The paradoxical implication in the play Henry V is that leading a proto-Protestant life of faith and service can result in a “Catholic” miracle. In typically syncretic fashion, Shakespeare melds aspects of two religious systems held to be antithetical during the later sixteenth century. In All's Well That Ends Well, Lafew, commenting on Helena's wondrous cure of the King of France's fistula, states, “They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear” (2.3.1-6). If we are to judge by this passage, Shakespeare, around the turn of the sixteenth century, became interested in a doctrine of miracle in which the hand of heaven could be seen, a doctrine that—by Lafew's logic—deserved admiration rather than intellectual inquiry into its causation.

Henry V's awareness that he has been the recipient of a divine miracle completes an arguably authentic personal reformation. The unprecedented difference between the English and French loss of life at Agincourt, rationally incomprehensible, by itself resolves Henry's long-harbored doubts about God's blessing upon him and his monarchy and completes the character revolution attempted previously but unsuccessfully. Concerning the English victory with so little loss of life, Henry commands,

And be it death proclaimèd through our host
To boast of this or take that praise from God
Which is his only.


Henry's accomplished reformation can be detected in his humble response to his lords' desire “to have borne / His bruisèd helmet and his bended sword / Before him through” London:

                                                            He forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride,
Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent
Quite from himself to God.


Nevertheless, playgoers must reconcile certain ungodly behaviors of Henry's during the Battle of Agincourt with his definitive reformation. Henry indicated then that at moments of group violence he could still become passion's slave. In the heat of conflict, he cruelly orders every English soldier to kill his prisoners because “the French have reinforced their scattered men” (4.6.36-38). Gower believes that Henry gives this savage order in retaliation for the French killing of the English boys guarding the luggage (4.7.1-10). But Henry in the text of the play gives his bloody order before he learns of this fact (thus making it appear prior), and he does so simply because French reinforcements suddenly threaten the English position. After Henry becomes aware of the slaughter of the helpless English boys, he snarls, “I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” (4.7.54-55). “Besides, we’ll cut the throats of those we have,” he ominously pronounces regarding the French prisoners in his entourage, “And not a man of them that we shall take / Shall taste our mercy” (4.7.62-64).51 But in Shakespeare's staging these prisoners never are killed, for the French capitulate before the deed can be done.

Significantly, the above-described vestiges of the Old Adam surface in Henry before his learning of the miracle of Agincourt refines the remaining dross of sadism and pride into golden humility. King Henry V manifests this ultimately refined humility in his fifth-act wooing of Princess Katharine. An attractive directness and modest plainness of speech color his courtship.52 “Thou wouldst find me such a plain king,” he tells Katharine, “that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown. I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, ‘I love you’” (5.2.126-29). Henry forswears bragging (5.2.140); he at last admits to having a “saving faith” within him (5.2.204). Henry V's reformation is as complete as it could ever get in the short time remaining to this “star of England” (Epilogue, 6). One senses that Henry V will rarely—if ever—again be Machiavellian in quite the same cold way that he was, but rather will be a sincere, plain-speaking man who constitutes the implicit ideal of Elizabethan Shakespeare comedies such as Love's Labor's Lost.53 Admittedly, a trace of the calculating Henry appears in his having made Katharine his “capital demand, comprised / Within the fore-rank of [the peace] articles” (5.2.96-97). Certainly the word “capital” carries economic overtones, the notion being that Henry has commodified his future queen. A political expediency, however, does not preclude, on the level of the heart, his sincere love-suit. The “good heart” (5.2.163) that Henry has purified within himself might be a model for Protestants sitting or standing in the Globe Theater. The Catholic “miracle” that at a decisive moment helps to cleanse this heart is Shakespeare's subtle argument for Protestant tolerance of Catholics and their dogma in a darkening world of religious division.54


  1. Shakespeare takes considerable pains to imbue the late medieval setting of 1 Henry IV with the spirit of Catholicism. King Henry's reference to the Crucifixion “fourteen hundred years ago” (1.1.26) and his desire to be Christ's soldier in a crusade to wrest the Jerusalem sepulcher from pagan hands date the events of the play in the Catholic early fifteenth century. In this context, the speech's thirty-three verses evoke Christ's apocryphal age at his martyrdom, a fitting allusion in light of Henry's latent wish to atone for his guilt for Richard II's murder. The Catholic atmosphere of 1 Henry IV thickens with Westmorland's mention of “Holy Rood Day” (1.1.52), references to pilgrims going to Canterbury, repeated oaths such as Prince Hal's “By’r Lady” (2.4.295), and Falstaff's phrase “ecce signum!” (“behold the proof!”)—familiar words from the Mass—spoken with reference to the miracle of his claim of escape from a dozen enemies (2.4.162-67). The Catholic elements of Henry V are strongly emphasized by Stephen M. Buhler, “‘By the Mass, our hearts are in the trim’: Catholicism and British Identity in Olivier's Henry V,Cahiers Élisabéthains 47 (April 1995): 55-70.

    All quotations of Shakespeare's plays in the present article are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1997).

  2. See Maurice Hunt, “Predestination and the Heresy of Merit in Othello,Comparative Drama 30 (1996): 346-76, esp. 367-69.

  3. Huston Diehl, in Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), demonstrates through a fine analysis of selected Shakespeare and early modern English plays (she omits the plays of the Second Henriad) that Elizabethan and Stuart playwrights subtly used “the theater to dramatize the divisive conflicts and explore the central religious controversies of the Reformation” (64).

  4. For an exhaustive study of the Henry IV plays as an exploration of the Oldcastle issue, see Alice-Lyle Scoufos, Shakespeare's Typological Satire (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979). Also see Gary Taylor, “The Fortunes of Oldcastle,” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 85-100; E. A. J. Honigmann, “Sir John Oldcastle: Shakespeare's Martyr,” “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, ed. John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton (London: Methuen, 1987), 118-32; and Kristen Poole, “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 47-75, esp. 48-53. Taylor's argument that editors ought to substitute Oldcastle's name for Falstaff's in the texts of the Second Henriad has been effectively rebutted by Jonathan Goldberg, “The Commodity of Names: ‘Falstaff’ and ‘Oldcastle’ in 1 Henry IV,” in Reconfiguring the Renaissance: Essays in Critical Materialism, ed. Jonathan Crewe (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1992), 76-88.

  5. For the story of Sir John Oldcastle as it was told and retold throughout the sixteenth century, “with different ideological emphases,” see Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed's “Chronicles” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 130-53.

  6. Summaries of Falstaff's “Puritanical” traits of character and speech appear in J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943), 15-35; Poole, “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism,” 65-69; and especially in Grace Tiffany, “Puritanism in Comic History: Exposing Royalty in the Henry Plays,” forthcoming in Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998). Generally critics such as Poole who notice these traits endorse the opinion that “the person of Falstaff is in and of himself a parody of the sixteenth-century puritan” (54). See, for example, Harold Bloom, Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 84. Usually critics regard this purported parody of Puritanism in Falstaff as Shakespeare's jibe at the Protestantism of the Lollard Oldcastle's late Elizabethan heirs William and Henry Brooke; See, for example, Robert J. Fehrenbach, “When Lord Cobham and Tilney ‘were at odds’: Oldcastle, Falstaff, and the Date of 1 Henry IV,Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 87-101. Poole, however, regards the supposed Puritan satire generated by Falstaff's character as “perfectly in keeping with the tenor of the anti-Puritan literature of the late sixteenth century, especially the anti-Marprelate tracts and the burlesque stage performances of the Marprelate controversy, which frequently depicted Puritans as grotesque individuals living in carnivalesque communities” (54). Tiffany's article offers a stimulating alternative interpretation of the relevance of the Marprelate controversy to Falstaff's characterization.

  7. See Christopher Hill, “Protestantism and the Rise of Capitalism,” Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 81-102, esp. 82-83.

  8. Bevington, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 779.

  9. Davidson made this comment in response to an earlier version of my present essay.

  10. Phyllis Rackin, in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), points out that “[t]he recognition of anachronism, in fact, was a basic premise of Reformation thought. No longer seen as an institution unchanged from its beginnings, the contemporary church was contrasted with the church as it had been before centuries of Roman Catholic corruption had polluted it” (10). Playgoers' recognition of anachronisms in Falstaff's stage Protestantism, by this logic, would betray the fact that they lived in the sixteenth century.

  11. This specific linkage of Falstaff and Queen Elizabeth has been noted by Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 156.

  12. Despite Gadshill's claim that “There’s money of the King's coming down the hill; ’tis going to the King's Exchequer” (1 Henry IV 2.2.53-54), Shakespeare nevertheless suggests that Falstaff and his cronies rob not the agents or officers of Henry IV's treasury but certain members of a commonwealth (one “sainted” because “preyed/prayed” upon). The persons plundered are termed “Travelers” (2.2.78 s.d.), apparently the Canterbury pilgrims and “traders riding to London with fat purses” (1.2.122-25) whom Poins first specified as the subjects of the robbery.

  13. Bevington, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 819.

  14. This is essentially the interpretation of Edward I. Berry, “The Rejection Scene in 2 Henry IV,Studies in English Literature 17 (1977): 201-18, esp. 202.

  15. This is the reading of both Roy Battenhouse, “Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool,” PMLA 90 (1975): 32-52, esp. 46-47; and Paul M. Cubeta, “Falstaff and the Art of Dying,” Studies in English Literature 27 (1987): 197-211, esp. 206.

  16. By the logic of his symbolic role, Falstaff cannot reform himself. “I know thee not, old man,” King Henry V says near the end of 2 Henry IV, “Fall to thy prayers” (5.5.47). As the Old Man, the Old Adam, Falstaff's typology precludes his reformation. See D. J. Palmer, “Casting off the Old Man: History and St. Paul in Henry V,Critical Quarterly 12 (1970): 267-83, esp. 268-69.

  17. Falstaff's successful death-bed reformation is argued—unconvincingly, I believe—by J. Dover Wilson in his edition of Henry V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), 142; and by Christopher Baker, “The Christian Context of Falstaff's ‘Finer End’,” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 12 (1986): 68-86, esp. 81-83. Also see Michael Platt, “Falstaff in the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” Interpretations: Journal of Political Philosophy 8, no. 1 (1979): 5-24.

  18. Concerning the Hostess's “Arthurian” judgment (2.3.9-10), Baker claims that Falstaff's “final end, resting in ‘Arthur's bosom,’ is the return of a comic prodigal to the father he sought to escape” (“The Christian Context of Falstaff's ‘Finer End’,” 70-71).

  19. For decades, a critical debate has focused upon the question of whether Prince Hal is truly debauched and thus genuinely in need of reformation or whether he play-acts the debauchee and so needs not actual reformation. An overview of the debate is provided by Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays (Atlantic Highlands, N. J.: Humanities Press, 1982), 107-10, who joins those critics who think Hal is debauched and needs reformation (108). The critic to focus most recently the question of Hal's reformation, Jonathan Crewe (“Reforming Prince Hal: The Sovereign Inheritor in 2 Henry IV,Renaissance Drama 21 [1990]: 225-42), concludes: “The most influential current arguments deny that there is any substantive reform of Prince Hal's character. These are the arguments, associated mainly with Stephen Greenblatt, which insist on Hal's role-playing, and hence on the theatricality of his madcap character and of the metamorphosis he effects in 1 Henry IV” (225). (The reference to Greenblatt concerns “Invisible Bullets,” Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988], 21-65, esp. 40-65.) My claim that accomplished vice taints the actor of it even when the sin is play-acted nevertheless entails some kind of true reformation of the subject. More important, my demonstration that Hal/Henry V possesses several faults that are not play-acted more conclusively argues for the refinement of his character and represents an alternative to Crewe's thesis concerning Hal's reformation of parricidal (oedipal) feelings.

  20. An excellent analysis of this soliloquy different from mine appears in Harold Toliver, “Workable Fictions in the Henry IV Plays,” University of Toronto Quarterly 53 (1983): 53-71, esp. 59.

  21. Unquestionably Shakespeare's contemporaries used the modern term “reformation” for not only the Protestant revolution of purified manners but also for the cultural upheaval identified with King Henry VIII, his ministers, and the Church of England's displacement of Roman Catholicism. Subsection 3b under the noun ‘Reformation’ in the OED includes this illustrative usage taken from Fregeville's Reformed Politicke: “To the end to ship the Clergy in the League, they wer perswaded, that within six moneths the Reformation should be vtterly extinguished.” In 1544, John Bale concluded that Sir John Oldcastle “dyed at the importune sute of the clergye, for callynge vpon a Christen reformacyon in that Romyshe church of theyrs …” (Brefe Chronycle concernynge the Examinacyon and death of the blessed martyr of Christ syr Johan Oldecastell the lorde Cobham [Antwerp, 1544], fol. 53r, as quoted in Poole, “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism,” 48).

  22. See J. A. Bryant, Jr., “Prince Hal and the Ephesians,” Sewanee Review 67 (1959): 204-19; and Paul A. Jorgensen, “‘Redeeming Time’ in Shakespeare's Henry IV,Tennessee Studies in Literature 5 (1960): 101-09.

  23. See Maurice Hunt, Shakespeare's Labored Art (New York: Peter Lang, 1995), 6.

  24. For excellent histories of the Protestant iconoclastic impulse during the English sixteenth century, see John Phillips, The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535-1660 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 1-156; Margaret Aston, England's Iconoclasts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), vol. 1; Iconoclasm vs. Art and Drama, ed. Clifford Davidson and Ann Eljenholm Nichols, Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, 11 (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1989); James R. Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 30-75; and Diehl, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage, 9-39. Also see John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 144-60.

  25. See, for example, John Stow, The Annales of England (London: Ralph Newbery, 1592), 965-66. Stow, after composing the grim list of priests and citizens executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for resisting edicts of the Reformation, and after remarking that the king seized 376 religious houses, £32,000 worth of Church land, and more than £100,000 of church moveables in 1536 alone, indicts Henry VIII by writing: “It was (saith mine author) a pitifull thing to heare the lamentation that the people in the countrie made for [the expelled priests, monks, and nuns]: for there was great hospitalitie kept among them, and as it was thought more than ten thousand persons, masters and seruants had lost their liuings by the putting downe of those houses at that time” (966). For a commentary that applies to Henry VIII's and Edward VI's theft of moveable church property, see Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 379-503.

  26. Alexander Leggatt, in Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London: Routledge, 1988), remarks that Prince Hal's language of commerce in this speech undercuts the honor he would win by killing Hotspur (94). It thus serves to suggest that this deed will ultimately fail as a vehicle for Hal's reformation.

  27. The idea of images “Glittering in golden coats” could possibly involve auditors' recollections of painted figures on tombs or even silhouettes in memorial brasses, which when polished look golden. Nevertheless, the next verse of the passage—“As full of spirit as the month of May” (4.1.101)—would discourage funereal evocations, a likelihood that would allow the play's late-medieval setting and its accumulating Catholic allusions to suggest to Elizabethans the notion of Catholic icons.

  28. Siemon demonstrates that “certain features of Shakespearean drama can be profitably understood as refracting the struggles over imagery and likeness that vexed post-Reformation England and found their most obvious expression in the various phenomena of iconoclasm” (Shakespearean Iconoclasm, 30). This critic posits in Shakespeare's Henry V “an iconic counterforce to the ‘iconic tableaux’ that the play repeatedly forms” (101).

  29. In a similar vein, David Scott Kastan makes this comment on Richard II 2.1.294 (“Wipe off the dust that hides our scepter's gilt”): “The homonymic pun on ‘gilt’ signals that the symbols of rule in Bolingbroke's usurping hand have been ‘derogated,’ we might say, tainted and diminished by the process of their attainment. ‘Gilt’ has been tarnished by Henry's guilt” (“Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 [1986]: 471).

  30. The overtones of idol-worship inherent in Vernon's portrait of Hal and his comrades “Glittering in golden coats, like images” reappear more strongly when Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV falls to his knees before recently crowned Henry V and exclaims, “My King! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart” (5.5.46). Nevertheless, Falstaff's motives of flattering Hal at this moment to gain preferment render these overtones doubtful.

  31. A different explanation of Hal's backsliding, one that involves his progressively “wise” unlearning of certain of his own and other characters' ideas, is given by F. Nick Clary, “Reformation and Its Counterfeit: The Recovery of Meaning in Henry IV, Part One,Ambiguities in Literature and Film, ed. Hans P. Braendlin (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1988), 76-94, esp. 80-84.

  32. The relatively hard economic times depicted at times in the Second Henriad (e.g., 1 Henry IV 2.1.1-32) may have been a misleading fabrication of Shakespeare's. Fifteenth-century England appears to have been more prosperous than the preceding century and, in many ways, more so than the following one. See Charles Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City: Coventry and the Urban Crisis of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

  33. Stories of Henry VIII's repeated fornication and adultery, for example, accentuated the harshness of the 1539 Parliamentary enactment that priests were to have no wives and that priests with wives were to divorce them, or else they were to forfeit their goods and benefices and after a second warning suffer death (Charles Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, 2 vols. [Westminster: J. B. Nichols, 1875], 1:102-03). Cf., however, Stephen Gardiner's treatise On True Obedience and Richard Rex's commentary on its portrait of a reformed Henry VIII in Henry VIII and the English Reformation (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 24-25. Nevertheless, Henry VIII forfeited forever among European kings and princes his reputation of being a humane prince when he beheaded Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. His savagery during the spoilage of Thomas Becket's shrine—he had the saint's bones burnt, the ashes mingled with earth, and the composite shot from a cannon—shocked Europeans even more than his notorious beheadings (H. Maynard Smith, Henry VIII and the Reformation [London: Macmillan, 1962], 101-02).

  34. See Robert J. Fehrenbach, “The Characterization of the King in 1 Henry IV,Shakespeare Quarterly 30 (1979): 43-50, esp. 44.

  35. Harold Jenkins, in The Structural Problem in Shakespeare's “Henry the Fourth” (London: Methuen, 1955), 24-25, set a precedent by maintaining that “in the two parts of Henry IV … there are not two princely reformations but two versions of a single reformation. And they are mutually exclusive.” Jenkins resolved this contradiction by claiming that it is typical of folkloric narrative and that Shakespeare's method in this instance is theological allegory (and thus folkloric). Nevertheless, Edward I. Berry, in Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975), articulates “the inconsistencies in Hal's double reformation” (109). By positing three main attempts at personal reformation on Hal's part, I necessarily subscribe to Berry's qualifier.

  36. Moody E. Prior, in The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 321-24, understands King Henry V's apparent reformation as described by Ely and Canterbury as a doffing of the Old Man and a putting on of the New Man according to descriptions in Ephesians 4:22-24, John 3:6-7, and certain passages in the Book of Common Prayer.

  37. The quotation represents Bevington's gloss. For documentation of the idea, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), 80, 107-8, 124-25, 128, 203, 256, 479, 485, 490, 577-78, 643. Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), a text informing Edgar's bogus miracle in act 4, scene 4, of Shakespeare's King Lear, amounts to a contemporary endorsement of the Protestant position concerning ceased miracles.

  38. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, however, argue for the metaphorical status of the notorious beehive of Henry V by asserting that it is the construct of a part of society claiming to be the whole (“History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis [London: Methuen, 1985], 212-13).

  39. Jonas A. Barish, in “The Turning Away of Prince Hal,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 9-17, argues that Henry V's rejection of Falstaff amounts to a self-rejection, a turning away a more honest compassionate self. In the king's casting off Falstaff, “we find the exigencies of the history play leading to a ‘reformation’ that we can only feel as a dehumanization” (14).

  40. Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England, 1:109-10.

  41. Peter C. Herman, “‘O ’tis a gallant king’: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Crisis of the 1590s,” in Tudor Political Culture, ed. Dale Hoak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 204-25, esp. 220.

  42. Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England, 1:149-52.

  43. Smith, Henry VIII and the Reformation, 16.

  44. Dollimore and Sinfield note that during the latter part of Queen Elizabeth's reign, “[t]he Church resented the fact that it was expected to help finance foreign wars, but in 1588 Archbishop Whitgift encouraged his colleagues to contribute generously towards resistance to the Armada on the grounds—just as in Henry V—that it would head off criticism of the Church's wealth” (“History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” 216). For the text of the Archbishop's opinion, see his May 1588 circular letter to England's Bishops quoted by John Strype, The Life and Acts of John Whitgift, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1822), 1:525.

  45. Jeffrey Knapp, in “Preachers and Players in Shakespeare's England,” Representations 44 (Fall 1993): 29-59, places the conniving of the Bishop of Ely and the Archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of Henry V within the context of Shakespeare's career-long negative depiction of episcopal militarism and claims that in this episode King Henry V disturbingly absorbs “both the bishops' money and their piety” (39).

  46. See Joel B. Altman, in “‘Vile Participation’: The Amplification of Violence in the Theater of Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 16, for the observation that “Shakespeare enables the audience of Henry V to participate Harry the King just as the drawers, companions, and—more distantly—the people of England participated the Prince in the two parts of Henry IV. Which is to say that now they share him in both a sacramental and a poetic—and most needfully, a political—way. In partaking him—to conflate Hooker and Jonson—in digesting him, turning him to nourishment, and growing ‘very Hee’,” Shakespeare's audience assimilates Henry's aggression, bravado, and savagery.

  47. Remarking that Henry V “has strong affinities with mainstream English Protestant conceptions of the eucharist” (33), Knapp investigates the broad symbolic function of the eucharistic pax in the play (“Preachers and Players in Shakespeare's England,” 41).

  48. For other analyses of the St. Crispin's Day speech, see Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 45-46; and Lawrence Danson, “Henry V: King, Chorus, and Critics,” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 34-35, 42.

  49. Knapp comments that “Harry's gift to his soldiers … is to liberate a holy-seeming communion from the confines of the church to the open battlefield” (“Preachers and Players in Shakespeare's England,” 41). There, physical violence and secular chivalry, rather than a godly ritual, become King Henry V's vehicle for his communion of brotherhood.

  50. Hodgdon states that “through Henry's pious insistence that God won the battle [of Agincourt], he reconnects himself to the mystifying force of divine right that was Richard II's special province” (The End Crowns All, 188).

  51. The dramatic problem of King Henry V's double, apparently inconsistent order to cut French prisoners' throats has been well focused and analyzed by Joanne Altieri, “Romance in Henry V,Studies in English Literature 21 (1981): 223-40, esp. 223-24, 236; by Berry, Patterns of Decay, 109; and by John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), 267.

  52. Cf., however, Paola Pugliatti, “The Strange Tongues of Henry V,The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 235-53, esp. 243.

  53. Maintaining that all the aspects of Henry V's character form an integrated whole, Carol M. Sicherman, on the other hand, in “‘King Hal’: The Integrity of Shakespeare's Portrait,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21 (1979): 503-21, argues that Hal's maturation in the use of formal language, from prose to progressively more controlled and formal verse, charts his reformation (508).

  54. Knapp concludes that “the anticlericalism of the history plays may suggest Shakespeare's longing for a religion that would be inclusive and pacifist rather than elitist and bellicose; but the last of these plays [Henry V] seems to leave us with the image of a communion broadened from clergy to congregation, from paxes to peace, only when first sanctified by violence” (“Preachers and Players in Shakespeare's England,” 41-42).

John Berryman (essay date 1970)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2018

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Poor Relation: 2 Henry IV,” in Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, pp. 335-39.

[In the following unfinished essay, originally composed in 1970, Berryman presents a comparison between the two parts of Henry IV, stressing that he does not agree with those who see the two plays as a whole.]

Producers, critics, and mere readers have not been kind to Part II, Henry IV. In thirty-five years of playgoing I have seen it performed only once. The single quarto of 1600 was never reprinted, so far as we know, and one may doubt whether one in fifty readers of Part I go on to Part II. As for critics, they have mostly considered the two plays together, with very little said about the second. But it happens that in recent years half a dozen of them have bestirred themselves on its behalf, some on the unity of the giant double play considered as a whole, some on the unity of Part II taken alone as a sequel to the immensely successful Part I. It forms no part of my present purpose to canvas these views, though of course I shall refer to them now and again. My purpose is to account for the relative inferiority of Part II and then to make some remarks in mitigation of that argument: that is, to try to say why spectators and readers who do push on to it find themselves disappointed, in spite of the obviously great self-confidence and competence of the play and its occasional glories. Let me say first, though, that I cannot agree with those who see the two plays as a whole, and I feel no affinity with those who are surprised and depressed by the final rejection of Falstaff.

Shakespeare faced two problems. Hotspur was gone, and the relations between Prince Henry and Falstaff clearly had to deteriorate if the rejection was not to chill the reader wholly. The greatest dramatist the world has ever known took steps.

He kept the spirit of Hotspur going with two fine elegiac scenes. And in an attempt to replace him with some character inward among the nobles, he took special pains with poor ill old Northumberland—well done, but hardly a substitute for the vaulting Harry Percy. One critic, Clifford Leech, remarks that this is a play about old men; to this may be added that there is no fighting—the faith breech at Gaultree Forest compares miserably with Shrewsbury. The world where Hotspur flourished is gone, and his father Northumberland's betrayal bears on one less than his betrayal in Part I. Everything is cheapened and darkened in the play. One sees this in the women, in what we may call the love interest. Kate Percy being now merely a widow (a splendidly articulate one), it is Doll Tearsheet who replaces her, with Falstaff (“I am old, I am old”), and Doll is no chicken. The love scenes in the two parts are correlated: both begin with abuse and wind up in reconciliation. But what a world of difference there is between

… the rogue fled from me like quicksilver.
Yfaith, and thou followedst him like a church, thou horson little tydee
Bartholomew borepigge, when wilt thou leave fighting a daies and foyning a
nights, and begin to patch up thine old body for heauen.
Peace good Doll, do not speake like a deaths head, do not bid me remember
mine end.

and Lady Percy's “I faith, I’ll break thy little finger, Harry.” Both passages delight, but one also with sadness (church, heaven), the other purely with young love's mockery. One can hardly imagine the Welsh lady and her song and her “lap” (so attractive to Hotspur) in 2 Henry IV. The loves here are remembered loves, Justice Shallow's senile exploration with Falstaff of their early exploits imaginary and unsatisfactory. Falstaff despises Shallow (though with a grand gesture Shakespeare gives him one enlarged acknowledgement: “We haue heard the chimes at midnight, M. Shallow”) and has a horrid description of him. No one in this play likes anyone else very much.

Names matter, for instance. Prince Hal of Part I is not “Hal” through four long acts (this is Shakespeare's longest play so far except Richard III, 3,180 lines in Hart's count, suggesting his deep interest in its themes): he only becomes so in Falstaff's mouth in the final scene of entreaty and rebuke and loss. Prince Henry's intimate in this play is, surprisingly, Poinz, and the nearest one gets to the old Part I is their disguised overspying of Falstaff at the Boar's Head. Exploits like the Gadshill robbery are out of the question. In fact, Prince Henry does not figure largely in this play, except for the scene with his dying father and the chastisement, after his coronation, of Falstaff. It takes place in the world that he will transform—another play about him is promised by the Epilogue—after his change. This observation leads us in two directions. First, the failure to develop Henry in an intimate way, before his explanation to his father about the taking away of the crown, is certainly one of its author's gravest omissions. Shakespeare even takes the trouble to darken the stain on the whole royal family, by altering Holinshed to make Prince John of Lancaster responsible for the ghastly, Machiavellian business at Gaultree Forest.

Second, both D. A. Traversi (“Henry IV—Part II,” Scrutiny, XV:2 [Spring 1948], pp. 117-27) and Leech (Shakespeare Survey, 1953) connect this play with Troilus and Cressida and other later works of profound disillusion, with images of sickness and so on, and raise the question of whether a personal reorientation towards the world and towards human nature distinguishes Part II from Part I—in short, whether we are not looking partly forward to the tragic period beginning with Hamlet two years hence in 1600.

Surely there is some truth in this view, just as surely as it is exagerated. In Chamber's chronology, Much Ado, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night shine at us between 2 Henry IV and the tragic period. (I may remark in passing that Chambers's classical chronology of 1930 and J. McManaway's remarks about it in Shakespeare Survey are strictly out of date, as I hope to demonstrate in later papers.) But certain meannesses there are which claim notice here. The worst is the hideous little scene where Mistress Quickly and Doll are dragged off to gaol, just before Falstaff's downfall and consequent inability to help them—indeed, he is arrested himself, and no spectator or reader likes this—surely the new King's tirade was enough punishment for—for what?—for whatever his sins may have been. What are his sins, anyway? Certainly he has been a highway robber. Certainly, in this play, a poor comedown, he allows Bardolph to allow two men to buy their way out of the draft. But really it is for his way of life that he is banished and then arrested.

He has run away from armed combat. He has gloriously lied about it. He seeks credit (at Shrewsbury) for what he has not done in the way of battle. He is prepared to steal horses in order to get to his friend's coronation. He looks on companions as prey: of Shallow he says: “If the yong Dace be a baite for the old Pike, I see no reason in the law of nature but I may snap at him.” The very sharp word “snap” defeats any Huckleberry Finn view of Falstaff. And yet does all this misdoing amount to much? Is it worth punishment? One feels a certain coldness in the young King's speech, put there by Shakespeare to swerve part of the audience's sympathy away from the King to Falstaff:

I haue long dreampt of such a kind of man,
So surfet-sweld, so old, and so prophane:
But being awakt, I do despise my dreame,
Make lesse thy body (hence) and more thy grace.

From a partaker in these riots, this is good, or seems so to us; I doubt that an Elizabethan playgoer would feel any sanctimoniousness here, being committed to monarchism (and nervous already about the succession to Elizabeth's throne). One might argue, even, that this word “grace” is too often at Shakespeare's disposal for this kind of situation—Caliban you remember promises to be wiser thereafter and “seek for grace.”

I have put the case against the play as strongly as I could. Let me now argue that a play containing the line “My father is gone wild into his graue” (V.ii.128) cannot be negligible. This is Prince Henry speaking to the Lord Chief Justice, and it might as well be Dylan Thomas three and a half centuries later. Less remarkable but valuable are some lines cut from the quarto, appearing only in the folio:

                                                            It was your presurmize,
That in the dole of blowes, your Son might drop … 

(anything like this is inconceivable in the early histories), and

Thou (beastly Feeder) art so full of him,
That thou prouok’st thy selfe to cast him vp

(the Archbishop about Henry IV) and “Their eyes of fire, sparkling through sights of Steele.”

But the argument from style will concentrate rightly upon prose, and in fact upon Falstaff's second speech: “Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me: the braine of this foolish compounded clay-man is not able to inuent any thing that intends to laughter, more than I inuent, or is inuented on me, I am not only witty in my selfe, but the cause that wit is in other men.” This really does have the tone of Hamlet, and since Shakespeare's prose developed much more slowly than his verse, it is remarkable. As in Part I he was merciless on Honour, so now he bandies back and forth “securities,” which he detests (having no credit rating), and his dialogue with the Justice is so funny that it has to be read to be believed.

I cannot tell, vertue is of so little regard in these costar-mongers times, that true valour is turn Berod [bear-herd]. Pregnancie is made a Tapster, & his quick wit wasted in giuing reckonings, all the other giftes appertinent to man, as the malice of his age shapes them, are not worth a goosbery, you that are old consider not the capacities of vs that are yong, you doe measure the heate of our liuers with the bitternesse of your galles, and we that are in the vaward of our youth, I must confesse are wagges too.

Only Thomas Nashe could have replied to this.

I would I might neuer spit white again: there is not a dangerous action can peepe out his head, but I am thrust vpon it. Wel, I cannot last euer, but it was always yet the tricke of our English nation, if they haue a good thing, to make it too common.


To pass from style to incident: the little passage of Colevile of the Dale has always interested me. Falstaff on the battlefield recognizes this gentleman as a worthy foe, but on being recognized himself, Colevile yields without a blow. Falstaff shepherds him to where the leaders are, and not only does he receive no reward or thanks from Prince John, but John orders Colevile and others to “present execution.” Shakespeare is full of instruction and I suppose we are bound to interpret. Falstaff was once such a warrior that his name suffices to convict; in short, his braggardism is diminished for us. Now the world is such that he receives for his exploit: nothing; hence his frequent complaints against the world have some foundation in fact. Third, Colevile having so nobly (to our hero) surrendered that it strikes one as an extreme of butchery that he should immediately be slain or murdered; a sympathy from his association with Falstaff—and his testimony, as it were, to Falstaff's valour—well his death hurts us, and our feelings about Lancaster (no one has ever liked Lancaster) harden.

To pass from incident to motive. Falstaff somewhere contends [Unfinished]

Louis I. Middleman (essay date 1972)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2614

SOURCE: “Henry IV, Part I: The Two Faces of Revolt,” in In Honor of Austin Wright, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1972, pp. 63-68.

[In the following essay, Middleman discusses the apparent disunity of conception in Henry IV, Part I, noting that the action focuses equally on the political rebellion confronting Henry IV and the private struggle that Prince Hal contends with throughout the play.]

Looking at the first part of Henry IV, we are struck by an apparent disunity of conception. The title in the quartos suggests a division between the history and the comedy: “The Historie of Henrie the Fourth; With the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstalffe.” While it is true that Falstaff, that “huge hill of flesh,” will in production clearly be the heaviest thing on stage and could, were Hal or Hotspur inadequate, carry away the show, Shakespeare's text proves to be a wonderfully balanced whole. The drama is structured around a series of contrasts and correspondences between high life and low, responsibility and self-indulgence, moderation and intemperateness, and, most important and inclusive, between seriousness and jest.

Tillyard has remarked (Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 301) that Prince Hal represents a kind of Aristotelian mean between Hotspur's superabundant military spirit and Falstaff's utter lack of it. Falstaff's unadulterated lust for life makes him archetypal, but it also limits him, as immoderate valor limits Hotspur. Hal learns from both, and becomes complete. How he achieves this is the subject of the play: the heir-apparent contending with overt rebellion and private riot, with the grimace and the grin, the two faces of revolt.

The play opens with King Henry, “shaken” and “wan with care” trying, ultimately without success, to recover from Richard II. Past, present, and future are all at issue here, and the emphasis is on public, military action. Then, when Falstaff asks Hal, “What time of day is it, lad?” (1.2.1) we move into what appears a timeless present, with the emphasis on private sport. But the timeless world lasts only sixteen lines, shattered in the seventeenth with Falstaff's “when thou art king,” a phrase he repeats four times in this initial conversation. If Hal is concerned with growing up to ascend the throne, Falstaff senses, if distantly, the precariousness of his safety as a sweet hulk of disorder, and worries lest the true prince, turned king, no longer protect a false thief. Falstaff wants to identify Hal with the moon, but Hal identifies himself instead with the sun, symbol of royalty. Yet, if we can trust Hal in his soliloquy, he will be like the moon, merely seeming to change, while actually remaining the same. In any case, Falstaff is just one of his “phases.”

Falstaff exits to Eastcheap, whereupon Poins informs the Prince, “I have a jest to execute that I cannot manage alone. Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill shall rob those men that we have already waylaid. Yourself and I will not be there” (1.2.180-83). Now, the “treachery” of Hal and Poins is conceived purely in fun, but it exactly mirrors, in an unserious dimension, the revolt of the Percies and, within the revolting faction, the defection of Northumberland and Glendower. The Percies' motive is also robbery—stealing the crown they helped bestow, and the parallel between comic and serious treason continues as Poins explains, “we will set forth before or after them, and appoint them a place of meeting, wherein it is at our pleasure to fail, and then will they adventure upon the exploit themselves …” (1.2.189-92). During the execution of the jest, we hear Falstaff unknowingly sounding the death-knell of the northern rebellion: “A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true one to another” (2.2.29-30). And shortly after the Prince and Poins steal the money back, Hal speaks tellingly of both the game at hand and the abortive revolt to come: “The thieves are all scattered and possessed with fear / So strongly that they dare not meet each other” (2.2.112-13).

Since the theme of the two faces is developed linearly, the discussion from this point on will follow the movement of the play, so that we may not be liable to Falstaff's indictment of the hostess, that “a man knows not where to have her.” In the parley among the Percies the reference to Mortimer, Earl of March, provides a connection with the situation of Hal who, like the rebels, “in the world's wide mouth / Live[s] scandalized and foully spoken of” (1.3.153-54). Hotspur's reply to Worcester and Northumberland could be Hal talking to himself: “… yet time serves wherein you may redeem / Your banished honors, and restore yoursel[f] / Into the good thoughts of the world again” (1.3.180-82). The parallel is appropriate, for if Mortimer is the supposed heir to the crown, Hal will be heir in fact, and prove himself worthy of it.

Hotspur's “Oh, let the hours be short, / Till fields and blows and groans applaud our sport” (1.3.301-02) is echoed, contrapuntally, by preparations for analogous sport on a different level. Gadshill's reply to the chamberlain, whose use of the word “hangman” betrays a lamentable want of tact, provides the link: “Tut! There are other Trojans that thou dreamest not of, the which for sport sake are content to do the profession some grace; that would, if matters should be looked into, for their own credit sake, make all whole” (2.1.76-80). There is a fine irony in these last words. Hal, the “Trojan,” will “make all whole” by seeming to countenance the robbery, but also 1) by giving the money back (ultimately to himself, since it was headed for the King's Exchequer, and hence we see a pun on “credit”), and 2) by establishing law and order once he is king. Not for long will Gadshill be able to say to his confederates, “We steal as in a castle, cocksure” (2.1.95).

With the jest carried out and the rebellion hatched, the butt of the former and the spur of the latter are juxtaposed for our attention. Shakespeare contrasts them via references to strength and horsemanship. Whereas Hotspur is anxious about his mount because he yearns for gallant action, Falstaff's need for his is weakness: “Eight yards of uneven ground is threescore and ten miles afoot with me” (2.2.26-27). The “beads of sweat” (2.3.61) on Hotspur's eager brow sharply differentiate him from weary Falstaff “sweat[ing] to death, / … lard[ing] the lean earth as he walks along” (2.2.115-16). More significant is the comparison between the two, tying together the serious and mock revolts. Hotspur reads a letter suggesting that the rebels' plan is “dangerous; the friends … uncertain … and your whole plot too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition” (2.3.10-13). His reaction to the pessimistic unidentified source sounds like something Falstaff might have said, echoing Gadshill's confidence, had anyone warned him of danger: “By the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was laid, our friends true and constant—a good plot, good friends, and full of expectation. An excellent plot, very good friends. What a frosty-spirited rogue is this!” (2.3.16-21) The language itself is Falstaffian, linking these two men who can see the present very clearly but are blind to the consequences of their actions. The juxtaposition of these scenes accurately hints that the Percy robbery will go as badly as did the one at Gadshill.

And there are other hints, not about the traitors' weaknesses, but about Hal's maturing strength. Hal emerges from the Boar's Head's wine cellar where, “with three or four loggerheads, amongst three or fourscore hogsheads” he has “sounded the very base string of humility” (2.4.4-6). That is, he has been humble with the lowest class of persons, but also, and more importantly, he has found the essence of humanity in these men, and has, himself, reverberated with that harmony. He is “king of courtesy,” and will continue to be so even when he is also king of honor. Hal is a good mixer, a man of the people, motivated not by public policy, as his father would be, but by natural impulse. “They … tell me flatly,” he says, “when I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap” (2.4.11-15). Hal enjoys playing with the literal tautology, yet we realize that under Henry it is no tautology, that at present England and Eastcheap are distinct and separate. Hal wants to be king of a people, not of a piece of a map. His drinking bout with the drawers is proof of his mettle among the commoners, endearing them to him, just as his prowess at Shrewsbury will reconcile him with those in high life. “I tell thee, Ned,” he continues to Poins, “thou hast lost much honor that thou wert not with me in this action” (2.4.21-23), and the words “action” and “honor” seem to make this a jest. But not merely that: they reinforce the correspondence between this private victory and the public one to come.

As yet, however, for Hal, time is to be wasted, to be “drive[n] away … till Falstaff come” (2.4.30-31), while Hotspur is dashing to Bangor. Unaware of threatened treachery, Hal, the killer of time, is “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’” (2.4.113-117). That “yet” is Shakespeare's, not Hal's, since, uninformed as he is, Hal has no reason to foresee any swift burst through the clouds. “I’ll play Percy” (2.4.121-22) he says, but never does. This is no oversight on the dramatist's part; Hal will play himself and the King later, but these are actual and potential selves. Hal's excessive zeal is not his.

Falstaff enters, and the fun begins. The buckram episode is to be read, not written of, but the palpable lies of a man who “said he would swear truth out of England” (2.4.336-37) remain palpable lies. Sir John is Falstaff, not the historical Fastolfe, and even his confederate Bardolph admits, “I blushed to hear his monstrous devices” (2.4.343-44). But if the fat knight can lie magnificently about the little rebellion, Shakespeare makes him messenger of the truth about the big one. This is consummate artistry: all the information is there to forward the plot, but everything is made to seem less serious, and the comic tone of the delivery and reception of the news doesn’t seem to call for immediate action. Thus Hal can remain in the tavern for the “play extempore.” Falstaff asks, “Art thou not horribly afraid?” and the reply is, “Not a whit, i’ faith. I lack some of thy instinct” (2.4.408-09). The contrast with Hotspur is fine here: Hal comes off as sufficiently master of the situation that he can proceed coolly, with ease and deliberateness, like a glacier.

Hotspur's haste and impetuosity (he misplaces the map almost as soon as he picks it up) contrasts with Hal's ease. Hotspur lets go the large matter in hand in favor of a nearer contention, when he determines to change the course of the River Trent, a relatively paltry consideration, and not even warranted, since Mortimer says that the kingdom was divided “very equally” (3.1.73). And Hotspur's cavilling with Glendower over the latter's boasts is another trivial matter, foreshadowing the dissension among the rebels. Hal can enjoy the deceptions and exaggerations of Falstaff; Hotspur can’t stomach the same things from his Welsh ally. He is afraid of having his own powers eclipsed, even in theory, by someone else. But Hal, when Falstaff later claims to have killed Hotspur, pledges to uphold the lie.

An earlier pledge is more significant, for by the time Hal and his father are reconciled, he has promised to uphold the realm. Henry is again ready for action, with a better perspective on the two Harry's. We, too, have had a good look at the new Hal, and the old Falstaff suffers by comparison. Perhaps he has “bated” and “dwindled” since the “action” at Gadshill, but not in units of weight. Falstaff jests with himself, while Hal has done with jesting. Hal has made a solemn oath to change—“I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, / Be more myself” (3.2.92-93)—whereas nothing comes of Falstaff's “desire” to repent, which is cancelled as soon as spoken. It is not Falstaff's nature to change: “Do thou amend thy face, and I’ll amend my life” (3.3.27-28), he tells Bardolph, and the latter is as impossible as the former. In a word, if we are given the promise of Hal's salvation, we are also given the complementary and necessary promise of Falstaff's damnation. When Sir John says to Bardolph, “I never see thy face but I think upon Hell-fire” (3.3.35-36), this is funny, but also warranted.

Such a warrant gains currency as the tavern conversation over pocket picking turns to Falstaff's £24 debt to the hostess. True to his thieving ways, Falstaff answers flatly, “I’ll not pay a denier” (3.3.91). Contrast this behavior with that of Hal, who owes his father and country a more significant debt, and is ready, finally, to “make all whole.” Hal in fact expressed his determination in business metaphors:

… I shall make this Northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up—
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time—
Or I will tear the reckoning from
his heart.

(3.2.145-52; emphasis mine)

Later he will greet Hotspur, “It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee, / Who never promiseth but he means to pay” (5.4.42-43). The time when Hal permitted himself to sport with stealing is past. “To horse, to horse” he cries to Peto, by now somewhat closer to being “of Percy's mind.”

The overall movement of Hal's development from jest to earnest is apparent as he silences Falstaff's jibe at Worcester, “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it” with “Peace, chewet, peace!” (5.1.29). Such a reaction looks forward to the time when Hal, having lost his weapon and desiring Falstaff's pistol, asks him to remove it from its case. Falstaff produces a bottle and exclaims, “There’s that will sack a city” (5.3.55-56). To this pun Hal responds by throwing the bottle at him and demanding, “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (5.3.57).

Finally Hal and Hotspur meet, for the first and last time. Shakespeare has deliberately kept them apart, and the resolution of dramatic tension is satisfyingly climactic. Falstaff's cheering Hal on, then playing dead, provide a final contrast between young chivalry and old “discretion.” Falstaff's next act, however, is difficult to pardon. Although he does it while wittily excusing himself, the stabbing of the dead Hotspur, over whom Hal has just spoken so movingly, must, if momentarily, qualify our love for the fat knight.

Our respect for Hal in the final scenes needs no such qualification. He is ideally heroic and magnanimous. He doesn’t stop to rest, though badly wounded. Self-effacing, he praises his brother John as one who “lends mettle to us all” (5.4.24). After killing Hotspur he asks for Douglas' pardon, giving John the honor of the delivery. Lancaster's response, “I thank your Grace for this high courtesy” (5.5.32) is perfect. “Grace thou wilt have none,” Falstaff had said. He was mistaken. Hal, now “king of honor,” is also “king of courtesy” high and low, on the battlefield as well as in the wine cellar at Eastcheap.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483


Abrams, Richard. “Rumor's Reign in 2 Henry IV: The Scope of a Personification.” English Literary Renaissance 16, No. 3 (Autumn 1986): 467-95.

Expounds on the role of rumor and hearsay in the two Henry IV plays.

Barish, Jonas A. “The Turning Away of Prince Hal.” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): pp. 9-17.

Analyzes the rejection of Falstaff.

Bennett, Robert B. “The Golden Age in the Cycles of History: Analogous Visions of Shakespeare and Chekhov.” Comparative Literature Studies 28, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 156-77.

Compares the supper scene in Justice Shallow's orchard in Henry IV, Part II and Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, characterizing both scenes as similar in their innovative use of the tradition of the Golden Age.

Burelbach, Frederick M. “Name-Calling as Power Play in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV.Literary Onomastics Studies 16 (1989): 17-20.

Analyzes the impact of name-calling in Henry IV, Part I, labeling it as a form of authorship and as an instrument that maintains social norms.

Findlay, Heather. “Renaissance Pederasty and Pedagogy: The ‘Case’ of Shakespeare's Falstaff.” The Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities 3, No. 1 (Fall 1989): 229-38.

Theorizes that Falstaff's character is representative of the development of early modes of the capitalist economy.

Hoegberg, David E. “Master Harold and the Bard: Education and Succession in Fugard and Shakespeare.” Comparative Drama 29, No. 4, (Winter 1995-96): 415-35.

Compares Fugard's Master Haroldand Henry IV as political plays that trace the attempts of two new regimes to solidify their power, while also focusing on the development of their leaders.

Kastan, David Scott. “Killed with Hard Opinions: Oldcastle, Falstaff, and the Reformed Text of 1 Henry IV.” In Textual Formations and Reformations, edited by Laurie E. Maguire and Thomas L. Berger, pp. 211-27. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Traces the historical origins of Falstaff's name and character as represented in Henry IV, Part I.

Krims, Marvin B. “Hotspur's Antifeminine Prejudice in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.Literature and Psychology 40, Nos. 1-2 (1994): 118-32.

Discusses Hotspur's phallocentric attitudes in the play.

Reid, Robert L. “Humoral Psychology in Shakespeare's Henriad.Comparative Drama 30, No. 4 (Winter 1996): 471-502.

Chronicles Shakespeare's use of the four humors in the Henry IV plays.

States, Bert O. “Hamlet's Older Brother.” Hudson Review 39, No. 4 (Winter 1987): 537-52.

Compares and contrasts the characters of Prince Hal and Hamlet, noting the similarities in their temperament and tempo.

West, Gillian. “Falstaff's Punning.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 69, No. 2 (December 1988): 541-58.

Presents an analysis of Falstaff's puns in both Henry IV plays, and contends that Falstaff's use of language is more complicated than he is given credit for.

Willems, Michèle. “Misconstruction in Henry IV.Cahiers Elisabethains 37 (April 1990): 43-57.

Analyzes misunderstandings and misconstructions of events and characters in Shakespeare's plays, characterizing these as common devices that allow the dramatist to engineer complicated plots and character depictions.

Wood, Nigel. Introduction to Henry IV, Parts One and Two, by William Shakespeare, edited by Nigel Wood, pp. 1-34. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995.

Offers a detailed overview of Henry IV, Parts I and II.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Henry IV, Part I Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 49)


Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 69)