Ricardo J. Quinones (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Quinones, Ricardo J. “The Growth of Hal.” In William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 71-95. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Quinones traces the development of Hal's character.]

The shadow of Richard II hangs over the waywardness of Hal in 1 Henry IV. The young prince is threatened with the same historical isolation and discontinuity. In their critical confrontation, his father the King accuses him of straying “quite from the light of all thy ancestors.” His place on the council has been “rudely lost” to his younger brother. “The hope and expectation of thy time / Is ruined.” He then startles his son's self-possession by declaring that Percy is more like his true heir, and that he (Hal) is more like Richard.

[Percy] hath more worldly interest to the state
Than thou, the shadow of succession.


To be sure, the scope of Hal's conversion can be exaggerated. As we insisted [elsewhere] with Petrarch and Montaigne, before one can be reformed there must be some prior inclination to reformation: something convertible must inhere before conversion. And Hal's first soliloquy where he shows some of his father's calculation and vows to redeem his time, can be taken to show that the ground was ready. Yet there is a difference between vowing to do something, knowing that one will, and actually doing it. There is something headstrong and, in a way, deceived in that young man who knows his capacities and yet feels no need to demonstrate them to other people. This is no mean alteration; it can be summarized in the change from adolescence to adulthood. The father is crucial in this transformation as is the son's personal pride, his felt need to redeem his time to fulfill his “hopes and expectations.” As we have seen in Dante and Petrarch, both of these elements, the father-figure (in Hal's case, his actual father) and a sense of time, are crucial in this phase of commitment. The argument of time, in its ramifications, is the instrument of conversion from the aesthetic to the ethical stage of existence.

Kierkegaard's terminology is highly useful in describing Shakespeare's character delineation. In Dante and Petrarch the aesthetic stage importantly includes a reliance on the substitute satisfactions of art and beauty. But in each it extends somewhat beyond that to the aesthetic personality. In the Purgatorio Dante had to change his interest as he ceased to be a passive witness and began to take more positive action. Petrarch's aesthetic stage had even more to do with a preference for contemplative distance and consciousness rather than commitment and moral effort. Although Shakespeare's characters have something of the “literary” in them (Richard II and the “bookish” Henry IV), they fulfill the aesthetic function more in terms of personality. What strictly joins Hal with Richard II (and through him with other representatives of the aesthetic—although at the time we did not so designate them—Marlowe's Calyphas in II Tamburlaine, Edward II, and Dr. Faustus) is (1) the inclination to be a spectator rather than an actor, (2) a divorce between consciousness and willed action, and (3) a kind of identity-diffusion. Not all of these figures fully enjoy all three characteristics, but all have a sufficient share of them to invalidate their effectiveness in the temporal realm. It is to spare his son their fates (particularly that of Richard II) that the concerned father puts before Hal an objective picture of his actions—the way his behavior is read by both the public and his father.

The structure...

(This entire section contains 10132 words.)

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of1 and 2 Henry IV—the multiple plot levels—is essential to the character of Hal. This technical device (also employed in A Midsummer Night's Dream) was of major usefulness to Shakespeare from the mid-nineties on. If in Henry IV he has found his character and his theme, in the multiple plot he has found the mechanism for revealing them. Richard II too, has multiple personalities, but they are all imaginary, and he only gives flight to them when the hard world of history presents him with the truth of his nothingness. But Hal still has time, and with time, choice. Hal is a fluid participant in multiple levels of existence. In many ways that is his glory and, as we shall see, his redemption. But it can also be his destruction if he refuses to commit himself to a single identity, and if he refuses to accept the responsibilities and historical limitations into which he was born. We come here again to a basic characteristic and function of time in the Renaissance and its relationship with the possibilities of variety. Petrarch, too, accused himself of distraction, of having too many options, and thus neglecting the most important condition of his soul. Time was a crucial element in his conversion. Later in the Renaissance, in Alberti's regola, we saw the rationale for scheduling. Each morning he charted the things to be done that day, and assigned a time to them. In this way the variety of his interests did not prove his undoing, and all things were accomplished con ordine. In Guarino, too, we observed an explicit connection between scheduling and variety. “So many subjects claim our attention that concentration and thoroughness are impossible” unless we regulate our existence. And the education of Gargantua is a greater dramatic example of the arrangement of time required to order many interests. Although there is no odor of schedule in Hal, still time is about its same purpose as in these other Renaissance writers: it channels and makes more effective, it marshalls into a functioning unity, the variety of interests and talents that otherwise might be merely dissipated, and to their possessor's harm.

This quality in his prince attests also to Shakespeare's talent for comprehensiveness, his ability to recreate imaginatively various levels of existence. It further shows his concern with the many ways of regarding reality, with consciousness trying to feel out and determine the nature of the world. Yet while this multifaceted world reveals a rich Renaissance sense of variety and possibility, and is related to the artist's own protean capacities, Shakespeare fully recognized the dangers involved. Not only are potentially ideal characters threatened or destroyed by a dissipation of energy, but Shakespeare's evil characters also seem unsettled and chameleon-like:

Why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile,
And cry “Content!” to that which grieves my heart.
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions:
.....I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

(3 Henry VI 3.2.182-85, 191-93)

We must remember that Iago, too, was “motiveless” in his malignity. The mind is a dangerous and shifting place, “no-man fathomed.” And while Romantic critics like Bradley and Yeats groaned at the heavy ethic of Lancaster, there is every indication that their “strong fixed” house, “like a mountain” lent some stability to a world that for Shakespeare was becoming increasingly complex. Their world of time and consequence might bear too great a yoke (although we must remember that Hal's own modified comprehensiveness represented a more graceful advance on that “silent king” his father), yet it was preferable to the uncontrolled actor Richard III and to the vainly deluded and destroyed Henry VI and Richard II.

In discussing the argument of time it is relevant to mention a very consistent factor in the “weak king” type that Hal must transcend. Edward II opens with Gaveston reading a letter telling him of the death of the king's father. Henry VI begins with the inauspicious funeral procession of his father. Richard II, too, was a child king, who warred on his father's house. Dr. Faustus, with infinite possibilities before him, came from parents “base of stock” and consequently in no position to give him guidance. And what must assume some significance, given these other details, the young man of the sonnets is without a father. Sonnet 3 refers to his mother in the present tense, as still living, while sonnet 13 distinctly refers to his father in the past tense—“You had a father—let your son say so.” The absence of Northumberland in Hotspur's defeat is thus crucial. The office of the father is to educate the will, to deflate the “swoll'n cunning of self-conceit”—to strip the young man of vain illusions of permanence and omnipotence. He stands for an external objective world that is threatening to any deluded vanity. As such the father embodies the sense of time, and we are justified, I believe, in recalling the role of Cato in Dante's temporal cantica, the Purgatorio, and that of Augustine in Petrarch's Secretum.

That Hal required the important interview with his father in the very center of 1 Henry IV, even after his seemingly self-assured soliloquy, is proved by the fact that the intervening scenes all show him as an uninvolved participant in actions where the play element is strong and where he believes that his real self is essentially untouched by his involvements. To justify the Gadshill episode, he declares, “Once in my days I'll be a madcap,” (1.2.160). He is in rollicking humor as he tells of the drinking buddies he has just encountered, and will play with Francis, the rather limited waiter, “to drive away the time till Falstaff come” (2.4.31). he is “now of all humours that have showed themselves humours since the old days of goodman Adam to the pupil age of this present twelve o'clock at midnight” (1.4-7). He is not of Percy's mind, “I prithee call in Falstaff. I'll play Percy” (122).

And after the jest of catching Falstaff in his “incomprehensible lies,” he yields to the gaiety of the moment and Falstaff's urging, “Shall we have a play extempore?” (308). But the outside world intrudes on this play world. Sir John Bracy brings news of the Percy uprising, yet Hal takes it all lightly. And at the prospect of a chiding from his father the next day, he agrees with Falstaff's suggestion to play out the scene: “If thou love me, practice an answer” (411). This action, while ostensibly comic, reveals some serious motives: Falstaff's insistent defense of himself, and the prince's suddenly serious vow of banishment “I do, I will” (628). But this scene also is interrupted—this time by the knocking of the sheriff's men. Falstaff urges, “Play out the play. I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff” (531). The prince covers for him, one of several crucial scenes in the play where he pays the bill and spares Falstaff a reckoning. Despite all the wonderful fun and humor of the prince, it is obvious that here he is a different individual from the one who emerges following the interview with his father.

Several other elements in the father's lecture to his son remain important. We get some notion of what is means to redeem the time, when the king declares what he would have been if, at their relative stages, he had been like Hal, “so stale and cheap to vulgar company.” The opinion of the people would have still remained loyal to Richard,

And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.


To be a “somebody,” to have a name, is crucial in Shakespeare's historical argument of time. (How much young Bolingbroke's sense of identity, “Harry of Hereford, Lancaster, and Derby / Am I” contrasts with Richard's subsequent namelessness and nothingness.) And to achieve this status one must learn the importance of “appearances” and the necessity of manipulating the human mechanism. That is how Bolingbroke came to be king, while

The skipping King, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt.


An interesting element in the House of Lancaster is the way the son will repeat the attitudes and even the words of the father. “Soon kindled and soon burnt” recalls the fate old John of Gaunt predicted for Richard's “light vanity,” which “consuming means, soon preys upon itself.” There is a fundamental seriousness in the House of Lancaster that has only scorn for the ineffective bursts of wit and fancy that play themselves out and produce nothing of solid and enduring reality. Hal, too, will be in a position to reject “light vanity.”

But at the moment, his antagonist Hotspur is the occasion that informs against him. How irritating it is for the son to hear invidious comparisons with a more successful coeval. It is of course to emphasize this rivalrous competition and their destined confrontation and to increase the sting of the comparison that Shakespeare transforms the ages of Hal and Hotspur, making them contemporaries, when, in historical fact, Hotspur was older than Henry IV. But Hotspur is now Hal's Fortinbras. And to his father's lavish praise of “this Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes” and to the suggestion that Hal would more likely fight in Percy's hire through fear and his patent inclination toward lowness, Hal's native pride stiffens

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
And, in the closing of some glorious day,
Be bold to tell you that I am your son.


Despite the sunny avowal, the language of economics persists. Percy is but his factor,

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.


In tracing the fortunes of Hal in Parts One and Two, one is indeed surprised to learn that after his splendid reformation he must again prove himself to his father. Yet the tone of Part Two has become so sombre, so intensified, and so dark, with such new problems raised, that one does not object to the replay. However much it may have been an afterthought, Part Two is radically different in atmosphere. The gaiety and the sun-drenched possibilities of Part One are weighted down by sickness, guilt, and the apparently unending troubles of Henry IV's reign. Falstaff's age and melancholy are more apparent; when we first meet him he is desperately in need of money. Hal himself is wearied with his former friends. At a crucial point of father-son feeling, Hal's cronies cross his true sentiments and make it appear that Hal would only be a hypocrite were he to show sadness at this father's illness: “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” (2.2.48-54). His father had warned him of “vile participation,” and Hal comes now to experience it in his own way.

Time is no longer altogether in front of Hal. He begins to feel the weight of his own waste. Here, by focusing on some elements of the argument of time, we can perceive a dramatic justification of Part Two. As in all father-son encounters, the older voice tries to persuade the younger person of a truth that he did not learn abstractly himself, but rather gained from experience. The absence of the same experience in the son and the importance of the lesson account for the mounting exasperation and impatience in the father. It is not until the son himself knows by experience the lessons of time—and this lesson all too often is only learned, unfortunately, in the shadow of the father's death—that he comes to appreciate in his own marrow the truths that previously were mere abstractions. We have seen this already in the dynamic of Petrarch's development. It was only by experience that the lessons of time could be really learned, and a true conversion take place. The advance of Part Two over its predecessor is precisely here. In Part One Hal was still glorious; in Part Two, he begins to feel the waste of his own energies and talents. Falstaff's overweening letter tells the prince that Poins has been speaking of a marriage between his sister and Hal. When Hal asks if this is true, Poins in effect declares that he could do worse. These involvements depress the prince: “Well, thus we play the fools with the time, and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us” (2.2.154-57). Yet he undertakes one more jest to catch Falstaff. Hiding behind the arras he has the opportunity to observe “desire outlive performance.” And although Falstaff, as in Part One, wriggles out of the trap, the scene ends disappointingly. News of war again intrudes, but this time only serves to burden the prince with guilt:

By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame
So idly to profane the precious time,
When tempest of commotion, like the South,
Borne with black vapour, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare unarmed heads.


So, too, the king's burden is heavier in Part Two. The end of his life is approaching and the crucial action of his life is still unjustified. The source of concern is his as yet unredeemed son. Through Hal's dereliction the king sees his own guilt reflected. Rather than an event leading to a better future, his accession to the throne seems only to be a curse. Should Henry IV provide an orderly succession, the ambiguities surrounding his rise to power would be resolved. The doubtful resolution of the prince turns back on Bolingbroke. In Richard II he is already aware that “if any plague hang over us, 'tis he.” And in Part One, his first words to his son emphasize this fear that Henry is Henry's punishment:

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 are only mark'd
For the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven
To punish my mistreadings.


In Part Two (3.1), the worn and sleepless king has time to reflect on the ironies of history. Ten years ago Richard and Northumberland were friends; eight years ago he and Percy were friends. Rather than simple “revolution of the times,” a formal line, reminiscent of the curses of the first tetralogy, is given these events by Richard's prediction of them. To a certain point, then, the issues of the first and second tetralogy follow similar courses. Action in the first merely brings on further action; a curse seems to operate over the whole. In the second, as far as Henry IV is aware, the same is true. His act of revolution seems to have involved him in a series of necessary actions that hold not promise for resolution. His hope in the time to come is also blighted by his son. Not only has Hal, as we have seen, turned the garden of his youth in to a weedy patch, and thus reversed one benevolent process in generation, he threatens the more public hopes of the king:

The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape,
In forms imaginary, th' unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.


This same double curse that produces bitter emulation within the family and disorder in society is the object of the king's attack on his son in their moving interview in Part Two. “See, sons, what things you are …” (4.5.65ff.). Believing that Hal seized the crown before his death, Henry IV assails this ingratitude:

For this the foolish over-careful fathers
Have broke their sleep with thoughts, their brains with care,
Their bones with industry:
.....When like the bee tolling from every flower
The virtuous sweets,
Our thighs pack'd with wax, our mouths with honey,
We bring it to the hive, and, like the bees,
Are murd'red for our pains. This bitter taste
Yields his engrossments to the ending father.

That his son will dance on his grave, is the fear—perhaps ages old—that the anguished father expresses. His sense of injury at the apparent ingratitude is strong, “Canst thou not forbear me half an hour?” As in Tamburlaine, but without that play's zesty endorsement, the universe becomes an arena of naturalistic place-taking from which no service or relationship is immune. Henry IV, so the curse would run, who usurped the position of Richard II, is driven from office by his son. This is the way of the universe, where no channels exist that offer protection against the currents of emulation. The dilemma of Henry IV is precisely here: although he came to the crown through ambiguous means, he hopes to establish an orderly and a clear succession. His war is preeminently with an original sin, which his son's behavior seems to confirm. Yet his concern extends beyond his personal situation to the national consequences that his distraught fears imagine:

O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that my care would not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
O, thou wilt be a wilderness again,
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants!


It is part of Shakespeare's eminent reasonableness, of course, that the accusing father is wrong in his opinion of his son. But the concern is genuine, and it is this concern which turns out to be an expiating factor, in the second tetralogy, in the validation of the House of Lancaster. The two tetralogies assume a fundamental relationship with the Oresteia, where similarly two basic acts are performed, one vindicated, the other not. The House of York in the first tetralogy was unable to muster valid principles to justify its revolution. Yorkist vision, consumed by the golden crown, rarely rose to larger perspectives of time and place; its motives proved to result in a root individualism that in turn devours York's own house, “I am myself alone.” It is precisely this vision of life that Henry IV, however tainted he might be, criticizes in his own son. The Yorkists are like Clytemnestra, who brazenly exults over the fallen husband. Her own impure motives reveal themselves in the way her kingdom grinds to a dead stop, in the horror of fear and nightmare. On Orestes, however, a necessity operates that compels him toward the horrendous deed, and his own righteousness is revealed in the guilt that he feels, and by the pilgrimage of expiation he must undergo. His conscience has not been brazened by the act. Like Henry IV, his very guilt is part of the breaking of the curse.

This is especially so, to return to Shakespeare's second tetralogy, when the father's guilt is centered on Hal and his tenure, on the kind of king he will be. In one of his denunciations of his son, Henry IV charges that his attitude toward government is frivolous: “O foolish youth! / Thou seek'st the greatness that will overwhelm thee” (2 Henry IV 4.5.96-97). Yet it is precisely in his sense of the burdens of rule and the other difficulties and either/or necessities of the world of time that Henry most duplicates his father. Unlike the Yorkists' frequent apostrophes to the Elysium of the crown (in the Marlovian vein), the Lancasters are impressed with the hardships and burdens of kingship. “O polished perturbation! Golden care” is Hal's address to the crown he finds beside his sleeping father. And after his father's denunciation, in his own defense he proceeds to recount what he actually had said. The golden crown is carnivorous: it eats the bearer up, as it has fed upon the body of his father:

                                        if it did infect my blood with joy
Or swell my thoughts to any strain of pride,
If any rebel or vain spirit of mine
Did with the least affection of a welcome
Give entertainment to the might of it.


This oath, sworn with gravity and determination, pleases the father in two ways; it shows that his own labors have been appreciated, and that like himself Hal will be a serious ruler. Through their very sense of guilt and responsibility, added to determination, the Lancasters show a capacity for effective rule. The original sin, so dominant in the first tetralogy and looming in the second, has been purged through the very father-son ideal that is at the heart of Shakespeare's political ethic. The crown sat uneasily upon the head of the father. Bolingbroke, as the original man in the middle, had to assume the guilt of historical action. But that guilt has been broken. To his son the crown will descend with better quiet,

Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth.


Henry is the scapegoat who carries the sins away. But his burden has been eased by his son's proving his right to succession. Henry IV does not die as a tragic figure, nor as a Christ-figure who simply absorbs the blow. At the end, as with Henry VIII, Henry IV's victory is historical. His action at a crucial moment of historical change, rather than being doomed by a sense of life that fears all doing, is justified in his son. As Henry VIII exclaims with pride and praises his Maker, so Henry IV finds his life's work vindicated, and cries out “Laud be to God.” Where he does this is important. Waning fast, he asks in what room he fainted. Told it is called the Jerusalem room, he rejoices and then explains that he was once told he would die in Jerusalem, which he had thought to mean the Holy Land. Some critics have considered this to be a “juggling prophecy” which robs Henry IV of any contentment and shows him in the end to be a defeated man. Correct reading of this scene and Henry's attitude would seem to dispose of that interpretation. Far from being a juggling prophecy, it places the seal of approval on his actions. If he could not go to Jerusalem, Jerusalem came to him. And as in Henry VIII, there is some religious confirmation of this man who faced with resolution and courage the bitter choices that the new times presented to him.

This tetralogy is at the core of the larger developments of the study of time in the Renaissance. It shows, as in Spenser, the basic Elizabethan reinvestment in the ways of succession. In Dante, we recall, all rightness comes from God, and not through the lines of succession. We do not have to go back as far as Dante for that. Samuel Daniel, whom some have thought Shakespeare followed in his historical vision, also sees a controlling providence at work in the lines of English kings. After the superb attainment of Edward III and the promise of his sons, disaster strikes when the Black Prince predeceases his father and the throne is left to a child.

But now the Scepter, in this glorious state,
Supported with strong power and victories,
Was left unto a Child, ordain'd by fate
To stay the course of what might grow too hie:
Here was a stop, that Greatness did abate,
When powre upon so weake a base did lie.
For, least good fortune should presume too farre,
Such oppositions interposed are.

The world is still governed by the inscrutable powers that allow man his glory but are jealous when it seems to continue too long, and for the same reason as in Dante: then he will believe that he, and not these mastering powers, is the measure of things. But Shakespeare's vision differs even from that of Daniel. There is a kind of human effectiveness that does not act in opposition to the great powers of the world, but, as in the Oresteia, seems willing to give them their place of honor and their due of guilt, and the sweat of scrupulous preoccupation with law and government. This effectiveness is not of the Yorkist-Clytemnestra type, whose brag and insolence merely add to the process of retribution they thought they were breaking, but neither does it share the vision that utterly despairs of any redemption in time. That man can act safely in time—however harrowing and difficult it might be—is the credo of Shakespeare's development in the second tetralogy. Importantly, then, where argument of time is seriously used, it works to dissolve the hold of original sin.

Also related to the development of time in the Renaissance is the fact that a secular paideia replaces the Christian. In the Dante of the Commedia, man is a truer man the less he has of manliness, and the more he regains of the purity, innocence, and sense of life's coherence that a child has. As in other Renaissance works fundamentally concerned with education, so in Shakespeare's second tetralogy, the ideal formation takes place strictly between father and son. The older figure leads the son to maturity, responsibility, and order. Time is redeemed when this secular paideia functions, just as time is forfeited in the Inferno and in Richard III when that process is destroyed. In two speeches, one of which is memorable, Hal vows to maintain the processes of succession that his father feared were broken. Taking to himself the crown that (as he believed) killed his father, Hal affirms his right to it and his willingness to defend it:

          and put the world's whole strength
Into one giant arm, it shall not force
This lineal honour from me. This from thee
Will I to mine leave, as 'tis left to me.


We have already observed the “lineal honour” operating in the several reformations of the son, especially in Part Two, and also indirectly in the many echoes and resemblances passed on from father to son. Falstaff, especially, courts disappointment when he seeks to insert himself between the father-son relation.

The same order of stability that Hal comes to represent is absent from the worlds of Hotspur and Falstaff, but, significantly, they can be validly discussed in the temporal terms we have established. Hotspur is Hal's foil not only in reaped honors, but also in awareness. Hal's broad-gauged participation in many levels of existence is a kind of fortunate fall. While it seems to present him with greater difficulties (“most subject is the fattest soil to weeds”) it also indicates greater possibilities—the “sparks of better hope”—which his father quite early detects. Separate and diffuse, his multiple identities can be damaging, but unified they show greater tolerance, broader perspectives, and a disposition to embrace life. Hotspur, or course, has none of these qualities. He is caught in that older way of reducing life to ultimate alternatives: honor or death, “or sink, or swim!” This tendency derives from his basic devaluation of life's normal activities and his fierce devotion to those moments of combat when all will be determined. Before battle he has no time for the letters brought by a messenger—“I cannot read them now”:

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.
An if we live, we live to tread on kings;
If die, brave death, when princes die with us!


His code of honor actually compels him to seek out dangerous situations:

Send danger from the east unto the west,
So honour cross it from the north to south,
And let them grapple. O, the blood more stirs
To rouse a lion than to start a hare!


Hotspur is a man possessed, and when he speaks it is rarely to others, but rather out of some demonic trance within himself. These words, for instance, spoken at a council of war, are not really addressed to the group. Some inner jockey is spurring him on, and the crowd stands back in amazement at his frenzy. Northumberland, his father, provides the actor's cue:

Imagination of some great exploit
Drives him beyond the bounds of patience.


But Percy proceeds:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honour from the pale-fac'd moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fadom line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities.

Worcester, his uncle, grows somewhat impatient at all of this fantasy:

He apprehends a world of figures here,
But not the form of what he should attend.


With Hal, however, despite his own kind of isolation, we have none of this blind imagination. He seems to see better into people and situations: “I know you all …” And while he is deluded in thinking that he is in control of the situation (other forces must help effect his regeneration), still his presence in the easy world of jokes and stories, of small beer, provides a larger perspective from which to view the ludicrous warrior-myths and pride of the Glendowers and Hotspurs. In 1 Henry IV, when Falstaff tells of the spreading rebellion, his very telling satirizes the spectacular pretensions of the soldier clan:

That same mad fellow of the North, Percy, and he of Wales that gave Amamon the bastinado, and made Lucifer cuckold, and swore the devil his true liegeman upon the cross of a Welsh hook—what a plague call you him?


Hal picks up the marvelous puncturing, completing Falstaff's similar description of Douglas, “that runs a-horseback up a hill perpendicular—”

He that rides at high speed and with his pistol kills a sparrow flying.
You have hit it.
So did he never the sparrow.


His sense of fun and humor is sparkling when he puts Francis' inarticulateness on parade or when he makes fun of Percy:

That ever this fellow should have fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman! His industry is upstairs and downstairs, his eloquence the parcel of a reckoning. I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, “Fie upon this quiet life! I want work!” “O my sweet Harry,” says she, “how many hast thou kill'd today?” “Give my roan horse a drench,” says he, and answers “Some fourteen,” an hour after, “a trifle, a trifle.” I prithee call in Falstaff.


The prince too knows that Hotspur apprehends a world of figures, and not what he should attend. His parody of Hotspur emphasizes his lack of responsiveness, his lack of consecutiveness. All consumed in his own world, time is unimportant. Rather than answering his wife's question (still in Hal's parody) he gives an order instead, and one hour later registers his response. There is strong evidence in the play that Hal's comic version of Hotspur is not inaccurate.

With the exception of the material in the section [in The Renaissance Discovery of Time] on “The Dramatic Exploitation of Time,” I have generally ignored the interesting problems of the sequences of actual plot time. But because of the conceptual value of the presentation of dramatic time in 1 Henry IV, I make an exception here, Mable Buland has studied the problems and development of double time in Elizabethan drama, with particular attention to Shakespeare. In brief, she states that double time in the plays results from “an attempt to give the effect of close continuity of action, and to use at the same time a plot requiring the lapse of months or years.” I find that the use of double time in Henry IV serves the added purpose of reflecting the two young heroes' varying attitudes toward life. Miss Buland summarizes the plot-times of the play:

In 1 and 2 Henry IV … Shakespeare reverted to the epic type of the chronicle, but not to the kind of construction used in the Henry VI plays; for into the episodic scenes of Hotspur's rebellion he has woven a comic story possessing such close continuity that a semblance of coherence is imparted to the whole play. In 1 Henry IV, we hear Falstaff and Prince Harry plan to take a purse “to-morrow night in Eastcheap” (1.2); we see the early morning robbery, we enjoy the supper scene after the night's adventures; we hear the Prince resolve, “I'll to the court in the morning” (2.4.595); and presently we find the son and father together (3.2). It is then arranged that “on Wednesday next” the prince shall set forward with his troops, and a few days later, at the battle of Shrewsbury, the play is concluded. Nevertheless, the affairs of Hotspur, which should be concurrent with those of the Prince of Wales, cover a period of three months, and their long-time extension is clearly indicated.

Although Hotspur's activities cover a longer period of time, they do not suggest continuity. They represent a disrupted sequence of heightened moments: they are crisis episodes. Human interest is kept up by the sheer eccentricity and “humor” of the wild-eyed devotee of soldier's honor. Yet there is no suggestion of the fuller life, or any interest other than honor (which has a strong echo of cracking heads). Time between the crucial episodes is of little value:

Uncle, adieu. O, let the hours be short
Till fields and blows and groans applaud our sport!


The prince, on the other hand, is involved in the more quotidian world of community and consecutive experience. His plot time, if briefer, is more continuous, and therefore more open to extension. Hotspur's time, while covering a longer period, is actually contracted into short moments: it is more suggestive of the tragic world of passion to which his end is the consummation.

Beneath Hotspur's devotion to crisis-time is a certain devaluation of the small things in extended time. Underlying his stance is a desperate skepticism that comes out in his last speech:

But thoughts the slaves of life, and life time's fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop.


As his approach to time has indicated and as this final turning away shows, Hotspur's attitudes do not promote the kind of temporal stability and controlling powers that Shakespeare valued in his more life-seeking monarchs.

In the histories, Falstaff is Shakespeare's prime creation of a negligent greatness. Hal is determined to redeem the time and move against the tempest of commotion that drops on his “unarmed head.” But there is strong evidence that Falstaff misdeems the time and is by his own admission heinously unprovided. He is the latter spring, and the all-hallown summer. His desire outlives performance. The man of incongruities and incomprehensible lies, whose predilection was for the latter end of a fray and the beginning of a feast, brought laughter in Part One. His sheer extravagances were rewarded, and his inconsecutiveness was much to the point. But a move persists to expose Falstaff, whether after Gadshill, or when Poins and Hal oversee him in Part Two. And like the Wife of Bath, Falstaff is an aging, melancholy comic hero, beset by occasional religious anxiety, but also driven by hard economic motivation. Underneath his inconsequence there is a hard line of practical shrewdness: “‘When thou art King’ runs like a refrain through what he has to say, and reveals the anxieties beneath the jesting … What is to happen when the old King dies? That, as we are reminded time and time again in this scene, is the leading problem of Falstaff's existence” (J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff). The hope is that the prince will spare him the reckoning of his more extravagant ways, that the prince will provide and set Falstaff's accounts in order.

The call to account is crucial to the argument of time. It is the fatal moment for which one must prepare, the sick hour that Richard's surfeit brought, the bitter realization against which Shakespeare warns the young man in the sonnets, and the crucial hour of combat for which the interview with his father prepares Hal. The call to account is the inevitable summons that breaks through illusion and presents a hard world of reality. But Falstaff, we are told at once in 1 Henry IV, is superfluous in demanding the time of day. “What a devil has thou to do with the time of day,” unless the signs and acts of pleasure were fitting marks for the world of time. Attached to the prince, Falstaff is the allowed jester: he never is called to pay. The prince may have called the hostess to a reckoning many a time, but he never called Falstaff to pay his part. “No, I'll give thee thy due, thou has paid all there” (1.2.59). The prince's credit redeems Falstaff's activities. As Gadshill, the spotter explains: his team of robbers includes some who are involved in the robbery for sport's sake, “that would (if matters should be look'd into) for their own credit sake make all whole” (2.1.79). Falstaff's world is a merry play world. Watch tonight, pray tomorrow … “A play extempore” is the proper happening for those who live by their wits. After the robbery, when the play world has been interrupted by the knocking of the sheriff's men, Hal engages his word that Falstaff (hidden fast asleep behind the arras) will answer the complaints. The prince promises that the money will be paid back “with advantage,” and persists in being the good “angel” to Falstaff.

Falstaff is ill-prepared for the emulative struggle to which the prince is called. The either/or challenge of Hotspur which Hal must answer is for Falstaff merely

Rare words! brave world! Hostess, my breakfast, come.
O, I could wish this tavern were my drum!


He is somewhat reluctant to settle accounts, especially in a world of struggle and real threats; in London's taverns his wit and verbal skills could get him by, but not in combat: “Though I could scape shot-free at London, I fear the shot here. Here's no scoring but upon the pate” (5.3.30-32). As the moment of battle approaches, Falstaff asks Hal's assistance. But Hal is not colossal enough to bestride him in battle: “Say thy prayers, and farewell.”

I would 'twere bedtime, Hal, and all well.
Why, thou owest God a death.
'Tis not due yet, I would be loath to pay him before his day. Why need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?


While it would be foolhardy to rush toward that reckoning, still the postponement he seeks here is only part of the larger practice of deferral that is typical of Falstaff throughout both parts of Henry IV.

In the battle Hal significantly does not bestride Falstaff, but rather his father. And when Falstaff pulls the bottle of sack from where his pistol should be, the prince rebukes his poor timing: “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (5.3.57). The preparation for rejection proceeds—even if premature and bound to be deferred. When Hal sees the fallen Falstaff, whom he mistakenly believes to be dead, the prince hardly expresses any regret:

O, I should have a heavy miss of thee
If I were much in love with vanity!


Again the Lancastrian seriousness returns to judge the frivolity of those whom they reject or oppose. But Falstaff is not dead, only counterfeiting, and he springs to life to pull off his most incredible stunt: claiming he killed Hotspur. The claim has all the more chance of success in the world of Part One, the more preposterous and patently incredible it is. Falstaff lands on his feet, and the prince again uses his credit to spare him a reckoning:

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


In Part Two, the law is not so easily fobbed off. The Lord Chief Justice holds the keys to this terrain, as the law-bound Cato did in the Purgatorio. He is just as severe in his retention of the past, and the object of his implacability is Falstaff: “It is not a confident brow, nor the throng of words that come with such more than impudent sauciness from you, can thrust me from a level consideration” (2.1.121-24). He is determined that Falstaff pay his debt to Hostess Quickly “both in purse and person.” Earlier the Chief Justice showed that he at least had not forgotten the events of Gadshill: “Your days's service at Shrewsbury hath a little gilded over your night's exploit on Gadshill. You may thank th' unquiet time for your quiet o'erposting that action” (1.2.168-71). Falstaff's pretensions of youthfulness, and his brawling are unseemly to the serious man of order, “Doth this become you place, your time and business?” (2.1.73). Such a complaint will be echoed by the newly crowned Henry V: “How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!” (5.5.52).

Falstaff is ill attended in Part Two. Like the Chief Justice, the prince's brother John is not an ideal audience for his antics. He warns Falstaff of the danger he is running by his eccentric ways:

Now, Falstaff, where have you been all the while?
When everything is ended, then you come.
These tardy tricks of yours will, on my life,
One time or other break some gallows' back.


For one scene only, prior to rejection time, Falstaff and Hal appear together in Part Two (2.4). And as in Part One, Poins and the prince have designed a trap to expose Falstaff. The directions of both plays seem toward Falstaff's exposure. But in Part Two, much of the former gaiety has passed out of the scene, and it ends unsatisfactorily and unresolved. The final impression is one of time profaned. Indeed, it is “Falstaff, good night.”

Although Falstaff has not altogether lost his charm in Part Two, he is no longer so outlandishly inconsequential. He has acquired authority, and he uses his new employment to deliver himself from the officers of the Chief Justice. But as he becomes more consequential in speech and behavior, he becomes more of a real problem and hence more open to rejection: “You speak as having power to do wrong” (2.1.141).

Debts past due, of which the Chief Justice is the unrelenting collector, are closing in on Falstaff. There are signs that his good angel of the past will no longer pay the reckoning. One indication of Hal's future behavior is in his father's accusation that under his reign any kind of hoodlum and criminal would find refuge: “England shall double gild his treble guilt.” The same term of covering was used by Hal in Part One, and by the Chief Justice in Part Two to describe the royal credit that was redeeming Falstaff's carelessness and illegality. The father's charge is pointed. But rather than to Falstaff, it is to the Chief Justice that Hal gives his hand, “you shall be as father to my youth.” In Parts One and Two Falstaff loses out to time and the Law. As in Dante's Purgatorio, these two principles, part of the argument of time, necessitate a rejection that continues to be debated.

It is quite natural that we should recoil at Falstaff's rejection, just as we did at Virgil's—even though the latter seemed to represent more positive ideals. After Romanticism, as Professor Langbaum has shown, the quandary of moral categories and sympathetic character seems only to have become thicker. Naive readers have continued to protest, and overly severe teachers have continued to pursue rigorously the textual logic that requires dismissal. However much we might wish to see Falstaff's presumption deflated and delight in the dramatic effects that build up to his final exposure, however much we might be aware that Falstaff's egotism personally intrudes on the proper and serious business of governing a country, and however much we are brought to realize that lurking on the verge of Falstaff's domain is disorder, crime, and even murder, still it is not without regret that we see the world deprived of his good force. It is this to which Edmund Wilson responds when he joins in association Falstaff and the later tragic figures, Lear and Antony. In their loss a great force has gone out of the world.

Falstaff's merits become apparent, not in contrast with the virtues required of the monarch, but when set next to the lesser characters who seem to thrive. Shallow, a simple fool except where money is concerned, is everything that Falstaff is not. Ever in the rearward of the fashion, this country squire still has more than Bardolph for security. His beefs and Falstaff's lack of provisions presents another of those occasions that inform against one, those bitter lessons that reveal a clear reality. Shallow sounds the depths of his name. He is nostalgic and backward-looking to a past he never had. In his great soliloquy (3.4), Falstaff has nothing but scorn (and some designs) for this lying old man, who in his youth was no way like himself. He only sang outmoded songs and never had the courage, enterprise, or wit to be the blade he later imagined himself to be. He was a hanger-on, one who circled around the outskirts of the tumult. He was never at the center of things; he never took the risks of the thrust. Yet, now he is wealthy and Falstaff desperately in need of provisions. This speech shows Falstaff's virtues in proper dialectic; Shallow's triumphant narrowness is degraded in contrast with the risk-taking Falstaff. It was Falstaff who ventured, who drew laughs, who was wit itself and the cause of wit in other men.

Falstaff had always misdeemed the time and ignored the need to provide prudently. And while there was always a latent cynicism in his profane detraction from heroics, still it is only in his advanced age, when he sees fools provided for, that he grimly sets about to hunt for himself: “If the young dace be a bait for the old pike, I see no reason in the law of the nature but I may snap at him [Shallow]. Let time shape, and there an end” (3.2.356-59). Falstaff can hardly inspire his wonted affection in us when he speaks of the “law of nature.” This latter-day lapse into an opportunistic ethic, similar to that of the Yorkists, is a startling reversal from the earlier gaiety (for all its undertone of future gain). His freedom has become victimized by its own excess and desperately converts from happy inconsequence into hard calculation; perennially out of season, Falstaff too late in life adopts a grim code of provision. And ironically, it is this final resolve to take advantage of the time, that element which he had so grandiosely scanted, which helps to make Falstaff dramatically ripe for rejecting.


True to its form, Shakespeare's argument of time exhorts response. And the response, as proclaimed in the sonnets, involves a faith in the augmentative potential of the ways of succession. Wherever these ways are open, and man places his confidence in them, children and fame are valuable counters in the war against nothingness and oblivion. And this perhaps is one of the values of the argument of time: it provides a bridge between the private voice of the sonnets and the more public world of the drama. It concentrates on the problems that help to make the histories intense personal, as well as political drama. But it also gives larger scope to the virtues of good government: prudence and responsibility and even decorum are more than that when they are stabilizing guards against a chaotic and destructive world of willful vanity, negligence, and nothingness. The argument of time provides such enlargements for Shakespeare's political ethic.

We have already had occasion to observe this double dimension of time in the Renaissance: it is a cosmic discovery that translates itself into schedule; with fervor it combines practicality. These aspects of time in the Renaissance help to explain the division on modern criticism over Shakespeare's successful House of Lancaster. Whether defending Richard II or Falstaff, men like Yeats or Bradley are repulsed by the calculation, priggishness, and prudence of the Lancasters. “To suppose that Shakespeare preferred men who deposed his king is to suppose that Shakespeare judged men with the eyes of a Municipal Councillor weighing the merits of a Town Clerk; and that had he been by when Verlaine cried out from his bed, “Sir, you have been made by the stroke of a pen but I have been made by the breath of God,” he would have though the Hospital Superintendent the better man” (“At Stratford-on-Avon” in Essays and Introductions). Indeed, there is part of us that wishes Yeats to be right, that feels uncomfortable whenever we insist too pompously on the correctness of deposition or dismissal. But, at the same time, we also feel that Yeats, bristling under the divisions of his own time, has stripped the growth and significance of Hal of half the interest it holds for us. He belittles the prudence, but he forgets the cosmic issues of time and nothingness against which prudence is a defense. He mocks the decisions of the public man, but he forgets the private setting for those decisions. In short, Yeats is prevented from seeing the crucial nature of time in the Renaissance. Time is a principle of reality that limits human freedom, but it also heightens reality. It is these deeper issues in Hal's development that the argument of time brings out. Yet Yeats is historically percipient. Just that severe division which would eventually come about between Verlaine's spirited vanity and the dull Municipal Councillor has its roots in the Renaissance triumph of time. And Shakespeare's own tragedies will show the split that Yeats detected in the histories. But for a while, with Shakespeare, as with other Renaissance writers, when time was still an important and fervent discovery, the union of energy and control was still possible. Rabelais could have his education of Gargantua and the freer air of the Abbey. The practical results of the discovery of time could still be exciting, especially when man was trying to liberate himself from an unworthy torpor, or in Shakespeare's case, from older ways that no longer served the modern prince. The modern world, especially in literature, would like to return to the world before time became a pressure and a commodity. Yet it was just this discovery of time that is intrinsic to the nature and accomplishments of the Renaissance.

The first tetralogy shows the transition from the high point of England's medieval achievement to the first Renaissance English monarch. So, too, the second tetralogy deals with the “change of times,” as it moves from a king whose values are medieval to one whose values are more like those of the Tudors (whether represented by Henry VII or the Cranmer oration in Henry VIII). In the first tetralogy Henry V is the last of the medieval kings; in the second, he is the glorious representative, shown in his growth and development, of the modern notions of realism, effectiveness, comprehensiveness of appeal. His contrast with Hotspur transcends mere competition between coevals; it is rather between two different ways of life. There is more in Hal that seeks and deserves survival; there is more in Hal that is in tune with the nature of the world and the demands of the time. With all of his tremendous vitality and spirited vision, Percy is still food for worms.

Ill-weav'd ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough.

(1 Henry IV 5.4.88-92)

Hal's vision includes human limitations and vulnerabilities. His spirit is not as doom-eager and death-insistent as the tragically motivated chivalric and aristocratic Hotspur. J. Dover Wilson's comments on these lines, especially “ill-weaved ambition,” are suggestive: “Such is the quality of Hotspur's ambition … and such the language of Shakespeare, the wool-dealer's son, who well knew that cloth loosely woven was especially apt to shrink.” Shakespeare, the wool-dealer's son, finds the values and personality of a Hotspur inappropriate for true management, stability, and safety in the world. There is not enough in Hotspur that seeks life over death. He shows too much willfulness, too great a reluctance to adjust one's spirit to the realities of existence. And one of the great realities is time.

Continuing to follow larger historical suggestions, it has been clear from our study that the sense of time as an urgent pressure was coincidental with the rise of bourgeois society and the middle class. More to the point, time figures prominently in the formation of middle-class values. It suggests an external world of real limitations, against which one must make provisions if he is to be spared an unsatisfactory reckoning. If, then, Shakespeare's England witnessed the great alliance under the Tudors between the throne and the middle class, it is clear why time is so important a force in Shakespeare's second tetralogy. Historical in value, the history plays reflect historical reality: Hal is the embodiment of the Tudor revolution in values that Shakespeare sought to dramatize. Against the bedeviled turmoil of a Hotspur, he sets Falstaffian life. But against Falstaff's nihilism, he sets a modified code of honor and historical continuity that is a consolidation of the traditions of the old in harmony with present realities. In his most stirring affirmation in 2 Henry IV, Hal draws a particularly English bridge over the gap of historical change, uniting in a single unit the old and the new. “The tide of blood in me,” he confesses,

Hath proudly flow'd in vanity till now.
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.


Despite the disruption of Bolingbroke's revolution, despite the new realism of his house, continuity has been maintained—and more than maintained, gloriously advanced. Aristocratic and bourgeois, Hal represents the great tendency toward amalgamation of virtues that we had already observed in Spenser, and had further seen to be crucial to the problem of time in the Renaissance.

For Harry Levin, in his important essay “English Literature of the Renaissance,” Bacon's “Merchants of Light” symbolize “the belated yet determining role that Englishmen played in the Renaissance, the mediating practicality that reshaped its ideas into those of the Enlightenment.” While we could see in “Merchants of Light” the several facets of time, it is the phrase “mediating practicality” that is justified by many points in this study, and which the history plays dramatize. We could say that the fundamental contrast between the House of York and the House of Lancaster was the absence of this mediating practicality in the former. They too unreservedly in Shakespeare's plays took over the Machiavellian line without submitting to the larger needs of time and place. In the Marlovian vein, they were too unmitigated in their adoptions, without transforming their desires to the larger needs of life and order. If Richard II, Henry VI, and Falstaff were too negligent or improvident, the Richards of the first tetralogy were too aggressive and belligerent. And yet Shakespeare, and the directions of English thought in the Renaissance, sensed the importance of time and the need for man to manage it effectively, to husband it. Somewhere between the premature reliance on being and the unscrupulous seizure of time must, unfortunately, lie the difficult shadow area of proper action. Man can act safely in time, but it involves heavy responsibilities and burdens, with the quieter rewards and consolations of the ways of peace and succession. Indeed, given the Baconian context of Professor Levin's remarks, the second tetralogy—with its faith in a virtuous control of experience stabilized by the successful father-son relationship, with its recognition of a hard objective reality and the need for man to be modest in the face of his vulnerable exposure, yet through this submission to the laws of nature to be able, in turn, to control experience—the later group of history plays seems to have found its proper setting.


Levin, Harry. Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times: Perspectives and Commentaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Wilson, J. Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. New York: Macmillan, 1944.

David Bevington (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Bevington, David. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part I, edited by David Bevington, pp. 1-110. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Bevington discusses the structural unity and major themes of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and considers the dramas' exposition of identity, honor, cowardice, father-son relations, and princely education.]


The debate over [E. M. W.] Tillyard's insistence on Elizabethan world-order as the key to Shakespeare's history plays has interesting ramifications, not only for characterization—e.g. is Falstaff a Vice tempter or a free spirit?—but also for structure. Are 1 and 2 Henry IV a unified whole, and integrally part of the larger structure of the Henriad, or is each play a separate theatrical event? Tillyard's argument … impels him towards the unitary view, towards seeing the rejection of Falstaff and the emergence of Henry V as the necessary conclusion to a story of political conflict whose ultimate concern is the welfare of the state. Similarly, Dover Wilson, though he sees Henry V and especially Merry Wives as quite separate creations, argues for a close tie between 1 and 2 Henry IV. He concedes that the plays were performed separately, but his argument about Falstaff's relationship to Hal depends on the idea of a ten-act whole, of which each half is incomplete, unintelligible even, without the other. In particular, Wilson argues that Hal's soliloquy at the end of 1.2 looks forward to his coronation as Henry V and his rejection of Falstaff, that the father-son relationship is in need of further clarification at the end of Part 1, that the otherwise unnecessary introduction of the Archbishop of York in 4.4 serves to prepare for Prince John's expedition in Part 2, that the rebels (though deprived of Hotspur) remain at large after the Battle of Shrewsbury, and that Falstaff's false claim of credit for Hotspur's death is a key to Falstaff's character in Part 2 more than in Part 1.1 Falstaff's itinerary for Part 2, taking him far out of his way to Gloucestershire en route to, and returning from, Yorkshire, might seem to suggest that material from an original but overly long single play had been moved into a second part. Tillyard and Wilson thus carry forward and particularize the judgement of Dr Johnson, who in 1765 wrote: ‘These two plays will appear to every reader, who shall peruse them without ambition of critical discoveries, to be so connected that the second is merely a sequel to the first; to be two only because they are too long to be one.’2

The opposing theory is that 2 Henry IV was an unpremeditated sequel generated by the great success of Part 1, and, like most spin-offs, one that proved to be little more than a vehicle for the continuing antics of a single character, in this case Falstaff.3 Such a disparaging view of the second play is not critically justified, however, and is unnecessarily extreme as a counter to the unitary theory. More persuasive are arguments that allow for separate performance of the two plays, for a degree of uncertainty about Shakespeare's overall plan as he wrote, and for the idea that the second play deliberately varies the focus of interest and the characterization, even while it underlines through repetition the difficulty of resolving certain problems.

That 1 Henry IV was performed separately from 2 Henry IV is a virtual certainty; there are in fact no records of performance on the same or succeeding days before the twentieth century.4 The phenomenon of the multiple-part play in Elizabethan drama offers instructive analogies. Even though Henslowe records performances of the two parts of Tamburlaine on successive days, he also records them on quite separate occasions; Part 1 was certainly performed before Part 2 was written. The same is true of Tamar Cam and others. The unity in multiple-part plays is one of theme, achieved through parallel episodes, as in Chapman's Byron and Marston's Antonio plays, rather than of integrally connected action.5 The implications of separate performance are important. Since 1 Henry IV was originally and regularly performed as a separate play, it must have achieved closure for its first audience, which is another way of saying that it must have made dramatic sense by itself.

What then was the extent of Shakespeare's planning for the separation of the two parts? The occasionally uncertain links between Richard II and 1 Henry IV suggest that he might have begun with a broad outline and then refined it as he worked. The single report of Prince Hal's conduct in Richard II insists on his supporting the wildest outrages such as beating the watch, robbing passengers, frequenting stews, and the like (5.3.1-22), whereas in 1 Henry IV Shakespeare puts the Prince at some distance from these acts. The Henry Percy of Richard II, not yet graced with the nickname of Hotspur, is an attractive well-spoken youth in a very minor part (2.3.21-56, 3.3.20-9, 4.1.44-8) who resembles the fiery rebel of 1 Henry IV in little more than his age. Nor is there any hint of the scheming nature of Worcester, who is mentioned twice but is never present on stage. In 1 Henry IV we can look back on these first impressions with the advantage of hindsight, but as clues to the planning of 1 Henry IV they afford room for considerable extemporizing.62 Henry IV concludes with a promise of another play ‘with Sir John in it’, though Falstaff does not materialize in Henry V.

1 and 2 Henry IV are closely bound, however, by the rejection of Falstaff, and by the use of a story that had already appeared in Famous Victories as a single dramatic structure. Did Shakespeare intend from the start to leave the rejection out of 1 Henry IV, despite anticipations of that event? Or did he plan originally to include the rejection, as in Famous Victories, as has been argued by Harold Jenkins? According to Jenkins's theory, Shakespeare originally set up a series of parallels between comic and serious plots designed to culminate, as promised in Hal's soliloquy, in the besting of Hotspur and the rejection of Falstaff. Falstaff serves as a foil for Hotspur at every turn in matters of robbery and cowardice, and Hal's announcement of his intention towards Falstaff in the play-acting scene (2.4) is paired with his announcement of his intention towards Hotspur in the interview with King Henry (3.2). Once the dooms of Falstaff and Hotspur are in sight, however, Jenkins sees Shakespeare changing his mind; the comic material for the rest of the play is less compressed, and Part 2 improvises its sub-plot on a theme of justice. This hypothesis explains, in Jenkins's view, why the second play, for all the parallelisms with the rebel scenes and tavern scenes of Part 1, does not contain the same real double action. History does not repeat itself; Hal does not go through a cycle of riot and reform again.7

Whether or not Shakespeare changed his mind this drastically as he wrote, the structural integrity of the two separate plays we now have in 1 and 2 Henry IV is surely more substantial than Jenkins's or Wilson's theories of improvisation would seem to allow. The ending of 1 Henry IV is suited to the play for which it is provided. Falstaff is to be rejected ultimately, but not now. Meantime, the Battle of Shrewsbury brings to a resolution the issue of honour with which Part 1 has been concerned. Hotspur lies dead, and Hal has vindicated himself as promised, having both proved his worth in arms and reformed his wasteful ways. The symmetries of the serious and comic plots have permitted the stories of Hotspur and Falstaff to develop side by side, each with its beginning, middle, and end. In one, a rebellion is conceived and developed, whereupon the rebels prepare for battle and are defeated; in the other, the Prince takes part in a conspiracy to rob in the name of companionship with Falstaff, yet declares his intent to reform, appears penitentially before his father, and puts some distance between himself and Falstaff thereafter. The coincidence of Hal's declarations against Hotspur and against Falstaff marks the simultaneous progression of the two plots, even though we must allow that the two follow divergent and irreconcilable time-schemes; an interval of some three or four weeks is needed to ripen the serious rebellion hatched in 1.3, for example, while the highway robbery is planned and executed in a matter of hours.8

Loose ends are apparent at the end of 1 Henry IV, to be sure, for history is open-ended even in a play that achieves brilliant closure.9 After all, even Henry V concludes, for all its triumphs in war and marriage, on a reminder of the failures of Henry VI that are to follow in the course of history. In 1 Henry IV rebellion is never wholly quelled, and the introduction of the Archbishop of York in 4.4 is a reminder of unfinished business. Falstaff's deplorable behaviour at the expense of Hal's military reputation is both a fit testimonial to the distance that has come between them and a promise of further roguery. The uneasy relationship between Hal and his father attains a moment of trust appropriate to Hal's emergence as his father's son, but there is unfinished business here too. The actions in Part 2 that involve repetition—the second rebellion of the Percys, the second long tavern scene, the second interview of father and son—all arise from the perception that what seemed so easy of solution is in fact deeply problematic. Falstaff just won't go away, and neither will Hal's reputation for wanton behaviour. In Part 1 Hal's business was to reform his conduct; in Part 2 he finds he must convince the world that he has reformed and is fit to be king.10


As a dramatic entity, 1 Henry IV reveals a structure that is simultaneously manifested through character and theme. The alternation of action from serious to comic and the parallel movement in two plots from rebellion to reformation take visible shape in the contrasts between Hotspur and Falstaff and the King and Falstaff, with the Prince occupying a central position. Such oppositions invite definition. One focus of definition is the concept of honour.

According to one often repeated formulation, Hotspur is the excess and Falstaff the defect of military spirit; the former represents exaggerated honour, the latter dishonour. The Prince, comparing the rival merits of chivalry and vanity, comes to embody magnificence, or tasteful bounty, and is thus representative of Aristotle's middle quality between extremes, as is Guyon in Book 2 of Spenser's The Faerie Queene.11 This scheme need not oversimplify the extremes or present them as unattractive: Hotspur is idealistic, brave, and charismatic, Falstaff wisely sceptical and philosophic about war. Still, each suffers from an incompleteness or immaturity that leads to failure of one extreme or the other on the field at Shrewsbury.

The scheme of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics can be expanded to include the four cardinal virtues as integral to a prince's ethical training, if, as Sherman Hawkins argues, Part 1 is seen as concerned with fortitude and temperance, Part 2 with justice and wisdom. The Prince, who in Part 1 tellingly speaks of himself as embodying all humours, and who proves a great mimic of those he would study, learns in the course of time to master the irascible and the appetitive; he does not repress, but instead masters, choler and fleshly indulgence, thereby assimilating the energies of both Hotspur and Falstaff. Each of these two figures represents the defect of one virtue and the excess of another, while the Prince becomes, in Macrobius' words, the ‘good man’ who is first made lord of himself and then ruler of the state.121 Henry IV is Hal's institutio principis, and Hal is its epic hero.

These attractive schemes of opposition need careful qualification, however. Falstaff is happy enough, as Norman Council observes, to garner honour at Shrewsbury; he rejects merely the established code through which it is normally attained.13 Hotspur, conversely, is the unstained embodiment of that code, respected even by King Henry as one ‘who is the theme of honour's tongue’ (1.1.80). To see Falstaff as the embodiment of dishonour is to ignore the value of his insight; Falstaff gives us a reasoned rejection of honour, by reversing the terms of the code according to which honour is more precious than life. The debate is one of conflicting values, to which Hal comes as one detached: he will employ honour as a useful commodity, and redeem his own lost reputation by using Hotspur's reputation for his own gain, but he shows what he has learned from Falstaff by his ironic appreciation of a shrunken ‘ill-weaved ambition’ that is now food for worms (5.4.86-7). As W. Gordon Zeeveld has put it, ‘food for worms’ nicely expresses the cost of Hotspur's misdirected idealism, while ‘food for powder’ (4.2.62-3) exposes the limits of Falstaff's sardonic view of war. Hotspur is brave, but never gives a thought to the lives of his soldiers; Falstaff, too, regards his soldiers as expendable, though in the interest of preserving his own life in all its jollity. Hal sees war as the inhuman business it is, and yet his own superior honour takes the form of proposing to save blood on both sides through single combat. His honour, in contrast to Hotspur's cry of ‘Die all, die merrily’ (4.1.135), includes a regard for the value of human life.14

The opposition represented by Hotspur and Falstaff is thus one of paradox, rendering more complex the choice that Hal must make. Even the physical difference between Hotspur and Falstaff is instructive. In the opposition of prudence and economy to wasteful excess, Falstaff represents both the sickness of the state (like the caterpillars of the commonwealth in Richard II) and the remedy of some of its ills. His obesity is suggestive of luxurious surfeit, and yet he shows us the point of view from which thinness and economy can be inadequate and unpleasant. Hal stands to benefit from Falstaff's friendship, yet must know when to reject the reign of vanity that brought down Richard II.15 He must cultivate princely liberality in response to Hotspur's churlishness (as in Hotspur's dealings with Glendower) and Falstaff's prodigality. Hal must exhibit good-tempered bravery in response to Hotspur's irascibility and Falstaff's lack of combativeness.16 Paradox is evident here as well, for Falstaff is able to parody Hotspur's exaggerated manliness with his ‘A plague of all cowards’, his lament for old-fashioned ‘manhood’ that is now ‘forgot upon the face of the earth’, and his tale of ‘two- or three-and-fifty upon poor old Jack’ (2.4.110-81).

Hal studies manliness in Hotspur while learning, as Hotspur does not, to limit his sense of superiority; through Falstaff he discovers his weakness as a man and his capacity for witty laughter, without surrendering, as Falstaff does, to the fleshliness of appetite and the moral anarchy that wit can produce.17 In his ability to enlarge and be flexible, in contrast to Hotspur and Falstaff, both of whom diminish other people as means to an egotistical end, Hal finds a happy mean between humourless zeal and frivolity.18 Yet his choice is not simply between extremes, but between alternatives that cast light on each other's deficiencies and virtues alike, as when Falstaff's highway escapades illustrate, both by resemblance and contrast, the thievery that is part of the political story as well; at Gad's Hill and in Bolingbroke's dealings with the Percys, we see the ironic pattern of the robber robbed.


The symmetries of 1 Henry IV are thus not those of a stable pyramidal structure of order and degree. Authority at the apex is uncertain, as Sigurd Burckhardt has shown, producing two kinds of order, each attempting to destroy the other. The instability bespeaks a shift in Shakespeare's world-picture from the divinely ordered state of Richard II to a state that is ordered in accordance with human needs, from the seemingly permanent structures of feudalism and primogeniture to a state of combat and questionable legitimacy, from the king as divinely sanctioned to the king as self-made.19 The outmoded honour of chivalry gives way to machiavellian concern with power, and, in Hal, to the new virtue of courtesy; Hotspur remains a crusader in a romance, while Hal becomes a Renaissance gentleman, ‘the king of courtesy’ (2.4.10), showing this quality in his disposition of Douglas who has fled in the battle. As in Castiglione's The Courtier and Spenser's The Faerie Queene, courtesy is motivated in part by a desire for praise. It is exercised by ‘knowing what is fitting for oneself and others’, and by enacting this graciously.20

The old order of Hotspur confuses personal with public welfare, personal with public conflict.21 Its ceremony must yield to history, divinity to mortality, the golden to the brazen. The ideal world of what ought to be gives way to the unselected, chaotic flow of history, to contingency and temporality. Our evaluation of this shift is ambivalent: on the one hand, we regret the destruction of a divinely sanctioned culture only to be replaced by cunning and political expediency; on the other, we applaud the acceptance of a vital historical movement. Hal's difficult task is to construct a symbolic order of monarchy out of diverse and unpromising materials, mingling the residues of a dying political theology of the king's two bodies with his own abilities in magisterial rhetoric and the language of the tavern. Poetic self-indulgence is replaced by the art of persuasive speech.22

The shift in language from the medieval and ceremonial speech of Richard II to the Renaissance and practical speech of 1 Henry IV is evident in the latter's extensive and brilliant use of prose (not used at all in Richard II, and scarcely at all in the earlier history plays except for the Jack Cade scenes of 2 Henry VI), in its proliferation of tongues and accents (including Welsh), and, as Joseph Porter has pointed out, in the topic of naming.23 The validity of names in the linguistically absolutist world of Richard II is a test case for the validity of language generally; only sick men play with their names, and Richard devoutly believes that ‘the King's name’ is ‘twenty thousand names’ (3.2.85). In 1 Henry IV, by contrast, the magical authority of names comes increasingly into question, and the invention of abusive appellations is one of the chief vehicles in the combat of wits between Hal and Falstaff. Hotspur's speech is like Richard II's in his tuning of his ear to his own tongue and in his holding to an absolutist conception of language that does not take time into account; his verbal scepticism is also appropriate to one who is a political rebel.24 Falstaff regards honour merely as a word, as air, and accordingly treats words as the proper object of linguistic playfulness, punning, and comparison. Hal enjoys the hilarity and irresponsibility of Falstaff's speech acts, revelling in a polyglot facility with languages, but ultimately he is asking very different questions about language from those of Hotspur or Falstaff. He is interested in learning how to cope practically with the potentially anarchic aftermath of the fall from Richard II's linguistic absolutism, and so Hal's characteristic speech acts involve promising, vowing, giving and keeping one's word (as the rebels and even King Henry do not).25

Hal's speech takes account of the passage of time, for changes in history demand changes in language. King Henry, having instigated the idea that a king's word lacks sacred ranking, must suffer the consequences: for him, the oath as a locutionary act can no longer be binding. Not coincidentally, Falstaff uses oaths in this play more freely and irresponsibly than anyone else. The boast is another characteristic locutionary act in this play, as Ronald Macdonald has observed, and it is one that is peculiarly vulnerable to deflation, whether in Glendower's assertion of a power to summon devils or in Falstaff's fiction of a triumph over two young men in Kendal green in the dark. Because Hal is wise and self-knowing in his mastery of new languages, he is able to avoid these pitfalls of empty oath-giving and boastfulness. Most of all he senses that people like Richard II and Hotspur who do not grow in language are defeated by history.26


In such a changing world, King Henry provides both positive and negative examples in his roles of king and father to Hal. Here the King acts as a foil to Falstaff, providing a very different set of alternatives from those put to Hal by Hotspur and Falstaff. King Henry and Falstaff are alternative parental figures: the King is distant and awesome, serving as the guilt-based conscience of adult responsibility, whereas Falstaff is nurturing and permissive, offering the infantile world of the child. Hal must come to terms both with resentment towards the restrictions of social life and with the seemingly innocent wish to love and enjoy a life of self-gratification. By killing Hotspur, argues Franz Alexander, Hal kills or assimilates his own self-destructive tendencies and overcomes his own natural aggression and jealousy towards his father.27 Shakespeare thus accounts for both the debauchery and the sudden conversion registered in the chronicles and in Famous Victories.

The legend of parricidal near-violence subsequently giving way to filial acceptance of the father whom the son must replace is a profoundly resonant one for any account of a young man's wavering struggle towards maturity. The centrality of the motif is apparent in the several configurations of father and son in 1 Henry IV. King Henry has in effect two sons (Hal and Hotspur), just as Hal has two fathers; and Hotspur also stands between a weak father and his uncle, Worcester. Glendower attempts to be a father to the fiery youth whose kinsman has married his daughter, only to be met with witty hostility and scepticism towards his claims of magical authority. With no mother present, Prince Hal's conflict (as Ernst Kris terms it) takes the form of filial attachment to a father substitute, one who satisfies his need for warmth and love, even while Hal acts out with this substitute his feelings towards the lineal father whom he must test against an ideal of royal dignity. Hal goes to the tavern, according to Kris's argument, rather than acquiesce in regicide; the tavern gives Hal some respite, some time to explore dimensions of himself that have no place in his father's world. By the time of the battle of Shrewsbury, he is ready to save his father's life and kill his alter ego instead.28 W. H. Auden puts it well: we were all Falstaffs once upon a time, and then we became social beings with super-egos, dreaming the potentially hazardous dream of a narcissistic self-sufficiency.29

The form of this play is thus one of conflict successfully resolved, though, as Richard Wheeler points out, success is achieved only by the suppression of the young man's relationship to women.30 Hal is provided with neither mother nor love attachment in this play about maturation. Women generally play a peripheral role in 1 Henry IV; they are dependent on their husbands' whims, like Lady Percy, or separated from the male world by impassable barriers, like the Welsh wife of Mortimer. Brief scenes of tenderness between men and women merely accentuate by means of contrast the centrality of male conflict, between twinned rivals or fathers and sons.31

1 Henry IV aptly demonstrates how the adult world of political struggle can easily dismay one who is expected to assume a role of leadership. The predominant metaphors of the opening scene are of England as mother, daubing her lips with her own children's blood, and, conversely, of war trenching England's fields and bruising her flowers; the mother violates and is violated.32 Civil butchery is cannibalistic and suicidal, as seen in the knife-edge of civil war that cuts its own master. Metaphors of disease occur throughout (‘This sickness doth infect ¦ The very life-blood of our enterprise’, says Hotspur, 4.1.28-9), hearkening back to the motif of the physician and the sick land in Richard II.33 The division of England is given literal form on stage in the map used by the rebels to chop up their country into three parts. Henry's wish for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land mocks him in 1 Henry IV because it remains so unattainable;34 again, a recurring motif from Richard II (1.3.49 and 264, 4.1.92-100) contributes to an ominous mood of unfinished business.

Troubled by a rebellious son, continually having to weigh the demands of humanity and those of authority, King Henry faces difficulties not unlike those of King David with Absalom.35 Because he continually masks his personal and political self, King Henry is a hard character to read. Why does he speak so sternly to Hotspur over the business of the Scottish prisoners, when he has already confessed his father-like envy of Northumberland for siring so noble a son? We are inclined to view the reprimand and warning as expressive of the King's parental regard; he wants Hotspur as a kind of son, but on the terms of fatherly command and filial obedience. Hotspur is easily persuaded by Northumberland and Worcester to see the King's attitude as one of arrogance and hostility, and so a relationship that might have flourished is instead poisoned. The irony of a war that might have been averted never disappears, for the King's admiration of Hotspur prompts him even at the last minute to seek genuine peace.

The offer is undone by Worcester's perfidious refusal to transmit the offer fairly to Hotspur. Yet can we really blame Worcester? His logic in describing the King's implacable hostility towards him and Northumberland, however much the King may be ready to forgive Hotspur, is unassailable.36 The barons who helped Bolingbroke to usurp the throne must have expected great favours from him, and authority to do much as they pleased in their own territories; Henry's assertion of royal prerogative strikes at the heart of their political self-interest. Henry must suspect the Percys of feelings of ingratitude towards him as he moves to centralize power, and so he cannot rely on them. No less inevitably, they sense that Henry is no longer their friend. The response of the two sides to Mortimer's capture at the hands of Glendower is symptomatic: Henry sees it as evidence of an interest in Mortimer's claim to the throne, and finds his suspicions confirmed by the marriage to Glendower's daughter, whereas the Percys see the refusal to provide ransom as one more proof of Henry's cooling sympathy with their cause. War between the two sides is as unavoidable as it is unnecessary. Hal senses this fact, and makes an offer of single combat through which pointless bloodshed might be avoided. Once again a sane and generous solution proves impossible, and the battle goes forward. How is Hal to rule an England so divided against itself?

In his dealings with his son, King Henry is no less enigmatic, distant, and pursued by ironies that seem destined to kill his most fervent hopes. Why, in a time of grave national crisis, should such a careworn king be plagued by rebellion in the very person on whom his futurity depends? Shakespeare invites us to sympathize with the father as with the rebels, to see the point of view of all sides even in what is often self-destructive behaviour.

Henry's interviewing of his son in 3.2 is an astonishing performance. He offers his son a lesson in statecraft that depends on the staging of public appearances, on learning how to steal ‘all courtesy from heaven’ and dress oneself in humility, plucking allegiance from men's hearts, and avoiding at all costs the unwise behaviour of one who like Richard II cheapens his dignity through over-exposure and glibness. Royal governance, in this view, is the art of manipulating the awesome images of power, by whose means the astute monarch can ‘steal’ and ‘pluck’ what he desires from the populace (3.2.50-2). King Henry may be a ‘well-graced actor’ (Richard II, 5.2.24) compared with Richard II, but he can never shake off the theatrical associations of a dissembler who has cleverly created for himself a role as king.37

Hal, despite the rehearsal of the night before, finds himself abashed and denied the ‘glittering’ reformation that his soliloquy of 1.2 had anticipated.38 The son gives a poor account of himself at first, so much so that he subsequently laughs at his performance in the interview; ‘I am good friends with my father’, he tells Falstaff, ‘and may do anything’ (3.3.174-5). Yet father and son break through their reserve at the crucial moment, in part because of the unexpected candour of King Henry's account of his anxieties and the honesty of his weeping. Hal's vow to redeem the time is put in terms of a promise to his father: ‘I will … Be bold to tell you that I am your son’ (3.2.132-4). Identity is attained by acknowledging the father, by assimilating the best that he has to teach, while at the same time preserving one's sense of self. Hal will save his father's life at Shrewsbury. At the same time his bravery on the field of battle will bear little resemblance to the ‘counterfeits’ of soldiership displayed by the older man protected by other warriors marching in his coat of arms.39

In order to differentiate himself from his father and be free of the demand for unquestioning obedience that parents often make when they view their children as extensions of themselves, Hal finds that he must explore his identity in the liberating company of Falstaff. The instructive games they play include masquerading and name-calling, both forms of altering and testing identity. In the long tavern scene, Hal proposes playing Hotspur to Falstaff's ‘Dame Mortimer his wife’ (after having shown how well he can mimic Hotspur's mannerisms of speech), agrees to a ‘play extempore’ if the ‘argument’ or plot is Falstaff's running-away at Gad's Hill, and undertakes with Falstaff to play-act an interview between himself and his father. Inveterate actors, Hal and Falstaff shift roles with a versatility that bespeaks their familiarity with this form of entertainment. Hal's role-playing takes him through the parts of Hotspur and King Henry, both essential models in his forging of his own identity, and brings him into continual juxtaposition with Falstaff. Hal's insight into Hotspur's fanatical self-absorption and King Henry's stern disapproval are as sympathetic as they are witty; Hal studies character even while he good-naturedly mocks it. The role-playing also allows Hal to depose his father in jest and to rehearse the rejection of Falstaff.

Closely allied is the game of name-calling. Hal and his companions have many names for Falstaff—Sir John Sack-and-Sugar Jack, Monsieur Remorse, grey iniquity, swollen parcel of dropsies, and the like—but Hal, too, must hear his legitimacy subjected to comic doubt, and must hear himself asked whether a son of England will prove a thief and take purses. To his assertion that Falstaff is a bed-presser and huge hill of flesh, Hal is answered with the labels of ‘bull's pizzle’, ‘stockfish’, and ‘vile standing tuck’ (2.4.238-40). Falstaff's fondness for ‘if’ clauses underlines flexible identity, as in ‘If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet’ (4.2.11-12).40

Falstaff is incessantly the actor, creating roles to captivate the young Prince. William Hazlitt has suggested that Falstaff may have put the tavern reckoning in his pocket deliberately, for his comic gambit is always to offer himself and his gluttonous ways at the expense of glory.41 He not only is called many names by others, but is always renaming himself, like Misrule assuming the disguise of Good Government. At one moment he is a highwayman identifying himself with youthful riot against age and respectability, at another he is a pious penitent; at one time he is a patriot wishing the tavern were his drum, at another he is a flagrant abuser of military conscription. He wittily defends his ‘vocation’, but what is it other than to amuse Hal? His grossness is essential to the comic effect, for a circus clown cannot seem to be an accomplished athlete; gaucherie and laughable failure are part of the routine. Being a humorous figure, for us and for Hal, he cannot be brave in a hero's way.42 As Mark Van Doren says, Falstaff's wit is the wit of a man ‘who knows that other men are waiting to hear what he will pretend, what he will become, how he will get out of it’. Falstaff doesn't live to drink or to steal; he is an artist who assumes most of his roles with comic detachment, understanding everything through parody and at a remove, hence never seriously.43


What, then, are we to make of Falstaff's cowardice at Gad's Hill? Is it, too, an act for Hal's benefit, a guise calculated to offer Falstaff as the target of laughter and thus ingratiate him with the Prince upon whose favour he must depend? The wish to exculpate Falstaff of cowardice is strongly apparent in the ‘character’ criticism of Maurice Morgann, whose Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777) argues that our overall impression of Falstaff must take account of his natural vigour, alacrity of mind, freedom from malice, and reputation for bravery in his youth that led to his being knighted and pensioned. In this context we must note that Poins distinguishes between true-bred cowards, like Bardolph, and those who will fight no longer than they see reason, like Falstaff (1.2.170-3). Before the robbery, we see no alarm on Falstaff's part, no holding back. He seems to object when the Prince and Poins separate themselves from the company, thereby reducing the number of the attackers, but takes part in the robbery itself with glee. He sleeps unconcernedly while the sheriff and a ‘most monstrous watch’ seek to arrest him. The Prince commissions him with a company of foot-soldiers for the forthcoming battle. At Shrewsbury he behaves reprehensibly, but with no indication of terror or disorder of mind. Courage must have been required for him to have led his ‘ragamuffins’ where they are ‘peppered’ in the fighting (5.3.35-6). Corbyn Morris, also writing in the eighteenth century, gives us a similarly amiable Falstaff, one whom we like even in his cowardly predicaments for the occasions they provide to his wit.44

Opposing arguments, however, are no less strong. Robert Langbaum has shown how the ‘character’ criticism of Morgann and Morris arose out of a post-Enlightenment response to literature not in Aristotelian terms of action and moral meaning but in Romantic terms of self-expression and self-discovery. Literature should contain events that provide the central character with an occasion for experience. Falstaff, viewed in this light, attains a kind of heroism in going down to defeat. Romantic hatred of hypocrisy takes solace in Falstaff's attack on prudence; Falstaff becomes an autonomous force, guilty of a generous error but gifted with a vision of life, a virtuoso.45 Such a theory is implicitly hostile towards drama, and finds its most eloquent expression at a time when the staging of Shakespeare failed to satisfy many acute readers of Shakespeare. In the study one can provide Falstaff with a life that extends beyond the limits of Shakespeare's play.

In the theatre, on the other hand, as Arthur Colby Sprague has amply demonstrated, Falstaff's cowardice takes on an immediacy that few actors can resist. The cowardice was simply taken for granted by most critics in the play's first 150 years, especially those who were responding to theatrical performances. In the theatre, we are forced to watch Falstaff as he runs away from the disguised Hal and Poins, sweating to death and larding the lean earth as he walks along. ‘How the fat rogue roared!’ says Poins (2.2.105). Falstaff's response to Hal's twitting him about cowardice, in the tavern scene, is not that of one who has the last laugh: ‘Ah, no more of that, Hal, an thou lovest me!’ (2.4.273). During Falstaff's temporary absence in this scene, Bardolph relates how Falstaff hacked his sword to simulate the effects of combat and to browbeat his fellow robbers into tickling their noses with spear-grass to make them bleed (2.4.293-301). Falstaff's leading of his own soldiers into deadly fire at Shrewsbury is a self-serving tactic with minimal danger to himself. The motif of fear is recurrent in his speech: he asks Hal if he is not ‘horrible afeard’ of Douglas, Percy, and Glendower (2.4.355), wishes it were bedtime and all well (5.1.125), and fears the shot at Shrewsbury (5.3.30-1). However humorously played, such lines derive their energy from Falstaff's role as coward, and the role must be played for the audience as well as for Hal. We allow of course that Falstaff runs away at Gad's Hill ‘after a blow or two’ and is thus unlike the natural coward Bardolph, who admits, ‘Faith, I ran when I saw others run’ (2.4.292). Whatever Falstaff means by his claim to be a coward on instinct, he is set apart from the rest. Nevertheless, the actor's instinct to invite laughter at cowardice deserves our most serious critical consideration. In the theatre we usually find, as Sprague says, ‘a Falstaff of dexterous evasions and miraculous escapes, lawless in his exaggerations, redoubtable only in repute, and the funnier for being fat and old and a coward’.46

What about Falstaff as a liar? As Dover Wilson has observed, the issues of cowardice and lying are connected, for the craven behaviour at Gad's Hill and Shrewsbury could be part of an act in anticipation of evasive story-telling, all calculated to ‘tickle’ the young Prince (2.4.427-8). Certainly Hal and Poins invite us to connect cowardice and lying: ‘The virtue of this jest’, says Poins of the robbery and the robbing of the robbers, ‘will be the incomprehensible [i.e. boundless] lies that this same fat rogue will tell us when we meet at supper—how thirty at least he fought with, what wards, what blows, what extremities he endured; and in the reproof [i.e. disproof] of this lives the jest’ (1.2.173-8). The speech is a virtual stage direction for what in fact occurs, suggesting that this sort of game has been played before.

If Poins and Hal can anticipate what Falstaff will do, why cannot Falstaff guess at their game as well? He observes that Hal and Poins agree to take part in the robbery, but then suddenly absent themselves on a slender pretext just when they are needed, whereupon two disguised athletic young men set upon Falstaff and his companions in the dark. Does the coincidence in numbers fail to impress Falstaff? Or does he hint at suspected perfidy when he boasts of peppering two of his adversaries, two rogues dressed in buckram suits (2.4.185-6)? ‘Rogues’ might seem an insult cunningly directed at the Prince and Poins, who cannot respond to the insult without revealing their identities. Does Falstaff hint again at an awareness of their identity when, having expanded his attackers from two to an imaginary eleven, he speaks of ‘three misbegotten knaves in Kendal green’ who treacherously came at his back (ll. 214-15)?

Perhaps, then, Falstaff fabricates an entertaining lie, with just such an exaggeration in numbers as Poins and Hal have predicted, and illustrates it with precisely those ‘blows’ and ‘wards’ they knew he would use. The palpable impossibility of the lie, the mounting inconsistencies in statistics, seem to beg for exposure. By the time he sees Falstaff in the tavern again in 2 Henry IV, at any rate, hindsight has suggested to Hal that Falstaff indeed recognized him when he ran away at Gad's Hill (2.4.293-4). This evidence, even though it forms no part of an audience's response to 1 Henry IV, does provide an interesting interpretation after the fact by the dramatist himself. To imagine Falstaff offering to be caught out in a lie, for the Prince's amusement and sense of superiority, is to conceive of a compassionate man who wishes to be loved at whatever cost to his own dignity.47 Falstaff, according to this view, is wiser and more self-denying than the Prince who condescends to him, and our knowledge of Falstaff's wisdom significantly redresses the balance of sympathy in his favour.

Again, however, the conditions of theatrical performance give support to an opposing interpretation. The lovable Falstaff of Morgann and A. C. Bradley is a product of the literary imagination, and in these terms Falstaff's lies and cowardice cannot be taken at face value. Falstaff is judged as a real person by the literary student of character, and no real person of Falstaff's endearing qualities would behave so outrageously other than in jest, or expect others to believe his outlandish lies. In the theatre, on the other hand, ‘character’ is created by what the actor does, and ‘belief’ is the result of an understanding between dramatist and spectators. We do not ask how Falstaff could believe his lie, A. J. A. Waldock argues; instead, we accept it as a burlesque or exaggeration. The point of Poins's and Hal's anticipation of Falstaff's lie is to heighten the spectators' eagerness to see the outcome.48 Surely we are not meant to suppose that Falstaff persuaded Bardolph and the rest to lie about the wounds they received at Gad's Hill with an expectation of his being caught out; such an argument is too circumstantial for the theatre. Eighteenth-century adaptations of the text enabled an actor like James Quin to assert Falstaff's recognition of the Prince in disguise at Gad's Hill, but only by adding lines to Shakespeare's dialogue.49 Otherwise, actors have generally not known what to do with the proposition that Shakespeare's meaning is multi-layered, offering the broad comedy of satirical exposure to the groundlings while sharing with more discriminating audiences a covert understanding of Falstaff's compassionate wisdom. Falstaff is a lovable and inventive liar, but still a liar.

In the long tavern scene Falstaff gives the performance of his career, a virtuoso performance of lying and recovering himself when caught. He outdoes himself in his comic role as a misunderstood defender of good old-fashioned manhood, and as an ageing sinner on the verge of repentance. Play-acting to him is more than a means of captivating Hal. It is the essence of the temptation he lays before Hal, one in which (as Paul Gottschalk observes) all things are reduced to play. Falstaff offers Hal a child's world in which he need never grow up, in which even King Henry's most serious worries can be parodied in the comic language of euphuistic bombast.50 Falstaff's plea is for the companionship of eternal youth: sport with me, he says in effect to Hal, and let those who covet the world's rewards suffer the attendant risks.

This kind of all-consuming play world offers an invaluable critique and means of testing reality, but as an end in itself it becomes an escape. Because Falstaff puts his appeal in terms of choice, Hal must respond in the same theatrical language, by usurping Falstaff's role as King and Lord of Misrule in order to restate the proposition in his own terms. Stage properties—chair, dagger, cushion—that serve Falstaff merely as devices for creating illusion become for Hal the means of rehearsing his future. Falstaff, absorbed in the fantasy of a timeless world of game, wants to ‘play out the play’ even when the knock is heard at the door, for he still has ‘much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff’ (2.4.466-7). Hal uses the medium of play-acting to proclaim his regality and his acceptance of the challenge represented by that knock at the door.51

At Shrewsbury field, Hal will have nothing to do with Falstaff's play-acting, and, indeed, we perceive that play-acting is now out of place. The refusal to take war seriously produces fine reflections on the incorporeality of honour, but to substitute a bottle of sack for a pistol or deliberately abuse one's authority to recruit is to endanger lives and a cause to which Hal is now fully committed. Falstaff persists, nonetheless, and with his greatest lie of all challenges the very relationship between history and theatrical illusion. When he arises from apparent death, he surprises a theatrical audience as well as Hal, for the actor has lain as though dead (or should do so), and we all know that actors can rise—once they step out of their roles. Falstaff claims his literary heritage as Vice, clown, miles gloriosus, and the rest; Hotspur is ‘really’ dead, as recorded in the chronicles, while Falstaff rises. Hal's response, Sigurd Burckhardt and James Calderwood argue, must be to acquiesce in the lie, to accept it as a practical necessity in order that Falstaff's claim to a purely theatrical life may be contained once more within the necessary confines of mimesis.52 Falstaff seems ‘larger than life’ in part because he is so adept at transcending the boundaries of illusion. Hal, too, shares a world in which theatre and mimesis interact. ‘Lying’ in 1 Henry IV is thus far more than a yardstick by which to judge Falstaff's character, for it continually hints at the artist's way of using illusion to depict historical life.


For some interpreters of Shakespeare, Hal is a more culpable liar than Falstaff. From Maurice Morgann and William Hazlitt to A. C. Bradley, G. B. Shaw, L. C. Knights, and H. C. Goddard, those who are most willing to excuse Falstaff's excesses are critical of the Prince for heartlessness, ingratitude, manipulation of friendship for the sake of public image, and (as King) warmongering.53 In this regard, the interpretation of Hal's soliloquy (1.2) is crucial. Are we to view it as evidence of bloodless calculation, or as reassurance for the audience of good intent, or perhaps as whistling in the dark?

The newness of this kind of soliloquy in Shakespeare, so unlike Richard III's chortling confidences or Richard II's meditation on the vanity of human existence, leaves us uncertain as to its intent. On the one hand, Hal's dismissal of Falstaff as ‘foul and ugly mists’ seems harsh towards one who makes claims to companionship, and the accent on the timing of Hal's intended reformation suggests that his escapades are being used to generate a myth of rebirth.54 Hal seems to be refining the methods of his father, husbanding the display of his virtues just as King Henry has withheld from the multitude the display of his royal person.55 On the other hand, reassurance of the audience is a practical necessity in view of the wild traditions dramatized in Famous Victories. The first scene in which we see Hal with Falstaff has raised a worrisome issue: ‘shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king?’ asks Falstaff, ‘And resolution thus fubbed as it is with the rusty curb of old Father Antic the law?’ (1.2.56-8). However much Hal may parry these suggestions, a chorus-like explanation directed at the spectators is plainly in order.56 Perhaps Hal's plans are not as certain in his own mind as they appear to his critics; he may be postponing the necessary day of reckoning to some vague terminus in order to enjoy as long as possible the holiday of youth. Actors are seldom content to portray him as a machiavel in this soliloquy, if only because they perceive him as having such a good time with Falstaff. Who can better appreciate Falstaff's performance than the person to whom it is presented as a love-offering and a bribe?

Hal's encounter with Francis is another problematic test of his humanity. Does he simply use Francis in a crude practical joke, as he uses other tavern acquaintances? We hear a note of boredom and ironic impatience with himself as he devises an entertainment ‘to drive away the time till Falstaff come’ (2.4.26-7), for Hal has admittedly ‘sounded the very bass string of humility’ (ll. 5-6) in drinking below stairs with the tapsters, and he is probably drunk.57 Even Poins cannot be sure what ‘cunning match’ Hal has made with this jest (ll. 87-8). Yet on closer inspection the episode resonates with much that Hal is thinking about. Like Francis, Hal is being pulled simultaneously in two directions, and has not devised as yet a better response than Francis's own ‘Anon, anon, sir!’58 The transition to Hotspur seems like a non sequitur, and yet Hotspur is oddly like Francis in his uncommunicativeness, his obsession with the business at hand, and his being called away from conversation. Hal brings Francis into a situation that mimics Hal's own, creating a little drama that might be called ‘Francis the Rebellious Drawer’. A prince who would and would not be king calls Francis to account, and questions his loyalty to hard duty in a way that also arraigns the conscience of the questioner.59 By thus parodying himself as a fellow Corinthian and fellow apprentice to Francis, Hal reflects through the medium of play-acting on his own neglect of his vocation. He takes seriously the trope of the ‘body politic’ by trying to encompass the whole state and the ‘humours’ of all ages in his own person, as J. D. Shuchter has argued, and comes to realize that the sloughing-off of his companions will be no simple matter that will cost him nothing.60 Hal is asking, Who am I?, without fully answering his question. The scene is, like Hal's other play-acting, a trial of possible selves.

Is Hal's experience in the tavern, then, together with his studying of Hotspur and King Henry, his education? Tillyard … has argued that the Prince is indeed completing his education in the knowledge of men, in order to become the fully developed man, the cortegiano, universal in a way that Hotspur the provincial can never be.61 Yet in one sense, it has been suggested, Hal is ‘perfect’ from the start, knowing what he has to do, identified always with the sun of royalty.62 In his most self-revealing speeches, notes Alan Gross, the Prince speaks like a man who has already made up his mind. We perceive a basic stability in him, and are never privileged to enter the process of decision-making. Yet, we gradually realize that he has not yet totally committed himself to the decision he has made, and so in the comic scenes he is at once witty and judgemental, oscillating between folly and seriousness in a way perhaps characteristic of one who is weighing a decision.63

His ‘reformation’ is thus not an amendment of life so much as a revelation of his true identity to men's eyes. Vernon's speech in praise of Hal's princely qualities (4.1.97-111) is as much a turning-point in the metamorphosis of Hal from irresponsible youth to mirror of Christian kings as is the vow to King Henry to redeem all the supposed faults of youth on Percy's head.64 Even to his father, Hal does not so much apologize as insist that he has been falsely reported, and his promise is to ‘Be more myself’, that is, his father's son (3.2.92-134). Undoubtedly Hal needs to mature, to come of age, to learn the languages of his countrymen, to put away childish things. Still, as W. Gordon Zeeveld insists, he is never without a consciousness of the responsibilities of kingship or of restrictions on personal life inherent in the ceremonies that are an indispensable part of kingship. He puts aside ceremony until he has need of it, in a conscious policy of calculated reformation. He is redeeming time all the while, preparing to labour in his vocation.65

The climax and culmination of Hal's metamorphosis in Part 1 is his defeat of Hotspur. Hal has tried on a variety of names, and has been referred to contemptuously by Hotspur as the ‘sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales’ (1.3.229) and ‘the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales’ (4.1.95); King Henry speaks of his son as though he were a changeling,66 and Falstaff comically doubts his paternity. Hal's first words to Hotspur at Shrewsbury speak to this subject of naming. ‘If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth’, Hotspur accosts him, to which the Prince replies, ‘Thou speak'st as if I would deny my name’ (5.4.58-9). Hal not only defends his name but proclaims his identity as ‘Prince of Wales’ (l. 62), one whose sober duty is now to vanquish his opposite number called Harry Percy, ‘A very valiant rebel of the name’ (l. 61). By claiming name and title, the Prince redeems his unprincely reputation, and denies the defamatory names by which he has been known.67 Confirming Vernon's speech about him, Hal assimilates the wild and wanton energies of youth into a living embodiment of natural vitality, becoming one who bears the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales and displays through able horsemanship a capacity for discipline and good government.68

Most of all, Hal settles accounts with Hotspur in a metaphor of financial liability. In his first soliloquy he resolves to ‘pay the debt I never promisèd’ (1.2.197). To his father he insists that ‘Percy is but my factor’ (i.e. agent) ‘To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf’, for which Hal will ‘call him to so strict account ¦ That he shall render every glory up’ (3.2.147-50). He returns to this motif at Shrewsbury when he vows to ‘crop’ all the budding honours on Hotspur's crest ‘to make a garland for my head’ (5.4.71-2). Hotspur dies lamenting that the Prince has ‘robbed’ him of his youth and has ‘won’ his proud titles. The scene is climactic in part because it recalls so many occasions when the play expresses ethical obligation in terms of financial responsibility: reckonings at the tavern, repentance as a form of repaying a debt, knowing when to promise and when to pay (4.3.53 and 5.4.42), metaphors of counterfeiting, legal tendering, commercial cavilling, and engrossing.69 The persistent themes of thievery in high life and of the robber robbed are similarly brought to their climax and resolution in Hal's triumph over Hotspur.70 We admire the Prince for his victory and for his generosity to the vanquished corpse of his opponent: having vied with Hotspur for the ‘budding honours’ on his crest, the Prince now covers the mangled face with his own favours in a token of restoring honour where it is due, and even allows Falstaff to claim the prize that the Prince has so valiantly won.71


The rejection of Falstaff and Hal's accession to the throne, the second and decisive stage in Hal's emergence as king, are not encompassed in the action of 1 Henry IV. They are adumbrated so forcefully, however, that they become central considerations in our evaluation of the Prince even when we view this play, as we must, as a single dramatic entity. On three occasions, arranged in climactic sequence, Hal indicates his intention of turning away from Falstaff's company: in his soliloquy (1.2), when he plays King Henry in the tavern revels (2.4), and when he promises his father that he will ‘scour’ his shame in glorious deeds (3.2.137). Each such statement of intention comes as though in answer to threatening suggestions of disorder, but each is followed by an apparent relapse: after the first, Hal takes part in a robbery, after the second, he protects Falstaff from the sheriff, and after the third, he procures for Falstaff a military commission. Shakespeare's strategy is to hide the process of Hal's inevitable transformation from those closest to him (and his enemies as well) while revealing it to his audience.72 The rhythm of this seemingly erratic advance pulls us both ways: we concede the ultimate necessity of his rejection of Falstaff, but like Hal himself we yearn to postpone it. Part 1 satisfies us as a dramatic whole because the rejection is at once assured, though not yet completed. We still have Falstaff, and have not yet been shown the extent of his decline, as we will be in Part 2.

Those who, like A. C. Bradley, deplore the rejection of Falstaff find fault with Hal for his ruthless alacrity in using people, and suppose that Shakespeare overshot his mark by making Falstaff more lovable than the story would bear.73 Even those who are more admiring of Hal's decision, like Jonas Barish, agree that Falstaff's vitality stands in the way of the deterioration that is necessary to the grim business of preparing the fat knight for his ultimate role as scapegoat. We are forced from the domain of comedy into that of history, where the killjoys win out—as they do not, for instance, in Twelfth Night. To banish plump Jack, as Falstaff says in his own defence, is in a true sense to ‘banish all the world’ (2.4.462). If history defeats those who attempt to defy time and change, those who would live an eternal youth, the survivors must also suffer an inevitable diminution of spirit by their acquiescing in change. The Prince rejects himself, turning away from his former self in a way that is self-mutilating.74 From being a man of all humours in the tavern, Hal becomes a public figure whose every move must be governed by the dictates of ceremony. His marriage will be political, however much he strives to succeed in it personally as well.

Falstaff has asked of Hal the impossible thing. He has asked to be loved as he is and for what he is, so that their games may continue for ever. He has offered Hal various comic stratagems for evading responsibility—the enjoyment of appetite for its own sake, gameplaying and parodies of success, carnival escape into holiday—but the Prince must learn to put these games behind him as he casts off the ‘old man’.75 Falstaff has embodied the mythology of the cycle of the year and its ever-returning fertility, but by so doing he has created for himself the role of one who must be sacrificed to ensure that renewal.76 We accept the rejection as necessary because it represents a process of death by means of which a diseased land can be restored to health.77 At the same time, as Michael Goldman has said, we feel protective and sentimental towards Falstaff's life, which has been so preciously placed in the Prince's hands, because it represents our own sensuality and anarchic impulses. Falstaff is the sleeping child we will have to punish, the silly dying father we are destined to replace.78

Although Hal's rejection of Falstaff is for these reasons self-mutilating, it can also be viewed as a compassionate act. The Prince is aware of the cost of success in terms of the human spirit. He neither scorns such success nor minimizes its difficulties. Politics has its own morality. Hal willingly embraces an understanding of the world that allows little room for the spirit of perpetual play.79 There is even charity in his embrace of a public life thrust upon him and demanding that he play a leading role on behalf of the common weal.80 Self is necessarily diminished as Hal takes up the awesome burdens of kingly office. This sacrifice has not yet been demanded or made when 1 Henry IV comes to an end, and much remains to be done to clear Hal's name of the wild associations that have accrued to it. Nonetheless, Hal's readiness to become king has been fully proclaimed.


  1. [J. Dover] Wilson, NCS [The First Part of the History of Henry IV, New Cambridge Shakespeare,] x-xi.

  2. [Samuel] Johnson, ed., Shakespeare (1765), iv. 235.

  3. C. F. Tucker Brooke, Tudor Drama (Boston, 1911), 333; R. P. Cowl, ed., 2 Henry IV, Arden Shakespeare (1923), xxiii-xxiv.

  4. M. A. Shaaber, ‘The Unity of Henry IV’, in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James McManaway et al. (Washington, DC, 1948), 217-27.

  5. G. K. Hunter, ‘Henry IV and the Elizabethan Two-Part Play’, RES [Review of English Studies,] NS 5 (1954), 236-48.

  6. Leonard F. Dean, ‘From Richard II to Henry V: A Closer View’, in Studies in Honor of DeWitt T. Starnes, ed. Thomas P. Harrison and others (Austin, Texas, 1967), 37-52.

  7. Harold Jenkins, The Structural Problem of Shakespeare'sHenry the Fourth’ (1956).

  8. F. M. Salter, ‘The Play within the Play of First Henry IV’, Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, third ser. 40.2 (1946), 209-23.

  9. David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (Hanover, NH, 1982), 37-55.

  10. Sherman H. Hawkins, ‘Virtue and Kingship in Shakespeare's Henry IV’, ELR [English Literary Renaissance,] 5 (1975), 313-43.

  11. Cleanth Brooks and Robert B. Heilman, Understanding Drama (New York, 1948), 376-87; [E. M. W.] Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, 265.

  12. [Sherman H.] Hawkins, ‘Virtue and Kingship’, ELR [English Literary Renaissance,] 5 (1975), 313-43.

  13. Norman Council, ‘Prince Hal: Mirror of Success’, ShakS [Shakespeare Studies,] 7 (1974), 125-46.

  14. W. Gordon Zeeveld, ‘“Food for Powder”—“Food for Worms”’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 3 (1952), 249-53.

  15. R. J. Dorius, ‘A Little More Than a Little’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 11 (1960), 13-26.

  16. William B. Hunter, jun, ‘Prince Hal, His Struggle Toward Moral Perfection’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 50 (1950), 86-95.

  17. Charles Mitchell, ‘The Education of the True Prince’, TSL [Tennessee Studies in Literature,] 12 (1967), 13-21.

  18. John P. Sisk, ‘Prince Hal and the Specialists’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 28 (1977), 520-24.

  19. Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), 144-205.

  20. G. M. Pinciss, ‘The Old Honor and the New Courtesy: 1 Henry IV’, ShS [Shakespeare Survey] 31 (1978), 85-91.

  21. Anthony La Branche, ‘“If Thou Wert Sensible of Courtesy”: Private and Public Virtue in Henry IV, Part One’, SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 17 (1966), 371-82.

  22. Eric La Guardia, ‘Ceremony and History: The Problem of Symbol from Richard II to Henry V’, in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. W. McNeir and T. Greenfield (Eugene, Ore., 1966).

  23. Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts (Berkeley, 1979), 52-88.

  24. M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (1957), 73-88.

  25. [Joseph A.] Porter, Drama of Speech Acts, 52-88. See also Joseph Candido, ‘The Name of King: Hal's “Titles” in the “Henriad”’, TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language,] 26 (1984), 61-73.

  26. Ronald R. Macdonald, ‘Uneasy Lies: Language and History in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 35 (1984), 22-39.

  27. Franz Alexander, ‘A Note on Falstaff’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 3 (1933), 592-606.

  28. Ernst Kris, ‘Prince Hal's Conflict’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 17 (1948), 487-506.

  29. W. H. Auden, ‘The Prince's Dog’, in The Dyer's Hand (1948), 182-208. See also Robert N. Watson, Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 47-75.

  30. Richard Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley, 1981), 158-67. See also Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, 1981), 47-81.

  31. Robert J. Lordi, ‘Brutus and Hotspur’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 27 (1976), 177-85.

  32. L. C. Knights, ‘Henry IV as Satire’, Part II of ‘Notes on Comedy’, Scrutiny, 1 (1933), 356-67.

  33. Ronald Berman, ‘The Nature of Guilt in the Henry IV Plays’, ShakS [Shakespeare Studies,] 1 (1965), 18-28.

  34. James Black, ‘Henry IV's Pilgrimage’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 34 (1983), 18-26.

  35. David Evett, ‘Types of King David in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy’, ShakS [Shakespeare Studies,] 14 (1981), 139-61.

  36. Moody Prior, The Drama of Power (Evanston, Ill., 1973), 59-82 and 199-262.

  37. Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (1962), 127 ff.

  38. Thomas Jameson, The Hidden Shakespeare (New York, 1967), 82-104.

  39. James Black, ‘Counterfeits of Soldiership in Henry IV’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 24 (1973), 372-82.

  40. James P. Driscoll, Identity in Shakespearean Drama (1983), 35 ff.

  41. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), 190-1.

  42. Wyndham Lewis, The Lion and the Fox (1927), 221 ff.

  43. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1939), 97-118. See also Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings (New York, 1974), 260-97.

  44. Stuart M. Tave, The Amiable Humorist (Chicago, 1960), 106 ff.

  45. Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (1957), 168-81.

  46. Arthur Colby Sprague, ‘Gadshill Revisited’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 4 (1953), 125-37.

  47. [J. Dover] Wilson, Fortunes [The Fortunes of Falstaff,] 48-56.

  48. A. J. A. Waldock, ‘The Men in Buckram’, RES [Review of English Studies,] 23 (1947), 16-23. See also Michael Goldman, Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy (Princeton, NJ, 1985), 3-16.

  49. [J. Dover] Wilson, NCS [The First Part of the History of Henry IV, New Cambridge Shakespeare,] xxxvi.

  50. Paul A. Gottschalk, ‘Hal and the “Play Extempore” in 1 Henry IV’, TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language,] 15 (1974), 605-14.

  51. Ibid.; Richard L. McGuire, ‘The Play-within-the-play in 1 Henry IV’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 18 (1967), 47-52; J. McLaverty, ‘No Abuse: The Prince and Falstaff in the Tavern Scenes’, ShS [Shakespeare Survey] 34 (1981), 105-10.

  52. [Sigurd] Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings, 144-205; James Calderwood, ‘1 Henry IV: Art's Gilded Lie’, ELR [English Literary Renaissance,] 3 (1973), 131-44.

  53. E.g. [L. C.] Knights, ‘Henry IV as Satire’, Scrutiny, 1 (1933), 356-67; Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), i. 161-214. For the other references, see notes 113 and 145.

  54. Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957); Alan Gerald Gross, ‘The Justification of Prince Hal’, TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language,] 10 (1968), 27-35.

  55. Alfred Harbage, William Shakespeare: A Reader's Guide (New York, 1963), 200.

  56. Levin L. Schücking, Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays (1927), 221.

  57. Fredson Bowers, ‘Hal and Francis in King Henry IV, Part 1’, Renaissance Papers 1965 (1966), 15-20.

  58. Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), 50 ff.

  59. Sheldon P. Zitner, ‘Anon, Anon: or, a Mirror for a Magistrate’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 19 (1968), 63-70; Waldo F. McNeir, ‘Structure and Theme in the First Tavern Scene (II. iv) of 1 Henry IV’, in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. W. McNeir and T. Greenfield (Eugene, Ore., 1966), 89-105.

  60. J. D. Shuchter, ‘Prince Hal and Francis: The Imitation of an Action’, ShakS [Shakespeare Studies,] 3 (1968), 129-37; D. J. Palmer, ‘Casting off the Old Man; History and St Paul in Henry IV’, CritQ [Critical Quarterly] 12 (1970), 267-83.

  61. [E. M. W.] Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, 264-304.

  62. David Berkeley and Donald Eidson, ‘The Theme of Henry IV, Part 1’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 19 (1968), 25-31; Dean, ‘From Richard II to Henry V: A Closer View’, in Studies in Honor of DeWitt T. Starnes, ed. Thomas P. Harrison and others (Austin, Texas, 1967), 37-52.

  63. [Alan Gerald] Gross, ‘The Justification of Prince Hal’, TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language] 10 (1968), 27-35.

  64. Peter J. Gillett, ‘Vernon and the Metamorphosis of Hal’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 28 (1977), 351-3.

  65. W. Gordon Zeeveld, The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought (New Haven, Conn., 1974); Paul A. Jorgensen, ‘“Redeeming Time” in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV’, TSL [Tennessee Studies in Literature] 5 (1960), 101-9.

  66. M. C. Bradbrook, ‘King Henry IV’, in Stratford Papers on Shakespeare, 1965-67, ed. B. A. W. Jackson (Toronto, 1969), 168-85.

  67. Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (1981), 66 ff.; Warren J. MacIsaac, ‘“A Commodity of Good Names” in the Henry IV Plays’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 29 (1978), 417-19.

  68. [D. J.] Palmer, ‘Casting off the Old Man’, CritQ [Critical Quarterly,] 12 (1970), 267-83.

  69. E. Rubinstein, ‘1 Henry IV: The Metaphor of Liability’, Studies in English Literature, 10 (1970), 287-95.

  70. Robert Hapgood, ‘Falstaff's Vocation’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 16 (1965), 91-8.

  71. Herbert Hartman, ‘Prince Hal's “Shew of Zeale”’, PMLA, 46 (1931), 720-3.

  72. [Paul A.] Gottschalk, ‘Hal and the “Play Extempore”’, TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language,] 15 (1974), 605-14.

  73. A. C. Bradley, ‘The Rejection of Falstaff’, in Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909), 252-73.

  74. Jonas A. Barish, ‘The Turning Away of Prince Hal’, ShakS [Shakespeare Studies,] 1 (1965), 9-17.

  75. Robert G. Hunter, ‘Shakespeare's Comic Sense as It Strikes us Today: Falstaff and the Protestant Ethic’, in Shakespeare, Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. David Bevington and Jay Halio (Newark, Del., 1978), 125-32.

  76. J. I. M. Stewart, ‘The Birth and Death of Falstaff’, in Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949); Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 192-221; Moody Prior, ‘Comic Theory and the Rejection of Falstaff’, ShakS [Shakespeare Studies,] 9 (1976), 159-71.

  77. G. K. Hunter, ‘Shakespeare's Politics and the Rejection of Falstaff’, CritQ [Critical Quarterly,] 1 (1959), 229-36; Philip Williams, ‘The Birth and Death of Falstaff Reconsidered’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 8 (1957), 359-65.

  78. Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton, 1972), 45-57.

  79. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (1967), 95 ff.

  80. Franklin B. Newman, ‘The Rejection of Falstaff and the Rigorous Charity of the King’, ShakS [Shakespeare Studies,] 2 (1967), 153-61; Hugh Dickinson, ‘The Reformation of Prince Hal’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly,] 12 (1961), 33-46; David Sundelson, Shakespeare's Restoration of the Father (Brunswick, NJ, 1983), 62-70.


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Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Likely written between 1596 and 1598, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 form the central portion of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, covering the period from the end of Richard II's reign to the beginning of Henry V's. While the title of these dramas makes reference to the historical English monarch King Henry IV, scholars generally acknowledge that the other major characters in the plays—most notably the king's son Prince Hal, Sir John Falstaff, and the headstrong rebel Hotspur—overshadow the importance of the title figure. Indeed, the education of Prince Hal as the future sovereign of England, rather than an examination of his father's reign, is typically considered the primary focus of these dramas. Some critics contend that the two parts of Henry IV represent a unified whole meant to be interpreted and performed as part of a historical, dramatic, or thematic sequence, while others believe that Part 2 was not necessarily conceived of or composed as a sequential work, but is merely a spin-off that was written after the success of Part 1. David Bevington (1987) finds fault with each of these positions and claims that the most persuasive arguments “allow for separate performance of the two plays, for a degree of uncertainty about Shakespeare's overall plan as he wrote, and for the idea that the second play deliberately varies the focus of interest and the characterization.” The relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal is another area of intense scholarly interest. Nigel Wood (1995) notes that since the play's beginning critics have tried to make sense of “Falstaff's attractiveness and Hal's obduracy in rejecting him.”

Critical discussion of the major characters in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 has largely concentrated on the figures of Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff, especially on their unique dramatic relationship. Ricardo J. Quinones (1972) argues that time is a central element in Hal's conversion from wayward prince to king of England, and notes that his character is the center of the multiple plot structure that exists in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. For Quinones, the prince represents a stable time continuum in the dramas—a vision of endurance and peaceful succession. Elliot Krieger (1979) presents a moral reading of Hal, emphasizing fundamental differences between the cunning Prince Hal and the loutish Falstaff. Whereas Falstaff is circumscribed within the boundaries of his own ego, Krieger contends, Hal's expansive consciousness allows him to master his environment and use all available resources—including Falstaff—for his own political benefit. Marshall Grossman (1999) questions precisely what Hal is doing with Falstaff and the rest of the petty criminals at the Boar's Head Tavern in the Henry IV plays, and finds an answer by examining Hal's ambivalent search for his own identity. Turning solely to Falstaff, Edith Kern (1984) traces the origins of this character to the archetypal trickster figure in its theatrical incarnation as a lovable scoundrel. With roots in myth and the Italian commedia dell'arte, this roguish character seems to derive limitless pleasure from hatching plots and playing practical jokes. Kern contends that Falstaff's lengthy career of mischief and amusing transgression abruptly ceases at the point when he discovers a need to ask his companions for compassion and forgiveness, a point which signals his rapidly approaching demise.

The standard practice among modern Shakespearean directors has been to stage the two parts of Henry IV in consecutive performance with a stable central cast and an emphasis on Hal and his development from a self-indulgent prince to an emergent king. Only rarely are the two dramas staged out of “context,” unlike Richard II and Henry V—the first and last plays of the historical sequence—which are sometimes allowed to stand alone. In 2000, reviewer Patrick Carnegy attended the plays as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. Separated by a period of three months, the first and second parts of this staging of the Henry IV sequence were directed by Michael Attenborough, who highlighted the encroaching gloom of Part 2 in the first installment. Carnegy contends that both performances were well-acted, particularly so by Desmond Barrit as Falstaff. According to the reviewer's assessment, the masterfully realized and very real figure of Barrit's Falstaff provided a needed humorous commentary on the doings of William Houston's less sympathetic Prince Hal. Carnegy likewise appreciates David Troughton's King Henry IV, and notes that rather than lurking in the background of the play that bears his name, this character stepped up to become its emotional center. Reviewing Part 1 of the same production, Stephen Wall comments on the inappropriateness of the Swan's small theatrical space to a drama filled with expansive characters. Nevertheless, Wall praises Attenborough's directorial work, as well as Barrit's refined and sincere Falstaff. In 2001, the production traveled to London's Barbican Theatre, where both plays were attended by Heather Neill. Neill admires Attenborough's careful rendering of a balance between Falstaff and Hal; like Carnegy, she also welcomes David Troughton's majestic and emotive King Henry IV. Also reviewing Attenborough's production, Derek Peat (2002) comments not on the performance overall but on a key moment of Henry IV, Part 1 in which Hal throws a bottle of sack at Falstaff. Peat observes that Attenborough's decision to let Hal simply throw the bottle to the floor was a missed opportunity and demonstrated a contemporary propensity to weaken the comic potential of Falstaff in performance.

Contemporary critics of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 have tended to analyze historical—and to a lesser degree socio-economic—concepts present in the dramas. Shakespeare's position as historiographer appeals to Charles R. Forker (1984), who views the dramatist's second historical tetralogy as a thematically cohesive sequence. According to Forker, Shakespeare's concern with historical cause and effect are imperative to a complete understanding of the Henry IV plays, and indeed to all of his historical dramas. While acknowledging Shakespeare's historical didacticism, Forker emphasizes his tendency to mold and reconstruct history, arguing that Shakespeare combined a classical view of historical cycles with a Christian conception of salvation as the ultimate end of human history. By superimposing these perspectives, Forker concludes, Shakespeare crafted a complex, tragicomic, intertextual, and vital theory of human progress through historical time that is played out in Henry IV and beyond. Derek Cohen (2002) likewise takes an inclusive, historical view of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and assesses the lingering concerns with usurpation, murder, and legitimacy that are carried over from Richard II. Cohen examines the turbulent process of nation-building that survives both the murder and usurpation of Richard II and the pervasive moral uncertainty of the Henry IV plays. Cohen notes that Part 1 is a drama of manifest destiny focused on Hal and his desire for greatness, but that by Part 2 such personal aspects of Hal's role begin to give way to a drama of ideas concerned with the moral and intellectual difficulties of reformulating national history into a cohesive whole. This process continues until Hal's personal dominance begins to reassert itself as part of a commonwealth ideology—the new basis of English national history that looks forward to the action of Henry V. Lastly, turning to the economic subtexts of Henry IV, Part 1, Jesse Lander (2002) reads the play in terms of a thematic crisis of value in which a collapse of monetary stability signals a debasement of sovereign power and an erosion of political legitimacy.

Charles R. Forker (essay date fall 1984)

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SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “The Idea of Time in Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy.” Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 20-34.

[In the following essay, Forker examines how Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and the remaining plays of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy promote a cyclical, providential, ironic, and tragicomic view of time's progress.]

For the Methode of a Poet historical is not such, as of an Historiographer. For an Historiographer discourseth of affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the times as the actions, but a Poet thrusteth into the middest, euen where it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the thinges forepaste, and diuining of thinges to come, maketh a pleasing Analysis of all.

—Edmund Spenser's letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, prefixed to The Faerie Queene


That eight of the ten Shakespearean histories are arranged into tetralogies—two sequences of four plays each—suggests an important point about the form of the history play as opposed to the form of the other major genres, comedy and tragedy—namely, that the history play (almost by the nature of its subject) is an open as opposed to a closed form.1 History is a continuum, and any historical drama must, in an important sense, commence in medias res. Of course, each of the four plays in the two tetralogies has its own organic structure and may be performed as a self-contained unit. But all these plays contain prominent references to what went before as well as predictions or foreshadowings of what is to come, so that an important part of our experience of a history play consists of being caught up dramatically in the stream of events as these impinge upon us immediately, while being constantly made aware that there are longer vistas of cause and effect that cannot be ignored.

Comedy is a self-contained and generally closed form because it creates its own fictional world tied to a completed narrative and a set of characters who exist only to fulfill the particular requirements of the fiction. When Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It or Bassanio and Portia in The Merchant of Venice join hands as married couples in the fifth act, the drama is over, and the world they have brought to life before us ceases to exist except as memory. These plays do not encourage us to imagine the young lovers twenty years later as the parents of children, growing thicker in the waist, losing their hair, or having problems with gout or lumbago. In another way, the same point may be made about tragedy. Elizabethan tragedies always end with death—the most absolute kind of closure that we know—and the devastation is usually such that we are forced to look backward over what was or what might have been rather than at what may follow. After Hamlet's death no one cares very much about a Denmark under Fortinbras's rule, and at the end of King Lear, the future will scarcely bear thinking about at all. Edgar's final words sum up the typical mood at the end of tragedy:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(V. iii. 328-331)2

This is obviously not the way that Richard II or 2 Henry IV, for instance, conclude. Bolingbroke in the first play is just beginning a reign that will be as important for England as the one that has just ended with Richard's assassination. We hear of the new king's concern for his “unthrifty son” (V. iii. 1), even though Prince Hal has not yet appeared as a stage character, so we know that Henry IV is already saddled with a family problem that remains very much unresolved. Moreover, Henry's political difficulties, far from being over, are just commencing. He hopes to make a voyage to the Holy Land to wash the bloody guilt of Richard's murder from his hands, but we already know from Aumerle's abortive revolt, if not from the Bishop of Carlisle's ominous prophecy in Act IV, that more or less continuous rebellion will keep him at home and never permit him to go on crusade. Hence the poignant irony of his dying two plays later in the Jerusalem chamber of his London palace. Also, the dying king advises his son to “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV, IV. v. 213-214), and, after the rejection of Falstaff, Prince Hal's brother, John of Lancaster, lays the foundation for the next play by anticipating the great triumph of Agincourt:

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleas'd the King.

(2 Henry IV, V. v. 106-109)

Shakespeare's histories have a more ambiguous sense of ending than the comedies and tragedies, not merely because in eight cases out of ten they are parts of a larger sequence but also because they deal, for the most part, with actual events that cannot be neatly separated from their origins and consequences—with events, by the way, that were near enough in the cultural memory of the Elizabethans to seem contiguous with the present. As Americans, we regard our own Civil War not only as an episode from the past but also as exerting a formative kind of pressure on our present culture. Shakespeare and his audience were interested in the political struggles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries because these turbulent times allowed them to make sense of their own national heritage. The older age was seen as helping to shape their own age—even, in a way, as reflecting contemporary issues—and as having the potential, theoretically at least, to yield insight into what the future might be like.3 The form of the history play as Shakespeare develops and refines it becomes, then, the dramatic means by which we as an audience experience time. The duration of the play in the theatre—what Shakespeare referred to in Romeo and Juliet as “the two hours traffic of our stage” (Prologue, 12)—is an artistic convention that permits Shakespeare and (through his artistry) permits us to explore the endlessly fascinating phenomenon of time and temporality in a complex way.

Renaissance historiography regarded the purpose of history as being principally didactic. Shakespeare might have said (with Santayana and, later, Churchill) that those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it. But Shakespeare and his age knew that the past was both different from and similar to the present and also that the future would in some mysterious way be a product of both present and past. They also knew, as we do, that today's past was yesterday's present and that today is tomorrow's past. Also, of course, in a more puzzlingly philosophical or epistemological sense, they were aware, as we are, that one could only know either past or future through the mediation of the present. There is a kind of truth in saying that past and future exist only in the mind as it confronts these through the medium of imagination. In one sense all historians create the past—reconstruct it out of materials not wholly available to the age being represented. Everyone's re-creation of the past and the meaning stamped upon it, moreover, will differ according to the historian's particular angle of vision, or his cultural, religious, and moral biases. Shakespeare's histories as a group raise these issues powerfully to our consciousness—but dramatically rather than discursively, concretely rather than abstractly—by clothing the intellectual paradoxes with human flesh and giving us not only a vivid sense of the past but also the essence or process of historical flow in both its universal and particular aspects. My purpose in this essay, keeping these generalizations in mind, is to illustrate a few of the ways in which the concept of time, which must underlie all historical inquiry, lends a special kind of richness and significance to Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V considered as an unfolding progression.


Elizabethan England inherited two models of the shape of human history—one classical, the other medieval. The notion of historical movement that Shakespeare derived, indirectly, from Thucydides and, more particularly, from Polybius was cyclical. In this view, civilization had its happy and its unhappy periods, its fortunate and unfortunate phases, but recurrence was its defining feature. The ups and downs of one period could be expected to replicate themselves in succeeding times, and (at least in Polybius's analysis) in more or less the same—or analogous—sequence. The past thus became the mirror of present and future ages, but, since all change obeyed an ineluctable rule of predictable but unending alteration, the sense of long-range direction, progress, or purpose in history could be only relative and contingent. Eternal flux was the irreducible law of nature, and a kind of saturnine determinism its final implication. Of necessity, the practical historian must focus his attention upon some particular segment of a movement that had no ultimate beginning or end but that nevertheless might disturb or reassure through the recurring impressions of déjà vu that it afforded.

Contrastingly, the medieval concept of history regarded all human events of whatever period as part of salvation history under the aegis of Christian revelation. St. Augustine, for instance, viewed time as a uniquely human condition and its wearisome pressure as a consequence of the Fall. Time had an identifiable beginning (the Creation as described in Genesis) and an identifiable end (the Last Judgment as foretold in the book of Revelation). It also enclosed two intermediate points of vast significance—the fall of man (through Adam's original sin) and the salvation of man (through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the second Adam). All human activity from the creation until the end of the world was thus seen theologically as an aspect of divine providence. Any historical period or pattern of change must then be interpreted as part of an overarching and eternal pattern in which time itself becomes a mere parenthesis (the phrase is Sir Thomas Browne's) between the nothingness out of which God made the world and the physical nothingness to which He will ultimately reconvert it. History in the medieval view becomes teleological, part of the pilgrimage of the soul through earthly changes and vicissitudes to its final destination, the City of God. Even if Shakespeare did not read the Church Fathers, he could have absorbed this latter view of time by attending the biblical plays of the late Middle Ages—the Corpus Christi pageant cycle that survived in certain provincial English towns into the period of the dramatist's boyhood. These plays, performed in sequence on wagons, began with a dramatization of the Creation and ended with the Final Judgment, orienting the most famous stories of the Old and New Testaments between these absolute termini to the central fact of Christ's death and resurrection.

Both of these historical perspectives appear in Shakespeare's tetralogy, superimposed—as it were—to create an interesting ambiguity or indeterminacy of response to the characters and events dramatized. Richard II's deposition and murder tended to be interpreted by Shakespeare's chronicle sources (particularly by Edward Hall and even here partly by implication) as analogous to the Fall, as a kind of original sin in its political dimension. The unlawful removal of an anointed king by the illegitimate usurper Bolingbroke fundamentally disturbed the created universe as ordained by God, the inevitable consequence being perpetual unrest in the body politic, continuing rebellion, and a socio-political chaos that did not run its full course until Richard III, a monster-king deformed in body as in soul, brought England to the verge of ruin. This was a nadir from which only Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, the first Tudor, could deliver the nation.4 Shakespeare gives us a clue to this kind of historical thinking by having Richard II's queen refer to her husband's impending disaster as “a second fall” (Richard II, III. iv. 76). Moreover, Richard II so weds his conception of self to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, regarding himself as an extension of God on earth, that he fatally confuses his timeless and eternal body with his time-bound and finite body. Thus, he can unblushingly compare himself to Christ and his persecutors and betrayers to Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot. He sentences Bolingbroke and Mowbray to banishment with a kind of finality that suggests the assumption of divine rather than of human judgment. Bolingbroke comments bitterly on the difference between a king's sense of time and a mere subject's:

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word; such is the breath of kings.

(I. iii. 213-215)

Richard's words of banishment ironically take on something of the force of the Word in St. John's sense of logos.

But the youthful king, of course, proves all too fallible and human as a ruler, and Shakespeare shows that he is very much the victim of time as well as, in another sense, its theologically privileged voice. Richard violates the very sanctions that entitle him to his own special authority. By confiscating his cousin's estates to finance his war in Ireland, he interrupts the orderly sequence of events over which he theoretically presides and of whose eternal law he considers himself to be the temporal enshrinement. York warns him of the disastrous inconsistency:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not tomorrow then ensue today;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?

(II. i. 195-199)

The later plays contain many nostalgic allusions to Richard, and Shakespeare preserves the idea, inherited from the chronicles, that the multifarious sufferings of England flow in some primordial way from the crime of deposing a legitimate monarch, the “deputy elected by the Lord” (Richard II, III. ii. 57). But he also undercuts this long-range Christian and mythic concept of historical causation by showing us Richard's ironically partial and self-deceived view of his own nature and by bringing him at length to a tragic recognition of his own time-boundness and finitude: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (V. v. 49). And the unfolding events of the whole tetralogy repeatedly confirm our awareness of cyclical change, of bafflingly rapid fluctuation in political affairs, that runs counter to any sense of purposive or linear advance and that leaves us with a profound skepticism about historical providence or teleology.

Bolingbroke as king, sleeplessly speculating on how inscrutable the future is to those who would read her secrets, voices a more realistic and less comforting attitude toward historical process that cannot be set aside:

O God, that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea. …
                                                  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.

Henry continues, pessimistically reviewing the paradoxical shifts in human alliances that alter the course of nations:

'Tis not ten years gone
Since Richard and Northumberland, great friends,
Did feast together, and in two years after
Were they at wars. It is but eight years since
This Percy was the man nearest my soul,
Who like a brother toil'd in my affairs
And laid his love and life under my foot. …

(2 Henry IV, III. i. 45-63)

Thus does Bolingbroke notice—and Shakespeare through his words—that (to borrow a tragic phrase from Romeo and Juliet) “all things change them to the contrary” (IV. v. 90). Shakespearean chronicle plays may give some sense of a divine purpose in history, but they also create a countervailing weariness about the hope of plucking comfort from the giddy revolutions of Fortune's wheel. Bolingbroke's reaction to the “necessities” of mutability—even though (because of the principle of recurrence) they may enable us to look into the seeds of time—must be a gloomy stoicism:

                    Are these things then necessities?
Then let us meet them like necessities.

(2 Henry IV, III. i. 92, 93)

Since the opposed views of time suggested here nudge and modify each other in Shakespeare's dramatic practice, it is interesting to note that the histories as a group embrace both comedy and tragedy without succumbing totally to the generic dictates of either. Perhaps the dual perspective on history presupposes this combination: the medieval Christian view, though not lacking in tragic emphases (the murder of Abel, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the Crucifixion, for instance) is essentially comic in direction, while the classical view, though allowing for moments or periods that might justify optimism, is essentially pessimistic in its positing of ceaseless change and in the obscurity it implies as to final purpose.

The Henry IV plays balance comedy against tragedy brilliantly in the contrasted worlds of tavern and rebel camp. Both worlds are defined in part by their radically different sense of time. Indeed, opposing attitudes toward clock and calendar become a major device of characterization in these dramas. When we first meet Falstaff, the very incarnation of the comic spirit not only in the history plays but in all of Shakespeare, the fat knight is asking Hal, “What time of day is it, lad?” The prince's elaborate reply to this routine question is, of course, no answer at all, but a facetiously extended analysis of why the question itself has no relevance to Falstaff's style of life:

Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?

(1 Henry IV, I. ii. 1-6)

In the ethos of the tavern, which, incidentally, Falstaff carries with him both to Gadshill and to Shrewsbury, urgency has no meaning. Time is suspended for the sake of pleasurable escape from the grimmer realities of life. Refusing to acknowledge the discomforts of age in the robbery scene (“They hate us youth” [II. ii. 85], the old reprobate bellows), Falstaff willfully inhabits a fantasy world of playful adolescence, of eternal gaming and holiday, that does not fully dissipate until Hal's crushing rejection of him at the end of Henry IV, Part II. Even as late as the scenes in Gloucestershire, Falstaff, “play[ing] the fool … with the time” (2 Henry IV, II. ii. 134) in the prince's phrase, finds his actual past too painful to contemplate seriously and insists on a comic world of present amusement and future hope. To Shallow's senile reminiscences of their youthful highjinks fifty-five years ago when, as students, they “lay all night in the Windmill in Saint George's Field,” Falstaff can only rejoin, “No more of that, good Master Shallow, no more of that” (2 Henry IV, III. ii. 193-196); and he begs Doll Tearsheet, who reminds him of his age, not to “speak like a death's-head”: “do not bid me remember mine end” (II. iv. 232-233).

If the aging Falstaff symbolizes the comic refusal to accept his mortality by insisting on a world of eternal youth, Hotspur, his ironically youthful foil in the first play, is wedded to the tragic necessity—indeed almost the desire—of death for honor's sake. As his name implies, everything Hotspur says or does is associated with risk and with speed: “O, let the hours be short / Till fields and blows and groans applaud our sport!” (1 Henry IV, I. iii. 301-302). With a romantic's appetite for high adventure and importunity, he recognizes the brevity of life and measures human dignity not in years but in the quality and intensity of the life lived:

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.
And if we live, we live to tread on kings;
If die, brave death, when princes die with us!

(1 Henry IV, V. ii. 81-86)

Earlier, disdaining the politic caution of Worcester and his cooler-headed colleagues, Hotspur even magnifies the odds against him for the sake of greater glory:

Come, let us take a muster speedily.
Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily.

(1 Henry IV, IV. i. 133-134)

Like Tennyson's Light Brigade, Hotspur rides cheerfully into the jaws of death, savoring each moment the more because it is likely to be among his last. Nowhere does Shakespeare make the contrary views of time—the comic versus the tragic—more emblematic than in the scene at Shrewsbury where Prince Hal stands between two apparent corpses—the athletic body of Hotspur, whom he has just robbed of his youth, and the decrepit body of Falstaff, who feigns death in order to evade its terrors and who then pops up like a jack-in-the-box the moment it is safe to do so. Tragedy and Comedy, the death wish and the life force, symbolically occupy the right and left sides of the same stage.

Prince Hal, who assimilates some of Falstaff's wit and love of fun without his cowardice and some of Hotspur's bravery and idealism without his rashness, embodies a more complex attitude toward time than either of his opponents in verbal or military combat. Hal may seem to ignore the importunities of the court and the battlefield temporarily, “awhile uphold[ing] / The unyoked humor of … idleness—” (1 Henry IV, I. ii. 189-190), but his game-playing, unlike Falstaff's, is self-consciously calculated and accommodated to a longer temporal perspective. In its consciousness of foreseeable ends, Hal's sense of time may partake of both the comic and the tragic attitudes, but, in essence, it is political. The play-acting episode in the Boar's Head tavern ends with Falstaff in the role of Hal, pleading with the prince in the role of his father not to banish his corpulent companion: “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” Characteristically, the prince answers with a double voice: “I do, I will” (1 Henry IV, II. iv. 474-476). Falstaff draws no line between the charade and the reality it parodies, but the prince, by his change of tense, shows us that he carefully distinguishes between the present fun and the future reform. Hal's playfulness is not escapist, not rooted in the confusion of recreation with work. The boy knows, like his rapidly aging father, that a prince has only one life in which to make his mark and, unlike Hotspur, that one cannot afford to be too intense or obsessively single-minded in his loyalties. As a consequence, we are slightly repelled by the coldly utilitarian construction that he seems to put upon his association with his tavern cronies.

In his death speech Hotspur reminds us poignantly that life is “time's fool, / And time, that takes survey of all the world, / Must have a stop” (1 Henry IV, V. iv. 81-83). Hotspur stops the clock tragically for himself by getting himself killed in a mistaken cause. Falstaff tries to stop the clock in another sense by willfully refusing to acknowledge its existence. Hal can absorb something of value from both associations without opposing himself to the inevitable flow of time. He grows from boy to man, from tavern roisterer to the princely savior of his father's life—finally to the kingly hero of Agincourt—by moving with rather than against the tide of history and, in some sense, harmonizing the political and the moral, the realistic and the Christian, insights into temporality. Through a synthesis of attitudes toward the relaxations and pressures of history, he “make[s] offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least [he] will” (1 Henry IV, I. ii. 210-211).


Not content with playing off the interlocking worlds of comedy, tragedy, and politics against each other in respect of their varying responses to time, Shakespeare also makes us aware of other temporal contrasts and concerns. One of his most effective techniques is the counterpointing of an external, objective sense of time with a more internal, subjective sense of it, so that, as an audience, we may experience history both from the perspective of a dispassionate looker-on and also through the eyes of feeling individuals. The external sense of time is, of course, linked to the action and could hardly be avoided by any dramatist. Thus, the plays are full of simple information about scheduling, such as Bolingbroke's announcement after the deposition of Richard, “On Wednesday next we solemnly proclaim / Our coronation. Lords, be ready all” (Richard II, IV. i. 320-321), or Mortimer's statement about the rebel plans: “Tomorrow, cousin Percy, you and I / And my good Lord of Worcester will set forth / To meet your father and the Scottish power … at Shrewsbury” (I Henry IV, III. i. 80-83). But the ordinary sequence of events is constantly being intersected by a more private sense of time that discloses personality or lights up the moral or spiritual interior of a speaker. Richard II's heartless remark at the news of Gaunt's death shows us the flippant and youthful king at his most shallow:

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that.

(Richard II, II. i. 153-155)

Then later on we are exposed to a deeper and more sympathetic example of Richard's interior sense of the clock, when, for the first and only time he is alone in the entire drama, he plays painfully at manufacturing a whole private microcosm based on the psychology of isolation. He works out an intricate poetical conceit by which his thoughts become minutes, his eyes the outward watch, his heart a bell that tolls the hours, and his finger, wiping away tears of grief, a dial's point:

                    So sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours. But my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy,
While I stand here, his Jack of the clock.

(V. v. 57-60)

Richard constructs an inner world of time out of thoughts and emotions in a therapeutic attempt to adjust to an exterior onslaught of time that has passed him by. Thus does Shakespeare dramatize through a moving soliloquy how sorrow and joy make for different experiences of time and how dynastic change alters the tempo of life in diverse ways, depending on whether one is the loser or the winner.

Some of the playwright's most piercing ironies arise from niceties of historical timing. In the very scene in which Richard II disinherits his cousin, we learn that Bolingbroke has already raised an army and is even then making for England “with all due expedience” (Richard II, II. i. 287), apparently ignorant of the king's action against him.5 Then, after Bolingbroke has already consolidated his power, Richard himself returns from Ireland “one day too late” (III. ii. 67) to prevent the defection of his own adherents, and Salisbury wishes futilely that the inexorable march of the calendar could be reversed:

O, call back yesterday, bid time return,
And thou shalt have twelve thousand fighting men!
Today, today, unhappy day, too late,
O'erthrows thy joys, friends, fortune, and thy state;
For all the Welshmen, hearing thou wert dead,
Are gone to Bolingbroke, dispers'd, and fled.

(III. ii. 69-74)

In this dramatic juxtaposition Shakespeare hints that Bolingbroke ambitiously rushes the time for his own political advantage while Richard's more leisurely and passive approach to political crisis is self-defeating. The king loses even before he can begin to fight. Bolingbroke makes time his servant. Richard becomes time's prey.

The collision of two differing misperceptions of time in 2 Henry IV makes for one of the most memorably ironic episodes of the entire tetralogy. Prince Hal enters the bedchamber of his father and, thinking the king dead, reverently takes his crown from its pillow in the belief that his most solemn moment of responsibility has at last arrived. Then the king awakes, and, doubtless remembering his own youthful seizure of the diadem from Richard, misinterprets his son's behavior as an act of usurpation:

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. …
What, canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself. …

(2 Henry IV, IV. v. 94-110)

Henry IV protracts this misplaced rebuke to his son almost unendurably, bitterly alleging that “a time is come to mock at form” (IV. v. 118) at the very moment when Hal's consciousness of kingly form and identity has been raised to its highest pitch of intensity.

One of the ways in which Shakespeare conveys the sense of history developing and exfoliating before our eyes is to intermingle immediate with more remote, short-term with longer-term, measurements of time. The histories are replete with a feeling for temporality in its quotidian and urgent aspects. Historical drama depends for its background effects on verisimilar touches of location and period that lend a sense of “then-ness” to the play; but, in addition, its dramatic movement requires relationships of rapid cause and effect, of quick stimulus and response. The play, to come alive on stage, must make us care about the links between what happened ten minutes ago and what is happening now or will happen very soon—or, in the time scheme of the drama itself, between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This is the sensation of temporality that Shakespeare dramatizes when he shows us Hotspur rushing fatally into battle without pausing to read important letters (“I cannot read them now!” [1 Henry IV, V. ii. 80]), or when messages arrive at the Boar's Head summoning Falstaff and Hal to the colors (“I'll to the court in the morning. We must all to the wars. … I'll procure this fat rogue a charge of foot …” [1 Henry IV, II. iv. 538-540]).

But longer perspectives interrupt this sense of daily bustle, connecting present urgencies with a more distant awareness of both past and future. The rebels are forever revising the past as a way of displacing their own guilt. When Henry IV, the usurper whom they have helped bring to power, disappoints their expectations, they reclothe Richard's memory in the robes of sentimentality and besmirch their own former leader. From the new revisionist angle of perception, Richard now becomes “that sweet lovely rose” and the king who supplanted him “this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke” (1 Henry IV, I. iii. 175-176). The meritorious exile whose injustice they had once claimed to be righting has suddenly been transformed through self-deceptive rhetoric into “a poor unminded outlaw sneaking home” (IV. iii. 58). The gap between the original “then” and the “then” as perceived in this curiously skewed “now” becomes a major source of dramatic irony.

The prophecies with which the histories are laden also produce a sense of temporal distance in the forward direction—and with no less irony. The Bishop of Carlisle predicts that the deposition of an anointed king will transform England into a second Golgotha, bringing in its wake “Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny” (Richard II, IV. i. 143) to successive generations, and he is instantly arrested for speaking a truth that everyone in the audience knew had already come to pass. Richard himself correctly predicts that Northumberland will be just as disloyal to his new master as to his old, and, when this happens in the plays that follow, Shakespeare pointedly reminds his audience of what was said but ignored in the first instance:

KING Henry.
But which of you was by—
[To Warwick.] You, cousin Nevil, as I may remember—
When Richard, with his eye brimful of tears,
Then check'd and rated by Northumberland,
Did speak these words, now prov'd a prophecy?
“Northumberland, thou ladder by the which
My cousin Bolingbroke ascends my throne”—
Though then, God knows, I had no such intent,
But that necessity so bow'd the state
That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss—
“The time shall come,” thus did he follow it,
“The time will come, that foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption”—so went on,
Foretelling this same time's condition
And the division of our amity.
There is a history in all men's lives,
Figuring the nature 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. …

(2 Henry IV, III. i. 65-84)

The long-range perspectives, whether of past or future, tend to lend the immediate actions something of the status of myth, thus conferring upon them a cultural dignity and significance they might otherwise lack. This dilation or expansion of a particular political context thus deepens the dramatic resonance effectively. Richard of Bordeaux, for instance, sees his own tragedy as part of a venerable literary tradition: the “lamentable tale of me” (Richard II, V. i. 44) that he enjoins his wife to narrate to future auditors in France becomes one more addition to that swelling anthology of “sad stories of the death of kings” (III. ii. 156) to which he had earlier referred. But Richard becomes the type of the murdered and desecrated monarch, not merely another example, through the literary and biblical traditions with which he so self-consciously associates himself. And Henry V before Agincourt inspires his troops with the promise that their bravery against almost impossible odds will enshrine them forever in the national memory:

He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin's day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. …
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

(Henry V, IV. iii. 44-60)

Nor is the tetralogy without its comic memories. Shallow lives wholly in the distant past—the frail relic of a bygone age the sexual excitements of which he vastly exaggerates in the impotence of his present condition: “Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent!” (2 Henry IV, III. ii. 33). The even wispier Silence joins the concept of time past to a unique compound of pathos and hilarity. When Silence, somewhat surprisingly, breaks into a drinking song and Falstaff is astonished to discover that he possesses enough vocal energy for the feat, the old man's response is delicious: “Who I? I have been merry twice and once ere now” (V. iii. 39-40).


Thus does Shakespeare weave the mingled yarn of pastness, presentness, and futurity into the richest of dramatic tapestries. Prince Hal can drink in Eastcheap with Poins while reminding us of our common parent (he refers in passing to “the old days of goodman Adam” [1 Henry IV, II. iv. 93]), and Hotspur can locate his own demise in the wider context of time's ultimate cessation at the last trump. But, if in some sense Shakespeare takes all of time for his province, what finally may we say that his concept of it was?

The answer must be, I think, that the complexity of the individual plays—not to mention the additional complexity of their interrelatedness—makes it hazardous to affix labels. Many attitudes toward time are embodied in the plays I have been discussing, and there are still others to be found elsewhere in Shakespeare. But by way of conclusion it might be well to notice that the second tetralogy ends paradoxically with the same mixture of comic and tragic implications about time that we have been remarking throughout the series. The emergence of Prince Hal as “the mirror of all Christian kings” (Henry V, II, Prologue, 6) and the miraculous victor of Agincourt suggests the happy resolution of comedy. In marrying Katherine and joining England to France, Henry V concludes the final play in a way that reminds us of a romance structure with its “happily-ever-after” sense of finality. Certainly the closure of this history play implies a sunnier future for the nation than we have ever had reason to expect at earlier points in the historical sequence. England under Henry seems to have realized her greatest and most heroic potential, and Agincourt seems to have culminated her finest hour.

But the epilogue sounds a disquieting chord, reminding the audience that Henry's reign, however “greatly lived,” was but a “Small time” (1.5). The longer shadow that time inevitably casts darkened the glory of “This star of England” (1.6), and the poet sadly reminds us that Henry's son, who inherited the crown as a babe in arms, “lost France” through his weakness and, in the civil chaos that ensued, once more “made his England bleed” (1.12). The historical wheel, in other words, continues to revolve, and, in this case, it comes full circle, for Shakespeare returns our memories to the internecine strife that he had dramatized in his earliest chronicles, the three parts of Henry VI. And, as if this were not enough to dampen the comic optimism, Shakespeare gives us a funny but also pathetic account of Falstaff's death through the uncomprehending lips of Mistress Quickly. If the whirligig of time has brought Henry V success as a king, it has also brought in its revenges, for it diminishes him as a man through the rejection and loss of his most affectionate and emotionally vital companion.


  1. This point has been developed in extenso by David Scott Kastan in Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 23-27, 37-55. Kastan, in turn, builds upon the work of Tom Driver and Ricardo Quinones; see Driver, The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), and Quinones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972).

  2. The edition of Shakespeare quoted throughout is The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (Glenview, Ill., Scott, Foresman, 1980).

  3. See Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1958); also David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).

  4. As Henry Ansgar Kelly has usefully demonstrated, this formulation of the so-called Tudor myth, heavily indebted to E. M. W. Tillyard's influential Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1944), represents an historiographical oversimplification. Kelly refers to it as “an ex post facto Platonic Form, made up of many fragments that were never fitted together into a mental pattern until they felt the force of [Tillyard's] synthesizing energy”; see Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 298.

  5. Although the apparent simultaneity of Richard's violation of Bolingbroke's rights and the latter's armed invasion of England might be explained, to quote Bevington, as “owing to Shakespeare's characteristic compression of historic time,” we nevertheless “gain the impression of an already-existing plot” against the king; see Bevington's introduction to the play in his Complete Works of Shakespeare, p. 756.

Patrick Carnegy (review date 29 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Henry IV, Part 1.Spectator 284, no. 8960 (29 April 2000): 43-4.

[In the following review of Michael Attenborough's 2000 production of Henry IV, Part 1 at The Swan Theatre in Stratford, Carnegy comments on the shift from a modern-dress Richard II to this more traditional staging and highlights the roles of Hotspur, Bolingbroke, Prince Hal, and Falstaff.]

Getting the RSC's history-plays marathon off to such a compelling start with a modernist Richard II was never going to make life easy for the seven productions that are to follow. The overall strategy, as Adrian Noble half-jokingly declares, is ‘post-modernist’, meaning that although there'll be continuities in casting the styles of staging will differ.

Thus many of those who played at The Other Place in Steven Pimlott's modern-dress Richard II now find themselves in vaguely antique costume at The Swan in a more traditional production of Henry IV Part I by Michael Attenborough. It's as though the cast of Dad's Army were to turn up to film the next episode only to find not khaki fatigues but suits of armour laid out in their dressing-rooms.

It's scarcely surprising that Adam Levy's Hotspur who'd introduced himself in Richard II as an SAS toughie should have problems in growing the role to its climax while inhabiting chain mail. Levy is not short on energy, but it's external and here, as elsewhere, the players do not always find the sense of palpable danger in the battles for power. At the end of Richard II, David Troughton's Bolingbroke had stepped up to a bentwood throne set on Richard's coffin with an anticipation of the words with which he now has to open the Henry plays—‘So shaken as we are, so wan with care.’ But this time he's on his knees in a penitential robe, a heavy wooden crucifix about his neck. The tone of voice is mellower, but he's still taking short, noisy breaths and tending to gravel the text. Nevertheless, this is an impressive characterisation of a careworn king, the cold-blue eyes glazed over with the uneasy burden.

Life is easier for the actors new to the team. William Houston's Prince is already at one remove from the depravity of Eastcheap. In the great scene where Hal pretends to be his father dressing him down, Houston is at first amused to discover how easily he parodies Henry but is then brought up short by the chill realisation that all too soon he will find it expeditious to ‘banish plump Jack’. Houston makes a promising, exploratory skirmish into a role that he'll sustain through to Henry V.

Desmond Barrit's Falstaff is already as ripe as you could wish. In questioning ‘honour’ there is no windy rhetoric or pathos, just a worldly-wise view of it as a ‘mere scutcheon’. This is the real thing, never a caricature but a compelling portrait of a corpulent colossus adrift on an uncomfortably fast tide of events. You wait eagerly to see what will ensue when Part II reaches The Swan in June.

Elliot Krieger (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Krieger, Elliot. “‘To Demand the Time of Day’: Prince Hal.” In William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 101-08. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Krieger analyzes Hal's political instincts and moral ambivalence in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, particularly as these qualities are demonstrated in his relationship to Falstaff.]

From his first moment on stage Hal disputes Falstaff's need, even his right, to know the time:

Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day? unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-color'd taffata; I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of day.


Hal responds more vehemently than the contents of Falstaff's request demand, indicating, as Roy Battenhouse has pointed out, that Falstaff has raised both a question and an issue. Falstaff's question about the time of day seems to encroach upon Hal's territory; Hal frightens Falstaff off as he might a poacher or a trespasser—the prince needs to maintain a boundary and a difference between himself and Falstaff. Hal here asserts and imposes the boundary between knowing and not knowing (perhaps between caring and not caring about) the time of day, but the terms through which Hal suggests Falstaff's indifference to time give the boundary between Hal and Falstaff a set of secondary meanings. By suggesting that Falstaff's interest in time—in anything—must be material, Hal accuses Falstaff of an inability to think in abstractions. He creates an image of a Falstaff obsessed with lust, gluttony, and debauchery, and, in doing so, Hal defends himself. Hal protects himself by proposing that, for Falstaff, concern with the time of day becomes obliterated in the continuous present of gluttonous satisfaction; Hal's own historical identity as part of a family of Machiavels, without legitimate title to the crown, is projected onto another's identity, is transformed from political into corporeal gluttony. By creating and then projecting the association of not knowing the time with debauchery and immediate consumption, Hal can maintain for himself the assurance that so long as he does know the time he will be free from Falstaffian contagion, he will be able to delay gratification and thereby control his environment and his destiny, his place in history. Hal never answers Falstaff's question.

Nor does Falstaff demand an answer. Instead of pursuing his initial question, Falstaff adopts the prince's verbal strategy of self-defense through polar opposition. He accepts indifference to the time of day and asserts dedication to the night, calling himself a man “of good government, being govern'd, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon” (27-9). This retort has left Hal vulnerable; should the prince still wish to maintain his opposition to Falstaff, he would have to develop a defense of the day's beauty, which for some reason he does not do—perhaps because defending the beauty of the sun would come too close, metaphorically, to a defense of the king's government, an argument he will not risk losing. Instead, Hal shifts ground and pronouns entirely, as he includes himself in Falstaff's image cluster of thievery, government, sun and moon:

Thou sayest well, and it holds well too, for the fortune of us that are the moon's men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being govern'd, as the sea is, by the moon.


With this shift from Falstaffian opponent to Falstaffian associate the prince shows us for the first time in the play his much-noted ambiguity, or, in the perhaps more appropriate term, ambivalence (the one term describes Shakespeare's motivation; the other, Hal's). Hal dissociates himself from, because he feels repulsed by, the materiality and sensuality of Falstaff's sense of time, which measures by appetite and desire, but Hal does not carry this attitude to its logical conclusion, he does not claim to represent and uphold the abstract of time of history. Hal's ambivalence allows him to join with Falstaff in attacking authority—“the day's beauty”—while never binding himself to appetite, “the night's body.”

Through the two sides of his attitude toward indulgence, Hal enacts within the tavern so as to indulge his carnal and corporeal appetites—for food, drink, and perhaps sex, depending on what one means by calling the hostess of the tavern “to a reckoning many a time and oft” (49-50)—awhile he describes his life at the tavern as not a holiday interlude but a period of work and austerity reluctantly undertaken so as to consolidate and fortify his social stature within the primary world of history. Prince Hal, like other aristocratic protagonists, uses the second world as part of his strategy for maintaining authority in the primary world, but he does not accept the tavern as a retreat, a holiday interlude. He consciously opposes the intimations of timelessness and of charity with his own sense of hierarchy and propriety and with his cognizance of time. Hal, more conscious of the political function of retreat than the aristocratic protagonists in the double-world comedies, uses the tavern as a functioning term within the world of history. Hal maintains his own authority in the midst of indulgence rather than perpetrate the fiction that indulgence temporarily releases a whole society from the need for authority.

But the aristocratic authority that Hal maintains in the tavern does not entirely oppose him to all those without aristocratic stature. Hal's maintained authority does have some advantages for Falstaff, at lease in so far as Hal has “credit” enough to have “paid all” Falstaff's “part” (51-58). The aristocratic credit Hal gains through his authority relieves him of obligation to Falstaff and obliges him to acknowledge implicitly his historical, his future, responsibilities as the prince. Hal can both answer and not answer Falstaff's question about the time—he can reproach Falstaff for not needing to know without suggesting that he himself knows the time—but, because Falstaff knows the difference in stature between himself and the prince, as well as the advantages and dangers which that difference contains for him, he can both ask and not ask his question. Falstaff's question, therefore, contains an element of reproach, as if he means to taunt Hal for not knowing the time, to remind Hal that he has become dangerously close to an existence within the continuous present of appetite: “Indeed you come near me now, Hal” (13).

Falstaff repeats this reproach, adopting Hal's turn of phrase, later in the play when the two meet near Coventry on their way to battle. “What a devil dost thou in Warwickshire?”, Falstaff asks the prince; then, turning to the Lord of Westmoreland, who accompanies the prince to the battlefield, Falstaff adds: “I thought your honor had already been at Shrewsbury” (4.2.50-53). Here, of course, Falstaff subtly but significantly reverses the terms and positions employed in his initial exchange with Hal. Falstaff now directly suggests that Hal has no concern with the time; he intimates that Hal has again “come near” him by delaying his approach to the battle, by lagging behind in the safety of Coventry while Percy “is already in the field” (75). Although Falstaff's intimations about Hal's sense of historical responsibility have become quite direct—they approach accusation—Hal, in contrast with his vehement response during their first discussion about the time, responds to Falstaff with measured restraint and good-natured wit. In fact, Westmoreland parries Falstaff's thrust:

Faith, Sir John, 'tis more than time that I were there [i.e. at Shrewsbury], and you too, but my powers are there already.


Although the prince, too, encourages Falstaff to “make haste” (74), I think that Hal's consciousness has been divided. He has, by this point in the play, overcome his dramatic ambivalence toward the world of appetite, the tavern, but he cannot yet declare his resolution, perhaps because of the moral ambivalence, his combined sense of compassion and contempt for Falstaff's soldiers, that he maintains. Consequently, the official and historical side of Hal's consciousness, that part of Hal that uses the tavern for work rather than for indulgence, gets, in this scene, displaced onto the otherwise entirely superfluous Lord of Westmoreland. This displacement prevents Falstaff from knowing how conscious Hal has become of historical time and of his place in history; Falstaff, and to some extent the audience, therefore perceives the two sides of Hal's attitude toward history, toward the battle, as the attitudes of two different people. Both Shakespeare and Hal use the Lord of Westmoreland: Shakespeare uses him to prevent Falstaff from too early experiencing his separation from the prince; Hal uses him as an official spokesman, one who will enunciate the official and public policies that Hal has agreed upon to support but behind whom Hal can continue, when appropriate or advantageous, to jest and dally.

Hal's delegation to the Lord of Westmoreland of a portion of his public voice signifies both the authority that Hal maintains regarding other public figures in the drama (Hal and his father are the only characters who can successfully partition their own consciousnesses) and the bifold problem that confronts the prince each time history, through the regulations of the court, intervenes in the tavern. I call Hal's problem bifold because it has two separate and separable aspects: Hal must both commit himself to eventual participation in the world of historical time and he must determine when and how others, in court and tavern, will become aware that he understands his own responsibilities and that he has the capacity for action.

These two issues converge immediately after Hal's play-acting scene with Falstaff, as the sheriff, representing the authority inherent in the kingdom, enters the tavern. Hal has just, in his famous response to Falstaff's impassioned self-defense, declared both his present and eventual separation from Falstaff's sensual indulgences; I believe, however, that Hal says “I do, I will” (2.4.481) as a burst of dramatic bravura: I doubt the prince should really consciously control his destiny here, for he continues in the high spirits of good fellowship until the entry of the law. (Perhaps Falstaff somehow realizes the implications of Hal's outburst, and thus takes refuge from destiny in the primal narcissism of drunken sleep.) But Hal changes when the sheriff and the carrier come on stage; quite literally, Hal's words become good. He stops the sheriff, who is pursuing a “well known” man whom he “hath followed … unto this house” (2.4.506-10), by giving assurance, by giving his word:

The man I do assure you is not here,
For I myself at this time have employ'd him.
And, sheriff, I will engage my word to thee
That I will by to-morrow dinner-time
Send him to answer thee.


Here we see one instance of the credit through which Hal has paid Falstaff's part; Hal earns the credit by his aristocratic mastery of language. Hal's word is good because his speech is good. Shakespeare very deftly allows Hal's cadences to control the actions of others. Hal's gradual shift into blank verse seems to bring the sheriff up short, to catch him by surprise and to force him to measure out the contents of his inquiry. Hal greets the sheriff in slightly irregular pentameter:

Now, Master Sheriff, what is your will with me?


To which the sheriff responds in more regulated verse:

First, pardon me, my lord. A hue and cry
Hath followed certain men unto this house.


Here Hal breaks the measure, interjecting his question—“What men?”(509)—which may mistakenly lead the sheriff and carrier to feel that, their inquiry having approached Hal's guilt, he has begun to let the measure of his language slip from his control. The sheriff, however, answers Hal in formal metre:

One of them is well known, my gracious lord,
A gross fat man.


(He has avoided saying that another one of them also is well known—the prince himself.) The formality of his description of Falstaff gets debased by the carrier's irregular prose interjection: “As fat as butter” (511).

Ordinarily Hal would take the carrier's opening and respond in kind, with another metaphor about Falstaff's grossness. (At Coventry he, too, calls Falstaff “butter”.) Instead, he responds in seven lines of formal, almost perfectly regular, pentameter, from which I have quoted above (The man I do assure you …”) Hal completes his elegant passage by asking the sheriff to “Leave the house” (518), to which the sheriff humbly replies:

I will, my lord. There are two gentlemen
Have in this robbery lost three hundred marks.


Hal of course must be informed of every point of the charge against the men the sheriff is seeking, but notice how the sheriff makes the active element of the charge the gentlemen who have “lost” the marks “in this robbery” and not the men who might have been said to have robbed the gentlemen. Hal's reply, however, takes on (or at least delegates to Falstaff) full active responsibility for robbing the men. In doing so, Hal, metrically, almost duplicates the sheriff's couplet, with the full stop occurring exactly at the same point:

It may be so. If he have robb'd these men,
He shall be answerable, and so farewell.


The sheriff bids farewell to Hal with three iambs—“Good night, my noble lord” (523). This line of verse seems to ask to be completed by Hal with two more iambs or even dactyls, such as “Good night, sheriff.” Instead, Hal responds with an independent line of pentameter:

I think it is good morrow, is it not?


Hal's response thoroughly surprises everyone, both because of its metrical independence from the context and because of the direct message it contains. By this one rather gracious line the prince suggests that he can step away from his environment—metrical, dramatic, and social—and initiate new patterns of control. Further, and more important, the prince has declared aloud—to the sheriff, to the audience, and to anyone lurking in the wings or backstage—that he can separate himself from the world of continuous revelry, the constant present of appetite, that he can discriminate among different times, and that he can use and discuss time as a process and, perhaps, as a force connected with history and responsibility. In short, Hal, at this crux in the drama, responds to Falstaff's question; he informs Falstaff and the sheriff that he knows the time of day.

We may assume that Hal's resolute control and his prescience take the sheriff aback (“Indeed, my lord, I think it be two a'clock,” 525): Falstaff, however, “fast asleep behind the arras” (528), has missed Hal's performance, which may in part account for the rage, the overt death-wish, that, as M. D. Faber has noted, Hal expresses toward Falstaff when his sleeping and snorting body is revealed. The prince contrasts Falstaff's gluttony and indebtedness with his own implicit accumulation and, in keeping with the metaphor he had privately established earlier, in his soliloquy, with repayment of “the debt [he] never promised” (1.2.209). The debt, of course, works on two levels: “the money shall be paid back again with advantage” (2.4.547-48), but also the prince will go “to the court in the morning” (543-44), and they “must all to the wars” (544). He (they all?) will redeem Hal's dissolute life in the tavern by serving the King in battle. Hal employs the debt metaphor again during his greatest trial in battle; as he saves his father's life, he claims that he, as Prince of Wales, if perhaps not as Hal of Eastcheap, “never promiseth but he means to pay.” After Hal has made good his promise, the King commends him: “Thou has redeem'd thy lost opinion, / And show'd thou mak'st some tender of my life” (5.4.43, 48-49). Hal prepares himself to pay back with his body his indebtedness to a force outside of his body, a force that, during the battle at Shrewsbury, comes to be represented by the body, or the life within the body, of his father, the king. This kind of indebtedness and compensation separates the Prince from Falstaff, who, as his “papers” show, remains indebted to the force of appetite, which of course has come to be represented by his own body. The differentiation between Hal and Falstaff degenerates into animosity, and further accounts for Hal's barely disguised aggression toward Falstaff (“I know this death will be a march of twelve score,” 2.4.546-47).

Differentiation becomes animosity because Falstaff functions as Hal's antagonist as well as his “foil,” although Hal does not make that discovery until the particular convergence of the events that the sheriff's arrival precipitated. Hal's conscious control of the present through the metrical dominance of the dialogue, his forthright public declaration that he knows the time, followed by his exposé of Falstaff's complete indifference to debts, time, and the state, dramatize, in a way that the rhetoric of Hal's initial soliloquy cannot, the separation between Hal's consciousness of his environment and Falstaff's enclosure within the needs and boundaries of his ego. But Hal does not experience this separation as an absolute opposition. The prince associates himself with Falstaffian egoism as part of what he considers a temporary denial and a period of austerity, but Hal uses this association with another's indulgences in order eventually to extend greatly his capacity for action within history, for satisfaction of his greater Machiavellian appetite for political power within the realm.


Battenhouse, Roy. “Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool.” PMLA 90 (1975): 32-52.

Faber, M. D. “Falstaff Behind the Arras.” American Imago 27, no. 3 (1970): 197-225.

Nigel Wood (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Wood, Nigel. Introduction to Henry IV, Parts One and Two, edited by Nigel Wood, pp. 1-34. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wood surveys critical estimations of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and examines the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff.]


The critical history of the Henry IV plays follows one consistent course: the resolution to make sense of Falstaff's attractiveness and Hal's obduracy in rejecting him. In Barbara Hodgdon's The End Crowns All it becomes clear that the most pressing problem posed for directors is that of whether Falstaff is damned the first time we meet him (see Hodgdon 1991: 152-61). The early stage history of the plays is so unequal, with Part 1 a stock favourite and Part 2 grudgingly billed as a sequel, as in Thomas Betterton's adaptation for Drury Lane in 1720. Even then, it was the comic Falstaff that sold the play, as Betterton omitted most of the historical scenes in the first three acts (the only exception being I.iii), and added to the prominence given to Pistol. It was not until David Garrick's influence (1758-70) that Part 2 achieved the kind of sonority accorded Part 1, and that was largely on the back of a sumptuous coronation scene. These are, however, isolated novelties. Due to Thomas Killigrew's astute management of the King's Company mainly at the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell, Part 1 was a staple ingredient of the seasons from 1660 to 1669. Betterton made the part of Hotspur famous in his 1682 revival, but it was his Falstaff in the 1699-1700 season at Lincoln's Inn Fields that set the stamp on the play as a comic masterpiece.

The full Folio text was rarely played, but the nineteenth-century theatre's capacity for scenic magnificence greatly affected the relative emphases placed on History and Comedy. W. C. Macready played King Henry and Charles Kemble the Prince in the 1821 revival of Part 2, which included a glittering (and long-winded) coronation scene, a formal compliment to George IV's own crowning (see Odell 1963, 2: 166-9; Hodgdon 1993: 10). Kemble's own production of Part 1 in 1824 at Covent Garden and the tercentenary tribute in 1864 at Drury Lane both found Falstaff a welcome, but also at times supernumerary, guest at a particularly ceremonial feast. In Frank Benson's 1894 Part 2 at Stratford-upon-Avon, the particular virtues of that play came to the fore, and Falstaff's theatrical fortunes were revived. Benson's own Falstaff was daringly epicurean, and his eventual fate full of poetic justice. Benson went on to present a ‘cycle’ of Histories at Stratford between 1901 and 1906, yet surprisingly omitted Part 1 to smooth the transition towards Henry V.

The vogue for performing and viewing both parts on a single day (or even in a single run) is a twentieth-century taste. Sir Barry Jackson commemorated Shakespeare's birthday (23 April) in 1921 at Birmingham Repertory Theatre with a full text of both plays, and this was followed by a double-header in 1932 to mark the opening of the New Memorial Theatre at Stratford. This ability and willingness to stage ‘cycles’ of the Histories led to a renewed understanding of how Part 2 could be thematically a part of a wider sense of British destiny. In 1951, Anthony Quayle provided both parts at Stratford as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations and Trevor Nunn similarly opened the Barbican base for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982.

The greater acquaintance with Part 2 also tilted Falstaff's role from that of knockabout clown to that of the sadder and wiser humorist. This was the point to Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight—or, in the United States, Falstaff (1966). The film was a digest of both parts, but heavily weighted towards the impending rejection. Welles's Falstaff was rarely out of shot, the main exception being the extravagant battle of Shrewsbury which lasted all of ten minutes (see McMillin 1991:97-9). War was brutal and brutalizing, and Falstaff's often bewildered reaction was carried over into his private dealings with Hal; in the public world of the Plantagenet court it is inconceivable that he could survive—more an object for pathos than praxis.

As a ‘cycle’ of History plays (with almost their full texts) has only been a recent proposition, the opportunity for assessing whether the structural unity of the two parts made theatrical sense has been brought up against the stubborn armchair belief that they should. The texts' early critical history, however, did not often follow theatrical practice. While the two parts were considered separate items theatrically, most readers were persuaded of their essential unity. Falstaff was a constant point of reference, and often the plays stood or fell according to how his role was regarded. It is heartening to find one of his earliest commentators, John Dryden, fully alive to the contradictory aspects of his persona, for he stood for the progressive resources of non-Humours characterizations. In his Of Dramatick Poesie, An Essay (1668), Neander cites Shakespeare as the irregular genius: ‘All the Images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily … he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature’ (Vickers 1974-81, 1: 138). Falstaff cannot be understood by the textbook enumeration of character types, as he is ‘a Miscellany of Humours or Images’, and his attractiveness stems from his very being rather than his script: ‘for the very sight of such an unwieldy old debauch'd fellow is a Comedy alone’ (Vickers 1974-81, 1: 140). By 1679 Dryden (in propria persona) had taken Falstaff even more seriously to heart in his ‘Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy’. French neoclassical theory had prescribed simplified types in tragedy to allow their representative functions freer rein and the tragic action greater freedom, but Falstaff ‘is a lyar, and a coward, and a Glutton, and a Buffoon, because all these qualities may agree in the same man’ (Vickers 1974-81, 1: 258). It is tempting to locate Dryden as the period's spokesperson, but he is hardly that. Falstaff is strong medicine to swallow, if his jests actually carry an audience with him. The Rev. Jeremy Collier paused in his wholesale attack on the debauchery of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve, in his Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) to tackle the problem of Falstaff's eventual fate. He is consoled by the reflection that Falstaff is a comic part, but admires the eventual unfurling of a ‘Unity of Design’, where he ‘is thrown out of Favour as being a Rake, and dies like a Rat behind the Hangings’ (Vickers 1974-81, 2: 88).

If Falstaff and Hal are to be distinct not only in social class but also in spiritual composition, then the two plays must exhibit a purpose to throw ‘old Jack’ off at last. Repeatedly, though, critics of the eighteenth century found Falstaff recalcitrant material. In Nicholas Rowe's Account of the Life of Shakespeare (1709), for example, it was a ‘Fault’ to make Falstaff ‘Vicious’ while at the same time giving him ‘so much Wit as to make him almost too agreeable’ (Vickers 1974-81, 2: 195). We may consequently be sorry to see him so cast down by the end of Part 2. Corbyn Morris in 1744 had to forget certain awkward details to conclude that he could be an ‘amiable character’ and was treated so roughly at the close ‘in Compliance with the Austerity of the Times, and in order to avoid the Imputation of encouraging Idleness and mirthful Riot by too amiable and happy an Example’ (An Essay Towards Fixing the True Standards of Wit, Humour, Raillery, Satire, and Ridicule; see Vickers 1974-81, 3: 122). Here there are none of the intimations of mortality and sickness of Part 2, nor the opportunistic gesture towards Hotspur at the close of Part 1. Increasingly, the century found that Falstaff and Hal were more than types and the result was to explore a divided response in the audience, which, according to Henry MacKenzie in The Lounger (1786), entailed an identification with the prince to

admire while they despised. To feel the power of his humour, the attraction of his wit, the justice of his reflections, while their contempt and their hatred attended the lowness of his manners, the grossness of his pleasures, and the unworthiness of his vice.

(Vickers 1974-81, 6: 441)

In a sense, this is to jump ahead over Johnson's edition (1765) and Maurice Morgann's (at the time) perverse celebration of Falstaff in the Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777). Morgann will be considered more fully in my Endpiece, but it is necessary to note at this point how the Essay defends Falstaff from the imputation of cowardice. While not dwelling too much on Part 2, he finds throughout a dramatic tactic of the comic undercutting the moral interest. This is because he appeals to the ‘Impressions’ of an audience and not their understanding:

With a stage character, in the article of exhibition, we have nothing more to do; for in fact what is it but an Impression; an appearance, which we are to consider as a reality; and which we may venture to applaud or condemn as such, without further inquiry or investigation? But if we would account for our Impressions, or for certain sentiments or actions in a character, not derived from its apparent principles, yet appearing, we know not why, natural, we are then compelled to look farther, and examine if there be not something more in the character than is shewn;

(Morgann 1972: 203)

This isolation of the specifically dramatic function of Falstaff's characterization shelves difficult ethical decisions by hiving them off on to the effects on the rational powers. We behave differently in an auditorium. This perspective is not fully shared by Johnson, but there are passages where he realizes that matters of performance alter the nature of verbal communication. For example, his note to 1 Henry IV, I.ii.201 (Hal's speech announcing the future renunciation of his ‘loose behaviour’) finds it ‘very artfully introduced to keep the Prince from appearing vile in the opinion of the audience’. Here we see the display of a ‘great mind’ in the process of ‘offering excuses to itself’ (Johnson 1986: 170). This distance from Hal is part of Johnson's attempt to comprehend the plays as a scheme, where, as the Headnote to Part 2 has it, they are so ‘connected that the second is merely a sequel to the first; [they are] two only because they are too long to be one’ (Johnson 1986: 178). This manoeuvre sets up a running dichotomy between Falstaff's powers of ‘perpetual gaiety’ and his vices which should excite ‘contempt’ (Johnson 1986: 188).

As the new century dawned, the political aspects of this view of authority grew to prominence. Jonathan Bate's work on the early Romantic period's use of Shakespeare's character studies uncovers a series of parallels waiting to be teased out, the authority of the national poet underpinning certain otherwise controversial doctrines. Hal could figure the Prince Regent in his socializing with the Opposition lobbyists such as Charles Fox (Falstaff?), whose weight seemed a gift to caricaturists (see Bate 1989: 74-86). This partisan use aside, there was a definite swing back towards the need to regard Hal (and Hotspur) as ‘the essence of chivalry’, in Hazlitt's words in his Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817). However, his Republican sympathies surface most strongly when he considers Henry V alone in his own play: ‘He was fond of war and low company:—we know little else of him. He was careless, dissolute, and ambitious;—idle, or doing mischief’ (Bate 1992: 360, 364). With this in mind, Hazlitt is still not alone in lionizing Falstaff's ‘masterly presence of mind, an absolute self-possession, which nothing can disturb’ (Bate 1992: 358). This preference for Falstaff would eventually engender a complete distrust of Hal. John Masefield, in his William Shakespeare (1911), even denied him the status of a hero: ‘he is not a thinker, he is not even a friend; he is a common man whose incapacity for feeling enables him to change his habits whenever interest bids him’ (Masefield 1911: 112; see also Yeats's verdict on Hal as a man of ‘gross vices’ and ‘coarse nerves’, compared to Richard II, who becomes a poet and martyr (Yeats 1961: 108)).

This energetic discovery of satire in the historical action as well as the comic plot emerges exactly when theatrical preference was for the high-flown and rhetorical. One major watershed in critical thinking on the plays occurs when an understanding of History changes, and it is no surprise that, when Hegel's panoramic understanding of global History affects criticism, there should be a move away from character study. Hermann Ulrici's Shakespeare's Dramatic Art refuses to recognize individual characters as items of critical attention; at best, they are ‘living hieroglyphics’ (Ulrici 1876: 236), part of the representation of an age's whole historical process. Before one finds here a blanket homogeneity of approach, Ulrici shows a careful understanding of Falstaff's role, which has ‘an ironical character’ and works ‘to parody the hollow pathos of political history’ (1876: 244). Falstaff is merely ‘personified parody’ (1876: 245).

It is worthwhile pausing to take in the strands of this legacy for more recent ideas on what constitutes a History play. Ulrici identifies the plays as propositions about History—not as History itself. There may seem to be little that is truly controversial about that, but the irony does not cease with Falstaff's banishment. It is still present—erosive and undermining—even at Henry V's coronation. This is a critical problem as well as an opportunity: how can we approach the plays as a play of opposites or as moral debate, if Shakespeare does not appear to be taking sides—if, indeed, the most powerful dramatic force would seem to be a figure hardly recognizable as historical at all? In Falstaff, there could be more to consider than his culpability or wit, as if these were ‘personal’ qualities. It is the function assigned to the wit and infectious good (or bad) humour that might be the central point.


Falstaff's first words are compelling evidence that he lives in a different time zone from Hotspur, and, as we shall see, from Hal:

Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?

‘Hours’ are converted to ‘cups of sack’, ‘minutes’ to ‘capons’, ‘clocks’ to ‘tongues of bawds’ and ‘dials’ to ‘signs of leaping-houses’ (brothels) (1 Henry IV, I.ii.1-9). If we were to progress beyond the evident moral distaste here expressed, then we might grant Falstaff's (and, temporarily, Hal's?) experience of time a certain value, for it does not seem that he is to be fooled by time as Hotspur is. Hal does not avoid likening the ‘fortune’ of his Eastcheap society to that of ‘moon's men [that] doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed as the sea is by the moon’ (I.ii.30-1). This tidal and natural flow is so cyclical it would seem to cheat that inevitable linear progress towards death that is hidden by Falstaff's initial metaphorical inspiration, here picked up by Hal. Yet it is typical of him to enjoy Falstaff's irresponsible self-display while stemming it and finally closing down its serious options: the amoral freedom from destiny actually obeys a final reckoning, where there is eventually an ebb as low as ‘the foot of the ladder’ that will lead to ‘as high a flow as the ridge of the gallows’ (I.ii.35-7). It is not just Hal who is pulled two ways in this scene, for it is often forgotten that Falstaff, too, is not the unregenerate hedonist of (romantic) caricature. The very next line has him assent to the truth of Hal's careful manipulation of his rhetoric, and also proceed with his own prophetic hopes of life when Hal shall be king—‘shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And Resolution thus fobbed, as it is with the rusty curb of old Father Antic the law?’ (I.ii.56-8). Will the new King Henry hang thieves and break the circle? This is not an isolated theatrical geste either, as he returns in Part 1 to his own version of the fragility of his sustaining illusions1 at the Eastcheap coronation (‘banish not [Falstaff] thy Harry's company—banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’ (II.iv.461-2)), when he meditates on ‘hell-fire and Dives’ whenever he catches sight of Bardolph's beacon of a nose (III.iii.28-31), at the realization that he owes death a life, in the midst of his more familar catechism on honour (V.i.127-8), and also when resolving to ‘purge and leave sack’ under the new post-Shrewsbury dispensation (V.iv.159-60). A case could be made for Falstaff as the character most hounded by Time's wingèd chariot.

In the more obviously grave Part 2, where Falstaff is frequently separated from fellowship and left to his own more chastened self, his need to believe in Hal's continued protection is desperate. At the point when the Folio has the prince and Poins enter, but now in disguise, Falstaff is chided by Doll Tearsheet for his lack of spiritual preparation. Increasingly, Time's reckoning intimates mortality: ‘Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death's-head, do not bid me remember mine end … I am old, I am old’ (2 Henry IV, II.iv.190-1, 222), the ‘chimes at midnight’ sound at III.ii.177, and, by Act IV, scene i, his ‘natural’ behaviour includes the duping of Justice Shallow, rather as a ‘young dace’ is bait ‘for the old pike’—‘Let time shape, and there an end’ (IV.i.266-8). The final dismissal by Hal (as Henry V) is not the putting by of the Falstaff of Act I, scene ii, in Part 1.

If Falstaff comes to regard time as Time, a symbol, not just a condition, of earthly existence, then one could maintain that, if we were to assess the two plays as a unit, then Shakespeare is gradually writing the ‘radical’ Falstaff, the libertine rake, out of his script. This would be to construct a streamlined model of dramatic experience that excludes as much as it apparently solves. The more an audience is made to attend to these portents, the more sympathy is likely to mingle with an original admiration and amoral joy at Falstaff's wit. Take the concluding sentiments of Act V, scene i. Falstaff muses on the ‘participation of society’, witnessed by the increased identity between those in command and those they command—here, between Shallow and his retinue: ‘It is certain that either wise bearing or ignorant carriage is caught, as men take diseases, one of another. Therefore, let men take heed of their company’ (V.i.59-62). Does he speak hereby of more than he can know? Or, in terms less regulated by the dramatis personae, how reminiscent is this of Henry IV's homily to the prince on ‘vile participation’ that had lost him ‘princely privilege’, back in Part 1 (III.ii.86-7)? Does he here anticipate the reasons for his own banishment from Hal's favour? This irony is embedded in the experience of the whole play, not the compartmentalized registering of how individual characters ‘grow’. A play might shape time (five-act structures, comedies or tragedies) and, in Elizabethan staging, contain more or less consistent actors-as-characters throughout its duration, but this formal description leaves unexplored the multiple and contradictory effects of the theatrical process. Characters are fully known only by dint of the other voices that, in their absence, have just spoken or that will speak (sometimes, not directly or logically connected—‘as men take diseases’), as well as those that provide accompaniment and dialogue for them. When Falstaff aims to store up instances of Shallow's folly for Hal's ‘continual laughter’, this eternity of shared and continual merriment (‘without intervallums’), dissolves the more it is thought on, a span eventually measured by the finite units of the judicial year: until ‘the wearing out of six fashions—which is four terms—or two actions’ (2 Henry IV, V.i.63-5). Falstaff may reach nostalgically for a future of Eastcheap escapades at the same time as provide an audience with evidence of how this, for Hal as well as him, is by now quite out of reach, a passing fashion among many. When Act V, scene v, portrays Hal's progress as king, his entry (s.d. 35) is announced in the Folio as ‘Enter King Henrie the Fift’; we should also bear in mind the fact that Falstaff's ‘Hal’ is throughout Part 1 ‘Henry’ in the Folio and ‘Prince Henry’ in the 1598 Quartos. For Part 2, the part is designated ‘Prince Henry’ in the Folio, and just ‘Prince’ in the 1600 Quartos—until its sudden replacement by ‘King’ to match the elevated status. Does ‘Hal’ exist, except in Falstaff's familiarity?

The shock that attends the king's disowning of not only Falstaff and the Eastcheap crew but also, note, by association, the ineffectual Shallow at Act V, scene v, is a necessary narrative item, one could argue, to conclude the account with satisfying finality, to show the regal and courtly caste system as inevitable and essential to maintain the impersonal good order that could only be in peril if it admitted such members as Falstaff. As Peter Womack makes plain, though, it would be a mistake to expect consistent realism in Shakespeare's plots. If realism calls for a redundancy of detail to signal a possible profusion of non-figural references, and an attempt to ‘ground’ the action and characters in recognizable contexts, then one would be hard put to it to identify passages that provided totally autonomous agents and actions—that is, those free of any cross-reference to other areas of the plays (or those that comprise the second tetralogy) or that could not be regarded as significant colouring for Shakespeare's larger purpose. This is before we consider the (conscious or fortuitous) role provided for an audience that often does not feel unequivocally either for or against the main protagonists at this point, that may appreciate how necessary the king's gesture was without relishing its effects, or be glad that true Authority takes centre stage, or suddenly feel how calculating ‘Hal’ has been all along, or perceive the personal loss that Henry must endure to fulfil his destiny—or, more likely, a mingling of all or some of these reactions.

There is ample opportunity for symbolic action in a History play, as the overall pattern of events portrayed is already likely to be in the public domain. What is far more notable is how the action is to be judged and how our sympathies are generated throughout. When Falstaff encounters Henry in Act V, scene v, with his ‘God save thy grace, King Hal, my royal Hal’ (V.v.36) he dares to yoke the formal and untouchable with the idiomatic and personal. Pistol may have envisaged that ‘semper idem’ (a favourite motto of Elizabeth's) will be appropriate as well as ‘'tis all in every part’ (V.v.24), but the next forty or so lines demonstrate a new order of radical change and dislocation, and not just for Falstaff. He may now be old and vain, but Henry's speech (43-68) illustrates a painful split in ‘Hal's’ self, a turning away from the immediate and bodily to the abstract concerns of duty and an intense need to exercise the Will to rewrite his own personal history:

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old and so profane,
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace, …


He is not to be viewed as ‘the thing [he] was’ because he has ‘turned away [his] former self’ (52, 54). He has fashioned himself a king.

In Henry's words, here as elsewhere in both parts, there is much of the future tense. It is crucial to trace the lack of finality in this dismissal. First, ‘telling’ an audience might not be as powerful as the impact of the full (non-textual, visual) spectacle of the speech act, which cannot always be successfully conveyed just by a series of cut-and-paste excerpts. Second, Falstaff is promised ‘competence of life’ (62) and, if he will also remake himself, ‘according to [new] strengths and qualities’ (65), the hope of a second chance. Falstaff, indeed, is deep in plans for the evening's dining arrangements, and is about to pass these words off as ‘colours’ (pretences—82), when the Lord Chief Justice, Prince John and ‘Officers’—not Henry—return to convey them all (Shallow included) to the Fleet prison. John may ‘like this fair proceeding of the king's’ (90) and stress that they ‘Shall all be very well provided for’ (92, emphasis added), but not, it would seem, just yet. Holinshed and Stow both mention this magnanimity,2 yet Shakespeare conveys their testimony in a token manner; the dramatic action has spoken louder.

Lastly, and possibly more revealingly, Henry is not here involved in a performative act. His word will be law, but we do not see him enact it yet. It is not literal-minded to find Henry's dream of Falstaff's ‘kind’ (quoted above) a curiously evasive affair. Falstaff is not mentioned by name. ‘I know thee not, old man’ (43) sounds clear enough, yet Henry is actually practising a form of verbal noli me tangere. Falstaff can be held in perspective as long as he is a type or far-off in a dream. His ‘body’ needs to be dissolved, much as does Henry's ‘former self’. He is not to ‘presume’ him the ‘thing’ he was. What is more, the depiction of the ‘surfeit’ associated with Falstaff occurs in Henry's dream. Now that he is awake, he might ‘despise’ Falstaff's importunate reality, one might have thought, not his own capacity for dreaming. Henry banishes this ‘former self’ quite as much as he does Falstaff, and just as he imagines a time when his erstwhile friend might once again involve him in ‘participation’ then that will be the time when the Gadshill Hal is resurrected:

When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and feeder of my riots;
Till then I banish thee, …


This is to protest too much, perhaps, and certainly not to offer a definitive exile. The main struggle is within the king's own person. He has just buried his natural father and now needs to escape his other father-figure, that unofficial ‘tutor and feeder’.3

What final shape is here given to the historical action? John's last speech opens the action yet further with a prophecy that ‘civil swords and native fire’ (99) will be borne as far as France, the project of Henry V, as does the Epilogue, which promises a continuation with ‘fair Katherine of France‘and Falstaff, who may well ‘die of a sweat’ (22-3). In 1 Henry IV, our first chance to size up Hal is also an introduction to the ‘private’ history of his own development—a path that he regards as one of his own choosing, where, sun-like, he might break ‘through the foul and ugly mists’ of participation, ‘when he please again to be himself’. Just twenty lines later, his father will also vow to be himself, rather than consistent with his ‘condition’, ‘smooth as oil, soft as young down’ (I.iii.5-7). Hal, similarly, will aim to disappoint the prophecies of others, yet fulfil none of his own, when he pays ‘the debt [he] never promised’ (I.ii.190, 188, 197). Unlike Hotspur, his redemption of Time is a falsification of ‘men's hopes’ (199), and an exceeding of his ‘word’ with his own person (198). The Time to be saved is, on one level only, that tainted by the illegitimacy of his father's usurpation, as it picks up Hotspur's own usage at I.iii.180 (quoted above), and I.iii.206, where he imagines his resuscitation of ‘drowned honour’ (205). The main topic of the scene has been the claim for redemption from Glendower of Hotspur's brother-in-law, Mortimer—a financial metaphor, but, in Hotspur's hands, it is heroic and even chivalric.

In what sense does Henry V redeem, or rediscover, himself? Hal seems to believe that outward shows cannot display his hidden self, so it would be tempting to ask the question: how can an audience decipher this real self, if indivisible from the office of king? To speak of the self does not prove its existence; on the contrary, it could signify its loss. When in conference with his father, Hal goes through a familiar litany of self-defence, responding to the accusation that his membership of the House of Lancaster has become honorary, and that ‘the hope and expectation of [his] time / Is ruined’ (III.ii.36-7). In Henry IV's discourse, the king's ‘presence’ is a manipulable asset, ‘like a robe pontifical, / Ne'er seen but wondered at’ (56-7), which leads to his observation that Hotspur has more of this necessary ‘presence’ than contained in the direct blood-line. The prince vows to be henceforward ‘more [himself]’, and declares that this will be the case by an assumption of a chosen persona, ‘When I will wear a garment all of blood / And stain my favours in a bloody mask’ (135-6). This, when ‘washed away’ will be a potent form of astringent, to ‘scour’ his shame (137), the aim being to ‘redeem’ his good name ‘on Percy's head’ (132). This eventuality is witnessed and underlined by the king himself at V.iv.47, in gratitude for the saving of his life—an action, not an oath. In combat with Hotspur, Hal can now dub him a rebel and himself the ‘Prince of Wales’ (61-2).

It is no accident, here, that these accents of redemption should have a Pauline ring. Colossians 4: 5 advises us to ‘Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time’, and Ephesians 5: 15-16 could have been a text close to Henry IV's heart: ‘Walk circumspectly, not as unwise, but as wise, / Redeeming the time, because the days are evil’.4 Conversion here implies a radical reassessment of the passage of time and how one is figured in it. As we will see below, there is a thematic as well as a commercial point to Hal's backsliding in Part 2 (more opportunities for a reprise of madcap japes), but even as he toys with his good reputation once more, he is frequently clear about the figure he is cutting. Faced with Poins's naïve invitation, for example, to wed his sister, Hal immediately observes his behaviour from without: ‘Well, thus we play the fools with the time, and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us’ (2 Henry IV, II.ii.108-9). When informed of the new alarms by Peto, he feels himself ‘much to blame / So idly to profane the precious time’ (II.iv.294-5).

The above account of Hal's development has largely stayed within the expectations of realism. Hal's ‘character’ has been assessed by what is directly scripted for him, and, for the sake of closer analysis (so the formula has it), his existence within the play has seemed autonomous, to be approached via our collection of ‘real-life’ touchstones, equivalent behaviour which we might regard as obeying a parallel course with that depicted in a fictional, dramatic frame. To choose an extreme example, this faith in the validity of direct mimesis has long been the virtue of A. C. Bradley's work on Shakespeare (and, for those antagonistic, its vice, too). Here is his provisional conclusion in his ‘The Rejection of Falstaff’ (1902; reprinted in Bradley 1909) as to why the Hal that had once laughed with Falstaff could ultimately disown him so suddenly and publicly: ‘He had shown himself [in Eastcheap and Gadshill mood] … a very strong independent young man, deliberately amusing himself among men over whom he had just as much ascendency as he chose to exert. Nay, he amused himself not only among them, but at their expense’ (Bradley 1909: 254). The motivation discovered by Bradley is true of a psychologically consistent case study, and implies that Shakespeare worked within a theatrical tradition that placed superior value on such a private, non-political, non-allegorical process. Bradley regrets the need of the History play to reflect a non-poetic truth, to finish with Falstaff appearing ‘no longer as the invincible humorist, but as an object of ridicule and even of aversion’. This relies on an audience that responds in an obedient fashion; what they are told (overtly, textually), they inevitably feel. The fact that we still feel the force of dramatic shock in the rejection scene Bradley cannot but feel as a miscalculation: ‘in the creation of Falstaff he overreached himself. He was caught up on the wind of his own genius, and carried so far that he could not descend to earth at the selected spot’ (Bradley 1909: 273)—a piece of God's plenty.

On the other hand, what to some can seem like miscalculation, to others can appear realistic and parodying. We have already seen how it is at least viable to conclude that Shakespeare used the History play in a particularly self-conscious way. For Bradley the excess associated with Falstaff upsets the scheme of History. Ronald Knowles identifies a central weakness in Bradley's approach: ‘At no time does Bradley recognise how the imperatives of comic role-playing might modify naturalistic explanation in terms of dramatic convention and audience engagement’ (Knowles 1992: 41). As an alternative to this search for some level of naturalistic theatre, there was also a call for situating the plays, and Falstaff particularly, within theatre history. E. E. Stoll and John Dover Wilson, especially, accentuated the mythic power of Falstaff. Stoll rejected the call for sympathy on an audience's behalf, but, in finding Falstaff a stage clown tout court, he refuses the persona a wider function (see especially Stoll 1927: 472). For Wilson, in his The Fortunes of Falstaff (1943), not only was he a miles gloriosus or braggart soldier, but an embodiment of Riot or Vanity. Certainly, in the closing passages of the work, Wilson is alive to the immediate and non-allegorical in the dramatic texture, but Hal and Falstaff both develop in a transcendental world of art. For C. L. Barber, Falstaff similarly becomes a lord of misrule, a type rather than an objection (Barber 1959). Wilson found the ‘English spirit’ alive and well in the plays, which ‘ever’ requires two ingredients, ‘Order as well as Liberty’—and found the action treading carefully between ‘the bliss of freedom and the claims of the common weal’ (Wilson 1943: 128). Barber (without the Englishness) was equally convinced that the risks taken with Falstaff could be contained within a scheme that kept the office of king eventually uncontaminated. His Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959) countered a generation of dismissive readings of comic power, and the deft understanding of the embedded traits of saturnalian comedy is a genuinely new departure. As Graham Holderness notices, though (Holderness 1992: 143-4), Barber's determination to have misrule a manageable threat which at the last has an audience gravitate towards Rule shows some strain. Barber may claim that the comedy operates non-satirically, but he also is acutely aware of the ‘dangerously self-sufficient everyday scepticism’ of Falstaff (Barber 1959: 214).

The movement towards celebrating hard-won order out of the threat of chaos is a sustaining myth about History—and less applicable to the local effects of drama. It is in the work of E. M. W. Tillyard, however, that the more optimistic perspective on the plays and their culture can be found. Shakespeare's History Plays (1944) was well timed. A full span of Shakespeare's historical concerns now included the Henry VI plays which could with some safety be identified as his, and this provided Tillyard with an opportunity to analyse them for the first time as a genre and a long-considered project. Following closely his The Elizabethan World Picture (1943), this study shared many of its preoccupations: a striving towards a totalizing grasp of complexity until it could be summed up in a ‘World Picture’ and yet a faith in the humanist model of a suddenly central location for human concerns. Tillyard's understanding of Elizabethan culture was based on a set of correspondences between the macrocosm and the microcosm, Man:

Of all the correspondences between two planes that between the cosmic and the human was the commonest. Not only did man constitute in himself one of the planes of creation, but he was the microcosm, the sum in little of the great world itself.

(Tillyard 1944: 16)

This world is a purposive one, and is imbued with a providential direction; all is a part of a consuming whole, and Man, while he has a more active power of choice than was usually stated in the Elizabethan homilies, is still constrained by natural order.5

So out of favour has Tillyard's thesis become that his work now forms a wide and now inert enough target for the clumsiest cultural materialist to hit. The objections to totality can be easily enumerated—the depiction of a belief to which only the most literate of the population had access, the model of interdependency with a final ruling term of order (God?), the limiting of figurative profusion until it fitted preconceived categories on which varied sentiments ‘must have’ been based—but the positive global alternatives have not been as forthcoming. According to Hugh Grady, this is the legacy of the modernist Shakespeare (Grady 1991: 177-89), a critical image of the work that stresses polyphony and fracture, which favours periods of radical change rather than those of cultural consolidation. It is also the result of searching analysis based on the Marxist concept of dialectic, an unresolvable struggle between contending forces out of which usually unsought syntheses appear. This is development, but it is not foreknown in detail nor guided by some ideal authority.6 Tillyard's work requires some notion of basic order, a reflex that Elizabethans simply accepted. As we have seen, this reliance on Providence was by no means universally accepted, and does not account for the emergent features of the History play.

One can take this historical reflection a little further. In answer to John Dover Wilson, William Empson recorded in the Kenyon Review for 1953 a series of objections to the tendency to face dramatic effects as if they were likely to be pointing all in one direction. Instead, Empson suggested we try to comprehend what happens when these events are narrated in a dramatic medium, using ‘Dramatic Ambiguity’ (Empson 1986: 37). The trick is not to overread to discover thinking that the dramatic images never quite serve, nor to rest content when we have located what an audience might have found obvious. Doubt and uncertainty are exactly what an audience immediately receive from the portrayal of Hal, pleasure and vicarious freedom from Falstaff. Here the balance is one of uncertainty, not underlying conviction. If we are asked if Hal actually robbed anybody, if indeed he is the Prince out of The Famous Victories, then the safest conclusion is that Shakespeare could have made matters a lot clearer if he had seen fit to (see Empson 1986: 40-2). That is the point where the politics of performance, then as now, individual productions as well as constraining and informing ideologies, takes over—and repays the most thoroughgoing materialist scrutiny of the lot.


  1. The quibble on ‘instinct’ at II.iv.345-6 is not, to my mind, simply taproom badinage. Hal picks this up in a subtly different context when Falstaff imagines the thrill in the blood at the prospect of meeting Hotspur and Glendower—a return but with interest:

    … Art thou not horribly afraid? Doth not thy blood thrill at it?
    PRINCE Henry:
    Not a whit, i'faith. I lack some of thy instinct.


  2. See note 12. Stow, however, is detailed in his account of Oldcastle's misdemeanours afterwards. See Bullough (1957-75, 4: 291-2) for the description of what amounted to a Lollard rebellion. Oldcastle was eventually ‘hanged by the necke in a chayne of iron, and after consumed with fire’ (Bullough 1957-75, 4: 292).

  3. A detailed version of this point can be found in Jeffrey Stern's ‘The Sins of the Fathers: “Prince Hal's Conflict” Reconsidered’, in Moraitis and Pollock (1987: 487-502).

  4. This is probably the scope of the allusion at 2 Henry IV, II.ii.114, where the Page tells Hal that Falstaff is keeping Ephesian company at Eastcheap.

  5. Tillyard's thesis neglected the opportunities for satire and irony. Disorder was portrayed so that the ‘larger principle of order in the background’ could eventually reassert itself: ‘In his most violent representations of chaos Shakespeare never tries to persuade that it is the norm: however long and violent is its sway, it is unnatural; and in the end order and the natural law will reassert themselves’ (Tillyard 1944: 319, 23).

  6. Grady's general picture is one of a long trek to postmodernism. His views on early Marxist readings of Falstaff can be found in Grady (1991: 8-14). See also his description of the context for Tillyard's work in Grady (1991: 158-89).


Barber, C. L. (1959) Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton, NJ.

Bate, Jonathan (1989) Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism, 1730-1830. Oxford.

Bate, Jonathan (ed.) (1992) The Romantics on Shakespeare. Harmondsworth.

Bradley, A. C. (1909) Oxford Lectures on Poetry.

Bullough, Geoffrey (1957-75) Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols.

Empson, William (1986) Essays on Shakespeare, ed. David B. Pirie. Cambridge.

Grady, Hugh (1991) The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World. Oxford.

Hodgdon, Barbara (1991) The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History. Princeton, NJ.

Hodgdon, Barbara (1993) Henry IV, Part Two (Shakespeare in Performance series). Manchester.

Holderness, Graham (1992) Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama. Hemel Hempstead.

Johnson, Samuel (1986) Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson with Jean M. O'Meara. New Haven, CT.

Knowles, Ronald (1992) Henry IV, Parts I and II (The Critics' Debate series).

Masefield, John (1991) William Shakespeare.

McMillin, Scott (1991) Henry IV, Part One (Shakespeare in Performance series). Manchester.

Morgann, Maurice (1972) Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Daniel A. Fineman. Oxford.

Moraitis, George and Pollock, George H. (eds) (1987) Psychoanalytic Studies of Biography. Madison, WI.

Odell, George C. D. (ed.) (1963) Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 2 vols. New York (1st edn, 1920).

Stoll, E. E. (1927) Shakespeare Studies. New York.

Stow, John. (1592) The Annals of England.

Tillyard, E. M. W. (1943) The Elizabethan World Picture.

Tillyard, E. M. W. (1944) Shakespeare's History Plays.

Ulrici, Hermann (1876) Shakespeare's Dramatic Art (1st edn 1838).

Vickers, Brian (ed.) (1974-81) Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 1623-1801 6 vols.

Wilson, John Dover (1943) The Fortunes of Falstaff.

Womack, Peter. (1995) Henry IV and Epic Theater, Henry IV Parts One and Two, ed. Nigel Wood. Buckingham.

Yeats, W. B. (1961) At Stratford-on-Avon, in Yeats, Essays and Introductions, pp. 96-110.

Derek Cohen (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “History and the Nation in Richard II and Henry IV.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (spring 2002): 293-315.

[In the following essay, Cohen assesses the perception of history in the Henry IV plays, emphasizing a turbulent process of nation-building that survives both the murder and usurpation of Richard II and the pervasive moral uncertainty of Henry IV, Part 2.]


The past, in the figure of the murdered King Richard, haunts the protagonists of the Henry IV plays. The relation between the Richard they remember or merely imagine and the Richard of Richard II is fraught with emotional, moral, and ideological consequences. Richard's post-mortem power turns out to be greater than that he possessed alive and figures significantly in the various constructions of the English nation of these histories. His murder is the transforming fact and detail of Henry's monarchy, and it looms over and transfigures the events of Henry's reign. All crucial events refer to it. Richard, in death, becomes the focal point of action, the site of conflict, and the means by which the present and future are made coherent. Richard himself is a curious presence, represented in the plays in which he figures in strangely ambivalent ways. Richard searches for a defining royal essence in his character, and for some of those who observe him it seems to express itself in the great moments of self-consciousness just prior to his violent death. For others, Richard remains the fixed emblem of failure, a king who never achieved sufficient command of himself or his kingdom. His tragedy is, of course, coincident with the process of his failure and commences only after the loss of his monarchy has become an established fact. In the play of Richard, the king stands in a contradictory and perplexing relationship to many of his subjects. Among those close to him are his enemies as well as his friends; those who love and those who hate him stand in dangerously equal proximity to this monarch. The array of perspectives upon the beleaguered king includes, of course, that of the audience, privileged to see a private side invisible to both his friends and his enemies.

The Elizabethan preoccupation with history was, as Phyllis Rackin describes it, a matter of urgent national interest, regarded both as a means of preserving peace and political stability and as a matter of national self-definition. The multiplicity of understandings of the nature and purpose of the study of history is reflected in the plays, where radically different conceptions of history and its relevance to national identity are subjected to intense dialectical pressures.1 Richard II himself is engaged in the making of history. This is a conventional and inevitable function and byproduct of monarchy, and it is the way in which, for centuries, we have been schooled to understand the historical process—large affairs under the management of large men. The notion of history as justificatory political narrative confirming and legitimizing bourgeois political ideology has been explained by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his pursuit of a definition of the postmodern. To Lyotard, the postmodern is the very antithesis of the presumed credibility of the political imperatives that demand acquiescence and obedience to the authority by which history is heroic, male, and seamlessly woven into master narratives. Postmodernism is the rejection of that authority.2 The progressive and often contradictory historical revelations of the second tetralogy indicate that Shakespeare was aware of the traps and simplifications of traditional historical narrative.

The symphonic, ordered heroics of Richard II and of even the first part of Henry IV break up in the narrative dissonance and foundering of Henry IV's second part. The self-reflexivity of Part Two, as it refers backwards to the originating tragedy of the cycle, and as it somewhat cynically deconstructs its predecessor part, has, in its almost compulsive backward-looking perspective, the effect of setting Henry V apart, of separating it from its founding history. Indeed, this play, one of Shakespeare's most popular, does seem to have a critical and theatrical existence that is exclusive of the first three history plays of the tetralogy. Graham Holderness argues that these plays help mark the beginnings of modern historiography, that they present “a clear, historically informed apprehension of the political struggles of later medieval society; in particular the long struggle between monarchy and nobility which developed out of the contradictory nature of feudal order, and was arrested by the accession of the Tudors.”3 They also chart the uneasy and sometimes violent shift from a notion of England as a medieval monarchy to modern nationhood. The “realm,” imagined by John of Gaunt in act II, scene i of Richard II with its secure sense of how things should be, describes a world before the decline of the barons, a medieval England, like that described by Liah Greenfeld, “in which the population [is] related to the polity only as occupants of the land and the king's subjects; their stake in it being of a utilitarian and accidental nature.”4 Gaunt and Richard, too, are possessed by a nostalgia for lost plenitude, a world in which an imaginary unity, simplicity, and certainty once prevailed, a world that, according to Catherine Belsey, “precedes symbolic difference.”5

The sequence of Richard II through both parts of Henry IV expresses a familiar process of nation building and history making. A subject of his age, Shakespeare possessed a sense of history that would, to some extent, have been determined or influenced by the established pattern and practice of sequentiality in history making. Informing Shakespeare's sense of this pattern, however, is an awareness of many inherent contradictions that more formalist and monologist historians have always been at pains to subdue to their single political visions. Shakespeare gives a compelling dramatic version of the fraught process by which history and its concomitants such as nationality are created. He and his characters try to make sense of the past by transforming it into narratives of whose ideological pressures they are often unaware; those who are aware of ideology are usually its servants or promoters and create versions of history designed to advance political causes. Shakespeare and his characters are not, as is sometimes suggested, sophisticated, quasi-modern historians; they do, however, obey the human urge to assemble history out of the complex and only partially known and understood raw material of the past. The present essay is an attempt to understand a central contradiction of the sequence. On the one hand, Shakespeare and his characters seem to be seduced by the clarity and authority of the grand narrative of history and are prone to sweeping generalizations and magisterial pronouncements about history's so-called laws. On the other, there is a deep uncertainty, evident throughout the sequence, about the undeniably attractive simplicity and lucidity that such “laws” seem to proffer. The conflicting and contending historiographies voiced with such conviction in the plays throw the whole project of historical writing and historical narration into question. King Richard is a badly deluded monarch and not a historian. He sees himself as a participant in the master narrative of a continuous history. He adverts, refers, and alludes to his historic role. Those around him, for and against him, similarly recognize this function as the unavoidable destiny of a king. It is his self-perceived and self-produced historical role as one monarch in a political continuum that explains his appeal both to those who court his favor and those who seek his destruction. The king is the emblem of the future, according to this narrative; he ensures its coming because he is the essential link in a lineal progress that has no predictable or apparent end and springs from a mysterious beginning hedged with myth and magic. He is the personification of continuity in the nation and thus the locus of its stability or disturbance. To and from him all things are seen to tend. Thus his strength and weakness are rooted in the same place.

The king defines the entity we call the nation. He transcends in his person the complexities and ambiguities of geography, ethnicity, and even civility—in both the technical and political senses of the word. He is the nation, and, thus, he and his body civil must be preserved. When and however he dies, the office must still survive, for on that survival depends the survival of the organism known as the nation—this contingency has been transformed into a fixed political imperative in the minds and behavior of the citizenry and its masters. The falsity of the ideology—and hence the falsity of the analogy which in Shakespeare turns it into a truism—was not predicted by Shakespeare but was, remarkably, demonstrated by the real event of the civil war and its aftermath—a coherent England without a monarch. In Shakespeare, however, the English nation as an entity is dependent on and referable to its kings. The passionate anxiety of all engaged in preserving, protecting, restoring, or replacing the monarchy testifies to the continuous presence of a fear of its demise.

The context of this fear, however, is something of a paradox. Shakespeare was writing in a period of unprecedented social mobility. Under the New Aristocracy, in which noble birth was losing importance in the face of an aristocracy of ability and merit, a tentative process of democratization was under way. The old nobility, Greenfeld argues, was all but extinct by 1540, replaced by a new Henrician elite of men of modest birth but remarkable abilities.6 This perceptible, if still exclusive and partial, tendency toward equality of condition among different social strata remained focused on the monarch throughout the century; it was he or she who symbolized England's distinctiveness and sovereignty. In Tudor England, Robert Weimann reminds us, “those who upheld the independence of the nation supported the sovereignty of the crown; its authority was accepted not only against the claims of the Roman church but also in the face of domestic unrest and foreign invasion.”7

What is good or bad in Shakespeare's medieval or Tudor monarchies is always subordinated to the simple but overwhelming fact of kingship. The king simply is: his monarchy survives until his death or until he is usurped. What kind of king he was depends entirely upon his use of power and power's use of him. The king, in his lifetime, while making his history, is feeding the maw of his posterity—the successors and descendants who will remember him, will praise or blame him, and the writers who will reinvent him for their time.


The monarch's history making is abetted by the ideology that has made him monarch. His place in history is assured, but how does he perceive himself filling that place? Are his motivations those of a man who wishes to be remembered in a particular way? Does he seem to care whether history records his as a good or bad monarchy or him as a good or bad king? He is, of course, always at the mercy of the historians: while it is his destiny to be “historical,” a named part of the process, it is his chroniclers and not himself who will make his history. Shakespeare's Richard is, in the end, a very human character, driven, it seems, by ordinary desires and hopes and by ordinary malice. He is a subject of his power very much as his subjects themselves are. Because he has enormous political power, his use of that power is always vastly consequential to others. He must, therefore, be careful, but his impulses are frequently spontaneous and lead him to abuse his power. The responsibilities of office are at war with the inclinations to carry that office into spheres of life where it does not belong. There are at least three Richards in the play. There is the Richard known only as a public figure, the man his enemies fear and despise; there is the Richard known to and supported by his friends; and there is the Richard known privately to the audience through asides and through the audience's privileged view of both friendly and hostile perspectives offered publicly and privately.

Richard the king, the public man, the icon of the nation, appears most commanding in the opening scene of the play. He is surrounded by men who are implicated in the necessary deceptions of public politics. They all behave according to the dictates of form. They flatter him by the performance of ceremonies designed to honor him and confirm his authority. In the first scene we have pure performance, pure acting on all sides, and winnowing out enemies and friends is not possible without the aid of historical information. We have a king apparently reveling in his authority, surrounded by subjects, some of whom play at being loyal and obedient. The play's first speech implies a Richard in complete control. Harry Berger Jr. has noted the way in which his (deliberate?) use of the word “boist'rous” has the effect of infantilizing Bolingbroke, his hitherto unrecognized nemesis, and thus, by extension, aggrandizing or (to use Richard's own word) monarchizing the king.8 The stage belongs to Richard, and he uses it to full effect. All addresses made to him in this scene allude to his royal station. His regality is in the foreground of each speech and is reinforced by his self-conscious and ostentatious use of the royal plural. While Richard here adverts to the dissension between the two contestants, he manages to keep control over the proceedings, and, of course, his failure to force the contestants to give up their quarrel is ominous in the light of future events. Gaunt, Bolingbroke, and Mowbray's performance of obedience continues the illusion that Richard is in charge. It is an illusion not long sustained, but it is the canny Richard himself, the arch actor, who observes how the two contestants are vying for his credulity:

We thank you both, yet one but flatters us,
As well appeareth by the cause you come,
Namely, to appeal each other of high treason.(9)

Richard's failure is captured in the irony of the scene's conclusion where, having failed to make the two opponents do what he has willed and commanded, he now commands them to do what they have desired from the first:10

We were not born to sue, but to command,
Which since we cannot do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry upon Saint Lambert's day.
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate.

(R, I.i. 196-201)

Earlier in the same scene Richard has offered, in what may be an aside, a remark that refers to the tone of Bolingbroke's determination to avenge the death of his uncle, the duke of Gloucester, a death that he lays at the door of Mowbray (but that, we know and learn, implicated the king himself). As he watches and listens to Bolingbroke, Richard notes: “How high a pitch his resolution soars” (R, I.i. 110). The line has a thoughtful, private quality, as though whispered or wryly observed to a trusted friend. And it tells of the astuteness of the king who knows more than he tells, sees more than he lets on. And so the ceremony is subverted and with it—but only momentarily—the notion that this monarchy is an example of a pure, flowing, sequential “history” of an ordered medieval world. The possibility of Richard's words being an actual aside lends it the appearance of a line overheard only by the audience: this possibility introduces a note of irony; Richard knows things that have not been declared or revealed. A subtext of subterfuge, secrets, and lies is suddenly exposed. The human motive of simple distrust pierces the carapace of ceremony. The man who is king is shown to possess another side. The play seems to take off from this point. Its vitality depends upon the conflict of the private and public personae constructed for private and public occasion. The spectacle of Richard and his friends, later in the first act, talking with malicious glee of Bolingbroke's departure provides a curious scene, one in which the sarcastic pleasure of malicious young men almost obscures the presence of danger to the throne:

Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune
.....Off goes his bonnet to an oyster wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed hime well
And had the tribute of his supple knee.

(R, I.iv.28-33)

Perhaps it is the cynicism of Richard that helps undo him. So caught up and delighted does he seem in his awareness of pretense and acting that he almost forgets to wonder what it truly conceals, what danger the perceptible duplicity of his subjects offers his security. This lighthearted banter, with its serious implications, is a nice contrast to the vehement duchess of Gloucester's bloodthirsty exhortation—also in private—to her lawabiding brother-in-law Gaunt to avenge his brother as, she tells him, a brother should and a real man would.

The contentions that drive the play are multifarious. Their danger is in the secrecy and caution with which they are marshaled by Richard's enemies and in Richard's culpable blindness to them. This, at least, is Shakespeare's version of events. The moment of Richard's direst peril is the moment when, just after John of Gaunt's death, he leaves Ely House with the contemptuous parting words: “Think what you will. We seize into our hands / His plate, his goods, his money and his lands” (R, II.i.209-10). The place is left occupied by angry conspirators who talk of the impending return of Bolingbroke and rebellion. Belsey notes that Richard's words are absolute only on condition that they remain within the existing system of differences. Like his subjects, he is subject to the symbolic order, which allots meaning to the orders he gives. But he surrenders his absolutism by his transgression of the system of differences: “Richard-as-England has consumed England's material wealth in riot, misusing his sovereignty to mortgage the land, devouring in the name of his title his own entitlement … Richard violates the symbolic order, and in consequence his words lose their sovereignty.”11

The rest is history. At the end of the play, rebellion has triumphed, Richard is horribly killed, and the new king is enthroned. Henry's reign is doomed from its commencement. Or, rather, Shakespeare presents his reign as doomed and supplies a heavily moralistic underpinning to the start of that reign to account for its unhappy history. Here, the play interrogates the utility of the moral and political forces that animate the drama and dominate the sequel plays. Bolingbroke's disavowal of Sir Piers of Exton is an act of double treachery that only reifies the habit and practice of moral compromise that is to characterize his reign. Of the treachery of the powerful in the two Henry IV plays, which continue the tradition, Paola Pugliatti makes the useful point that the way the denouement comes about “involves an interesting exchange of prerogatives, for it is achieved by means of a double betrayal: the betrayal by John of Lancaster of the forces of rebellion and the betrayal by Hal of the forces of misrule.”12 Political action is profoundly rooted in an apparently unavoidable duplicity and finds its historical power in compulsive hypocrisy. Stephen Greenblatt does not exaggerate when he observes of the Henry plays that in them “moral authority rests upon a hypocrisy so deep that the hypocrites themselves believe it.”13 Actions that lack spontaneous double awareness, such as the bishop of Carlisle's attempted obstruction of Bolingbroke's accession, are dangerous in the extreme. From Richard's quietly ironic recognition of Bolingbroke's ambition to Henry IV's double dealing with Exton, the pattern of secrecy followed by lying establishes monarchy as a political practice that is necessarily sustained by public dishonesty.


So deeply embedded in the practice of monarchy is the form and habit of deception that the actors of Shakespeare's history—kings and noblemen alike—do not themselves comprehend the extent to which they are involved in its convolutions. They write, record, and recall history with apparent sincerity, and yet their versions of the same past events are remarkably different. The multiplicity, even infinity, of meanings to which history is automatically and eternally subject marks Shakespeare's awareness of what has more recently been described as a process of deferral. This difference arises partly because the past of Henry IV is fixed in the crime of murder, which calls out for revenge or expiation. Thus the plays that succeed the reign and the death of Richard are locked in a remembered and recorded eternity. The past cannot be laid to rest if the murderer goes unpunished and dies quietly in his bed in the Jerusalem Chamber. So the past persists into the eternal present, a sore in the mind that worries the history being enacted and shapes and forms the nation.

Henry IV describes the inevitable process by which real events are transmogrified into myth and, hence, national consciousness—or, more accurately, into the prevailing or dominant culture's idea of national consciousness. The murder of Richard is the great fact of the tetralogy. It permeates the consciousness of Richard's posterity, both his actual and his would-be heirs. Their ambitions and aspirations are shaped by the way they relate to the murdered king. Each side in the Henry rebellions defines itself by the way in which it defines its own and its enemy's perception of that relation. It holds onto its beliefs about the other side's perceptions of the crime. The murder is passed down to posterity as a murder. Its witnesses are implicated in its permutations of meaning, its subtle capacities, its effects on its perpetrators, and its transformative power. To posterity, the murder of Richard is just one of history's regicides; to the witnesses of the slaying, it is an individual and unique event in which a man—guilty and innocent like us all—is slaughtered by armed assassins. What happens in the minutes during which that slaughter occurs unavoidably becomes part of the witness' past and thus the means by which the privileged onlookers of the murder must measure the narrative simplifications and ideological tendencies of the inheritors of Richard's legacy. To Richard's successors, the murder becomes mythology the minute it becomes publicly known. To the audience, the actuality of the murder—its visible, brutal violence—thwarts or determines the mythologizing process of history. What Shakespeare's audience sees is a man killed; what recorded history comes to know, on the other hand, is a depersonalized version of the event and its transformation into a mythological instrument of use in the pursuit of political power. Myth is mythical because its incidents conform to familiar, recognizable patterns. The murder of a king is as old as kingship. The murder of Richard continues the familiar cycle.

The simplification and depersonalization of regicide have to do with the process of transformation from act to language. The murder of Richard is a vastly complex event, loaded with implications that are actual, imaginary, historical, ideological, and dramatic. There is and can be no definitive reading—or history—of the murder of Richard. It is a dramatic event that may be viewed from a multiplicity of angles and perspectives. We may choose, as critics usually have done, to view it as an integral part of a dramatic sequence or narrative. But it may, with equal validity, be viewed as a chaotic re-enactment of an already mythologized event upon which an author has chosen to impose form—aesthetic, moral, or monitory. The possibilities are literally endless. The deferral of a definitive reading has no limit. However, the inheritors of Richard's story, friendly and hostile, implicated and indifferent, fulfill some kind of human compulsion in their attempts to put the murder into the forms of language. This is the eternal human trap. By giving language to history in order simply to possess it, we unavoidably simplify it, attempting, as Belsey reminds us, “to arrest the play of meaning … since meaning is plural, to be able to speak is to be able to take part in the contest for meaning.”14 The murder of Richard looms over its own future, well into the age of Elizabeth. Those close to it recognize a need to position themselves in relation to it. Nothing less than the enveloping concept of the English nation is at stake. The focus, in these plays, on the deceased king was a reminder to Elizabethans of their own dependency on Elizabeth as the focus of their national aspirations.


Henry IV presses the conceptualization of English nationhood in new directions. As the England of these histories is developed through the machinery of both formulated and implicit history, the creation of national identity becomes freighted with some of the contradictory impulses of history making. Imposing meaning on past events is one project of the two central plays of the tetralogy, and in them, different ways of making history contend for supremacy. There is, for example, the history of Henry's predecessor, which is foregrounded many times as it is remembered both by those who were there and by those who know it by report. And then there is the history contained in the dramatic reality of human character as it breathes life into the present. The first words spoken by King Henry are an example of the latter: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care / Find we a time for (righted peace to pant.”15 The lines are redolent with allusion and painful but contingent memory, referring obliquely to the conclusion of the previous play—but they are not the stuff of history. Yet the feelings they represent and the tidings to which they allude are all a part of the story in which the lives of those engaged in making history are intertwined. In the Henry plays, history, as recalled and recounted by the characters, is a means of negotiating with the present. The retrospective mode animates the present, and the past is a felt and perceptible force that directs and positions that present. It is, as we may expect, Prince Hal, the omnicompetent young politician, who possesses the keenest awareness of the crushing presence of the past on the present and future. His “I know you all” speech is a declaration of precisely this recognition (1H, I.ii. 190). He announces in advance his plan to mold the present in order to mold the future so that when the present has become the past, its groundwork, the conditions upon which it must be read and understood, will already have been established. This is a young man who is quite simply trying to avoid the unpredictable. That is, Prince Hal's project is to manipulate and control the forces of uncertainty that disturb, distort, and deflect history from the paths of the inconvenient reality to which it must so often submit. While there is no guarantee that the audience of one of the plays was present at the previous one in the tetralogy, Hal's speech, more than any other in the series, presents us with the notion of the connectedness of the first three plays of the tetralogy: it further justifies the unverifiable but appealing assumption that each play was addressed to an audience that was aware of or, better yet, present at the preceding play.

Unlike Richard and Henry IV, Prince Hal is more than merely aware of his assured place in history and his destined role: he is determined to direct the forces of history and bend them to his will. Hal's perspective on the past will prevail and, in prevailing, will give him the power to define the English nation in the terms he dictates. This mastering of all circumstances is his constant strategy and is what distinguishes him from his immediate predecessors. Surprise is not an emotion Hal ever seems to feel. There seems to be no moment unaccounted for, no eventuality for which he is unprepared, no passion for which he does not have the right words at his immediate disposal. This general readiness, not a quality that has greatly endeared him to the public, is nevertheless the secret of his continued successes. He thinks less about the past or the forces that have made him Prince of Wales and the future king than about the means needed to prepare himself for the great day. When it comes, he evinces only the most correct emotion and appropriate feeling. His life is a life's work. When he is king, and especially in the play of Henry V, his monarchy seems to be driven in part by retrospect and a sharp eye on the retrospective view of posterity.

Those around him, however imbricated in their history, are in a constant state of acute awareness of those traditions and their relation to these traditions. They look back in order to contextualize the present. The first reference in 1 Henry IV to the previous king occurs in the dialogue among Northumberland, Worcester, and Hotspur as together they ponder the cause of the present disarray of the nation. …

The passage reeks with regret. The least attractive part here is Northumberland's, with his remorse at having taken a wrong side. Richard, whom we have seen Northumberland bullying and attempting to force into confessions of crimes and royal transgressions in the first play, has become the “unhappy king,” as though the sympathy and “wrongs in us” that Northumberland has latterly discovered will put a gloss on his complicity in the king's murder. The passage, nevertheless, supplies a useful reminder that historical facts do, in fact, exist. Northumberland did, actually, in words and actions, support Bolingbroke's usurpation of Richard's crown. And no amount of ideological tampering can erase the fact. His regret at having done so is a fascinating example of rehistoricizing that fact. But, it cannot remove it. And young Harry Hotspur is equally interesting in his “reading” of his father's new version of his complicity. He sees fit to chastise Northumberland, not, however, for participating in the subornation of the murderers of Richard, but for doing so for the sake of “this forgetful man” (1 H, I.iii. 158) who has neglected his obligations to his fellow murderers. Hotspur's speech, passionate as usual, does manage to take the history in interesting new directions. He is unstinting in his blame of his father, but he loses some credibility in his reincarnation of Richard, whose downfall he himself aided. This is, of course, familiar narrative. The question, however, of what drives the narrative in these and other directions is what fascinates. There is, indeed, among the rebels and within the king himself, recognizable lust for political and personal power. The craving, however, bespeaks larger issues and larger desires, above all the determination that the meaning of “England” that finally prevails shall be the meaning imposed by themselves rather than that which has been stamped upon the nation by the reigning monarch.

Hotspur understands all too well the compelling force of history and the need to situate himself in relation to it. There is, on the one hand, his strong sense of the past and, on the other, a strong desire to create a favorable impression of himself in that relation. His rhetoric is provocative:

Shall it for shame be spoken in these days,
Or fill up chronicles in time to come,
That men of your nobility and power
Did gage them both in an unjust behalf
(As both of you, God pardon it, have done)
To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose,
And plant this thorn, this canker Bolingbroke?

(1H, I.iii. 169-75)

This is both brilliant and naive. Hotspur distances himself from his friends as he embraces them. He understands the moral force by which chronicles are directed, the roles of shame and injustice in their construction. The “sweet lovely rose” is a palpably self-serving description that supplies a rallying point for the rebellion but violently contradicts the actions of these three men in the earlier play. Historical simplification carries the argument: good and bad, present and future, are its bases. The rebels see a need to talk themselves out of complicity in the crime of killing their king. They are enraged at having been duped by Bolingbroke, “this king of smiles,” “this fawning greyhound” (1H, I.ii.243, 248). The worse Bolingbroke is, the better they are. If the king is a villainous regicide and their enemy, they are, by logical extension, virtuous simply in their opposition to him. Thus, they are “for” England, while he is its enemy. And yet it is they, the rebels, who are willing to divide England into the spoils of victory. The tripartite division of the realm, described by Holinshed and realized in the play with the aid of a map in act III, scene i, runs counter to the prevailing mood of national consciousness and patriotism of Elizabethan England. The act of division effectively isolates the rebels and lends credibility to the prince's party as no amount of moralizing would have done. It is possible to see the rebels' division of the kingdom as an internal directive to the audience about the threat to the national well-being offered by those who would divide the nation.

Unlike those of the other histories, the characters of Part One seldom engage in conscious analysis of history, state, or politics. The motor of its drama is the psychological forces that prompt rebellion and the social aftermath that rebellion can produce; its historiography takes the form of self-justifying narrative. Northumberland's revolt is a product of envy and the perceived ingratitude of the king. Bolingbroke's version of his ascent to power is no deeper. In his crucial exchange with Hal, he remembers Richard and himself and the opposition that brought him to the throne. His speeches describe a king who degraded the dignity of his office, and he uses that perceived degradation as a justification for usurpation. The energy of the drama of Part One whirls about issues of motivation and personal and political morality. The issue of the criminal incipience of the reign of this monarch supplies a straightforward political moral. A great crime begets great consequences. This play's memory—its accumulated references and allusions to the past—has occluded the great speech of Richard II, who reminded his hearers of the history of bloodshed upon which the English crown was founded—on “the sad tales of the death of kings … All murthered” (R, III.ii. 156-60). Its focus is on the dramaturgical mechanics of war and heroism and opportunism. History has become a simple matter of sides. Henry's description of his ascent and Richard's fall invokes a Manichean view of the past that does nothing to find truth but does much to vindicate him. Its purpose is served with Machiavellian efficacy, since it elicits from the wayward son apparent feelings of guilt and the famous oath of both fealty and love and the promise of redemption:

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.

(1H, III.ii.133-5)

Hal's preoccupation with achieving greatness through the crown lends most of his great speeches a forward- rather than a backward-looking quality. He predicts and prepares a future from which he will be able to look back and through which posterity will judge him.


Part Two of Henry IV is another story. Here, the impulses of history and history making dominate the action, although the process is tainted and confused by popular and vulgar reality. As Part One devolves heavily on the personal, on issues and theories of character and the forging of historic personae, Part Two more sweepingly locates human character and action in an encompassing framework of political and historical conceptualization. This is a drama of ideas, in which the difficulty of writing history within the framework of a visibly and inconveniently awkward reality is addressed. The powerbrokers of this history want something more complex and ambitious than to seem ethical in the eyes of their subjects, their sons, and their posterity—they want to be right and to have been right. In pursuit of these aims they are constantly placed in the position of having to reflect on the past and to re-form their reflection into suitable and, usually, self-aggrandizing forms. We are thus inadvertently alerted to the potential unreliability of any history that is written by its participants. The often engaging triviality of Part One—Hal's mockery of Hotspur, Falstaff's joking, Lady Hotspur's threatening to break her husband's little finger—is sidelined in this play. There is, to put it simply, no innocence in Part Two. Even its naughtiness is tainted by the gravity of the issues of history. The play moves inexorably to its stunning and eternally ambiguous climax as Prince Hal becomes King Henry and promptly rejects Falstaff. Where Part One has dramatic excitement, life (comedy), death (tragedy), and heroic action (epic), Part Two has self-reflexive moral and intellectual magnitude, which are reinforced and complicated by the omnipresence of moral uncertainty. And it is in Hal's addressing the questions of uncertainty and ambiguity that his difference from the other makers of history is demonstrated. Unlike those around him, including his father, his brother John, Northumberland, and Westmoreland, among others, Hal shows strength in his ability and willingness to acknowledge the inevitable and inherent ambiguity of political and historical processes. While his friends and enemies argue by asseveration, Hal alone seems able to accept and abide with the reality of moral uncertainty or relativism.

A kind of ill temper pervades the play: each of the chief characters seems to anticipate impediment and conflict, to which expectation they respond in advance with quick and ready aggression. Rumor's presence as prologue establishes the sequence of lies followed by compromised and thwarted responses: this pattern somehow becomes fixed as a condition of the structure of the play. The result is an essentially human motive of angry pessimism that lends the project of history making a bias that the characters and the play never shake. Pugliatti argues convincingly that Part Two enacts “a process of corruption whose seeds are already present—albeit hardly stressed—in Part One. Various forms of sickness now attack the core … and in the end, the axiologies which militate against the king are defeated by a process of pollution which changes their very nature.”16

What Dover Wilson really showed in The Fortunes of Falstaff was not so much his own conviction that the rejection of Falstaff was morally justified as the fact that it was foolish of readers before him not to have seen it coming.17 Clearly he saw it coming, but clearly he equally wanted it to be right, proper, and Christian that it did occur. We have moved away from such moral certainty and absolutism in our reading of Shakespeare. Wilson's reading of the rejection is, interestingly, an example of the very reading of history advanced by a proponent of a rather secular notion of the “rules” of historiography. I refer, of course, to Warwick, whose “hatch and brood of time” speech propounds the convenient ideology of the repetitiveness, predictability, and inexorability of a comprehensible historical process:

There is a history in all men's lives
Figuring the nature 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 beginnings lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time;
And by the necessary form of this
King Richard might create a perfect guess
That great Northumberland, then false to him,
Would of that seed grow to a greater falseness,
Which should not find a ground to root upon
Unless on you.

(1H, III.i.80-92)

Henry's response is a resounding affirmation of this view: “Are these things then necessities? / Then let us meet them like necessities” (1H, III.i.93-4). Looking back, we can wisely predict what is to come. The point is less banal than it might look. Warwick alludes to the complex forces that shape historical progressions. While a treacherous man must always be watched, it is also true that the “history” in all men's lives and the “nature” of times deceased have become something other than the things themselves—they have become language and argument. Warwick's way of understanding history repeats the notion of history as an orderly master plan, possibly presided over by a master planner. But it is not confirmed by the deliberate subversions and interstitial interventions of this extraordinary play, which constantly threatens to switch moral, political, and dramatic direction. Pugliatti makes the further point that “Warwick's idea of change taking place in time and his stress on the observer's activity also epitomizes the spectator's experience, which is obviously the mirror image of the dramatist's.”182 Henry IV puts us on guard against the transformative power of speech in a quite explicit way. The Lord Chief Justice dismisses Falstaff with words that might be an epigraph for this play: “I am well acquainted,” he tells him, “with your manner of wrenching the true cause the false way.”19

“Wrenching the true cause” is a fine metaphor for much of the narrative pattern of this play's history. In the histories, particularly, abstractions, memories, ideas, and certitudes are recovered into pure, whole, and traditional narrative forms nowhere so vividly as in the descriptions of historical battles. Shrewsbury is innocently misrepresented by Lord Bardolph as the glorious triumph of the “rebels”:

The King is almost wounded to the death:
And, in the fortune of my lord your son,
Prince Harry slain outright …
.....                                                                                                              Sir John,
                    Is prisoner to your son.

And then this:

                                                                                                              O, such a day,
So fought, so follow'd, and so fairly won,
Came not till now to dignify the times
Since Caesar's fortunes!

(2H, I.i.14-23)

That “Caesar” is perfect: an example of heroic glossing over the sordid realities of war in the borrowed robes of classical precedent, transporting both the orator and the auditor to those pure and unsullied realms of nostalgic imagination where history and mythology meet.

In the beginning of this play, however, the resolution is entirely illusory. The first dramatic scene begins with three rapid and confusing questions as the all-but-anonymous Lord Bardolph and the literally anonymous Porter fire interrogatives at each other, lending the opening a ferocious sense of anxiety. The scene then violently disjoins dramatic narrative by the introduction, not of lying—of which we have a plenitude in the play—but of sheer and terrible error. Lord Bardolph lyrically declaims the wrong tidings in full view of an audience that knows the truth, and he tragically compounds the error by sowing false hope amongst the rebels. The circulation of false information lends a potent, subversive force to this drama of disaster and produces feelings of confusion and preternaturally strained emotion. Among the rebels, to whom he brings this moment of misfounded ecstasy, is a man—Northumberland—who has to publicly carry the burden of having betrayed his own son and helped him to his grave. The scene is charged with multiguous and hopelessly confused emotions and information that cause the safety and certainty of conventional theatrical predictability to be radically disturbed. The audience is thrown into confusion about what it thinks and what it thinks it is supposed to think. The presence of a malevolent mischief is deeply felt by all who participate in and watch this scene as guilty and innocent parties to the rebellion are overwhelmed first by exhilarating and then shocking “news.” The heroic ugliness of Northumberland's “Let order die” speech, where he invokes murder and destruction upon mankind, calling on darkness to be “the burier of the dead” is a characteristically excessive and hyperbolical example of the tendency toward disintegration that is the signature of this play (2H, I.i. 155, 160). In Part One, whether we find the subplot carnivalesque, subversive of, or complementary to the monarchical plot, it is clearly and deliberately subordinate to it.20

The same cannot be said of Part Two with its commencement in brutal and tragic error and its conclusion in ambiguity and disintegrity. Hal, it is true, is a kind of link with the heroic, but he is, by any standards, a critically compromised one by virtue of such things as his applause for Prince John's chicanery and his rejection and denial of the most spontaneous and vital part of his own past and, indeed, by his absence from so many of the crucial scenes of the play. The whole of this first scene, more of an overture to the play than even the induction, is a crazy vacillating career through a range of opposite emotions leading nowhere. And it is this pure, mad directionlessness of the scene that lends it strength. There is a quite extraordinary but emotionally charged pointlessness about it all. It is a scene whose purpose is entirely mysterious in terms of normal dramatic expectation. Nothing of the plot or story is advanced; it exists by itself as a surreal evocation of violently contradictory emotion, its connection to the drama merely temporal. It tells the audience nothing new. It simply reveals what everyone already knows: if you tell a dead soldier's father that his son is alive, you make him happy, and if you then tell him that he is, in fact, dead, you make him sad and violently angry. It is all very well to employ the Procrustean method of the kind of criticism that insists that such a scene strikes a thematic note, but this kind of analysis leaves more questions unanswered than answered. We are left with the simple but unpalatable reality of maliciously and gratuitously produced pain. However, more to the point is the way in which history is rendered unreliable, subjective, and susceptible to ideology, producing, instead of ultimate truth, a response of (healthy?) incredulity, which Lyotard recognized as the identifying stamp of the postmodern. The kind of mind—Lord Bardolph's in this case—that constructs a narrative of battle as Caesarian is a schooled, academy-forged and -mediated mind common to the “high people” of the plays in the tetralogy. The courtiers sound remarkably alike, regardless of what side they are on. Each has his own particular version of the “truth” without being capable of particularizing that truth as uniquely his. The moral uncertainties of this play, with its alternative histories of the recent events, reveal epistemological structures to be heavily and inevitably compromised. Thus, while the impulse to produce what Belsey following Lyotard calls a “grand narrative” reveals itself constantly in the posturing and the speeches of powerbrokers on both sides of the civil conflict, the play's actual narrative and moral energies tug it away from the ideological simplifications that such a narrative implies.21 Grand narrative is surely the impulse that motivates Northumberland's recognition of Morton, the bearer of ill news:

Yea, this man's brow, like to title-leaf,
Foretells the nature of a tragic volume.
So looks the strond whereon the imperious flood
Hath left a witness'd usurpation.

(2H, I.i.60-3)

Thus do the makers of history attempt to encompass and control the material of their narratives. Northumberland's deeply felt fearful anticipation is, nevertheless, couched in the accustomed metaphors of heroic history. Good news or bad is lifted from the realm of human action by an officially promulgated, academically sanctioned language of epic narrative. The story of Northumberland's family is presented in the speech as possessed of inherent and inevitable grandeur. The father strains to find meaning in the tragedy of his son's death. And he finds it in the precedents and rituals of rhetoric.

Disintegrity and a downwardly spiraling deconstruction of the enforced codes and forms of history making are the centers of energy of this strange play. They are most notoriously manifest in the treachery of Prince John; but criticism has not overlooked Prince Hal's complicity in the flagrant dishonesty. This is a modern world of expediency and pragmatism, and success is its highest reward, while honor and its effects are relegated to memory, to a quaint historical narrative upon which we may feed our thirst for order and old fashion but which will do nothing to enrich our lives. Hal's crown stands squarely upon the violation done to chivalry by the deception of the duke of Lancaster: chivalry dies in this play. The rejection of Falstaff is another of the signifiers of a monarchy centered in ambiguity and hypocrisy. And the erosion of certainties and the concomitant embrace of the “modern” are further exposed by the evidence of cruelty, corruption, and violence on the level of the street. Comic violence in the tavern is suddenly made very real and very ugly when the First Beadle warns Hostess Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, “Come, I charge you both, go with me, for the man is dead that you and Pistol beat amongst you” (2H, V. iv. 16-8).

History proper makes its most visible and verifiable appearance in the epilogue, when Rumour traverses the boundary between fact and fantasy with his reference to Oldcastle and his unconvincing assertion that “this [Falstaff] is not the man” (2H, epilogue, 32). The passage informs us that the narrative will continue “with Sir John in it”—that is, it knowingly promises the delights of comedy and sex (“fair Katherine of France”) as though it understands where the audience's real interest lies—not, evidently, with Henry. Making history himself, Shakespeare, according to Rackin, “severs the connection between his disreputable theatrical creation and its original historical namesake in order to evade censorship and prosecution. Named for the real historical Oldcastle, the character would have had real historical consequences for the players in the enmity of Oldcastle's present descendants. Dehistoricized by the name of Falstaff, he acquires the impotence (fall-staff) of fiction, but he also acquires its license.”22 Perhaps, of course, “Falstaff” is a wordplay not on fallen staffs but on full staffs, and stands for the opposite of impotence, which more accords with my own feelings about him—certainly he is one of the sexier presences in the play just as, in my opinion again, Hal is one of the least sexual of Shakespearean characters. Be that as it may, Rackin is surely right in adverting to this passage's sheer historicity just as Shakespeare seems explicitly to be denying it. In that denial of the historicity of Falstaff and in his correction of the assumption that Falstaff is based on Oldcastle, Shakespeare, in a way, subverts his own denial.

The almost compulsive reconstructions of the past that animate these chronicle plays reflect the persistence of a need, both in the characters of his plays and in the author himself, to construct something whole out of something inherently fragmented. The past is known only in bits and pieces and has, by the time Shakespeare is writing his epic, been molded into something only partially and unsatisfactorily known. The multiplicity of versions of the same history, already a fact in the late sixteenth century, is itself an index of a restless recognition of the ultimate failure of the grand narrative to be what it always purports to be—the last word on the subject. The Shakespearean project, starting with Richard II and continuing through three more plays, is another attempt to view that past and to reshape it yet again. The symphonic and sweeping generalizations about history and England undergo critical deconstructive scrutiny in the plays which follow, culminating in the scratchy “unconformities”—to use Kristian Smidt's term—of Henry IV Part Two.23 The pristine “England,” longingly recalled in Gaunt's speech, remains a barely intact but, nevertheless, remembered reality in Richard II. It is an England ruled by “Divine Right,” a feudalism, according to Holderness, that is given “cohesion and structure by the central authority of a king bound to his subjects by reciprocal bonds of fealty.”24 But even the economic bonds that, according to Gaunt, tie the nation together in mercenary agreements appropriate to “tenement[s]” and “pelting farm[s]” are a form of wholeness (R, IIA.60). That wholeness is a conception which the trajectory of the group of plays interrogates by slowly breaking it down into its component parts. For all the flaws that modern criticism has found in the person of King Henry V, his play is a celebration of the coherence of the English nation, bound together by civil bonds that are not—as Richard had misunderstood it—the patrimony of the monarch, but rather a commonwealth of many essentially and potentially equal participants. One of the key elements in the formation of the nation was a new regard for its history and a concomitant search for its native roots.


  1. Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 4-8.

  2. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 81.

  3. Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, Shakespeare: The Play of History (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 19.

  4. Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), p. 36.

  5. Catherine Belsey, “Making Histories Then and Now: Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V,” in Uses of History: Marxism, Postmodernism and the Renaissance, ed. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 24-46, 44.

  6. Greenfeld, p. 47.

  7. Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978], p. 166.

  8. Harry Berger Jr., “Psychoanalyzing the Shakespeare Text: The First Three Scenes of the Henriad,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 210-29, 215.

  9. Shakespeare, King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1961), Li.25-7. Further quotations will be cited in the text as R followed by the act, scene, and line number.

  10. Rackin writes on this point: “The first line is a proud assertion of Richard's inherited, institutional authority as king; the second an anticlimactic confession of his inability to exercise it” (p. 47).

  11. Belsey, “Making Histories Then and Now,” p. 35.

  12. Paola Pugliatti, Shakespeare the Historian (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 108.

  13. Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 18-47, 41.

  14. Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Routledge, 1985), p. 6.

  15. Shakespeare, The First Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1960), Li. 1-2. Further quotations will be cited in the text as 1H followed by the act, scene, and line number.

  16. Pugliatti, p. 119.

  17. J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1943).

  18. Pugliatti, p. 130.

  19. Shakespeare, The Second Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1966), ILL 107. Further quotations will be cited in the text as 2H followed by act, scene, and line number.

  20. See especially Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), pp. 130-78.

  21. Belsey, “Making Histories Then and Now,” p. 44.

  22. Rackin, p. 240.

  23. Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1982).

  24. Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled, p. 64.

Stephen Wall (review date 5 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. Review of Henry IV, Part 1.Times Literary Supplement, no. 5068 (5 May 2000): 19.

[In the following review of a 2000 staging of Henry IV, Part 1 at The Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Wall notes that this intimate venue lent itself more to the subtleties of Desmond Barrit's Falstaff than to the volubility of David Troughton's Henry IV or Adam Levy's energetic Hotspur.]

What sort of stage do Shakespeare's Histories need? When the RSC moved into the Barbican in 1982, Trevor Nunn directed Henry IV as an elaborate demonstration of the new theatre's physical possibilities, with three-storey structures like Dickensian warrens giving way to deep open space for the battle scenes. Of the four history plays offered at Stratford this summer, only Henry V is to be given in the main house, Richard II and both parts of Henry IV being diverted to its smaller-scale venues. Michael Attenborough's new production of the first part of Henry IV (Part Two follows in June) needs to convince us that its allocation to the congenial but limited Swan brings legitimate rewards and isn't just a matter of logistical convenience.

David Troughton delivers Henry's opening state-of-the-nation speech with the clarity and force that has made him a Stratford stalwart, but he also sets too loud an example; the acoustics of the Swan don't need such over-projection, and it inhibits subtlety. The main causes of the unease with which this head wears its crown (such as his reluctant admiration for Hotspur, who seems to embody the virtues his own son lacks) are clearly signalled, but Troughton's relentless attack gets in the way of a more complex rendering of Henry's paternal and political anxieties; he's mastered the part but hasn't, as yet, got inside the person.

The tendency to equate maximum effect with excessive volume, especially in matters heroical, undermines Adam Levy's Hotspur. It is true that hyperbole is Hotspur's element and his impetuosity is written into the role, but, when he talks of plucking bright Honour from the pale-faced moon, he means what he says; that is what makes him dangerous. The inspiriting power of the chivalric ideal is not something which young modern actors find it easy to convey, but to do so needs more than fortissimo displays of temperament. Hotspur's dying but grandiloquent phrases—“time, that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop”—are thrown away in a flurry of physical energy.

When it comes to the showdown between Hotspur and Hal and the other alarums in Act Five, the Swan's cramped dimensions are less of a disadvantage than might have been feared. The thrust stage means that the audience sees the action close-up (in the way that television has conditioned us to), and what is lost in spectacle is gained in proximity; the front rows are not for the nervous. But although the production manages such difficulties well, the intimacy of the auditorium naturally favours the play's more domestic passages. Quiet moments such as the Welsh song of Glendower's daughter before parting from Mortimer—which neither he nor we can understand—are a relief from the prevailing bluster. Even more effective is the chat (Act Three, Scene Three) between Falstaff and Bardolph, as they wait for Hal to arrive; they have nothing to say to each other which they haven't often said before, but the very predictability of their lines, delicately underplayed by Desmond Barrit and Arthur Cox, provide a saving touch of overheard ordinariness.

It was to be expected that the tavern scenes would benefit most from the Swan's environment. At the Barbican in 1982, a number of actors dropped their background tasks to form an audience for Falstaff's game of fathers and sons; at the Swan, we are near enough to take their place. As the Prince of Wales, William Houston, smiling boyishly, seems at first to indicate too besotted an infatuation with Falstaff's outrageousness, but his reply at the end of the game to Falstaff's plea not to be banished when Hal is King—“I do, I will”—is chillingly measured. After this, Houston begins to reveal Hal's latent power; his victory over Hotspur shows a convincing Henry V (who he begins to play in August) in the making.

On this occasion, however, the real hero of Shrewsbury is Falstaff. Desmond Barrit's knight is “portly” (his word) rather than obese, but, although obliged to consort with riff-raff, remains a gentleman. His relationship with the audience—easily made in this theatre—is comfortable but not overfamiliar. He relishes invective, but not too fruitily. A kind of refinement hangs about him, and he can't entirely disguise some intimations of sincerity. His manifest affection for Hal compares favourably with Henry IV's self-regarding admonitions, and, although adroit in turning things to his advantage, he isn't always ahead of the game; he is genuinely caught out over his cowardice at Gadshill, and understandably frightened by military thugs like Douglas. As Barrit asks them, the progressive questions which make up Falstaff's catechism on Honour (“What is Honour? A Word”, etc) develop an almost elegiac authority which no one else equals. His cry “Give me life, which if I can save, so” establishes him as the battlefield's true philosopher. It looks as though his rejection, at the end of Part Two, will be a serious loss.

Jesse M. Lander (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Lander, Jesse M. “‘Crack'd Crowns’ and Counterfeit Sovereigns: The Crisis of Value in 1 Henry IV.Shakespeare Studies 30 (2002): 137-61.

[In the following essay, Lander presents an economic reading of Henry IV, Part 1 as the dramatic representation of a crisis of value in which monetary concerns exert their influence on monarchical authority and legitimacy.]

Money has the advantage of presenting me immediately the lurid face of the social relation of value; it shows me value right away as exchange, commanded and organized for exploitation … money has only one face, that of the boss.

—Antonio Negri

A pervasive atmosphere of venality has often been noted in 1 Henry IV. The denizens of Eastcheap are not exceptional in their focus on pecuniary matters: the play opens with a dispute between the King and Hotspur over the payment of ransom that soon blossoms into rebellion. King Henry, as Hotspur reminds Blunt, “Knows at what time to promise, when to pay” (4.3.53), and Prince Hal uses the same language when he plans to “pay the debt I never promised” (1.2.204).1 Worcester argues that the king's strict accounting makes reconciliation an impossibility: “The King will always think him in our debt … Till he hath found a time to pay us home” (1.3.280-83). This language does more than suggest that certain characters are adept at calculating their debts—it connects the language of economic value to the question of disputed sovereignty.

Rather than consider the admittedly obtrusive language of credit and debt, I want to examine a set of specifically numismatic images that serve to focus attention on the relationship between the monarch and economic value in a particularly acute manner. The language of coins and coinage, informed by the history of the English currency with its debasements, enhancements, and reforms as well as the daily practices associated with the circulation of coin, is animated by the peculiar and shifting nexus of sovereign power and economic value found in a coin.2 As Posthumus remarks in Cymbeline: “'Tween man and man they weigh not every stamp; / Though light, take pieces for the figure's sake” (5.4.24-25).3 Though David Scott Kastan has observed, with some justice, that the play is “about the production of power,” it is also about the production of value.4 While the discourse of sovereignty and the proliferation of power are now familiar themes (especially in readings of the history plays), questions of value, particularly economic value, have been given less attention.5 However, an examination of the relationship between power and value made visible by the language of coinage reveals 1 Henry IV, and the history play more generally, to be an aesthetic response to the crisis of value that roiled the world of late sixteenth-century England.

The principal element in this crisis was an acceleration in inflation, an economic fact that had real consequences for all those who participated in monetary transactions. But to this mysterious and disorienting price spiral, one must add the dislocations caused by three changes in official religion all in the course of a single generation, an increasing awareness of what was called the New World, the early stirrings of modern science, and the advent of novel technologies. The playhouses themselves, where Shakespeare made his living by entertaining a paying audience, were both a product of this ferment and a contributor to it. “A collective Stock Exchange of ideas,” as well as, “a laboratory of and for the new social relations of agricultural and commercial capitalism,” the new professional theater was able to profit from make-believes.6 It is not surprising, then, that the crisis in value that might be said to be the enabling condition of the theatrical enterprise became, at times, its subject.7

Lacking a philosophical concept of value, never mind a fully formed theory of value, the culture of early modern England deployed the term value in a range of religious, ethical, economic, and political contexts.8 The complexity of this situation is well illustrated by an example from the Geneva Bible. The Gospel of Matthew, which sets out to establish the transcendent value of the kingdom of heaven, the “perl of great price,” consistently supplies marginal notes giving the English values of the coins mentioned. “A piece of twentie pence” mentioned at 17.27 is glossed: “The worde is (Statera) w[hi]c[h] co[n]teineth two didrachmas, & is valued about 5 grotes of olde sterling.”9 Strictly speaking, one does not need to know the contemporary value of a talent in order to understand the parable, nor presumably does it greatly clarify matters to know the present-day value of the silver paid to Judas. A rigorous account of the absolute gap between earthly and heavenly value might well render such attempts at translation otiose, and yet the producers of the Geneva Bible clearly thought this information important.

This is in large part because the Geneva translators do not recognize a conceptual divide between economics and religion (a distinction that serves to organize knowledge in the modern world): they treat value as an attribute that operates continuously and extensively across the universe. According to such a theological vision, values are commensurate and therefore translatable. A classic statement of this vision, the subject of Tillyard's much derided Elizabethan World picture, is provided by Raleigh in the preface to The History of the World; having asserted the transcendent value of things heavenly, he asks rhetorically, “Shall we therefore value honour and riches at nothing?” (C4r). His emphatic defense of honor and riches depends upon a description of the universe as arranged into divinely ordained hierarchies, a place in which avidity, the pursuit of the best things, can be redescribed as a form of worship. A similar commitment to a total structure of divinely established value leads the Geneva translators to set up a textual apparatus insisting on the proper rate of exchange between biblical and English currency. They become, in effect, moneychangers on the page if not in the temple. Though this is most obviously a comprehensive act of translation, an effort to transpose the ancient truths of the Bible into a modern, vernacular idiom, the reference to “olde sterling” suggests that the conversion is belated, if not impossible—the contemporary standard has itself already been superseded. The attempt to establish commensurate value only succeeds in revealing that present-day sterling is an uncertain standard.

This editorial attention to currency also reveals a more narrow scholarly and archaeological interest in the specificities of coin, for the discovery of ancient coins had contributed greatly to the development of Renaissance antiquarianism, a development that in turn influence the philological work of the humanists.10 The first two papers offered to the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries, treating the “antiquity of sterling money and of noble titles,” indicate the importance placed on coins by the emerging historiography.11 An interest in the material and mechanics of coinage produces a numismatic language that constantly invokes value as a contested attribute, juxtaposing a natural economy of rare metals against a political economy of monarchical prerogative. As Foucault observes: “In the sixteenth century, economic thought is restricted, or almost so, to the problem of prices and that of the best monetary substance.”12 These two concerns are intimately bound together: fluctuations in price provoke attention to coinage, changes in coin and the supply of precious metals are adduced as explanations for rising prices. Arguing that a Renaissance understanding of money as precious substance is decisively eclipsed in the Classical age by an account of the money form that focuses on its representative quality, Foucault somewhat overstates the case for discontinuity between the two periods, and, although his description of the powerful role of analogy in Renaissance thinking remains instructive, it exaggerates the degree of cohesiveness characteristic of the age.13 Even the solid, imposing structure of a monolithic and monotheistic value system admits the possibility of conflict between God and king, king and gold. In other words, the harmonious ideal established by analogical thinking creates a standard that can then be used to criticize the inadequacies of actuality, serving, under certain conditions, to delegitimate rather than to legitimate the status quo. The language of coinage, attuned to the potential contradiction between the sovereign's stamp and the coin's alloy, conveys the complex intertwining of value and legitimacy.

Hotspur's contention that Douglas deserves such recognition that “not a soldier of this season's stamp / Should go so general current through the world” (4.1.4-5) employes the imagery of coinage to suggest an analogy between the chivalric realm and the economic sphere. Hotspur's commendation invokes the coin's stamp as certain accreditation, a guarantee of value. But where the stamp ordinarily functions to guarantee the equivalence of a particular group of coins, here Douglas is identified as superior to his fellow soldiers. More intriguing is Hotspur's assertion to Kate that “We must have bloody noses and crack'd crowns, / And pass them current too” (2.3.94-95). Crown as head, as monarchy, and as coin all coalesce in a fantastic boast that points to a connection between violence and both economic and political systems of value. The usually surreptitious act of passing cracked or deficient coin is here presented as an act of coercive, masculine force: Hotspur imagines himself imposing a new currency of wounds. This recurrent use of numismatic language articulates, in the aesthetic terms of the history play, a crisis of value that impinges upon both the economic world and the political realm. However, the complexities of value registered by the play are ultimately resolved by a return to an aristocratic dispensation that grounds itself on the possibility of violence. By returning to an earlier historical moment in which value and sovereignty were contested, the play attempts to manage the crisis of inflation as well as the unsettling history of the Tudor coinage.

Henry VII, who acceded to the throne after dispatching his rival Richard III at Bosworth Field, was responsible for the introduction of the heaviest gold coin ever minted by an English monarch: the sovereign, as it came to be called, was a magnificent piece of royal propaganda.14 Painfully aware of the need to legitimate his reign, the king saw the coinage as a way in which to accumulate the symbolic wealth of prestige. Henry VII was also responsible for another change in the English coinage: the introduction of profile portraiture. Inspired by ancient Roman examples, profile coins celebrated the monarch as a recognizable individual with a distinctive physiognomy, a possibility that may have held special attractions for a king who was plagued by pretenders. In contrast, earlier English coins had rendered the monarch from the front as an iconic image of royalty. It was not clear that such a change would be welcomed, and it has been argued that Henry VII produced a number of experimental coins to test public reaction.15 Though profile coins proved a success and were used by later English monarchs, subsequent linguistic developments suggest that Henry VII was well advised to proceed with caution.

The negative associations surrounding the profile coin are registered at the conclusion of Hotspur's speech extolling the heroic and solitary quest for honor: “But out upon this half-fac'd fellowship!” (1.3.206). Principally Hotspur is rejecting the “corrival” who would demand a share of honor's “dignities,” but the expression “half-fac'd fellowship” suggests something more than disdain for collaborative action. “Half-fac'd” refers to the profile stamped on a coin. In King John, the Bastard rails against his brother:

Because he hath a half-face, like my father.
With half that face would he have all my land.
A half-faced groat five hundred pounds a year!


In both cases the expression connotes the puny and the petty, that which is not to be relied upon, the untrustworthy. The switch from a full-face to a profile portrait involved a trade-off: the king was able to personalize his image, but only by halving it. The profile coin presents the king's image as something to be recognized and worshiped; the monarch does not return the subject's gaze. In contrast, the full-face, iconic image of the king meets gaze with gaze. This change is emblematic of the transition from a feudal kingship, with its emphasis on reciprocity between king and subject, to a new form of monarchy with imperial ambitions (Henry VII also substituted a closed imperial crown for the open English crown that had appeared on earlier coins). However, the phrase “half-faced” suggests that the depiction of such ambition was subject to aesthetic, as well as political, criticism. Though Sydney Anglo admits that “the coinage was, beyond comparison, the most far-reaching medium for the display of royal portraiture, dynastic badges and political epigraphy,” he concludes that “it remains the most striking example of its limited efficacy.”16 Nonetheless, Henry VII clearly attempted, as Elizabeth would during her reign, to use the coinage to bolster the prestige and legitimacy of his reign.

Henry VIII shared his father's imperial ambitions but, emboldened by a smooth succession, he was notoriously opportunistic in his search for revenue. Neglecting his father's strategic use of the coinage to increase the monarchy's symbolic wealth, Henry VIII exploited it as a source of revenue. Not content with the profits yielded by the Mint, Henry VIII debased the coin: the pureness of the alloy used to mint coins was decreased, the actual weight of various coins was decreased, and certain coins were “called up” or given a higher nominal value by royal fiat.17 This last operation was made possible by the existence of two separate systems of money: money of exchange and money of account. Money of exchange refers to the actual coin in circulation: such as sovereigns, angels, nobles, groats, and testons. Money of account was a standard used for bookkeeping: pounds, shillings, and pence. Though setting the equivalences between money of exchange and money of account as well as the weight and fineness of the coin was a royal prerogative, there is no question that Henry's manipulation of the Mint was subsequently seen as foolish and destructive. Arguing against debasement in 1626, Robert Cotton remarked: “When Henry 8. had gained as much of power and glory abroad, of Love and Obedience at home, as ever any; he suffered shipwrack of all on this Rock.”18 Indeed, the effects of Henry's debasement continued to be felt throughout the reigns of Mary and Edward VI.

When Elizabeth came to the throne she was faced with a currency that was still suffering from the consequences of Henry's adulteration. In a letter to the queen dated 1558, Sir Thomas Gresham begins, “Ytt may pleasse your majesty to understande, thatt the firste occasion off the fall of the exchainge did growe by the Kinges majesty, your latte ffather, in abasinge his quoyne.”19 Topping Gresham's list of remedies is a restoration of the coinage. Elizabeth did in fact restore the predebasement standards of purity and weight, returning to the sterling standard of 11 ounces, 2 pennyweights of fine silver in the pound.20 But before this old standard could be reintroduced it was necessary to take the debased money out of circulation. This was done by “calling down” the base coinage to its “true” value. Obviously such instability has a corrosive effect on the coin's ability to function as a standard of value. When Falstaff jokingly tells Hal, “thou cam'st not of the blood royal, if thou darest not stand for ten shillings” (1.2.136-37), he is punning on the fact that a royal was worth, or stood for, ten shillings. However the joke does more, it reverses the conventional view that the sovereign establishes the relationship between coin and value, suggesting instead that it is this immutable equivalence that determines true royalty. In other words, if Hal refuses to endorse the equation between 10 shillings and a royal, then his own royalty is suspect. Correct monetary policy—the proper equivalence between coin and value—now determines the true king. Of course, the wonderful thing about this pun is that it offers up another and opposite meaning: Falstaff is teasing Hal for his reluctance to engage in robbery. In this case, it is cowardice that calls his royalty into doubt, and somehow we arrive at the disturbing conclusion that to be a courageous robber is to be truly royal, a joke that glances knowingly at the Lancastrians Henry IV and Henry VII.

The orthodox notion in which the monarch stands at the center of the socioeconomic system guaranteeing both equivalence and identity is put under significant pressure when an adjustment is made to the coinage. In a world deeply committed to the normative value of stability, any change is suspect: “Hurlyburly innovation” is, according to Henry IV, rebellion. The only way such orthodoxy can accommodate change is as a return. Consequently, Protestants defended the Reformation as a return to the truth of the primitive church rather than a new departure, just as humanists explained their attack on the scholasticism of the schools as a reversion to the pristine standards of classical antiquity. Thus when, on 27 September 1560, Elizabeth issued a proclamation devaluing base coin,21 the action was justified as a return to the true, old standard. This recoinage was carefully planned to spare the queen any expense; in fact, she appears to have made a profit because the “called down” value of the base coin was lower than the actual average metallic value of the coins collected by the Mint.22 Her subjects were given a limited amount of time to exchange their old coins (with a new nominal value) for new coins. At the same time, they were warned that it was a felony to melt down any of the queen's coin. These reminders, along with the secrecy that surrounded the plans for recoinage and the speed with which it was effected, were all intended to keep entrepreneurs from exploiting the differential between nominal and metallic value by buying up “called down” coins and realizing a profit by converting them into bullion.

Shortly after the appearance of this proclamation, the government published The Summarie of Certain Reasons which have moved the Queenes Maiestie to procede in reformations of here base & corse movies. At the center of this justification for the recoinage is an articulation of what is now called Gresham's law. The tract explains that base and counterfeit money has driven all the good money out of circulation; for despite the fact that fine coins were minted in the later part of Edward's reign, during Mary's reign, and in the first years of Elizabeth's reign, “yet no part thereof is sene comonly currant; but, as it may be thought, some part thereof is caryed hence, and some, percase, by the wyser sort of people, kepte in store, as it were to be wished the whole were” (Sig. A2v). The rise in prices is described as a direct result of this state of affairs:

For every man, of the least understanding, by one means or other, knew that a teston was not worth six-pence … and therfore no man woulde gyve gladly that thing which was and ever had ben worth six-pence, for a teston, but would rather require two testons.

(Sig. A2v)

This theory is not without support among economic historians, but it is at best a partial explanation of the Tudor inflation. The text assumes that a “thing” has a permanent price and that the problem lies entirely in the coin's failure to be worth six pence. “Every man” is eventually able to see through the imposture and conclude that a teston is no longer worth six pence. If the coin is reformed, prices will return to their prebasement level:

And, consequently, every man ought to thank Almyghtye God, that he may lyve to see the honour of his countrey thus partely recovered; sylver to come in place of cooper, pryces of thynges amende, all people more able to lyve of theyr wages, every man's purse, or coffer, made free from the privie thefe, which was the counterfaytour.

(Sig. A3v-A4r)

The past tense applied to that insidious figure, the “privie thefe, which was the counterfaytour,” reveals the scope of this fantasy of reformation. The counterfeiter is seen as an especially insidious figure, able to penetrate the enclosed spaces of purse and coffer by adulterating the coin. However, the plan offers no compelling reason for supposing that the recoinage will stop the activities of the counterfeiter. Admittedly a wide discrepancy between a coin's nominal and metallic value encourages counterfeiting, since a counterfeiter may manufacture coins that are metallically equivalent to those produced by the Mint and still profit. Nevertheless, even a close correlation between metallic and nominal value will not end counterfeiting. Argument is replaced by assertion: “And fynally, no maner of person in the whole Realme shall have after one or two monethes hurt hereby, except onely the traytour which hath lyved by counterfaictying” (Sig. A3v). The demonic presence of the “counterfaictour,” the traitor responsible for adulterating the monetary system, is a rhetorical device; it diverts attention away from that royal counterfeiter, Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII. It may appear oxymoronic to speak of a royal counterfeiter; counterfeiting was treason precisely because it was an offense against the person of the king, an example of lese-majesty. The coinage was part of the royal prerogative, and consequently the king was deemed incapable of counterfeiting. As Lear says, “No, they cannot touch me for coining. I am the King himself” (4.6.83). However, as early as the mid-fourteenth century, Nicholas Oresme had argued that the coinage is the property of the community and that, therefore, the monarch does not have an absolute right to debase it.23 Though this line of argument was not prevalent in the sixteenth century, the anxious rhetoric of The Summarie reveals that, whatever the legal situation, a change in the coinage needed to be legitimated in terms of the common good.

The most vexing problem facing the queen and her coinage in the 1590s was the persistence of inflation. The rate of inflation did not remain constant: it accelerated in the middle of the sixteenth century, dropped off in the 1560s and 1570s, and sped up again at the close of the century.24 The recurrence of steep inflation during the 1590s made it clear that Mint reform alone was not enough to guarantee price stability. The social dislocation that attended the inflation of the 1590s, especially in and around London, has often been designated a crisis by historians, though recently scholars have downplayed the disruption caused by high inflation, focusing instead on the effectiveness and elasticity of social institutions. Nonetheless, Ian Archer is surely correct in “asserting the reality of a perceived crisis in the 1590s.”25 This perceived crisis, in turn, served to put enormous strain on the language of value in its various forms. The impressive cultural efflorescence of the 1590s—a development not limited to the rarefied world of literary production—was in part a response to the unsettling sense that inherited values no longer had purchase in the world.

1 Henry IV was written sometime between 1595 and 1598, a period of especially severe dearth and inflation, yet it reveals none of the anger and confusion so visible in the prose tracts written to address the economic situation.26 The one important exception is the Carrier's rueful remark that Robin Ostler “never joyed since the price of oats rose, it was the death of him” (2.1.11-12), an observation recalled by the inclusion amongst Falstaff's recruits of “ostlers trade-fallen” (4.2.29). In general, however, the play celebrates those characters adroit enough to thrive in a world of change and uncertainty, a reeling world insistently figured through numismatic language. Though the play's consideration of value is complex, it is unconvincing to describe Shakespeare as a celebrant of the immutable truths of customary practice.27 Such readings tend to make Shakespeare into an anticapitalist avant la lettre, a percipient and conservative writer who saw the chaos and pain that would come to a society ruled by the market. For the very same reasons, it would be rash to recruit Shakespeare as a proto-liberal advocate of laissez-faire economics.28 Both positions anachronistically operate within a framework based on a fully modern economic history.29 Attending to the language of coinage as it resonates within 1 Henry IV and late Elizabethan culture reveals a more complex situation.

The language of coinage provides a historically specific conceptual constellation: it is one prominent vocabulary in which a range of problems that we identify as economic get thought out in the early modern period. And yet the language of coinage is also used to articulate the peculiar relationship between authority and value in contexts far removed from the world of money and trade. John Hayward, recounting an episode in which a proposal of his was rejected only to be approved when put forth in the “very same words” by another, remarks: “speech (I perceiued) was oftentimes like unto come, which passed for currant, not in regard of the mettal onely, but chiefely in regard of the stampe that was set upon it” (B1v).30 The authority of the source or origin of an idea is, according to Hayward, usually more important in determining its acceptance than the substance of the claim. But it is important to remember that the metal also matters; in fact, Hayward gently criticizes the intellectual timidity of the majority who refuse to assess claims on their merits. Intrinsic worth is here opposed to the distortions imposed by deference in a hierarchical social world.

Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV operates in a similar fashion: it recognizes the overwhelming importance of the social world as a terrain riven by conflicting evaluative claims and yet it does not renounce the notion of intrinsic value. 1 Henry IV certainly subjects the official discourse of true and false that characterizes The Summarie to careful scrutiny, using the terminology of coinage and counterfeiting to depict an England that has become, in Bacon's phrase, “a very labyrinth of cozenages and abuses.”31 But rather than offering a simple return to the true old standard (whether it be the legitimate line or the proper pound sterling), the play imagines an alternative return to aristocratic chivalry. Elaborating on the possibilities and dangers offered by a secular world in which value and authority are revealed to be both provisional and improvisational, 1 Henry IV suggests that value emerges through a specifically historical process of strife and contention.32 The play offers an agonistic vision of history that refuses to see victory as merely adventitious: Henry and his sons succeed because they are prepared and fully committed to their cause. The decisiveness, or even ruthlessness, that led Hazlitt to accuse Henry V of having “no idea of any rule of right or wrong, but brute force,”33 is also evident in Prince Hal, but this ethical deficiency is precisely what allows him to succeed in a time of tumultuous change.

The troubled (and troubling) connection between prince and coin is visible in Hal's first scene when he reminds Falstaff that he has always paid the tab, “so far as my coin would stretch, and where it would not I have used my credit” (1.2.52-53). The metaphor of stretched coin used by the heir apparent suggests a disturbing elasticity that recalls debasement. Despite the availability of financial credit, Hal yearns for a more inclusive credibility, and his soliloquy at the end of the scene outlines his intended strategy: he will allow the “base contagious clouds” to obscure his magnificence only so that he may be “more wonder'd at” when he breaks forth in his full glory (the sort of maneuver the Elizabethans condemned as forestalling). He plans to obscure his true qualities so that

… like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.


This image suggests that value is enhanced through the comparative or “foil,” and that this differential must be represented and recognized, attracting “more eyes.” Hal here claims that people and precious metals both are evaluated by the appraising gaze of an audience or society and that because context affected evaluative judgments, approbation can be advantageously manipulated. Both Hal and the king make the connection between rarity and value, but the king describes the quality of kingliness as if it were a substance to be conserved and not “swallow'd.” Hal sees it as something to be produced. The difference between the two is in part a result of their relative positions. Bolingbroke established his own value by using Richard II as a “foil”; in contrast to Richard's frequent appearances, he appeared rarely, “like a comet,” and won men's hearts. Hal first differentiates himself from his father, by playing the prodigal, but plans soon to make manifest the difference between his “old” and “new” selves.

The success of Hal's strategy is first revealed in Vernon's description of the reformed Hal and his troops armed for battle, “Glittering in golden coats like images” (4.1.100). The immediate allusion is to religious icons, saints wrapped in gold leaf, but the collocation of “golden” and “image” also suggests a coin, a line of thought that is reinforced by Vernon's subsequent remark that Hal appeared as “an angel” (4.1.108). This language, at once religious and numismatic, points insistently at the glamorous spectacle of Young Harry armed for battle but also raises the troubling possibility of a merely meretricious appearance—an inefficacious idol, a counterfeit coin, an empty suit of armor. The image of Hal on horseback presents a resplendent emblem of chivalry, but there is no immediate reason to conclude that this is not simply another pose.

The problem of deceptive appearances has, after all, been raised by Hal himself, who rather than accept a static vision of the world that equates a person's worth or dignity with a particular place in a fixed social hierarchy, sees honor, the coin of social capital, as fungible, something that can be both alienated and appropriated.34 He promises his father: “For the time will come / That I shall make this northern youth exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities” (3.2.144-46). He speaks of honor as a commodity, describing Hotspur as his “factor” who has been allowed to “engross up glorious deeds” but who will be called to “strict account” and forced to make the proper “reckoning.”35 Falstaff expresses a similar sentiment, suggesting that social capital is convertible, when he remarks, “I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be brought” (1.2.80-81). Hal will do even better, rather than pay, he will seize Hotspur's good name: “O Harry, thou hast robb'd me of my youth! / I better brook the loss of brittle life / Than those proud titles thou hast won of me” (5.4.76-78). 1 Henry IV displays a world in which honor is seen to be corrupted by economic calculation, and value, whether in Eastcheap or at court, is subject to manipulation.

Falstaff, despite his cynicism, appreciates the way the honor and reputation of the coin confer purchasing power. This sensibility is visible in his insult to Bardolph: “if I did not think thou hadst been … a ball of wildfire, there's no purchase in money” (3.3.39). The expression “purchase in money” is used as incontestable fact, supporting the outlandish assertions that precede it; nevertheless, the effect is to suggest that money has a will o' the wisp quality, something in common with the spectacular and pyrotechnical. By drawing attention to the purchasing power of money, Falstaff identifies money as a means of exchange, though it might be more accurate to say that he regards money as a means to consumption. When Bardolph warns Falstaff to prepare, because, “there's money of the King's coming down the hill, 'tis going to the King's exchequer,” he immediately responds: “You lie, you rogue, 'tis going to the King's tavern” (2.2.54). Falstaff simply wants to reroute the king's money, inserting himself into a circuit of exchange without making any proprietary claims. As Hal points out, the purse snatched on Monday night is spent by Tuesday morning: “got with swearing ‘Lay by!’, and spent with crying ‘Bring in!’” (1.2.35-36). Falstaff's view is diametrically opposed to that of the king, who asks, “Shall our coffers then / Be empty'd to redeem a traitor home?” (1.3.84). The king considers money to be a stable store of value and speaks in terms of its conservation and retention, while Falstaff, who sees money as a medium of exchange, speaks the language of expenditure and consumption.

Falstaff's seemingly limitless appetite predictably leads to fantasies about limitless coining. Attempting to avoid settling his bill at the tavern, he tells the Hostess to seek payment from Bardolph: “Look upon his face. What call you rich? Let them coin his nose, let them coin his cheeks” (3.3.75-78). All the coin spent on sack has magically been preserved in Bardolph's rubicund flesh, which is now grotesquely figured as proper matter for the Mint. When Bardolph apprises him of his debt—“This bottle makes an angel” (4.2.6)—he answers: “And if it do, take it for thy labour—and if it make twenty, take them all, I'll answer the coinage” (4.2.7-8). Both these jokes revolve around the curious way in which coins combine form and matter, image and metal. Is coinage defined by its substance (Bardolph's nose) or by the authority of the figure (Falstaff) who agrees to “answer” for it? Falstaff's punning take on coinage, as well as his more general skepticism, reveals a lack of confidence in the coin's ability to act as a stable measure of value. Indeed, his very corpulence figures inflation, and his profligate attitude is one perfectly suited to an inflationary economy in which consumption is a sensible strategy.

Falstaff's refusal to grant a stable value to coinage is accompanied by an appreciation for the elasticity of prices. As a result of the rebellion, he claims, “you may buy land now as cheap as stinking mackerel” (2.4.355-56). Certainly the main thrust of this comment is that rebellion has turned the world upside down, but one cannot escape the implication that price, even that of land always depends on expectation. Hal responds, “Why then, it is like if there come a hot June, and this civil buffeting hold, we shall buy maidenheads as they buy hob-nails, by the hundreds” (57-59). This cynical remark anticipates a similar collapse in the price of female bodies, revealing that the means of both sexual and agrarian reproduction are subject to the fluctuations of the market and the contingencies of war. Later Falstaff proves adept at trading in men's bodies: “I have got in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers three hundred and odd pounds” (4.2.13-14). This “commodity of warm slaves” quickly buy out of service, leaving Falstaff to pocket the proceeds. Falstaff himself acknowledges that he has “misused the King's press damnably” (4.2.12), and one finds in this episode not only further evidence of the convertibility of various forms of capital, but a recognition that the state is, in the last resort, able to extract value with the threat of violence.

Though Falstaff is an accomplished entrepreneur with a well-developed sense of the market, he is not above using the language of intrinsic value when it suits him. Urging Hal not to turn him over to the sheriff, Falstaff implores: “Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit. Thou art essentially made without seeming so” (2.4.486-87). The purport of the first sentence seems clear enough: I, Falstaff, am genuine and not to be repudiated, a claim that applies both to Hal's indictment of him as “old white-bearded Satan” and to the immediate threat raised by the sheriff. A piece of gold is a coin, but by ignoring denomination the formulation erases the coin's stamp, focusing instead on its substance, true gold. The difficulty raised by the next sentence concerns the force of the adverb “essentially,” which could be read as an intensifier meaning “in fact,” a possibility that places an emphasis on Hal's constructed nature, the fact that he is made up. Reading “essentially” as “according to an essence,” produces an almost opposite meaning: Hal, like the true piece of gold, has a substantial essence, admittedly unspecified, that has, for whatever reason, been obscured. The unresolved ambivalence of this claim about Hal is in keeping with the play's exploration of the problem of value. What appears to be a nicely ironic reversal—the man who consistently claims that the false is true is forced by circumstance to make a plea for the truth—is simultaneously an acknowledgement that the counterfeiter must uphold the standard of value in order to exploit it.

The rapacious appetite of Falstaff's economic vision is never corrected within the play, which concludes with the battle of Shrewsbury. It is here on the battlefield that the personages of Eastcheap confront the denizens of the court: Falstaff, Hal, and the king are brought together for the first time. Rather than precipitating an immediate and definitive separation of the noble and heroic from the base and venal, the episode reveals a persistent confusion of categories. Though Hal has often been seen as mediating between two “worlds” with Falstaff and King Henry standing at the center of their respective spheres, such a polarization misleadingly suggests that there is an enormous gulf between Falstaff and the king. In fact, the battle of Shewsbury reveals that both characters are counterfeiters. The figure of the royal counterfeiter, repressed by The Summarie, returns in the person of Bolingbroke.

That Falstaff resorts to counterfeiting is hardly a surprise. He displays irreverence toward most conventional values, delighting in their insubstantiality. His famous speech on “honour” provides a succinct statement of this skeptical attitude: honor is “A word … Air. A trim reckoning!” (5.1.135). The emphasis on language and breath reveals honor to be a social fact, conferred by the recognition of others. However, Falstaff's nominalism does not entirely deny the value of honor. The sarcasm of “trim reckoning” implies a notion of calculable value, and Falstaff's attempt to win honor through subterfuge reveals that he is quite aware that honor may lead to financial reward, that the social capital of honor may be converted into monetary form. And money, of course, can be transformed into sack.

Falstaff's stratagem depends on an act of counterfeiting:

'Sblood, 'twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me, scot and lot too. Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man, who hath not the life of a man: but to counterfeit dying, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.


Falstaff's quibble employs two competing definitions of “counterfeit.” It is first used as a verb meaning “to imitate,” and then as a noun signifying an imitation that is superficially similar to but lacks the essential quality of the original, in this case, life. Life is the essence of being human; a body without life is a corpse. This claim allows Falstaff to “counterfeit” without becoming a “counterfeit.” Pretending does not make one false. However, Falstaff's logic never escapes from the problem of representation: his final assertion is that pretending to die is to be “the true and perfect image of life.” This punning defense of cowardice—which also serves as a defense of theatrical impersonation—expresses the vitality that many critics have found central to his character: no pretence is too craven or humiliating for Falstaff if it preserves life.

Falstaff's voluble cynicism, however, is proclaimed in the midst of battle, as others fight and die. Mistaking Blunt for the king, Douglas tells him, “The Lord Stafford dear today hath bought / thy likeness” (5.3.7-8). Blunt soon pays the same price for wearing the king's garb. Douglas's triumph is short-lived; Hotspur informs him that he has not killed the king, but Blunt, “furnished like the King himself” (5.3.21), explaining that “The King hath many marching in his coats” (5.3.25). In a rage, Douglas swears that he will kill all the king's “coats,” murder all his “wardrobe,” until he comes to the king himself. What might seem an absurd and comic image is given grim substance by the presence of Blunt's body on the stage; no magic animates these coats, they contain real people. Bolingbroke, in effect, engages in a strategic debasement: he puts a multitude of false sovereigns into circulation. Reversing his earlier attitude of conservation, Henry IV is now prodigal with his “presence.”

When he next encounters a figure dressed as the king, Douglas is incredulous:

Another King! They grow like Hydra's heads:
I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
That wear those colours on them. What art thou
That counterfeit's the person of a king?


The image of the Hydra's many, multiplying heads, a favorite Elizabethan emblem of rebellion, identifies the king's strategy as monstrous. In addition, the accusation of counterfeiting, with its true/false binary, is particularly troubling when leveled against Bolingbroke. He is the king Douglas seeks, and yet the rebellion is itself motivated by the claim that he is not the legitimate king. Despite Bolingbroke's assertions of majesty, Douglas remains skeptical, though he does remark, “thou bearest thee like a king” (5.4.35). This variation on a familiar romance motif (nobility, however disguised, will shine forth) hints at continued uncertainty; Douglas seems unable to decide whether he is in the presence of majesty or merely its imitation.36

The word counterfeit that circulates through act 5, scene 4 is not the same counterfeit that appears in Elizabeth's The Summary of Certain Reasons. It is not primarily concerned with the problem of false coin, nor does it consistently operate as a moral term onto which a whole host of economic difficulties are displaced. The play reveals the counterfeit to be both more problematic and more productive. The king, like Falstaff, authorizes “counterfeiting” but claims not to be a counterfeit himself. The ubiquity of counterfeiting presents the vertiginous possibility that value is merely an effect of representation. In such a world, the remark attributed to Marlowe in the infamous Baine's libel—that he had “as good Right to coin as the Queene of England”—sounds less like an outrageous assault on the very idea of sovereignty, and more like an astute recognition that all coins are counterfeit.37

The play does not, however, completely confound the idea of value. Value is recuperated in the form of martial action by Hal. By cultivating an image of inadequacy, Hal, who begins the play as the “shadow of succession,” is able to stage a transformation that obscures the problem of usurpation with a triumphal assumption of the role of prince and heir apparent. An exclusive focus on the power of representation obscures the degree to which Hal's performance includes heroic deeds. The violent overthrow of Hotspur is fundamental to the play's account of value: a decisive action in a world of uncertainties that establishes Hal's value and valor in the eyes of the audience. Hal may be a master manipulator, able to “drink with any tinker in his own language,” but this facility is accompanied by a ready ability with the sword. Arguably the play's careful attention to the elaboration and manipulation of value, in the end, concludes with an atavistic scheme according to which a fundamental act of violence secures the standard of value. However, this possibility is immediately tempered by Hal's subsequent behavior.

Having long planned to seize Hotspur's honor, Hal instead goes along with Falstaff's mendacious attempt to take credit for the killing. Hal's willingness to “gild” Falstaff's actions with a lie reveals a degree of magnaminity that appears to be beyond calculation; indeed, this episode serves to distance Hal from the calculative rationality that informs his thinking throughout the play. By repudiating his interest in Hotspur's death, Hal, who has “a truant been to chivalry,” effectively restores the tarnished image of heroism.38 Hal's aristocratic pose of indifference in the face of Falstaff's fabrication solidifies his claim to magnanimity: having achieved victory, to argue over credit would betray a petty mind.

A similar dynamic is visible in his treatment of his prisoner Douglas. In an episode that contrasts with the squabble over ransom that opens the play, Hal, after receiving the king's permission to dispose of the prisoner, gives to his younger brother the privilege of delivering Douglas, “ransomless and free” (5.5.28). This refusal of calculation and exchange asserts the transcendent value of the “high deeds” (5.5.30) for which Douglas deserves his freedom, while establishing Hal as a giver of gifts that cannot be reciprocated. The release of Douglas pointedly contrasts with the killing of Hotspur, the third and last in a series of three coercive exchanges, which includes the robbery at Gadshill and Falstaff's abuse of the press-gang. The final two scenes of the play, depicting Hal as willing to give Falstaff credit for killing Hotspur and ready to recognize the “valours” of Douglas, introduces a new dynamic, a form of exchange that appears to repudiate exchange itself, the gift. Between coercion and gift, what Natalie Zemon Davis refers to as the “mode of sales,” which features so largely in the play and contributes so much to the impression that value in this world has become unfixed, fades into obscurity.39

The metaphysics of blood that would equate social value and status with genealogy, making royal or noble blood the irrefutable standard, is not replaced by a happy celebration of the market as a mechanism for the production of consensus; rather, an ancient aristocratic commitment to the value of violence stages a return in the form of a smiling and benevolent Prince Hal. A man's worth, according to this masculine understanding, is commensurate with his ability to fight, a vision neatly epitomized by the Archbishop, who, anticipating the coming battle, remarks that “ten thousand men / Must bide the touch” (4.4.9-10). Similarly, Hal is able to overcome his lineal deficiency and the taint of his father's usurpation by proving himself to be a “true piece of gold” on the field at Shrewsbury.

The same questions of royal lineage troubled Elizabeth's accession, and, because she was without an immediate heir, threatened her succession. Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV responds to this moment of economic and political instability, and yet the history it depicts only succeeds in rearticulating the crisis of legitimacy precipitated by continuing economic difficulties and uncertain dynastic politics. As I have claimed, the coinage, both as a material practice and a fertile set of metaphors, is one place where political and economic concerns meet: a new monarch inevitably meant new coinage. Elizabeth was after all remembered for her recoinage—the epitaph on her tomb declares it her third greatest accomplishment—but even before her death Thomas Tymme noted, in his account of the English monarchs: “Amongst all other her most rare vertues, she hath reformed religion, she hath reduced all base comes (which were currant here before her dayes) into perfect gold and siluer, so that there is no other mony lesse or more curra[nlt within her dominions: which is not to be seene at this day else where under any Prince Christian or Ethnicke.”40 Designed to warn against the dangers of debasement, such declarations are as much admonitory as they are epideictic. Evidence that there was concern about the possibility of future debasement appears in the section of Fulbecke's A Parallele (1601) that treats borrowing and lending. Here the host, Nomomathes, asks whether a debt can be repaid in debased coin and is told that “if the debasement were before the day of paime[n]t the debtor may pay the det in the coine embased” (54-54v). In strictly legal terms this point is beyond dispute, and yet the very question betrays a fundamental uncertainty about the fairness of such an outcome. Indeed, the word debasement, used to describe an act that is at once legal and illegitimate, indicates that the extensive royal prerogative concerning coinage provoked fundamental questions about the establishment of value.

It is not surprising, then, that the language of numismatics in 1 Henry IV reveals an insistent preoccupation with the way in which value is established and maintained. The play refuses to settle into the easy binaries of true and false, stable and changing, legitimate and illegitimate, and yet this does not mean that it depicts “a world drained of intrinsic value.”41 Instead, the play insists that value is complex, a source of conflict and struggle, but not therefore illusory. The tension between the monarch and the market that appears in the Tudor coinage is obviously not a conflict between divine right and liberal democracy; it is, rather, the exposure of the possibility of contradiction within a seemingly coherent and hierarchical universe, a possibility recognized by Sir Robert Cotton, who remarks that monies of gold and silver have two values: “The one, the Extrinsick quality, which is at the King's pleasure. … The other the Intrinsick quantity of pure mettal, which is in the Merchant to value.”42 The point to be made here is that intrinsic value is based on the market price of the quantity of bullion contained in the coin. For Cotton, the coin is a perfect instance of the uneasy alliance between the Crown and its merchants, a fitting emblem of what would come to be called mercantilism. It is, therefore, precipitous to hear in this, and similar claims, an anticipation of the amoral, rationalized market of nineteenth-century economic theory. However, the simultaneous recognition of market forces or general estimation and intrinsic value entails complicated and conflicted thinking, a problem brilliantly exemplified by Gerard de Malynes:

And concerning pearles and precious stones, is it not straunge, that some men do despise and account them as glistering toyes & trifles, considering the diuersitie of mens opinions, which made the auncient Philosophers to say: That the world was gouerned by opinions. But if these men should wel consider the pure creation and vertue of the stones, they would fudge otherwise; and their owne opinion (opposite to most men) would condemne their errour: seeing that a generall estimation doth approue the value of things.43

De Malynes initially acknowledges the diversity of opinion concerning value, a circumstance that led the ancient philosophers to assert that the world is governed by opinion. However, his invocation of “the pure creation and vertue of the stones” is an affirmation of a divine order that entails a hierarchy of values in the face of classical skepticism. If the doubters would only consider the virtue, or intrinsic qualities, of the stones, they would revise their opinion. Furthermore, even granting that the world is “governed by opinions,” those who despise “precious stones” are guilty of rejecting common wisdom for individual idiosyncrasy since “a generall estimation Both approue the value of things.” Deploying common sense to rebut skepticism and the possibility of pluralism, de Malynes provides a typical early modern account of value in which disagreement over value is acknowledged while the idea of intrinsic value is maintained. He is untroubled by the potential contradiction between “vertue” or intrinsic value and “generall estimation” because he is confident that the two will inevitably coincide.

In Troilus's question, “What's aught but as 'tis valued?” (2.2.51), one hears a clear echo of Falstaff. But while Falstaff's soliloquy goes unanswered, Troilus is given a reply by Hector: “But value dwells not in particular will; / It holds his estimate and dignity / As well wherein 'tis precious of itself / As in the prizer” (52). Hector sees that Troilus's skepticism may be used to support an autocratic or idiosyncratic theory of value, he denies this possibility by asserting that value is a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic value. However, the only way in which the intrinsic (“wherein 'tis precious in itself”) can act as a curb on the wayward individual is when it eventuates in a collective judgment. Like Troilus and Cressida, 1 Henry IV is intensely concerned with the establishment of value in a diminished world. The play is neither an embrace of the burgeoning market nor is it a ratification of the existing order; rather, it asks a diverse audience that has paid “good” money to see a counterfeit king to consider the manner in which both coin and king are valued.44


  1. William Shakespeare, The First Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys (New York: Methuen, 1960), 174. All references are to this edition. An account of the play's economic language, focusing on the figure of contract, is provided by Sandra K. Fischer, “‘He means to pay’: Value and Metaphor in the Lancastrian Tetralogy,” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 149-64. More recently, Nina Levine, “Extending Credit in the Henry IV Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly 51 (2000): 40331, reads credit relations within the play as providing a benign vision of mutual reciprocity that competes with the high discourse of politics. For a broad survey of Shakespeare's economic language, see Sandra K. Fischer, Econolingua (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985).

  2. For a related account of the way in which the language of coinage operates in Troilus and Cressida, see Stephen X. Mead, “‘Thou art chang'd’: Public Value and Personal Identity in Troilus and Cressida,Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22 (1992): 237-59. Mead persuasively demonstrates the way in which the language of coinage registers “contemporary anxieties concerning the very substance of wealth and value” (237). However, Mead's conclusion “Troilus and Cressida asserts that when a value system becomes corrupt or ceases to be meaningful, it falls upon the individual—in the face of the general will—to determine worth as well as he or she can” (258)—credits the play with an unconvincing individualism.

  3. For plays other than 1 Henry IV, I cite from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1997).

  4. David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare After Theory (New York: Routledge, 1999), 129.

  5. For an important exception arguing that “the contingency of evaluation served as a recurrent enabling irritant for Shakespeare's creativity,” see Lars Engle, Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Engle's book, as he is aware, courts the charge of anachronism by attempting to identify Shakespeare's work as an antecedent of philosophical pragmatism. As he points out, this claim could work itself out in at least two ways. First, an argument could be made that Shakespeare is an unacknowledged source for modern pragmatism. Engle, however, chooses a second route, one that involves taking seriously William James's description of pragmatism as “a new name for some old ways of thinking” (7).

  6. Victor Kiernan, Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare: A Marxist Study (London: Verso, 1996), 25; Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), xi.

  7. The relationship between the theatrical enterprise and the new economic order has recently been examined, from very different perspectives, by Douglas Bruster, Drama and the market in the age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) and Theodore B. Leinwand, Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

  8. On this claim, see Claude Lefort, Writing: the Political Text, trans. David Ames Curtis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). Lefort points out that “taken in its philosophical acceptation, the concept of value pertains to a modern way of thinking … so long as the idea of a standard of human conduct is affirmed in reference to nature, reason, or God, the notion of value couldn't take on any meaning” (142).

  9. The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), sig. 2C2v.

  10. The proliferation of publications treating coins and their history is impressive. For a comprehensive bibliography, see C. E. Dekesel, Bibliotheca Nummaria: Bibliography of 16th Century Numismatic Books (London: Spink, 1997).

  11. Kevin Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 18. This coincidence of interest in both coinage and lineage suggests the degree to which the antiquaries were attempting to ground value.

  12. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1973), 168. Foucault goes on to argue that sixteenth-century reforms that demanded equivalence between nominal and metallic value were intent on fixing the two functions of the coin as common measure of commodities and as means of exchange. In his narrative, this metallist theory is disrupted by the recognition that money is a commodity. As a consequence, the earlier understanding according to which money has an intrinsic character (metal is precious) that underwrites its function as measure and means of exchange is reversed so that the exchanging function is seen as the basis for the other two (measure and capacity to receive a price). No longer does the coin's value derive from its metal; instead the stamp or form is seen as guaranteeing the value.

  13. For instance, the suggestion that money signifies wealth because it is a real mark (i.e., is itself a precious substance), while common enough during the Renaissance, was contested by the Aristotelian idea that money takes its value from its issuing authority. For an argument that Foucault's Renaissance episteme relies too heavily on Platonist writers, see Ian Maclean, “Foucault's Renaissance Episteme Reassessed: An Aristotelian Counterblast,” Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (1998): 149-66.

  14. C. H. V. Sutherland, English Coinage: 600-1900 (London: B.T. Batsford, 1973), 117.

  15. W. J. W. Potter and E. J. Winstanley, “The Coinage of Henry VII,” British Numismatic Journal 31 (1962): 109.

  16. Sydney Anglo, Images of Tudor Kingship (London: Seaby, 1992), 118.

  17. For a recent and helpful account of the debasement that situates it within the long institutional history of Mint, see A New History of the Royal Mint, ed. C. E. Challis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 228-44. See also J. D. Gould, The Great Debasement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

  18. Robert Cotton, Cottoni posthuma: divers choice pieces of that renowned antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, Knight and Baronet, preserved from the injury of time, and expos'd to public light, for the benefit of posterity, by J. H. Esq (London, 1651), sig. T8r.

  19. John William Burgon, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham (London, 1839), 1:484.

  20. Sir Albert Feavearyear, The Pound Sterling: A History of English Money (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 79.

  21. Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969) vol. 2, #471.

  22. Feavearyear, Pound Sterling, 83.

  23. Peter Spufford, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 301. See also, Andre Lapidus, “Metal, Money, and the Prince: John Buridan and Nicholas Oresme after Thomas Aquinas,” History of Political Economy 29 (1997): 21-53.

  24. D. M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth (New York: Longman, 1983), 142.

  25. Ian W. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 14.

  26. See Mark Thornton Burnett, “‘Fill Gut and Pinch Belly’: Writing Famine in the English Renaissance,” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 21 (1995): 21-44.

  27. See, for example, the argument made by Fischer, Econolingua: “While Shakespeare depicts a dramatic world in which values are changing from medieval to mercantilist economic ethics, his sympathetic characters do not find the new system satisfying. His plays reaffirm the operation of ‘natural’ economics established in the sonnets: bounty, reciprocal obligations defined by service and tradition, and benevolent social use of material increase” (30). Without denying that Shakespeare privileges such virtues, I belief that Fischer has framed the position in a misleading fashion by suggesting that it is possible to choose between two systems.

  28. See, for example, Frederick Turner, Shakespeare's Twenty-First-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Turner makes the rather astounding claim that Shakespeare provides a blueprint for the modern global economic system: “Shakespeare was a key figure, perhaps the key figure in creating that Renaissance system of meanings, values, and implicit rules that eventually gave rise to the modern world market and that still underpin it” (11).

  29. It is the result of a long historiographical tradition that pits the acquisitive individual pursuing profit in the market against the community and its customs. For a helpful account, see Craig Muldrew, “Interpreting the Market: The Ethics of Credit and Community Relations in Early Modern England,” Social History 18; no. 2 (1993): 163-83.

  30. John Hayward, A reporte of a discourse concerning supreme power in affaires of religion (London, 1606), sig. Blv.

  31. In a dialogue written around 1592, Bacon makes the following observation: “For who knoweth not (that knoweth anything in matter of state) of the great absurdities and frauds that arise of the divorcing of legal estimation of monies from the general and (as I may term it) natural estimation of metals; and again, the uncertain and wavering values of coins, a very labyrinth of cozenages and abuses, and yet such as great princes have made their profit of towards their own people?” Francis Bacon, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 40.

  32. Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V,Glyph 8 (1981): 40-61, is the most influential account of “improvisational power” in the play. The subtlety and insight of Greenblatt's reading is undeniable; however, his emphasis on a labile yet constraining conglomeration of power, representation and theatricality tends to downplay the possibility of ideological contradiction.

  33. William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth and Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (London: George Bell and Sons, 1899), 144.

  34. The concept of social capital is elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu. A succinct account is provided by Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Richardson (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 241-58, which defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition,” adding that “the title of nobility is the form par excellence of the institutionalized social capital which guarantees a particular form of social relationship in a lasting way” (248, 251). Though Bourdieu emphasizes the durability of social capital and its arbitrary distribution, his account also suggests that social capital can be gained, maintained, or lost. However, it is certainly worth noting that the title of nobility, which Bourdieu sees as the quintessence of social capital, appears, in 1 Henry IV, to be extremely fragile.

  35. This point is made by Michele Willems, “Misconstruction in 1 Henry IV,Cahiers Elisabethains 37 (1990): 48.

  36. My reading of this encounter is indebted to the analysis of David Kastan, who concludes that “even Henry can only bear himself ‘like the king’; he has no authentic royal identity prior to and untouched by representation” (142).

  37. A. D. Wraight, In Search of Christopher Marlowe (New York: Vanguard Press, 1965), 309.

  38. In this regard, I agree with Tillyard, who sees the play as an affirmation of chivalry. However, Tillyard reads Hal's willingness to credit Falstaff's lie as a farewell to arms, an indicator that he is already turning to what Tilyard considers to be the subject of 2 Henry IV: civil virtues. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 265.

  39. Natalie Zemon Davis, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 9. Davis begins her discussion by distinguishing between three “relational modes”: the gift mode, the mode of coercion, and the mode of sales.

  40. Palliser, 139; Thomas Tymme, A Booke Containing The True Portraiture of The Countenances and Attires of the Kings of England (London, 1597).

  41. H. R. Coursen, The Leasing Out of England: Shakespeare's Second Henriad (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982), 3.

  42. Robert Cotton, Cottoni posthuma: divers choice pieces of that renowned antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, Knight and Baronet, preserved from the injury of time, and expos'd to public light, for the benefit of posterity, by J. H. Esq (London, 1651), sig. V1v.

  43. Gerard de Malynes, Englands view in the unmasking of two paradoxes: with a replication unto the answer of Maister John Bodine (London: 1603), sig. G3v-G4r.

  44. I would like to record my thanks to the friends and colleagues whose comments helped in the preparation of this paper, especially David Kastan, Alan Nelson, Dan Vitkus, and Graham Hamill; and thank Linda Woodbridge and the seminar of the Shakespeare Association for whom an early version of this essay was prepared.

Patrick Carnegy (review date 15 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Henry IV, Part 2.Spectator 285, no. 8971 (15 July 2000): 42-3.

[In the following review of a 2000 production of Henry IV, Part 2 directed by Michael Attenborough, Carnegy praises Desmond Barrit's immensely comic Falstaff and David Troughton's emotional King Henry.]

The themes of a coldly-strong king blighted by guilt and rebellion, and of a dissolute prince growing into his destiny, are of course a recapitulation of those in Part 1, but their development sounds a deeper, darker note [in Michael Attenborough's production of Henry IV Part 2]. Attenborough and his strong cast have the perfect measure of the trajectory from darkness into the dawn of a new beginning.

Inseparable from it is the comic spirit incarnate in Desmond Barrit's Falstaff. With support from Arthur Cox as Bardolph, Benjamin Whitrow as Shallow and Peter Copley as Silence, Plump Jack's adventures in Eastcheap and Gloucestershire are irresistibly hilarious. There's a masterful ease about Barrit's Falstaff. When the Prince makes a rather too carefully studied farewell to Falstaff (and his wild oats), Barrit quite rightly burlesques his gravitas. It could also be taken as a salutary warning lest William Houston, whose Hal sports the melancholic ardour of a Hamlet, make too sanctimonious a Henry V in August. But no question that there's powerful pathos in the reconciliation with his dying father. As Henry IV, David Troughton's magnificent surge of misplaced paternal condemnation collapses in the catharsis of understanding and forgiveness and, as he sets the crown on Hal's head, the tears course down the new king's cheeks.

Edith Kern (essay date fall 1984)

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SOURCE: Kern, Edith. “Falstaff—A Trickster Figure.” Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 135-42.

[In the following essay, Kern compares Falstaff with the archetypal trickster figure.]

Carl Jung defined the trickster figure as a “‘psychologem’, an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity …, a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that hardly left the animal level.”1 He did so in a commentary, made upon request, to a study of the North-American Trickster by the anthropologist, Paul Radin. Radin had discovered this figure “in clearly recognizable form among the simplest aboriginal tribes and among the complex (xxiii).” But he also recognized its analogues in the literatures of ancient Greece, China, Japan, and the Semitic world, adding that “many of the Trickster's traits are perpetuated in the figure of the medieval jester and have survived up to the present day in the Punch-and-Judy plays and in the clown (xxiii).” The American-Indian Trickster, forever shifting his countenance from animal to human, even male to female, appears in the tales retold by Radin as both stupid and clever, rebelliously immoral or simply amoral, primitive as well as shrewd. He plays outrageous tricks on all those he encounters and is outwitted as often as he boasts of outwitting others, until, at the end of his life, he becomes aware of the purpose for which he has been sent to Earth by Earthmaker and, in a wild triumph of the imagination, turns the world upside down: killing all those who have suppressed his people, indulging copiously in rich food, and ascending to heaven. (52) On reading Radin's account and his collection of Trickster tales, Jung also recalled similar figures belonging to the European Middle Ages as well as to Greek and Roman antiquity. He believed the Trickster to be an avatar not only of the Greek god Hermes known as the thief but also of the still more ancient god Mercurius, “a daemonic being resurrected from primitive times.”2 Such characters share with Trickster traits that make them semi-divine, semi-human, semi-animal. Like him, they are capable of assuming various shapes and disguises and perpetually indulge in play-acting in their fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks. What intrigued the psychoanalyst above all was the figure's inherent ambivalence: its perpetual wavering between good and evil that made him resemble the Christian “devil,” described by the Middle Ages as simia dei, the Ape of God, “the simpleton who cheats and is cheated in turn.” The activities of the North-American Trickster evoked for Jung the mood of Carnival as it was known to the medieval Church with its reversal of hierarchic order—a mood still prevailing in carnivalesque celebrations of the student societies known to him. (One might add that this mood also still prevails during carnivalesque festivities in some European as well as South-American countries.)

During medieval celebrations such trickster figures—joyously rebellious and amoral to the point of transgressing all social and religious laws—established a momentary utopia, as they abased the mighty and elevated the meek, thereby annulling all established hierarchy in a sort of fantasy triumph. Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles (He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree) was a refrain that echoed through cathedrals on such festive occasions, as, under the leadership of the trickster, the powerful clergy were removed from their high seats and their places taken by the humble and the poor.3 Such a comic act of justice was filled with ambivalence. While it travestied sacred language and texts, it seemed to derive its inspiration from the Scriptures. While it brought about a higher justice, it defied prevailing laws and authority. The laughter it elicited was, as a consequence, either condemned or found liberating and those responsible for it considered either saints or sinners.

However, such ambivalent trickster figures are clearly not restricted to mythology and popular celebrations. They have appeared over and over again and in various guise in animal epics such as Reynard the Fox, as picaros in such picaresque tales as those of Tyll Eulenspiegel, and we can even recognize them in the novels of such modern authors as Thomas Mann, Günter Grass, and John Kennedy Toole—to mention but a few. They are usually endowed with ravenous appetites for food and—sometimes—sex. Their genius for plotting and scheming seems inexhaustible, and it is displayed either for the sheer fun of it, for exclusively selfish purposes, or in the service of others, that is, in the very sense of the deposuit potentes and of comic justice. The universal and profound appeal of such justice—at least in the realm of the imagination—is illustrated, I believe, by the popularity of Robin Hood and the glorification of trickster-outlaws in such national anthems as Australia's “Waltzing Mathilda” and Holland's “Piet Hein”—the Dutch pirate who stole the Spanish silver fleet. In Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner, the trickster is not only redeemed through art but also beatified within the fictional world the author has created.

Should Falstaff be considered as belonging to the brotherhood of such tricksters? In Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, C. L. Barber paved the way for such inclusion when he observed that in creating the Falstaff comedy the playwright “fused two main saturnalian traditions, the clowning customary on the stage and the folly customary on holiday, and produced something unprecedented (194).” Barber likened Falstaff to a Lord of Misrule who—at first with Prince Hal's fullest consent and later in pitiable contrast to him—wanted all year to be “playing holidays.” In Barber's view Falstaff seems to assume at the time of his ultimate disgrace the role of the scapegoat of saturnalian rituals, that of a Mardi Gras who, after having presided over a revel is turned on by his followers, “tried in some sort of court, convicted of sins notorious in the village during the last year, and burned or buried in effigy to signify a new start (206).” In fact, Barber came to the conclusion that “by turning on Falstaff as a scapegoat, as the villagers turned on their Mardi Gras, the prince can free himself from the sins, the ‘bad luck’, of Richard's reign and of his father's reign, to become a king in whom chivalry and a sense of divine ordination are restored (207).” While Barber did not refer to Falstaff as a trickster, he nevertheless linked him to ritual festivities as well as to stage tradition, both natural arenas for that ancient figure. Barber failed to recognize in Falstaff, however, those very traits of ambiguity that we have seen to be essential to the ancient as well as the modern trickster.

Interestingly enough, these traits were observed by Roy Battenhouse in an indisputably brilliant essay “Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool.”4 Battenhouse complained that those “critics who have seen in Falstaff a Lord of Misrule may be correct, except for their own inadequate understanding of the role's implications (34-5).” Yet as Battenhouse deplores that the “implications hidden under Shakespeare's biblical echoes have been sadly neglected by commentators” and as he uses his intimate familiarity with the Scriptures to highlight these echoes, he, inadvertently, also portrays Falstaff as the Holy Sinner, the trickster who, in the spirit of the deposuit potentes is the redeemer defiled and ultimately redeemed. In his detailed analysis of I Henry IV, Battenhouse speaks of Falstaff's many good offices under comic guise (45) and, going beyond the moment of Prince Hal's rejection of him, makes reference to Mistress Quickly's report of Falstaff's death in Henry V (II. 3) and her belief that Falstaff is surely not in hell but in Arthur's (Battenhouse reads: “Abraham's”) bosom. In the critic's words,

It is Falstaff who has been practicing the true sense of Ephesians v: redeeming time through manifest “unfruteful workes of darknes.” … Prince Hal's purpose has been but a counterfeit redeeming, reductively political, which Falstaff redeems in the sense of reestimates, re-evaluates.


Seen in this light, Falstaff, rather than merely serving as the scapegoat upon whose back are loaded the sins of Prince Hal, acquires instead the ambivalence of the American-Indian Trickster, redeeming and redeemed, martyred and ultimately ascending into the heavens. The subtle biblical allusions Battenhouse discovered and uncovered within the play fit with such ease the trickster pattern in all its ramifications that it would be wrong to ignore its theatrical and carnivalesque tradition that was known to Shakespeare as well. We should not see Falstaff exclusively, therefore, in the noble light that Battenhouse sheds upon him. The playwright fused in him, indeed, “customary stage clowning and saturnalian holiday folly,” as Barber maintained, and their traces are the more easily recognizable because their fusion was not as unprecedented as that critic believed it to be. Since Shakespeare brilliantly manipulated and transcended tradition, our admiration for his originality can only be enhanced by our awareness of this.

A quick comparison of Falstaff with a comic figure of one of Molière's comedies, the servant Scapin of Les Fourberies de Scapin (roughly translatable as Scapin the Trickster) may throw some light on the trickster's theatrical tradition. Mere servant though he is, Scapin is truly the comedy's protagonist, its Lord of Misrule, an ambivalent trickster responsible for all its absurdly merry and carnivalesque happenings and activities. In his untiring and devoted attempts to help his young master to obtain from his father—as rich, stingy, and authoritarian as tradition decrees—permission to marry the girl he has already married and the money he needs to take care of her, Scapin lies, tricks, steals, disguises himself and others, invents and stages plots, and succeeds in outwitting the old man—only to learn that all would have been well (indeed better), had he done nothing. Alfred Harbage's remark about Falstaff (quoted by Battenhouse) needs only minor alterations to be applicable to Scapin:

Falstaff is the least effective wrongdoer that ever lived. He's a thief whose booty is taken from him, a liar who is never believed, a drunkard who is never befuddled, a bully who is not feared.


What complicates Scapin's position is the fact that Molière's comedy has not one but two pairs of lovers and, consequently, two old fathers whose problems must be solved by our trickster so that—with some assistance from another servant—he plunges with incredible speed from adventure into new adventure until he is ultimately outwitted and scapegoated—and yet resurrected in some comic way. His inventiveness, his shrewdness, his struggles in the medieval spirit of the comic deposuit potentes against powerful and overbearing fathers are ultimately to no avail because, to the surprise of all, the fathers' wishes are shown to have coincided all along with their sons' seemingly illicit desires. But because all problems are finally solved by sheer lucky coincidence, Scapin the indefatigable and witty strategist and manipulator proves not only superfluous but even finds himself threatened by those very authorities that he had so “successfully” tricked. He is temporarily spared the wrath of father G. only because it is rumored that he has been killed by a falling brick and, though “revived” just in time for the wedding feast, he can attend it only on “his deathbed,” incapable of partaking of food and drink and threatened to be killed unless he promises to die. Yet his wit cannot be vanquished, and he manages to mock the two fathers, even while asking for their “forgiveness” as he anticipates his “demise.”

Not unlike Prince Hal's fat companion, Scapin prides himself above all on his wit:

Well to tell you the truth, there isn't much I can't manage when I'm put to it. There's no doubt about it. I've quite a gift for smart ideas and ingenious little dodges. Of course, those who can't appreciate them call 'em shady, but, boasting apart, there are not many fellows to equal yours truly when it comes down to scheming or something that needs a little manipulation.


His bragging is obviously restricted to the civilian milieu wherein he dwells, and his fancy cannot roam on battlefields or indulge in the heroic fantasies of the traditional braggart soldier (so popular that a special mask existed for him in the commedia dell'arte) that Falstaff resembles.

Scoundrel that he is, Scapin has his differences with the law, as he delicately admits to his fellow servant, and blames it all on “the way things are being done nowadays” (67). Yet, his cheating being done on a smaller scale than that of Falstaff—who robs, and is robbed of his booty by Prince Hal himself—Scapin does not have to be bailed out by a future king. It is only within the world of his young masters—actually vis-a-vis their fathers—that he applies his skills of extorting, snatching up purses, inventing blackmailing brothers of injured young ladies and Turkish kidnappers, and making sport of those who take themselves too seriously. His labors are both strenuous and hilarious, as this sample of his getting money from father G. might indicate:

Four hundred guineas, you said?
Five hundred. …
Here Scapin … (Takes the purse from his pocket and offers it to Scapin) Take it! Off you go and ransom my son!
(Holding his hand out) Very good, sir.
(Keeping his purse, though making as if to give it to Scapin) And tell that Turk he's a scoundrel!
(Still holding his hand out) Right!. …
(Putting his purse back in his pocket and moving off) And now go get my son back!
(Running after him). Heh, master!. … Where's the money?
Didn't I give it to you? … Ah! It's the grief that makes me do that! I don't know what I'm doing.


Yet for all his loyalty to his young master, Scapin cheats him as readily as Falstaff betrays Prince Hal. Just as Falstaff may grumble behind the Prince's back that he is “a Jack, a sneak-up” whom he threatens to cudgel like a dog, so Scapin will engage in treachery, especially where food, drink, or valuables are concerned. Finding himself accused by young Leander of a misdeed as yet undefined, Scapin—whose conscience is never quite clear—confesses: “I and a few friends drank that small quartern cask of Spanish wine someone gave you a few days ago. It was I who made the hole in the cask and poured water on the floor to make you think the wine had run out (80).” And as soon as he realizes that this is not the misdeed for which he was meant to be reprehended, he rashly confesses to another: “I confess that one evening about three weeks ago you sent me with a watch to the young … girl you are in love with and I came home with my clothes torn and my face covered with blood and I told you I'd been beaten and robbed. It was me, master—I'd kept the watch for myself (80)!”

But his consummate artistry as a trickster who also authors, directs, and acts in intricate plots is displayed above all in a scene in which he coaches the second young man, Octavio, to face up boldly to the return of his father, the very thought of whom makes the youth tremble. As he rehearses Octavio, it is, of course, Scapin who assumes the part of the father:

Well, unless you stand firm from the outset he'll take advantage … to treat you like a child. Come, try to pull yourself together. Make up your mind to answer him firmly whatever he says to you.
I'll do what I can.
We had better practice a little to get you used to the idea. We'll put you through your part and see how you get on. Come now, a resolute air, head up, firm glance.
Like this?
A bit more yet.
That it?
Right. Now imagine I am your father coming in. Answer me boldly as if I were he. ‘Now, you scoundrelly good for nothing! You disgrace to a decent father! How dare you come near me after what you have done while I have been away? Is this what I get for all I've done for you, you dog! Is this the way you obey me? Is this how you show your respect for me?’—Come on, now—‘You have the audacity, you rascal, to tie yourself up without your father's consent. … Answer me you rogue, answer me! Let's hear what you have to say for yourself?’
What the devil—you seem completely nonplussed!
Yes—you sound so much like my father.
Well, that's the very reason why you mustn't stand there like an idiot …
I'll be more determined this time. I'll put a bold face on it.
That's good, for here comes your father!
Heavens! I'm done for! (Runs off)


One cannot but be aware of the theatrical analogies between this scene and II, iv of I Henry IV, wherein Falstaff, playing the part of the King, sets our to coach Prince Hal for the arrival of his father. Both scenes represent theater within theater. In Molière's play it is Scapin who directs, criticizes, or praises O.'s acting. In Shakespeare's, it is Mistress Quickly who comments on Falstaff's demeanor when he acts the King. Yet in Molière's work the son remains the frightened creature that comedy bids him be, while Prince Hal quickly switches roles with Falstaff and, as the King, chides Falstaff-Prince for leading his son astray. Shakespeare's scene, with its double irony and brilliant dialogue, assumes subtleties and complexities that are not present in Molière's comedy and that have given rise to numerous interpretations. For our discussion it is immaterial, however, to choose between those critics who—as Barber suggests—believe that Hal's attitude here already foreshadows his future repudiation and scapegoating of Falstaff and those who think—like Battenhouse—that Hal, true son of his father, fails to see here or anywhere the deep-felt truths Falstaff tries to convey to him under the guise of the clown. What is relevant to us is the obvious existence of theatrical patterns that, both in their similarities and their dissimilarities, attest to a theatrical trickster tradition of which Shakespeare as well as Molière partook. Shakespeare was not known in France when Molière staged his comedy in 1671. But Italy may well have been their common inspiration. Molière's Scapin clearly took his name from the Italian commedia dell'arte mask Scappino, so well known that Callot included him in his famous sketches. In preserving the character's trickster ambivalence, the French playwright stressed above all his light-hearted laughter tinged with only the vaguest hue of suffering. Shakespearean genius made the ambivalent figure fit his own more profound and complex dramatic ambitions.


  1. Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American-Indian Mythology, with Commentaries by Karl Kerenyi and C. G. Jung (London: Rutledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), p. 260.

  2. Edith Kern, The Absolute Comic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 121.

  3. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U. Press, 1959), p. 195.

  4. Roy Battenhouse, “Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool,” PMLA, 90 (1975), 32-52.

  5. Molière, “The Scoundrel Scapin” in The Miser and Other Plays, John Wood, tr. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1953).

Heather Neill (review date 16 March 2001)

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SOURCE: Neill, Heather. Review of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.Times Educational Supplement, no. 4420 (16 March 2001): 24.

[In the following review of Michael Attenborough's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 with the Royal Shakespeare Company at London's Barbican Theatre, Neill lauds the balanced, believable performances rendered by actors in the roles of Falstaff, Hal, and Henry IV.]

How nastily manipulative should Falstaff be and how much a forgivable—even lovable—old reprobate? Is Hal cynically calculating or a king-in-waiting whose loyalties are divided between his usurping father, King Henry IV, and his surrogate father, the dissolute Falstaff?

Michael Attenborough's production of Parts 1 and 2 finds the balance superbly, allowing massy Desmond Barrit to be good company as the fat knight but not glossing over his immorality, his cheating, his carelessness about the suffering and death of soldiers and recruits.

Hal, meanwhile, is genuinely fond of Falstaff, to whom he needs to escape before the responsibilities of state become onerous, but he is not deceiving him: kingly authority is already visible in the prince's playfulness.

William Houston has managed to make Hal a rounded, believable character whose qualities will fit him for kingship—something that the RSC's history sequence, This England, allows him to prove in Edward Hall's production of Henry V.

The linking theme, in the first three plays of the sequence, Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV, is best summed up in a line spoken by King Henry: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

David Troughton, excellent as the conscience-stricken—and by now physically weak—king, winces in pain whenever he puts on the troublesome crown. It is much in evidence on stage, a symbol of power, guilt and fear as Henry IV expresses his anxiety about his successor's suitability. The young Hal dons the crown with an ease his father couldn't dream of and enters in a blaze of light, glamorous, assured and not to be troubled by his erstwhile drinking companions.

Part 2 is the less coherent play but the Shallow and Silence scenes are always a delight. Benjamin Whitrow and Peter Copley enjoy themselves no end as the retired pillars of the establishment recalling, in idyllic Gloucestershire, the “colourful” exploits of their youth among the “bona robas” of the city.

The reconciliation between Hal and his dying father as they sit together leaning against the royal bed is touching in human terms, and augurs well for the monarchy.

Es Devlin's set, with its steep rake from half-way back, serves well to suggest a battlefield (stuck with arrows), Gad's Hill, where the robbery takes place in Part 1, and a gilded orchard in Part 2.

Marshall Grossman (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Grossman, Marshall. “Recovering the Terror of Trifles.” Shakespeare Studies 27 (1999): 51-64.

[In the following essay, Grossman points to Hal's ambivalent search for his own identity as the wayward prince's primary characteristic.]

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.

Whatever it is Hal is doing in his doings with Falstaff, Peto, Bardolph, and Poins in the early scenes of 1 Henry IV, his first soliloquy reassures the audience or himself that he will do it only for “a while.” Harry Berger reminds us that this “a while”—the lapse of time between the “now” of act 1 scene 2 of 1 Henry IV and, say, the end of 2 Henry IV, when the debt Hal never promised comes due—is mediated by a representation that is both performative and textual (Making Trifles of Terrors, 244-45). During and through his verbal performance, the Hal we see or read is at every moment complicated by his and our continual textual and historical reference to Henry V—whose presence is felt sometimes as the Prince imagines him in anticipation, sometimes as anticipated but unrealized by the Prince. At times, the shadow of the King he will become appears without the apparent complicity of the Prince—proleptically, in the mode of “history in the future tense,” as Auden characterized the Aeneid.

Insofar as the second tetralogy participates, along with Richard III, in a legitimating account of the origins of the Tudor dynasty that culminates in a dynastic marriage, the Henriad, an identification Berger pointedly adopts, retains formal traces of the dynastic epic epitomized by the Aeneid, revived in the dynastic romances of Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, and transmuted to supranational ends and ultimate origins by Milton. Shakespeare's “history in the future tense,” encompassing the failure of Henry VI and the consequent necessity of a second dynastic marriage—between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York—to establish the Tudors, adds a self conscious doubling to the generic plot that is wholly characteristic of his structural technique. The doubling (or repetition) of the dynastic plot as a formal structure for reflexive complication in the histories doubles again the use of familial doubling in the same plays—such doubling is obvious in Hal and Hotspur but is now also brilliantly extended by Berger to Gaunt and Bolingbroke, two characters who barely existed as characters before Berger noticed them. More generally in Shakespeare, this reflexive doubling is seen in Lear and Gloucester, Hamlet and Laertes (and Fortinbras) and then, in the strangely attenuated reemergence of the dynastic plot in the late Romances, with the struggles of Leontes and Polixenes, Alonzo and Prospero resolved through the marriage of their children into a single dynastic posterity.

Berger notes the affinity of the rhetorical weaving of subject positions by this narrative shuttle, in which present actions are given meaning as the effects of a past which has, in turn, been constructed as their cause, and Lacan's passage about discovering oneself in what one will have become, in and through a symbolic order that is always experienced retrospectively:

For the function of language is not to inform but to evoke. … I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object. What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.1

I am going to expand this elliptical reference a bit, first in relation to the specifically narrative temporality underlying Lacan's understanding of how the self becomes a subject through the misrecognition of its own desire, and then, with specific (and, I hope, illustrative) reference to Hal's “I know you all” soliloquy in act 1 scene 2 of 1 Henry IV2 Doing so will help assess how close Berger has been willing to come to the edge of the “vertiginous vortex of Lacanian conundrums” even at “the risk of being sucked down into those depths and lost forever” (xix), and it will allow me to point—speculatively—in the direction toward which a further collaboration between Shakespeare and Lacan might lead.3

In pursuing this line of thought, I shall, for the most part, respect Berger's precautionary good sense and join him in keeping my “approprations from Lacan as mundane and low-grade as possible.” Moreover, I will add to this a working rule of my own: “the most reductive reading of Lacan is—at least for my present purpose—the most useful.” Thus, if what I have to say is overly simplistic, its simplicity will at least be self-conscious. I want to think about Hal's verbal evocation of the King he will become and Lacan's familiar remark that “the unconscious is structured like a language” with the aim, eventually, of nudging Harry Berger's characteristically inimitable reading of linguistic complicities toward a consideration of the psychoanalytic transference as a model that may elucidate the performativity of the Shakespearean text; that is, a model which explains what it is the Shakespearean text does in and to its readers, and how it does it. Specifically, transference might suggest how it comes about that these texts enable us—perhaps, force us—to do something ethical with words.

To administer this nudge, I propose to interrogate the specifically textual complexity of Hal's evocation of Henry V by asking again the two questions Harry Berger appropriates from the Nixon impeachment inquiry: “What did the Prince know, and When did he know it?” while recalling Berger's proviso that there is no Prince except as we construct him now and then, here and there.

Berger's allusions are characteristically pointed. The questions, “What did the president know, and When did he know it” were aimed precisely at defining the ethics of the Nixonian text by retrospectively identifying various choices as episodes in an unfolding narrative. The intent of the famous questions was to allow Congress to predicate Nixon's ambiguous words and performance on specific causes and intentions. Once the ethos of the Nixon administration was read out of the actions of the “cover-up”—the inception and, so to speak, paternity, of which was established by Nixon's replayed words in the “smoking gun tape”—it would become possible to read that ethos back into the whole panoply of “White House Horrors” and hold Nixon responsible for them. In a perhaps reversed direction, we are called on to parse the difficult ethos of Prince Harry in terms of when and how he came to identify himself with and as Henry V. Later, in its proper place, it will be necessary to comment on Berger's still more reflexive allusion, at the conclusion of his Henriad essay, to Hitchcock's darkly comic film, The Trouble with Harry. Implicating the ethos of the reader in his reading to finally place Harry before Harry, I suspect that this allusion may reveal Harry's “darker purpose,” or better, the darker purpose of the Harries.

First, there is more to be said about Harry of Monmouth's Harry. Because Hal (or Henry, or Harry) is made entirely of words, the Prince exists only when he is spoken—either inwardly by a reader or out loud by an actor. In either case, the speaking implies audition. In performance, the Prince is a collaboration of playwright, actor and audience; but, even when read, the Prince is heard as well as spoken, inwardly voiced as the voice of another whom the reader both speaks and hears.4 This chiasmic exchange of voices in which we lend voice to a fictional character, exchanging his “I” for ours, addresses Cavell's recognition that we must show ourselves to the text.

Writing about King Lear, Cavell argues that to “acknowledge” characters as persons, we must become visible to them, “revealing ourselves, allowing ourselves to be seen.” What exactly Cavell means by acknowledgment is the subject of his long essay on Lear and of much of Berger's elegant “Acknowledgment” of Cavell. I take both Cavell and Berger to mean that we acknowledge characters as persons when we meet them as subjects like ourselves and endow them with supratextual thoughts and experiences, through which they may seem sometimes to know more than they say; sometimes, to say more than they know; sometimes to know more than they are aware of knowing. In acknowledging characters as persons, we necessarily acknowledge ourselves as characters. Cavell says, a bit mysteriously, that to put oneself “in the presence of characters” presupposes discovering that “I am helpless before the acting and suffering of others, but I know the true point of my helplessness only if I have acknowledged totally the fact and the true cause of their suffering.” A Lacanian might say, a bit more mysteriously, “I am helpless before the acting and suffering of others, but I know the true point of my helplessness only if I can acknowledge totally the fact and the true cause of the other in which I am,” then add: “but, since I can encounter myself only as I am estranged in my speech, I can't.” At least for me, this reformulation moves closer to the dynamics of the central issue around which Berger and Cavell circle: when we acknowledge characters as persons by “revealing ourselves, allowing ourselves to be seen,” we reveal ourselves to ourselves as characters; we acknowledge our own textuality, when we understand that our subjectivity comes to us by way of a plot. To be a subject, to say “I,” is to narrate the story in which one discovers oneself as a character. In short, full subjectivity implies a rhetoric as well as a grammar, and, thereby, a complicity with the symbolic, the language in which the self is always and necessarily to be found elsewhere.5 “In psychoanalytic anamnesis, it is not a question of reality, but of truth, because the effect of full speech is to reorder past contingencies by conferring on them the sense of necessities to come, such as they are constituted by the little freedom through which the subject makes them present” (Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, 48). In reading Shakespeare, it is not only Hal's “truth” that depends on his ordering of past (and present) contingencies into a language of narrative necessity but, potentially, our own: to the extent that his language—which includes a rhetoric and a grammar—and ours become complicit.

Berger sees Cavell's notion of “acknowledgment” as a reason to privilege reading over performance:

It is only by taking advantage of the opportunities of the text that we acknowledge “totally the fact and true cause.” We may then find that the character is both credited and discredited, or we may refuse the language of praise and blame and assert only that the character is responsible, is complicit, in ways that account for and derive from his suffering. Textuality offers us not the answer but the opportunity to struggle against the temptation to use or reduce or praise or blame. In this struggle, the struggle of interpretation, we define the character's personhood over against our own. And we do so in such a way as to preclude our closing the book on the character.


I would add that, when we define a character's personhood over against our own, we also define our own personhood over against the character's. What sort of person is Hal? What would Hal think of me?

I am less interested in the rivalry of text and performance than in the underlying processes of identification implicit in Cavell's idea of becoming visible to what are, after all, fictional characters who exist only within us. Berger elaborates the important differences between the Prince performed and the Prince read, but it is a corollary of his own argument that a reading includes a performance and a performance at least evokes a reading. If Berger is right about Shakespeare's thematic anti-theatricalism, and I think he is, then potential performance forms the ground of reading, and reading forms the ground of performance. The creative tension between the two can be appreciated only to the extent that each is haunted by the other. Thus, although the reading I suggest here pertains to text rather than performance, I am less sure than Berger is that it would not pertain to performance as well, and I remain agnostic about Berger's anti-theatrical polemic, which strikes me as rooted very much in a particular critical context. Doubtless, there are distinctions to be drawn between hearing the Prince spoken aloud—on a stage—and hearing him speaking inwardly, perhaps in one's own voice. However, as Lacan points out, “there is no speech without a reply, even if it is met only with silence, provided that it has an auditor” (Lacan, Ecrits, 40). In performance or in the book, the work of the transference, if it occurs at all, occurs in ein andere Schauplatz.

On the textual scene: There is a chiasmic expense of time in the reading of Hal. Like the still frames of a movie from which our eyes and minds construct motion, the words and sentences, of which Hal is made, occur in us; the time of reading mediates to us the fictive time in which Hal becomes Henry. What happens—for text and reader—during this temporal crossover? Using our time to represent to ourselves the “while” that separates Hal from the fullness of his time, we encounter Hal as delinquent, truant from his father's court, ambivalently suspended in the choice of a father or, as Freud would have it, an ego-ideal, between Falstaff—“the latter spring! … All-hallown summer!”—whose clock measures time in units derived from bodily appetites: “cups of sack,” “capons,” and “the tongues of bawds” (1 Henry IV, 1.2.158-59; 7-8), and Henry IV, who always knows what time it is, worries about being too late, as Richard II had been in his return from Ireland, or too early, as Hotspur will be at Shrewsbury. The temporal rubbing up of contrary self-representations yields a friction in Hal's character. There is the Prince who knows his comrade idlers and represents his dalliance with them (to himself) as feigned idleness, crafty indulgence—an antic delinquency by which to evade the competition for honor with Hotspur and diminish strategically the expectation of his reign. This version of Hal is close to, but not quite congruent with, the more compactly distant and somewhat cruel experimenter, who uses Francis, the under-skinker, as the subject of an experiment explicitly aimed at the juncture of language, class and the discursive opportunities they provide, and who understands (as Lear would not) that he is separated from Francis only by the wider experience social rank affords. Unlike the addled Lear, he understands this distinction to be instituted by an insurmountable linguistic barrier, not to be overcome by a change of clothes: “That ever this fellow should have fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman!” The uneasy difference, the dissonance that defines the lability of his character, is that between the Prince who already knows, and therefore is, what he will become and the apprentice Prince who finds the time to be “of all humors” in this “pupil age” (1 Henry IV, 2.4.92-98).

Hal represents his whiling away of time in Eastcheap sometimes as the strategic concealment of an enforced royal nature, sometimes as the time in which his true nature will be chosen or created and sometimes as the pupil age in which the future king learns his trade. He directly evokes his future self when he tells an uncomprehending Poins that learning to “drink with every tinker in his own language,” he has struck the “very base string of humility” and “that he shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap” when he is King—as we know he will—because they think him “no proud Jack … but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy” (2.4.5-15). When Hal, role-playing with Falstaff, proleptically assumes his father's state and banishes old Sir John (“I do, I will” 2.4.481), he appears to understand becoming King as becoming his father, and thus reprimanding himself. As he reenacts an inverted version of his grandfather's complicity in the banishment of his own father, some part of him also accepts that in banishing “plump Jack”—both the fat knight and that part of himself that incorporates Falstaff as ego-ideal—he will banish “all the world.” What, then, are we to make of the quality of Hal's affection for the idlers of Eastcheap—whom he appears to admire, to loath, and to manipulate to his future advantage—or the drawers, whose company he both enjoys and patronizes with such ironic and perspicacious language?

The assumption of his warlike obligations at Shrewsbury does not make Hal the image of his father either, although we are told that on that day “The King hath many marching in his coats” (1 Henry IV, 5.3.25). Emulating his father's valuation, he eloquently honors the body of Hotspur with his own favor but also eulogizes the undead Falstaff with the admission that he “could have better spar'd a better man” (5.4.104), and—almost but not quite inexplicably—accepts Falstaff's desecration of Hotspur's corpse and with it the code of valor that represents honor as a fungible commodity and covers over as ethos the political necessity for Hal to kill and Hotspur to die. He plucks down Percy and assumes his honors, as he promised his father he would, but only for a while. At the start of 2 Henry IV, it is, comically, Falstaff who strides the field as Percy's nemesis—a lie Hal claims he is glad to “gild,” if it will do the fat knight good. These final, ambivalent encounters of 1 Henry IV recall on the field of history the defining moment in the tavern when Hal seems honestly on the cusp of a decision about whether to protect Falstaff or turn him over to the watch, until Falstaff abruptly drops flattery and answers the charge of unknightly cowardice by offering to “become a cart” as well as any man. In the earlier scene, Hal seems to me to be repelled by Falstaff's presumed cowardice, then to be won back by his clever audacity, but also by his assumed willingness to face the sheriff bravely and “as soon be strangled with a halter as another” (1 Henry IV, 2.4.496-99). In the scenes at Shrewsbury, the audacity is confirmed, but so too is the cowardice. Falstaff's corrupt treatment of his conscripted troopers is dark enough to begin to alienate the audience and dramatically prepare us for the Prince's promised rejection of him. Even if the queasy humor of Falstaff leading his “ragamuffins where they are pepper'd” (5.3.36) is discounted as a modern sensibility imposed on an early modern text, the stabbing of Hotspur's corpse is, to say the least, un-endearing, especially so soon after Hal's eulogy establishes the ethos of princely combat. In an odd way, our complicity with Hal in accepting Falstaff's bad behavior at Shrewsbury presages the chill we may later feel when Henry V orders the killing of the prisoners in Henry V, 4.6. The structure of the play seems to prepare everything for Hal to become Henry, but instead Falstaff appears with Hotspur's body, and the newly minted Henry reverts to Hal, setting the stage for Part 2 to repeat the entire pattern of delinquency, military action, and redemption in the fullness of time. It may be tempting to attribute these anomalies to possible exigencies of composition in which the two parts may, at some point, have had more or less independent lives. But such exigencies are irrelevant to the textual unconscious of the text, as we have it.

When we read the Henriad, we confront these various and momentary versions of Hal as a series of dismayingly concordant discordances. We may inscribe his textual self alternatively in a bildungsroman through which Hal transforms himself into Henry V or in a dynastic epic in which he always already figures the fulfillment of a revealed destiny. Mediating or failing to mediate these contradictions is—for a while—how we spend our time, but we will never know Harry all, because no matter what narrative paradigm we use to interpret him there will always be something left over, a superfluity of overlapping signifiers that cannot be resolved into a single plot. It is in this crease or gap in the symbolic that one may sense the presence of the Real, from which derives the tenuous feeling that he—and, therefore, we—are persons. “The Real” is Lacan's designation for that which resists symbolic representation, the unarticulated remainder that is foreclosed from speech. In Shakespearean language, we might say that “the Real” designates something that cannot denote us truly because it passes show. Manifest only as a discontinuity within symbolic representation, the effect of “the Real” is always felt in retrospection, always belated: sensed only in the ripples left on the surface of representation as it disappears.

I think we find something close to the effect of the Real described, again in Shakespearean language, by Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.


The progression Theseus posits from “things unknown” to imaginary bodies and the symbolic shapes issuing from the “poet's pen” works backwards to explain away the disconcerting evidence of the Dream. Theseus begins with the fairy “bears” of the youths' narrations and turns them into imaginary bushes and to “aery nothing.” Not wanting to reveal himself, he refuses to acknowledge the cause (in the Real) of the events the youths suffered: “Such tricks hath strong imagination, / That if it would but apprehend some joy, / it comprehends some bringer of that joy” (18-20) and so refuses to acknowledge that he is as they are—subject to the wills of the wisp. But, in the very moment that the cause eludes representation and disappears, Hippolyta insists that something remains: something “of great constancy” that is somehow both in and absent from “the story of the night told over, / and all their minds transfigurd so together” (23-27). This something disappears, yet persists, rather like the hypermetric foot elided, yet marked, by the silent intervocalic Vs of “heaven” in Theseus' chiasmus of the poet's rolling eye.

How, then, do we acknowledge Harry and show ourselves? Is Cavell's formulation about Lear pertinent only to tragedy, or must we know our helplessness before Harry's “acting and suffering” by acknowledging “totally” its “fact and the true cause”? It is in response to these questions that I am tempted to inch a step or two closer than Berger to those Lacanian conundrums: “The unconscious is structured like a language” and “transference is the enactment of the reality of the unconscious.”6

The work of time spent in and on the tension between the competing and contradictory inscriptions of Hal may be illustrated by returning to Hal's first soliloquy to consider the specific linguistic mediations through which Henry V plays over his younger self. Following Berger's point about how the distribution and redistribution of bits of language among different characters establish complicities within the text, I want to look at the complicity of the rhetoric and language of Hal's soliloquy in the report Vernon makes of him at Shrewsbury, when Hotspur asks, “how fares the madcap Prince of Wales?”

The audience's sense that Vernon reports precisely the sunrise promised in the first act soliloquy is quickly validated by Hotspur's dry response: “No more, no more! worse than the sun in March, / This praise doth nourish agues” (4.1.111-12). Yet one could also imagine alternative scenarios in which we are victims of a deception, in which the Hal of Act 4 is simply a different person who happens to have the same name as the character who spoke the soliloquy in the first act. From within the play, the King almost invites us to suspect as much when he remarks on the tenuous relations of name and person:

O that it could be provd
That some night-tripping fairy had exchangd
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry and he mine.


His Harry, my Harry—Harry of Monmouth, Harry Bolingbroke, Harry Percy—we are all Harry in this play. Just as the possibility of constructing a story supports our experience of self-identity over time, so the experience of difference within identity, in ourselves and others, supports our ability to read a story. The construction of identity within each of these registers may be more or less successful. Thus, in the case of 1 Henry IV, the intervening episodes prepare us for Hal's success at Shrewsbury; our relative comfort in assuming the continuity of his character is reflected in our interest in searching those intervening episodes for clues to its presumed unity. Retrospection restructures the events depicted as a plot with identifiable turning points, decisive choices, crucial traumas, and formative experiences that turn “madcap Prince” into “Feathered mercury … As if an Angel droppd down from the clouds.” On the contrary, we probably are much less comfortable with, say, the sudden reformation of Oliver in As You Like It or, even more tenuously, of Alonzo, Sebastian, and Antonio in The Tempest, preferring, in these cases, perhaps to evade the issue of character continuity on the assumption that the author's interest lies elsewhere. Without pausing to cite further examples, I will trust the readers' experience to confirm that identities in the world (as opposed to literature) vary similarly in their ability to attain the “authenticity effect.” Recalling Freud's trenchant, clinical observation that hysterics suffer from memories they can't remember—that is, from an inability to situate themselves as the subjects of a coherent history—I will suggest that the linguistic complicities Harry Berger finds distributed among Shakespeare's characters collectively structure the symbolic of these plays—including the “ethical discourses” of sinner and victim Berger identifies—as a series of unspoken reciprocal recognitions, an intersubjective grammar like the one that selects “I” as our name when we are the subject of a verb, “me” when we are its object, and “you” when we are addressed by another. To say, then, that the “unconscious is structured like [comme] a language” is to say that the unconscious is structured as a language; it is the set of rules that allows us to recognize ourselves in the Other, as grammatically correct and incorrect in place or out of place—in the intersubjective structure of our communities of discourse. Most important, it allows us to bind moment to moment in a syntax of tenses that gives us—the sense of self, returned to us from others—duration over time, so that we can both change and remain the same.

Vernon's “gorgeous as the sun at midsummer,” delivered in the fourth act of 1 Henry IV, returns to Hotspur the sunrise Hal had promised in the first; the simile of Hal mounting his horse “As if an angel droppd down from the clouds” makes good on Hal's metaphor of the “base contagious clouds.” When the Prince's “glitt'ring o'er my fault” returns as Vernon's “Glittering in golden coats like images,” however, things become more complicated and more interesting, because neither “fault” nor “images” provides a sufficiently concrete comparison. Hal's metaphor is clarified by the simile in which it is embedded: his reformed behavior will shine out from the sullen ground of his delinquency as bright metal shines out of a matte background. Vernon's “images” reminds us that both speeches describe—or, more accurately, construct—appearances. Clouds, mists, vapors, images-the language builds through the two widely separated speeches toward Vernon's final verb to witch and, by implication, to be bewitched, by the weird sister or night-tripping fairy who says in the Other, which, like his father, is both in him and out, “Prince of Wales thou art [though your father never was] and King Henry thou shall be [though your father is].”

A mask is never “just a mask” since it determines the actual place we occupy in the intersubjective symbolic network; what is effectively false and null is our “inner distance” from the mask we wear (the “social role” we play) our “true self” hidden beneath it. The path to an authentic subjective position runs therefore “from the outside inward”: first, we pretend to be something, we just act as if we are that, till, step by step we actually become it. … The performative dimension at work here consists of the symbolic efficiency of the “mask”: wearing a mask actually makes us what we feign to be. In other words, the conclusion to be drawn from this dialectic is the exact opposite of the common wisdom by which every human act (achievement, deed) is ultimately just an act (posture, pretense): the only authenticity at our disposal is that of impersonation, of “taking our act (posture) serious.”7

This passage comes from a book that aims to explicate Lacan. I quote it here because I think it also explicates Lacan's collaborator and colleague, Shakespeare.

Transference has a number of related meanings in psychoanalysis, but they all refer to adjustments in the grammar of the language that is the unconscious. Shakespeare's English is profoundly different from the English that King Alfred spoke and significantly different from that of the historical Hal. These changes were not willed. The Norman conquerors did not impose their language on the Anglo-Saxons because they wanted to create the language of Chaucer. The great vowel shift did not occur because someone thought it would be a good idea. Where are the inflectional declensions of yesteryear? Similarly, the language that is the unconscious evolves in response to adventitious, exigent, and contingent experiences—and—in not always obvious ways—to the political environment, the communal symbolic in which we must seek ourselves. Transference is the way we think through what we cannot think about, by attaching the emotional import of one set of relations to another set of relations and subtly supplementing their grammar with the impertinencies of rhetoric. When we read Shakespeare, we redistribute his language not only within the community of the plays, but between them and our own; we allow each to “corrupt” the other, and, in this way, we and Harry meet and are changed by having met. This is, I think, why Harry finds that “The only trouble with Harry that really troubles me is Harry's trouble with Harry” (Berger, 250).

So what is the trouble with Harry? His readings are often inimitable, performances, star turns, which limit their theoretical exemplarity and work against his serious ambitions—a conflict perhaps transferred to the tension he feels between text and performance. The reason Harry's readings are inimitable, though, is not just that most of us are not as smart as Harry, or, also and more generally, that we are simply not Harry. It is, I submit, Harry's courage in the transference—his willingness, as it were, to be seen by Shakespeare and to let us see Shakespeare seeing Harry—that generates those inimitable readings, that allows him to meld his textuality to a text, re-perform its words and speak from within the Shakespearean symbolic, that makes him so perspicacious and leaves so much working through for the rest of us. Not really wanting to get personal now, I cannot, however, resist adding that the phrase “the trouble with Harry” receives its special resonance from the Hitchcock movie of the same name. In the movie, the trouble with Harry is that Harry is dead but, through a series of screwball circumstances, won't stay buried; so the allusion may point toward Harry's “darker purpose.” I will leave aside the relationship of repetition and the death instinct here that might playfully play over his ongoing project of recombining earlier essays into books that make the individual essays new again, and stick more cautiously to Hal and the shadow of death that falls across “I know you all.” Banish plump Jack and banish all the world—and that's the trouble with Harry.”


  1. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 86 (as cited in Berger, Making Trifles of Terrors, 214).

  2. Berger includes remarks on this speech in a recent essay that further elaborates the themes developed in Making Trifles. See “The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity,” Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 40-73.

  3. Such a collaboration was most fully explored by Joel Fineman. See especially, “The Sound of O in Othello: The Real of the Tragedy of Desire,” in The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition: Essays Toward the Release of Shakespeare's Will (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 143-64.

  4. See Harry Berger, Jr., Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

  5. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?: Modern Philosophical Essays in Morality, Religion, Drama and Criticism (New York: Scribners, 1969), 37-39 and-Berger, 68.

  6. See Lacan, The Four-Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 20-23, 149-60.

  7. Slavoj Zilek, Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (London: Routledge, 1992), 34.

This essay materially benefited from the comments of my colleague, Theodore B. Leinwand, whose assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

Derek Peat (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Peat, Derek. “Falstaff Gets the Sack.” Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 3 (2002): 379-83.

[In the following essay, Peat considers contemporary stage interpretations of Act V, scene iii of Henry IV, Part 1 in which Hal is to throw a bottle of sack at Falstaff, arguing that postwar productions have tended to dispose of this action and in so doing have diminished Falstaff's overall comic potential.]

Toward the end of 1 Henry IV, the actor playing Hal is required to throw a bottle in anger at Falstaff. The stage direction “[He throws the bottle at him.] Exit” (5.3.56 s.d.) looks benign enough on the page, but throwing any object always poses staging problems and these multiply on an open stage.1 As well as being problematic, the moment is also significant: how the bottle-throwing is played can change the balance of the scene, redefine the relationship between Falstaff and Hal, and perhaps even alter the effect of the play as a whole. This essay explores the possibilities of the scene through examination of two contrary staging solutions, arguing that one reflects several Royal Shakespeare Company traditions in relation to 1 Henry IV which appear to diminish Falstaff's comic role, while the other maintains it.


The bottle-throwing occurs during the battle at Shrewsbury. The scene begins with a single combat between Sir Walter Blunt, disguised as the king, and the rebel Douglas. Blunt is slain and in performance there is an important contrast between the swift exit of Hotspur and Douglas, with the stirring couplet “up and away! / Our soldiers stand full fairly for the day” (ll. 28-29), and Falstaff's slow entrance. Exit the heroic world, enter the world of anti-honor and blatant self-interest:

Though I could scape shot-free at London, I fear the shot here, here's no scoring but upon the pate. Soft! who are you? Sir Walter Blunt—there's honour for you! Here's no vanity! I am as hot as molten lead, and as heavy too: God keep lead out of me, I need no more weight than mine own bowels.

(ll. 30-35)

Falstaff's soliloquy is interrupted by Hal's entrance. The tension in the scene builds from this point until it explodes at the moment of the bottle-throwing. Hal's opening words emphasize the contrast between the battlefield heroes and Falstaff: “What, stands thou idle here? Lend me thy sword” (l. 40). Hal enters from the arena of action, and he wants a sword in order to return to it. Falstaff, very much in the mode of the earlier tavern scene (2.4), wants an interlude: “give me leave to breathe awhile—Turk Gregory never did such deeds in arms” (5.3.45-46). Only after Hal's third, increasingly exasperated request for the sword does Falstaff offer his pistol as an alternative:

Give it me: what, is it in the case?
Ay, Hal, 'tis hot, 'tis hot; there's that will sack a city.
[The Prince draws it out, and finds it to be a bottle of sack.]
What, is it a time to jest and dally now?
[He throws the bottle at him.] Exit.

(ll. 53-56)

The fat knight misjudges both the situation and the prince, having a joke about the pistol and the sack when Hal expects seriousness. The prince's angry retort, “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” may well remind the audience of his opening soliloquy about “playing holidays” (1.2.199).

The scene's dramatic climax, the throwing of the bottle, is not only a striking mark of Hal's anger; it also seems to be a key symbolic moment. The rejection of the bottle may foreshadow the final rejection of Falstaff. The bottle is, after all, a symbol of the tavern world, which Hal has promised to reject. Perhaps the fact that it is offered instead of the sword, the symbol of the world of chivalry, is also significant. In a play that pits the tavern against the court, the balance appears to swing toward chivalry and honor and away from Falstaff's questioning of them. Falstaff's short soliloquy ends the scene:

Well, if Percy be alive, I'll pierce him. If he do come in my way, so: if he do not, if I come in his willingly, let him make a carbonado of me. I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so: if not, honour comes unlooked for, and there's an end. Exit.

(ll. 57-62)

In another echo of that earlier tavern scene, these lines express Falstaff's realization that Hal has turned from him. He may be taken aback and, as his jokes fall flat, appear deflated, almost pathetic.

That interpretation is all right as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. Having recognized the dramatic importance of the bottle, it conveniently forgets that the bottle exists as a stage property. Productions may choose to do likewise. In the BBC television version, for example, Anthony Quayle's Falstaff simply ducked as the bottle whistled over his head to conveniently vanish off-camera.2 Something similar may happen on a proscenium stage as the bottle disappears into the wings. What might happen on an open stage, the kind for which the scene was written, and what would be the effect?


Michael Attenborough's 2000-2001 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company looked as if it would provide answers to these two questions. The Stratford production was taking place on the open stage of the Swan Theatre, and the program, at the head of its note on Falstaff's character, quoted the lines “Give me life, which if I can save, so: if not, honour comes unlooked for, and there's an end.” My expectations were high, but the moment of the bottle-throwing itself turned out to be an anticlimax. It was almost as if the stage direction had been rewritten “throws the bottle down.3 This was precisely what happened as William Houston's Hal simply threw the bottle to the floor. The gesture was clearly meant as one of rejection, but the staging, far from showing anger, risked leaving Hal appearing petulant. The bottle was then simply ignored as Desmond Barrit's Falstaff turned back from watching Hal's exit to address the audience. He didn't respond to the prince's words or to his gesture but was intent on making the point “Give me life.” The production obviously saw this as a key moment, or the lines wouldn't have been reproduced in the program, but the intended effect was far from clear. As he spoke the lines, Barrit stretched out both hands toward the audience. John Peter, reviewing the play for the Sunday Times, heard the lines as “pleadingly life-affirming,” which he considered “quite wrong.”4 I wasn't sure exactly how we were to take either lines or gesture; whether the words were a real prayer or whether we, the audience, were somehow this Falstaff's “life.” Perhaps he was pleading with us not to reject him as Hal just had.

By downplaying the bottle-throwing itself and emphasizing Falstaff's lines, Attenborough hoped to engage the audience's sympathies on behalf of a rejected Falstaff. If so, he was working within what is almost an RSC tradition. In postwar RSC productions the idea of seeing 1 Henry IV as part of a tetralogy has meant that, toward the end of Part 1, Falstaff is usually well on the road to rejection.5 The qualities of the character found in Part 2 are read back into Part 1, and the play then “focuses on the Hal/Falstaff relationship, the rejection of Falstaff and the development of Hal's character to Kingship.”6 This was director John Barton's description of his RSC production for schools, When Thou Art King, a compilation of scenes from both parts. His comment was made in the 1960s, but similar thinking seems to have informed subsequent RSC productions. As a result, Falstaff has lost some of his importance and a good deal of his comedy, especially toward the end of Part 1. The process of diminution may have a long history. Writing in the 1940s about the popularity of Falstaff in the eighteenth century, Harold Child remarked: “Falstaffs, in fact, are so many as to suggest that the part was to the stage of those days what Hamlet is to ours.”7 By the time Child wrote the situation was already rather different, and the history of the role at the Royal Shakespeare Company over the past fifty years suggests that Falstaff's fortunes have continued to decline. There have been only six productions in that period, during which Falstaff has become, at best, a co-star and, at worst, a support for either Hal or Henry, who in recent RSC productions has become the starring role.8

The Attenborough production followed all these traditions. When I saw the production, it was playing in repertory with Richard II, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V and would eventually form part of the RSC's millennium project as one of the full cycle of history plays. Desmond Barrit was an excellent Falstaff, with a sonorous voice to match the largeness of his frame, but his comic presence was not allowed to dominate.9 Significantly, it was not his face featured on the advertising posters but that of David Troughton, the best-known actor in the company, who played Henry and who was firmly at this production's center. With Henry in this position and Hal developing “towards kingship,” there is a tendency to downplay Falstaff's comedy. I think this can unbalance the ending of Part 1.

These Stratford traditions might create a general context for the Attenborough production's interpretation of the bottle-throwing scene, but I suspect their staging of the moment itself was the result of simple practicality. In the Swan, with the audience seated around the open stage and with the heads of playgoers in the front row no more than three feet from it, this staging solved a problem. If you throw a bottle at someone on an open stage, something is likely to go wrong; throw it down, and you minimize the danger. Why, then, does the original stage direction use at, and how did this manage to get through the quartos and Folios unchanged?


Hal throws the bottle after an exit line. Since his eagerness to return to the field of battle is obvious, on an Elizabethan open stage he may already be heading for the tiring-house when he “finds it to be a bottle of sack” and turns to throw it at Falstaff (5.3.55). The First Folio seems to support such an action, as the word Exit appears at the beginning of the stage direction: “Exit. / Throwes it at him” (TLN 2948-49).10 Because the original property bottle was probably made of wood or leather rather than glass, the bottle could miss without breakage; but if it ended up in the audience, there was risk of another sort. If the bottle hit a groundling, this would entirely undercut the prince's gesture and run the further risk of the actors losing control when the bottle was thrown back. Shades of the Red Bull riot! The assumption here is that the bottle misses Falstaff; perhaps this is the problem. What if the bottle doesn't miss? What if Falstaff catches it?

Catching the bottle may make a point in itself. After all, in Falstaff's world a bottle is obviously more useful than a pistol, so he may exert himself to ensure it isn't lost. Once the actor has the property in hand, he isn't likely to ignore it. The earlier interpretation ignored something else, too: the changing relationship between the stage and the audience in the course of this scene. During the opening exchanges, the fight, and the speeches of Hotspur and Douglas members of the audience are simply observers; but with Falstaff's entrance this alters. Falstaff speaks to the audience in soliloquy; the move from verse to prose emphasizes this change. His relationship with the audience turns intimate and direct—a relationship that he alone has with them in this scene. To an extent, Falstaff stands outside the action, commenting on it in his role of critic. He is an intermediary between the audience and the other actors. With Hal's entrance the audience members again become observers, but at the end of the scene Shakespeare gives Falstaff a property and, as so often in this play, gives him something else besides—the last word. What are the possibilities?

I explored this question in 1985 when I was the group leader of a University of Sydney activity entitled A Weekend in the Country with William Shakespeare, a study school for continuing-education students. The weekend included a workshop production of 1 Henry IV, and I suggested to Gordon MacDougal, an experienced actor, that he catch the bottle and, if possible, use it to reestablish his relationship with the audience. This is what happened.

The opening word of line 57, “Well,” became the transition as Falstaff turned to address the audience after watching Hal's exit. Then the bottle became a sword as he used it to run through an imaginary Percy on “if Percy be alive, I'll pierce him. If he do come in my way, so …” (there was an echo here of his earlier Gad's Hill mime). Exhausted by his exertions, this Falstaff followed with the self-parody of “if he do not, if I come in his willingly, let him make a carbonado of me.” Then Falstaff again reminded the audience where Hal's chivalric world could lead—“I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath”—and he finally put the bottle to its right use, uncorking it and taking a good swig on “Give me life.” This led him into the final line, when he discovered he'd emptied the bottle, upended it to check, and then clapped the cork back in, on “there's an end.” The audience roared its appreciation.

I should emphasize that I didn't direct MacDougal to do the things described above. The performance was his response to my suggestion that he catch the bottle and my general comment about reestablishing his relationship with the audience. We know there wasn't a director, as such, in Shakespeare's time, and it is quite possible that Shakespeare's actors made similar interpretive decisions. I don't think the actor was playing against the lines. I think he was allowing Falstaff to be as comic as he used to be. The playing stressed both Hal's criticism and Falstaff's comic response; in the process, it maintained the balance of the scene, which, when Falstaff is cowed at the end, is tipped in favor of Hal. What the playing wasn't doing was placing the emphasis, as recent Stratford productions have tended to, on the rejection of Falstaff.

Certainly, Shakespeare's strategy in 1 Henry IV is to keep the audience waiting for Falstaff's rejection by Hal and to show Falstaff making a series of brilliant recoveries. His “By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye” (2.4.263-64) is perhaps the most famous of these. The audience keeps wondering, “how will he get out of it this time?” The bottle-throwing is another such moment of recovery.

The first part of Henry IV presents a problem of comic tone, and the comic richness of the play, which largely centers on Falstaff, undercuts the world of honor and chivalry. At the end, that ethos may appear to be dominant as Hal and Henry triumph at Shrewsbury, but the point, in this play at least, is that Falstaff isn't rejected, and Shakespeare goes to considerable lengths to sustain the fat knight's importance to the end. On an open stage, as I have suggested, a character develops his most intimate relationship with an audience through the direct address of soliloquy. In the final act of Part 1, Shakespeare gives Falstaff no fewer than five soliloquies, but he goes even further by allowing him to have the last word in three of Act 5's five scenes. Notably, Falstaff's very last lines have a connection with the earlier bottle-throwing:

I'll follow, as they say, for reward. He that rewards me, God reward him! If I do grow great, I'll grow less, for I'll purge, and leave sack, and live cleanly as a nobleman should do.


The reference to sack concludes a sequence that began back in Act 4, scene 2, where Falstaff instructed Bardolph: “fill me a bottle of sack” (ll. 1-2). We've seen the sack masquerade as a pistol, and we've seen the bottle thrown across the stage. In the Sydney workshop performance, on the final lines, Falstaff simply patted his holster with a knowing look at the audience, who gave the familiar moan that reveals disbelief. Ever since leading their responses in his “honour” catechism (5.1.127-41), Falstaff had been goading them to react, and there were even some who cried “No!” Falstaff exited to a grand ovation, the “reward” he had suggested. Such a triumphant comic exit might go some way toward suggesting why the knight's original audience wanted him to return. When he did so in 2 Henry IV, his character would be very different, and now the reading back of the character's fate into Part 1 may deny the triumph entirely.

It will be obvious that I consider the bottle-throwing a key moment in the play. It came as a surprise to me, then, to find that it rarely attracts a comment in reviews or in promptbooks.11 I can only wonder whether the sheer technical difficulty of the bottle-throwing, especially when it must be repeated, performance after performance, means that productions take an easy way out, as Attenborough's did. About the status of Falstaff at Stratford the evidence is much better. In the postwar age, as 1 Henry IV has focused on Hal or Henry, Falstaff appears to have “grow[n] less.” Perhaps even though he doesn't catch the bottle, he got the sack after all.


  1. Quotations of 1 Henry IV follow the Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, ed. Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, and David Scott Kastan (Walton-on-Thames, UK: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1998), 361-92.

  2. Henry IV, Part I, BBC and Time-Life Television Productions, Inc., dir. David Giles, 1979.

  3. The promptbook for Anthony Quayle's 1951 Stratford production, now part of the Shakespeare Centre Library collections, reveals that this is precisely how the direction was rewritten for that production. As I suggest, this production seems to be at the start of several recent Stratford traditions, and perhaps the staging of the bottle-throwing is another of these.

  4. John Peter, Theatre Record, 8-21 April 2000, 504.

  5. Influenced by J. Dover Wilson's ideas about the continuities of the histories (see The Fortunes of Falstaff [Cambridge: The University Press; New York: Macmillan, 1944], 1-36, esp. 17), the tetralogy was performed in 1951 with Anthony Quayle as co-director. Since then, 1 Henry IV has never played alone at the RSC. In the 1960s the two parts played with Henry V. In the 1970s The Merry Wives of Windsor joined these plays to form a new tetralogy. In the 1980s the RSC opened its new London home, the Barbican, with Henry IV, a play in two parts. In the 1990s Henry IV again accompanied Richard II and Henry V. In the 2000 season at Stratford the RSC presented this same tetralogy, designed to build during 2001 into the full sequence of the histories entitled This England.

  6. From the program notes for When Thou Art King, adapted and devised by John Barton, 1969. Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that the RSC's latest attempt to stage all the histories should hark back to the last time they were involved in such an enterprise in the '60s with the various Barton productions. Barton also adapted and cut these together for BBC television to form an epic production, not unlike the 2000 season's This England, entitled An Age of Kings. Gareth Lloyd Evans described this approach to the histories as “a shrewd theatrical justification for the scholarly theory of their original serial conception by Shakespeare” (“Shakespeare, the Twentieth Century and ‘Behaviourism’,” Shakespeare Survey 20 [1967]: 133-42, esp. 136).

  7. The First Part of the History of Henry IV, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1946), xxxvi. Harold Child provided a review of the play's stage history for this edition.

  8. The last time the role of Falstaff went to a major “star” at Stratford was arguably when Anthony Quayle, in 1951, played Falstaff “with such determination to avoid clowning as to border on solemnity” (Evening Standard, 4 April 1951). With a young Richard Burton playing Hal in the production, the shift to the emphasis on the prince was ready to begin. In the 1960s Paul Rogers's Falstaff and Tony Church's sickly Henry were both overshadowed by Ian Holm as a very strong Hal. In the 1970s Paul Rogers, again as Falstaff, continued to play second fiddle to Alan Howard's prince. King Henry became the primary role with the launch of the RSC's London home at the Barbican in 1982. The star of Trevor Nunn's Henry IV, a play in two parts, if there was one (as Hotspur, Timothy Dalton, later to achieve fame as James Bond, virtually stole the show in Part 1), was neither Joss Ackland's Falstaff nor Gerard Murphy's Hal but Patrick Stewart's Henry. A case could be made for Robert Stephens being the exception to the “no-stars” rule. He played Falstaff in Adrian Noble's 1991 production, although, as Robert Smallwood noted, “[Julian] Glover's Henry IV gave the play's title more meaning than in any production I remember … he dominated Part 1” (“Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1991,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 [1992]: 341-56, esp. 343).

  9. My own response was echoed by most of the reviewers who thought the emphasis of the production was on David Troughton's King Henry. Only Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph thought that Attenborough allowed “Desmond Barrit to dominate the proceedings, often gloriously, as Falstaff” (Theatre Record, 8-21 April 2000, 501). Reviewers described Barrit's Falstaff as “wistful and affectionate” (John Gross, The Sunday Telegraph), “less the jovial wit-cracker than a Christ-Wgure wreathed in silvery pathos” (Michael Billington, The Guardian), “the vein of melancholy beneath the laughter is there” (Robert Gore-Langton, The Express), “beautifully mellow and relaxed and tinged with camp” (Paul Taylor, The Independent), all quoted here from Theatre Record, 8-12 April 2000, 500-504.

  10. Through-line-number citations of F1 follow The Norton Facsimile, The First Folio of Shakespeare, prep. Charlton Hinman, 2d ed. (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1996).

  11. One exception was a review of a production in which “the bottle” wasn't thrown at all. In his coverage of a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production directed by Michael Edwards, Alan C. Dessen reports that the bottle was actually a can of beer, and Hal, realizing that Falstaff would suffer more if he couldn't get it back, decided not to throw it. Later in the battle a hot Hal drank from the can and tossed it to Hotspur, who did likewise (“Staging Shakespeare's History Plays in 1984: A Tale of Three Henrys,” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 [1985]: 71-79). In at least three of the RSC productions since Quayle's the bottle has not been caught.

Further Reading

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Berger, Jr., Harry. “The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 1 (spring 1998): 40-73.

Close analysis of Falstaff's language, motivation, and behavior in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 that explains his subversive status and complicity in his rejection by Hal.

Bevington, David, ed. Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986, 457 p.

Collection of major critical essays on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 from the mid-eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries.

Bloom, Harold. William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 165 p.

Comprised of ten scholarly essays on Henry IV, Part 2 from the second half of the twentieth century, with particular attention focused on Falstaff and such topics as comedy, role-playing, and the subversion of authority.

Bowers, Fredson. “Theme and Structure in King Henry IV, Part I.” In The Drama of the Renaissance: Essays for Leicester Bradner, edited by Elmer M. Blistein, pp. 42-68. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1970.

Details the thematic structure of Henry IV, Part 1 as it involves a clash between central authority and feudal allegiances—concepts dramatically personified in the figures of Hal and Hotspur, respectively.

Cain, H. Edward. “Further Light on the Relation of 1 and 2 Henry IV.Shakespeare Quarterly 3, no. 1 (January 1952): 21-38.

Claims that far from exhibiting unity in design, theme, structure, and character development, the two parts of Henry IV exhibit clear disjunctions that suggest they were not necessarily conceived of or composed as sequential works.

Henning, Joel. Review of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.Wall Street Journal (11 March 1999): A20.

Review of Barbara Gaines's 1999 staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 at Chicago's Shakespeare Repertory Theater that praises the outstanding performances of nearly all cast members, particularly Greg Vinkler's Falstaff, and lauds the overall production.

Hodgdon, Barbara, ed. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997, 419 p.

Endeavors to place Henry IV, Part 1 within the cultural context of late-sixteenth-century England by examining dozens of relevant primary texts.

Jackson, Russell. Review of Henry IV, Part 2.Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-23.

Examines Michael Attenborough's Henry IV performed at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2000, mentioning the production's thematic emphasis on fathers and sons and noting several strong performances, especially Desmond Barrit's witty but reticent Falstaff and William Houston's enigmatic Prince Hal.

Krims, Marvin B. “Hotspur's Antifeminine Prejudice in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV.Literature and Psychology 4, nos. 1-2 (1994): 118-32.

Psychoanalytic assessment of Hotspur centered on his phallocentric inability to accept feminine elements in his personality or in others.

Levine, Nina. “Extending Credit in the Henry IV Plays.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 4 (winter 2000): 403-31.

Probes the economic metaphors of Henry IV in terms of an early modern view of monetary exchange and social value.

McLoughlin, Cathleen T. “Introduction: Genealogy and Genre of Shakespeare's King Henry IV Part One and Part Two.” In Shakespeare, Rabelais, and the Comical-Historical, pp. 1-16. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Intertextual study of Henry IV, Part 1 and François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel that claims Shakespeare's probable awareness of the French novel and appropriation of its carnivalesque qualities in his delineation of Falstaff.

Tiffany, Grace. “Puritanism in Comic History: Exposing Royalty in the Henry Plays.” Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 256-87.

Interprets Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 as a mockery of the Elizabethan Puritan, explaining that the figure's subversive power injects anti-monarchical and anti-hierarchical perspectives into these ideologically ambivalent historical dramas.

Traub, Valerie. “Prince Hal's Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40, no. 4 (winter 1989): 456-74.

Feminist, psychoanalytical reading of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 that concentrates on the construction of Falstaff as a maternal figure.

Uhlmann, Dale C. “Prince Hal's Reformation Soliloquy: A ‘Macro-Sonnet.’” Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 152-55.

Explicates Hal's soliloquy in Act I, scene ii of Henry IV, Part 1 as an extended sonnet designed to call attention to itself as a revelation of the prince's character.


Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 69)


Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 90)