Henry IV Part 1–Prince Hal: Shakespeare’s Self-Made Man (Part 1)

Following through with something I mentioned in my analysis of Richard II, I’ve decided to write a series focusing on how Prince Hal/ Harry/ Henry V must reach the throne with the support of the realm behind him, rather than merely assuming an absolute right to his throne. By maneuvering around his father’s deposition of Richard II while pretending to be a taverngoer whose company has corrupted him, Hal successfully reaches the throne in a way that does not undercut his own claim to it. Unlike several of Shakespeare’s kings/would-be kings (Richard II, Henry IV, Claudius, Hamlet), Hal reaches the throne in a non-contradictory way–appropriate for representing the historical Henry V, who was generally regarded as the quintessential monarch of whom any 16th century Englishman could be proud. Through his clear-sighted, intentional planning, as well as his following through with his long-term goal and highest values in a consistent way, Hal/Henry V becomes a paradox in Shakespeare: a self-made king.

Of course, hereditary kingship is never the best of situations. It is debatable whether Hal truly wants to wear the crown or is merely making the best of his situation. Even if he does not care to be king, he would be a threat to any other contender for the throne; thus, his requisite action is the same whether he wants the throne or not. Unlike other kings, who must deal with the contradictions that helped them to the throne, Prince Hal’s problems are actually his father’s. 1HIV opens with Henry IV (previously the forceful, determined Bolingbroke) expressing weariness that his countrymen simply will not let him pursue a campaign to to do penance at Jerusalem for deposing Richard. The conflict between the divinely chosen kingship and the king chosen by the people continues (and will continue until the end of Henry V), and his father’s perceived trespass upon the former–buttressed by the according revolts of the latter– is arguably Prince Hal’s main thematic antagonist. More pronounced than in RII, here there is a reciprocity between the two views of kingship: the people will not support a man they believe does not have the sanction of God. In this view, rebellion is both crime against land and sin against Lord. Despite previous arguments that Richard II misused the throne, Henry IV is still seen as a usurper by the unsatisfied “commons” mentioned by Northumberland at Richard’s trial (RII 4.1.272). Far from unifying England, Henry has divided it–all the more since the Scots and Welsh have seized upon the late events to pursue their own goals against the English crown.

Ironically, many of the Englishmen now leading the fight against Henry IV’s rule (esp Northumberland, his brother the Earl of Worcester, and his son Harry “Hotspur” Percy) supported him in the previous play. In his Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (1970), in which he provides a historical and cultural context for most of the key passages throughout the corpus, Isaac Asimov addresses the issue: “[Since] Bolingbroke was made King by act of Parliament instead of by act of God through line of birth…almost anyone else could be made king” (302). Thus Henry IV’s previous consideration of and reliance on his subjects becomes a liability, and men like Northumberland, who Richard previously called the “ladder wherewithal | The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne” (RII 5.1.55), become a source of apprehension.

Enter Prince Hal. Shakespeare presents Harry’s main obstacles in the form of foils: in order to be considered worthy of the throne, he must assume the manner of his military foil, Hotspur, and he must forego his antic relationship with Sir John Falstaff in favor of a more stately relationship with his father. In examining how the prince acts within his long-term goal of reaching the throne in a legitimate way, I will focus on the prince’s true view of Falstaff as inimical to his path to kingship, as well as what their relationship accomplishes for the aspirant Henry V.

Though it would be a stretch to say Prince Hal does not enjoy his time with Falstaff in the tavern, I cannot help but note telling seams in his humorous back-and-forth with the knight that suggest something deeper than the frivolous irresponsibility everyone else sees in the prince. Most of these “seams” appear in moments when Hal is frank about his determination to be a just king. After a few subtle references to prison by the prince, Falstaff asks “shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king?…Do not thou hang a thief” (1HIV 1.2.61-65). Hal answers with “No; thou shalt” (1.2.66). The double entendre–between Falstaff’s hanging a thief and hanging as a thief–unnerves the knight, who promptly assumes the Hal means the former and will make him a judge of thieves. As the banter continues, Hal persists in jabs toward Falstaff’s future meeting with justice. Quoting Proverbs 1.20–that “wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it” (1.2.92-93), Hal implies wisdom’s consolation in the succeeding verses, that because men like Falstaff have not heeded her, she “will also laugh at [their] calamity; | [She] will mock when [their] dread comes” (NASB Pv 1.26). From the start, Hal subtextually implies his intention that Falstaff meet with justice in the future. Falstaff responds with mock hurt feelings –exaggerated for sympathy, as is everything the knight does–speaking as if the prince has corrupted him (rather than the public view of his corrupting the prince). Hal ends the banter by segueing into their previous plans to rob a group of travelers (which, consistent with his underlying royal character, he does not do, instead robbing Falstaff and the other robbers as a joke and subsequently repaying the travelers with interest–2.4.562-563).

All of the jesting can be (and has been for centuries) interpreted as within the context of a genuinely affectionate relationship between Hal and Falstaff. However, at the end of the scene Prince Henry shows his true colors as one who “will awhile uphold | The unyoked humour of [Falstaff’s] idleness,” that, like the sun behind clouds, “when he please again to be himself, | Being wanted, he may be the more wondered at, | By breaking through the foul and ugly mists | Of vapours that did seem to strangle him” (1.2.199-207). This true Harry must have been a happy surprise to English audiences who, knowing the stateliness he would need to assume as Henry V, had thus far only heard undisciplined things about and from the young man. Keeping the character consistent with the (probably exaggerated) legends of Henry V’s sudden change upon coronation, Shakespeare balances his wantonness with hidden integrity. From the start, only the audience gets to see Harry as the hero who, in his own words from Henry V, has “laid by [his] majesty, | And plodded like a man for working days” (1.2. 277-278). In her relevant (though, admittedly, dated) essay “From Madcap Prince to King” that appeared in the 1969 issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, Elsa Sjolberg identifies Hal’s first soliloquy as containing “Shakespeare’s design for the development of the character of Prince Hal” (13-14). Sjolberg identifies why Hal must be so intentional about his path to kingship, saying “the fact that he is the heir of Henry IV will not make his throne secure. His personal qualifications must excel those of both King Richard and King Henry, peace must be restored, and the hearts of the people won, or the kingdom will not really be his” (16). This is why everything, even Hal’s apparent love for Falstaff, must be interpreted through his initial soliloquy. Rather than irresponsible dissolution, his time in the taverns is essential to his intentional, ruthlessly-held priority of reaching the throne in a way that will garner support from the other members of court–i.e. earning the consent of the governed even more than did his father (see my previous blog post).

Harry’s candid statements of how Falstaff will meet justice once he is king–which Falstaff never lets himself takes seriously, instead interpreting as merely harsh jesting–continue as the tension grows between the king’s expectations for Harry and his history with Falstaff. Before meeting with his father and revealing his true intention to be the prince Henry IV wants, Harry continues to hint at his underlying disdain for Falstaff in an appropriately Shakespearean scene: a play within the play. Rehearsing how Hal’s meeting with the king will go, he and the knight assume and then trade roles, with Hal eventually speaking as his own father to Falstaff, playing the prince. All insults from Hal are, not inappropriately, interpreted by the knight as coming from the performed king, rather than Hal, himself. However, after arguing against being denied Hal’s company, saying that to “banish plump Jack, [Henry IV would] banish all the world,” Harry pointedly says “I do, I will” (2.4.495). The scansion of the brief line momentarily shifts the scene from casual prose to iambic pentameter; furthermore, the implicit three-foot pause in the line shows that, either before the statement or after, one of the characters is speechless. Does Hal blur the lines of character and speak immediately as himself, unblinkingly sure of his decision to banish Falstaff from his presence, or does Hal hesitate, realizing that he must do so, speaking the line only after a six-syllable pause of reflection? Based on previous moments where Harry shows a secret contempt for the knight, as well as on his consistent values of justice (however close to the chest he holds them), I lean toward the former reading–which I know might make Hal “repellant” to many because of the “deep political calculation” it would imply, to use Azimov’s reaction to the idea (AGS 334). Nonetheless, the long-term planning required and carried out by Harry necessitates a knowledge of the values he is fighting for, and of which, because of his degrading view of kingship, Falstaff is a philosophical antipode.

Their two differing perspectives on how Hal’s kingship will be–concretizations of their general views of kingship (indeed, England) itself–continue to contrast through the end of the play, most notably during the climactic battle of Shrewsbury. To quote my undergraduate thesis on the subject, “When preparing to meet the King against Hotspur, Prince Hal doffs his irresponsible disposition and asserts before Falstaff ‘The land is burning; Percy stands on high; | And either we or they must lower lie,’ to which the knight replies ‘Rare words! Brave world!’ (1HIV 3.3.200-204). Appropriately, Hal reveals his capacity for behaving as ambitiously as a prince should at the end of the tenth scene of a nineteen-scene play– near the exact center. Hal’s change in tone, signified by the sudden shift to iambic pentameter, signals his assuming the responsibility of his title. Hal’s change shocks Falstaff enough to produce similar verse in him, out of respect for the now-assertive Prince of Wales; the lines are the first iambic pentameter Falstaff speaks in the play. Such a change in him stresses the difference between his perception of Hal in his wild hours and the underlying reality.” On the battlefield, Prince Harry does not show the same patience for Falstaff’s unserious lifestyle has he did in the taverns. Indeed, several times he is spoken of by one enemy–Sir Richard Vernon–as contrasting sharply with his sullied reputation. In moments that gall the antagonist, Hotspur, who believes himself superior to who he believes to be nothing but a wastrel prince, Vernon reports that Harry mounted his horse “as if an angel dropt down from the clouds…If he outlive the envy of this day, | England did never owe so sweet a hope, | So much misconstrued in his wantonness” (4.1.108; 5.2.67-69). Whereas in private he humored Falstaff, before his future subjects (even his enemies) Harry is what a prince ought to be–something we have known since his first scene. Indeed, alone after killing Hotspur and thinking Falstaff dead (merely a ruse), Harry still speaks with the contempt of his future office: “I should have a heavy miss of thee, | If I were much in love with vanity” (5.4.105-106). Acknowledging how he might have reacted in his tavern character, Harry nonetheless spares little time and few words on the knight–who, upon learning he lives, Harry impatiently allows to take credit for killing Hotspur, thus implicitly allowing the prince to further escape even beneficial scrutiny on his continued route to the throne.

Despite the fun Prince Hal has in his back-and-forth with Falstaff, he cannot be the unjust king Falstaff wants him to be. If he must wear the crown, Hal resolves to do so in a legitimate and uncontested way. In “Hal and Hamlet: the Loneliness of Integrity” (Jonson and Shakespeare, 1983), Derek Marsh calls Hal’s tactics a “studied defiance…an attitude more of disillusion than dissolution, which is borne out by his performance of his chosen role…[Hal] cannot change the fact of his father’s usurpation; all he can do, really, is wait for his own succession, try to equip himself to be a good king without associating too closely with the court, or allowing himself to be dragged into the real anarchy that Falstaff and his companions represent” (21-24). By pretending to be an irresponsible wastrel to the public, Harry is able to secretly improve his princely situation and future kingship from outside of court. In Henry IV Part 1 he instigates his tactic of lowering others’ expectations and then surpassing them dramatically so as to garner support by the contrast. In this way, Prince Hal can be listed with other literary, cultural, and historical heroes who assume either a low position or a dissolute public opinion to secure their future goals–i.e. Hamlet, Lear‘s Edgar, Atlas Shrugged‘s John Galt, Francisco D’Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjold, LOTR‘s Aragorn, Bruce Wayne/Batman,and, indeed, Jesus Christ (I’m sure I’m missing many–comment with others!).

I’ve already voiced my contempt for kingship (and any other form of legalized slavery–i.e. gov’t that does not consistently recognize individual rights). However, in Shakespeare’s pre-Locke England, the king–or rather, the idea of kingship–is the highest value. Thus, Prince Harry’s purging of the throne from his father’s contradictions is his way of preserving his integrity as a man of values. From this perspective, for all his comic relief Falstaff is in some ways a worse king killer than other regicides like Bolingbroke, Claudius, or Macbeth. He doesn’t want to kill a king to become one: he wants to bring monarchy to the level of the tavern, as can be seen in his assumptions that Hal’s coronation will mark an age of amnesty for thieves and wastrels. If Henry IV’s throne is insecure, how much less secure would be the throne of Henry V if the unscrupulous Falstaff had his way with it? It would be worse than insecure: in an England where princes and pickpockets are fundamentally equal, the throne would not be worth the effort of usurping. I exaggerate only in order to show why Hal must treat Falstaff as he does, as well as to identify how much was at stake for the English audience in Shakespeare’s ending the play with Harry in a noble light. Falstaff is a beloved character, but it was Henry V that would have made them proud to be English. Thus, it is upon his intentional character growth that Shakespeare must focus from the start, and it is inevitable that Falstaff be left behind in Harry’s effort to earn his throne.

As with any post on this blog, I do not pretend to exhaust the topic. If you have perspective or ire, or if you have a source suggestion, leave a comment!

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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