The Foxes, The Lion, and the Fat Knight: Introduction to Henry IV, Part 1
[A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC. This text is in the public domain, released August 1999, and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone for any purpose, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. This text was last revised on January 14, 2000]
We start our study of Shakespeare with Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V, two plays from the four-play Second History Cycle, which, as I have already explained elsewhere, deals with the first part of the family conflict and civil war known as the Wars of the Roses (those who would like a more detailed account of the narrative of this conflict in Shakespeare’s two History Cycles should click here).
In this lecture I shall be exploring some of the more important issues in Henry IV, Part 1. These issues arise out of the dramatic action of the first play in the four-part sequence, Richard II, are explored further in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and apparently resolved in Henry V. In dealing with our first two plays, I particularly want to call our attention to Shakespeare’s use of irony to challenge, complicate, and qualify our understanding of particular characters and issues. In other words, I would like our study of these first two plays to help us learn some important things about how to read Shakespeare. I shall be clarifying what I mean by that all important term irony in a few moments.
PRELIMINARY OBSERVATION ON THE TERM HISTORY PLAY
Shakespeare’s works are, as is well known, commonly divided up into three major groups: Histories, Comedies, and Tragedies (sometimes a fourth group is added, Last Plays or Romances; technically these are comedies, but they are significantly different from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies). As I have observed in a previous lecture, the differences between Tragedies and Comedies include important structural differences in the plot (especially the ending) and in the vision of life which the play celebrates. There’s no need to repeat those observations here. But a word or two on the term History Play may be in order.
Shakespeare himself does not appear to have distinguished very clearly between these different genres, especially between History Plays and Tragedies. The distinction was created at the time of the publication of the First Folio (1623), the first Collected Works, after Shakespeare’s death. The division may have been designed to celebrate Shakespeare’s versatility as a dramatist, something his friends wished to celebrate, especially in comparison with his great rival Ben Jonson.
In any case, the term History Play is commonly used to designate those plays (whether tragedies of comedies) in which the action and the major themes of the play are predominantly, even exclusively, political, rather than anything much wider and more profound. Some History Plays are very close to tragedies (e.g., Richard III and Richard II) and some are clearly comedies (e.g., Henry V), but what separates them from the regular comedies and tragedies is that the History Plays confine their attention largely to the political realm, without straying into other social or metaphysical matters.
We can see the difference clearly by comparing, say, the Henry IV plays, with Macbeth or King Lear. The latter two plays are clearly based on historical events and they have a political dimension. But the major focus of the play is something much more complex than simply political questions: they involve an exploration of the soul of the major figures in the context of a full human life. In other words, they transcend the limits set by political concerns. In the Henry IV plays, by contrast, we never stray from the political dimensions of the actions and the relationships. For example, we never see what is going on with Bolingbroke’s soul--the issue is hinted at but kept at a safe distance. If the plays brought us as close to Bolingbroke as, say, Macbeth does to Macbeth, then the concerns of Henry IV would quickly move well beyond the limits of political considerations.
This distinction is, no doubt, somewhat arbitrary, but it is commonly observed and relatively easy to grasp from the nature of the discussions we have of the plays. In our conversations about Henry IV, we are almost always talking about political-social issues; in our discussions of Lear or Macbeth, we spend most of our time talking about other matters (e.g., the nature of evil).
One of the best examples of what I have just mentioned occurs in 1Herny4.3.2 when Prince Hal and his father have their private meeting. This is potentially a very revealing scene, where Henry IV at last might gives some glimpse into his motives for murdering Richard and his awareness of the moral consequences. But all he really talks about in the scene is the politics of royal behaviour. There are allusions to deeper matters (“I know not whether God will have it so/For some displeasing service I have done”), but these are not explored, and the entire scene sticks firmly to the political issues of the Prince’s behaviour. And once Prince Hal has reassured his father that he has a political agenda working, his father quickly understands (Bolingbroke is astute enough to recognize effective Machiavellian tactics when he hears about them) and agrees. We see the political significance of their patching up their differences, but we don’t really learn anything significant about either man’s character (as we do, for example, in Hamlet’s conversations with his father or with his mother, or Macbeth’s conversations with his wife). In that sense, the focus of the play is tightly confined to the political--hence the term History Play.
A NOTE ON RICHARD II
Before turning directly to Henry IV, Part 1, however, I would like to clarify the narrative and dramatic basis of the play, for those of you who are not familiar with Richard II, the play which immediately precedes it and which establishes much of the foundation of Henry IV, Part 1. If we had sufficient time, we would, of course, have included Richard II in the curriculum, since understanding Henry IV, Part 1 fully requires some appreciation for that first play.
Richard II tells the story of how Richard, the legitimate king of England, is overthrown by a civil rebellion launched by his powerful cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Richard is a very negligent king, who commits a serious offense against tradition by confiscating Bolingbroke’s inheritance, after having exiled him on something of a trumped-up charge for a crime which, the play strongly suggests, Richard himself committed (the murder of their common uncle). Bolingbroke returns illegally from exile, enlists the support of some powerful nobles who are upset with Richard’s incompetent rule (notable the Percy family: Northumberland, Worcester, and Hotspur), and together they defeat and imprison Richard. Bolingbroke then, very unexpectedly (in Shakespeare’s play) announces that he will make himself king (King Henry IV), and he arranges at the end of the play for Richard II to be murdered (in order to solidify his position on the throne).
Richard II raises, as a central political issue, a major concern of Henry IV, Part 1, namely, the question of rebellion against legitimate authority. No one in Richard II disputes the fact that Richard is the legitimate king. The laws and traditions of the land confirm that point, and all the major figures in the play have sworn allegiance to Richard. Hence, in rebelling against him they are breaking the law and their personal promises (as some figures in the play point out repeatedly).
However, Richard is clearly a bad king, who fails to recognize and live up to his responsibilities. He violates the very traditions which uphold his authority. His actions thus leave his subjects with a difficult choice: either they must endure the harm their king is inflicting on them and remain loyal to him (as many in the play do), or they must break their promises and the laws and rebel. Bolingbroke chooses to do the latter, not merely to correct the immediate wrong done to him (the confiscation of his estates) but to install himself as king and then to kill the legitimate king. It’s clear throughout Richard II that Bolingbroke’s actions are illegal (for he has no rival claim to the throne with which to challenge Richard).
What’s crucial about this action (for the purposes of our understanding of Henry IV, Part 1) is that Bolingbroke (Henry IV) has decisively broken with the traditional form of political authority--the common allegiance to a legitimate king, who derives his authority from his inheritance and from the shared agreement that that is the way the political order in the country should be determined--and has substituted for it his own power. He has become king, not from any legitimate, traditional claim (or, indeed, any legal claim whatsoever), but simply because he has a military superiority over the legitimate king and the desire to get rid of Richard.
Bolingbroke may have some moral authority on his side, given that Richard II commits a number of crimes against Bolingbroke (and others), but Bolingbroke’s actions have consequences far beyond his original intentions, and these consequences form a major theme in Henry IV, Part 1. This issue can be summed up as follows: Once we have made power, military power, the basis for political order, how can we have any shared agreements about political obedience, obligation, and legitimacy? If power is the only basis for authority, what happens to a country in which there are competing powers? What happens to our desire for political stability under a system in which we all understand clearly where our political obligations ought to be? Furthermore, when power advances its interests through deception (false promises and lies), how can anyone trust anyone else?
Let me elaborate on this for a moment. At the beginning of Richard II, everyone shares the same understanding of their political obligations: they have all sworn an oath of allegiance to the legitimate king, and he is (by common agreement and tradition) the arbiter of any disputes (the agent of justice). To go against this system would be dishonorable and illegal, inviting public shame and punishment for breaking a common rule which holds society together. Here, one’s power is subordinate to one’s honour: one’s power is used in the services of one’s public obligations, to which one has made a public commitment, in keeping with long-standing traditions. In such a system, justice is something everyone understands readily enough, and public manifestations of power (like a trial or a court hearing) endorse the arrangement in which everyone knows his own place and the place of everyone else (not unlike a sports team on display). Henry IV, Part 1 contains a very important reminder of this medieval world in the person of Hotspur, for whom pubic honour is far more important than personal gain (more about him later).
But in Richard II, this arrangement of justice is overthrown for two main reasons: first, the person most responsible for maintaining the system subordinates those responsibilities to his own self-interest (failing to respect what belongs to other people) and, second, some very powerful people offended by those actions, rebel. They break their promises, act deceitfully (i.e., lie and fail to keep their public promises), and fight and murder their way into power. Clearly, for them the old system of public honour and promise-keeping as the essential requirement for political justice is less important than their own self-interest.
The first important point to make about Henry IV, Part 1, is that it explores the consequences of this overthrow of traditional public justice. We are now dealing with a world in which power is the basis for political life, and disputatious issues cannot be quickly and fairly resolved because there is no agreement about who is a fair judge (as there was at the start of Richard II)--everyone is now acting first and foremost out of self-interest. Bolingbroke (Henry IV), in other words, is having to deal with a problem which his own illegal actions created, but he does not have the traditional political authority to deal with them effectively, because his actions (prompted by Richard’s negligence) have struck a mortal blow at that authority (which rests on the agreement of all to abide by it). Having violated the traditional allegiance owed to a king, he cannot now effectively invoke it to protect himself and keep his powerful nobles in line. Having broken his promises to Richard, he is not in a position to trust what other people say to him (nor are they encourage to believe him).
One way of looking at these first two plays we are studying is to see in Henry IV, Part 1, an exploration of the enormous difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of imposing order on a country through power alone--Bolingbroke is unable to deal effectively with the problems his own actions have brought about; Henry V, by contrast, seems to offer the picture of a ruler who has learned how to do just that, to rise above the tangled web his father has created and to impose a glorious order on his kingdom, a triumph of political justice restored (whether that is precisely what the play adds up to or not we will be discussing later).
Before taking up a more detailed discussion of Henry IV, Part 1, I’d like to use the above remarks as an introduction to one of Shakespeare’s favourite character types, of which Bolingbroke is the first we meet in our study (though by no means the first in Shakespeare’s works)--an often complex and attractive personality which Shakespeare never tires of placing in his plays in various guises as the central embodiment of all sorts of major thematic issues. This character is called the Machiavel. And an understanding of these two plays, and of Shakespeare’s works generally, absolutely requires us repeatedly to explore the nature of the Machiavel.
What exactly does this term mean? Well, Bolingbroke is a good initial example. Simply put, the Machiavel sees political life (and often his own personal life) as primarily, even exclusively, a matter of power to secure his own personal gain by whatever means are most appropriate to the task. The Machiavel, in other words, sees morality--that is, a careful adjudication of whether what one proposes or want to do is what one ought to do, in accordance with some system which discriminates between good and evil conduct--as subordinate to efficiency, that is, securing through clever manipulation and power whatever it is one sees as necessary to satisfy oneself..
[The next few paragraphs are taken, with some modifications, from a previous lecture--not delivered in this English 366 course, the lecture on Richard III]
The term Machiavel is derived from the name of Machiavelli, one of the first great modern voices in political and moral theory. He lived in Italy almost one hundred years before Shakespeare (from 1469 to 1527) and was most famous (or notorious) for a book called The Prince, which is a short work providing political advice to the modern ruler. There is no time here to elucidate Machiavelli’s political philosophy in detail, and there is no need to, because it is very unlikely that Shakespeare had any first-hand knowledge of Machiavelli’s writing. The Machiavelli he was drawing upon and responding to was the popular conception of Machiavelli, which was inevitably a simplified and exaggerated version of what Machiavelli was saying but which also contained an important part of the truth of his political philosophy.
Machiavelli’s fame or notoriety rested (and rests) on the fact that he insisted as a first prerequisite of effective political rule that the ruler should forget about traditional notions of virtue and morality. The essential quality of a ruler was the effective use of power to guarantee his own survival. And The Prince is full of advice on how the ruler should skillfully use whatever resources are available to maximize his own power and to reduce the power of his enemies. Machiavelli is the great exponent of the popular maxim "The end justifies the means," and the end he has in mind is the continuing political survival of the ruler. If, to stay in office, one needs to lie, cheat, deceive, or kill, that is all part of what the ruler must do without moral scruple. This requires, Machiavelli insists, a complex set of practical abilities (what he calls virtu), and it may well require the appearance of virtue (because that is a useful cloak to wrap oneself in for public consumption--as public relations, so to speak). But it does not require any strict adherence to old-fashioned notions of charity, honesty, clemency, or other components of traditional Christian virtue. Nor does it require one to keep one’s promises, if one’s political survival requires one to break those. Hence comes the old saying, with Machiavelli there is no virtue in virtu.
The Machiavel figure in the English theatre, which originated before Shakespeare (Marlowe even has Machiavelli as a character in one of his plays), is thus primarily a person who puts his own personal survival and power above any traditional moral restraint. He is a person who believes that the assertion of his individual desires is more important than observing any traditional ways of dealing with people and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve his personal desires. He is, thus, a self-interested individualist with no traditional scruples about communal responsibilities and morality. The Machiavel is commonly an inherent source of social disorder, especially in a society which relies upon traditional moral codes and social bonds to educate people about what they ought to do.
In carrying out his plans, the Machiavel typically demonstrates many of the particular skills which Machiavelli talks about. He is, above everything else, a really fine actor, a consummate hypocrite, who can adjust his looks and his talk to meet any particular situation. He is a superb manipulator of people (especially those who take his appearance for the truth). He has a really impressive practical intelligence, being able to assess people and situations to his advantage, and he uses people’s credulity, stupidity, fear, ambition, and ignorance always to his own advantage. In many cases, he does not have a clear plan of action; he initiates discord (or takes advantage of chaotic times) and then improvises his way through, using an impressive range of efficient skills to get his way. Bolingbroke’s rise to the throne is rather like this: he doesn’t seem to set out the get the throne (or at least that’s unclear) but once the opportunity presents itself, he seizes it.
Many of Shakespeare’s most interesting and famous heroes and villains are clearly Machiavel figures, in tragedies, comedies, and history plays: Bolingbroke, Richard III, Macbeth, Don John, Iago, Claudius, Regan and Goneril, Edmund, and others. These figures all demonstrate a preoccupation with their own advantage and an unscrupulous way of achieving what they want. They also share many Machiavellian skills, especially the ability to act whatever role and use whatever language they think the situation requires. What makes them often such complex embodiments of evil is that almost all of them are, to a greater or lesser extent, recognizably normal; we meet such people in the world all around us. Their success, in many cases, depends upon other people’s failing to see them as anything but ordinary. In some cases, Shakespeare’s presentation of them makes them, in some ways (initially, at least), quite likable and amusing (e.g., Iago, Edmund, Richard Gloucester).
But what makes Shakespeare’s treatment of this Machiavel figure so fascinating is that Shakespeare is no sentimental traditionalist deploring the immorality of modern individualism (as so many critics of Machiavelli were). For he is acutely aware that, although Machiavel qualities can lead people into monstrous evil, in the modern state certain qualities of the Machiavel are essential for political efficiency and peaceful community. It is no longer the case that traditional virtues will be enough to keep a ruler in power. Once breaking promises and pretending to be something one is not become standard ways of operating in politics, then a traditional morality is no longer effective (because too many people are willing to ignore it), and stability in the political order requires someone who is very skilled at recognizing and dealing with deception and power grabs as the essence of politics. In a world of power political double dealing, the successful leader must have some basic skills of the Machiavel (that seems to be one of the major themes of the Henry IV plays).
Hence, in Shakespeare’s work, in addition to the examination of the evil brought about by excessive devotion to self-interest, there is also an exploration of the necessary qualities the Machiavel figure brings to political rule. This, indeed, is one of the great themes of the second history cycle (as we shall see in our study of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V): Prince Hal’s education in how to become king requires him to learn and to use many of the qualities we associate with the Machiavel, and in Henry V these qualities are on display throughout. The fascinating question Shakespeare explores in this history cycle, particularly in the last play, is the complex issue of what a commitment to Machiavellian tactics does to the humanity and the personality of the Machiavel (more about that later in the course). In other plays, of course, the Machiavellian origins of disorder in a particular human personality are seen as much more immediately evil (e.g., Iago, Edmund).
In Shakespeare the Machiavel figure appears in a variety of forms. Sometimes, he is a very melodramatic villain, not unlike a devil figure (Richard III, for example), sometimes the apparently unmotivated nasty spoiler (Don John, Iago), sometimes the shrewd political operative seeking some important advantage (Bolingbroke, Goneril, Regan, Octavius Caesar), sometimes figures of enormous psychological complexity (Macbeth). What these figures all have in common is a commitment to deceit at the expense of traditional bonding between people, a ruthless disregard for others in pursuit of their own personal power agenda.
One quality to watch for particularly in the Machiavel is his use of language. Typically, these Machiavels are, first and foremost, experts at adopting a language suitable for any situation. Because they regard language as a tool for achieving their own secret purposes rather than as an essential part of a meaningfully honest communication with other human beings, they routinely deceive other people with false promises, lies, protestations of virtue or of ignorance, pretense, and so on. Their ability to manipulate people relies on their skilful instrumental use of language more than anything else (this is particularly true of Henry V). Allied to this talent is usually a very shrewd ability to listen to other people, assess what needs to be said in order to deal with them, and then to frame a response which suits the occasion.
Because Machiavels are committed to using language deceitfully, it is often very hard for us to figure out what they really mean (unless they tell us directly in soliloquy--like Macbeth or Richard III). Hence, coming to grips with the essential nature of the human being playing the Machiavel is often very difficult, if not impossible, as in the case of Bolingbroke/Henry IV and Henry V (more about this later).
SOME BASIC OBSERVATIONS ABOUT IRONY
Before considering Henry IV in more detail, I’d like to say a few words about a critical interpretative procedure essential to our studies of Shakespeare. That procedure is the notion of irony, something we always need to remain alert to. In fact, your developing skill as a literary interpreter (of Shakespeare or anyone else) depends upon your increasing sensitivity to ironic possibilities and your ability to recognize the dramatic consequences of these.
In common practice, the word irony is applied to some expression or action in which there are at least two levels of meaning: the obvious surface meaning and a second implied meaning which may be quite different from the first. The second meaning, in other words, undermines the first meaning or qualifies it; in some cases the second meaning may entirely contradict the first (when that happens and both speaker and listener are aware of the second meaning contradicting the first, we call the irony, which is very strong and obvious, sarcasm). In a more general sense, irony can also mean ambiguity. An ironical expression is one in which we cannot be sure precisely what is meant because there is a range of possible meanings.
For instance in Sonnet 138, when Shakespeare writes “Therefore I lie with her and she with me,” the word lie carries an obvious ironical sense manifested in the two possible meanings, to lie in bed with and to tell an untruth. Which one is the correct meaning here? The obvious answer is that they are both equally correct, and the ironical double meaning captures the emotional paradox the speaker of the poem is experiencing, that his sexual life with his love is based on mutual duplicity, for when they have sex together they are deceiving each other. Earlier in the same poem the word vainly functions in the same manner, meaning both in vain and from vanity. The double meaning captures well the ironic tension at the heart of the speaker’s feelings: he knows his love is a self-defeating activity, but he cannot stop because his vanity prompts him.
Irony in this sense is a vital part of most creative writing, because it is one of the best vehicles for capturing the complex nature of human feelings in an experience in which contradictory impulses are involved. The ironical resonance of particular words enables to writer to express and symbolize accurately paradoxical states of feeling. The effect is quite opposite to the scientific use of language, where the precise clarity of all terminology is essential to the style (and where, thus, irony is not welcome).
Such verbal ironies are compounded in drama by other forms of irony. The most common is called dramatic irony, which occurs through an uneven distribution of knowledge. We, as readers or spectators, often know much more about what is going on than any of the characters. Thus, when a character says something, the utterance will often have two levels of meaning: what the character thinks it means and what the audience, with a fuller understanding of the entire situation, understands it to mean. Dramatic irony may often be funny. In fact, in many comedies much of the humour comes from what is called an uneven distribution of information. The audience knows everything, members of the story all know a part of the truth (and what any one particular character may know may change in the course of the play), and a great deal of the comic confusion will involve various misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and so on, which arise from the incomplete distribution of information (Shakespeare’s plays involving twins are the most obvious example of this).
Beyond that, of course, plays are constantly requiring the reader or the audience to reassess an earlier understanding of a character or an issue. We see a character do or say something, and we make up our mind about that person or issue on the basis of that incident. Then, the character will do or say something else, and we have to reassess or qualify our earlier judgment. Or someone else will act in a way that calls the same issue into question, and we have to qualify our earlier assessment of that issue. Paying close attention to a Shakespeare play requires, above everything else, a very close attention to the way in which our powers of judgment are constantly challenged by every event. If we use the term irony in the widest possible sense to describe this process of adjustment and readjustment to the situations as they unfold, then an awareness of the ironical effects of dramatic action and language will be our most important activity. And most of our useful discussions about a play or a part of it will focus on the extent to which we see irony at work and how we assess that.
Here’s a simple example from the opening of Henry IV, Part 1. Early in the first scene Henry IV talks solemnly about going on a crusade. The words give every indication that he is serious, and we might well form an initial sense of Henry as a genuinely pious man. But later in the scene we learn that he has known all along that the crusade is not going to happen. So our initial sense of Henry is qualified in an ironic way. We’re not quite sure where we stand with him. Is that desire to go on a crusade sincere or just a public relations sentiment designed to make him look good. Or could it be both (does he really want to undertake a significant Christian act and sorry that he cannot)? There is no firm answer to this question, because the ironic effect is inherently ambiguous. Nevertheless, our understanding of Henry’s character is going to depend on how we personally interpret that issue. Later in the scene he talks about his son with such sadness and regret, we get the sense of a person who might be suffering from some sense of a guilty conscience for what he has done, a suggestive insight that adds to our understanding of why Henry’s desire to go on a crusade might be genuine. Coming to grips with Henry’s character requires us to negotiate a complex set of facts about him which qualify, challenge, and undercut what we have learned about him already. That’s irony in action.
A much more obvious example of such irony in Henry IV, Part 1, emerges in the way Shakespeare deliberately forces us to explore a particular issue. For example, many characters mention the word honour and discuss what they mean by the word (Hotspur, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Henry IV). Then, they act upon that understanding of the word. The reader or audience is pushed and pulled through different conceptions of the word and different actions (sometimes in the very same scene), to the point where it is very clear that one important point of the play is an ironic exploration of that word really means. Whose definition of honour makes the most sense? Where do our intellectual and emotional sympathies lie? We thought we had a clear understanding of the word honour when we came into the theatre, but now we’re not sure what to think.
Rarely will Shakespeare arrive at or offer a clear and magisterial definition of a concept: he leaves that for us to sort out. In the case of 1 Henry IV, whatever our understanding of the word honour when we started reading the play, by the time we have finished, we have been forced to review a wide range of possibilities (and to experience in action the consequences of those possibilities). We are not, however, given any final authoritative "answer" (if that is what we are looking for). In fact, one point of the play may well be to encourage us to be distrustful of simple, reductive answers to complex living issues.
In a similar way, a play can, in the action and presentation, often introduce irony to undercut what seems like a firm affirmation. This is a common feature of the endings of Shakespeare’s plays. Is the ending of The Tempest an unqualified comic celebration, or is it muted? Is there any irony present, and, if so, how strong is it? To what extent might we want to claim that the reconciliation achieved is fragile or illusory? Is it so muted or undercut with irony that it registers as, in fact, a defeat? Similarly, is the end of Macbeth or King Lear a happy triumph for the forces of good or something more complex, shot through with ironic deflations of the reassuring final actions? One important difference in tone between Twelfth Night and As You Like It, for example, comes from the sense many (perhaps most) readers or viewers get that the ending of the latter is unironically celebratory, whereas, by contrast, the ending of the former is undershot with complex ironic resonance which qualify the apparently "happy" comic resolution of the conflict. This question is going to be an important one for us to consider when we read Henry V: Is that play an unambiguous celebration of the perfect king? Or is that celebration undercut by ironic qualification, and, if so, how does that ironic qualification alter our sense of what is being celebrated?
In particular scenes, the staging can be a source of complex ironies. When Hamlet lectures his mother on her morally deficient character, the body of Polonius (whom Hamlet has just killed) is lying on the stage throughout the scene. Shakespeare, it seems, wanted Polonius killed early in the scene so that, when Hamlet attempts to take the moral high ground and lecture his mother on her corrupt character, we have to match that element in his character against the ease with which he has just killed and discarded the father of the girl he claims to love (and the chief political figure in the kingdom after the monarch). The presence of the dead Polonius really qualifies our response to Hamlet’s claims that he is a moral agent. That’s an ironic element provided by the staging (which we might miss when we are reading).
Similarly, in Henry IV, Part 1 Shakespeare deliberately has a serious military encounter between Prince Hal and Hotspur take place alongside a parody of that in a similar encounter between Douglas and Falstaff. The first is full of heroic talk and brave action; the latter is full of cowardice and evasion and humour. As audience we are forced to evaluate military combat by the contrast between the two. This play, in particular, is full of such ironic contrasts, as we move from the world of the court, to the taverns, to the camp of the rebellious nobles (as we shall discuss).
Irony can be a slippery business, because once we sense it is present, we know we are on difficult ground. How deep do the ironies penetrate? Is there any firm ground on which we can rest an interpretation? And in some writers, where ironies seem to be present everywhere (e.g., Montaigne), we can often find ourselves losing confidence in the possibility of any firmly shared meaning. One of the great problems with Hamlet may well stem from this point: all energizing senses of goodness and sympathy seem to be qualified so strongly and persistently with ironic counterweights, that at the end we are not sure how to sum up what we have experienced. It is difficult, for example, in this play not to feel some sympathy for almost every character and yet, at the same time, to judge each character as significantly deficient in some way or another.
Interpreting Shakespeare requires us to be alert to the possibility of such ironic complication and to the ways it can affect our understanding of the play. In fact, many of our discussions will focus squarely on that issue. Is this speech or this action to be understood literally? Does the character mean what he says? How is this action or speech qualified, or undercut, or contradicted by other elements in the scene or in the play? How does the presence of irony (in varying degrees) affect our response to the play?
Shakespeare’s plays and poems offer a fertile ground for the consideration of these questions, since they range from works that seem unambiguously affirming (like, perhaps, As You Like It, and many of the sonnets) to others which offer limited ironic possibilities (like, say, Twelfth Night, Henry V), all the way to the other end of the spectrum where some works are so pervasively ironic that we have the greatest difficulty deciding finally what they might be claiming, if anything, about experience (like, for example, Hamlet, All’s Well That’s Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, or Sonnet 94).
THE POLITICAL WORLD OF HENRY IV, PART 1
Henry IV, Part 1 opens with a scene of royal power--King Henry IV is in control, and he sits in council with his chief ministers. Henry talks in his opening speeches of how his kingdom is now at peace how he now wants to undertake the finest duty of a Christian king--to organize a crusade. But from the opening words, we recognize that the kingdom is in trouble: Henry’s first words acknowledge that he is sick, and we learn that he is deeply worried about the apparent excesses of his son. Trouble seems also to be brewing with his former allies, the Northumberland family, who helped him depose Richard.
By the end of the third scene, we see the open break between Henry and the Northumberland family, a break which is going to launch a prolonged civil war. It is worth asking ourselves: Why does this breach occur? Why cannot these two allies, now that they have successfully gained power, exist together? These scenes make the answer to that question clear: They cannot co-exist peacefully together, because they no longer trust each other. Worcester makes the point explicit:
For, bear ourselves as even as we can,
The King will always think him in our debt,
And think we think ourselves unsatisfied
Till he hath found a time to pay us home. (1.3.279)
And already these allies of Henry’s are talking about the illegitimacy of his claim to the throne, exploring in their minds possible ways to challenge Henry’s authority.
The scene raises the question: Why cannot they trust each other? Having together worked to get rid of Richard II, why don’t they just get on with their normal business? The point here is that they cannot do that (as they once could) because, in destroying Richard, Henry and his allies destroyed the basis for political trust between powerful people, namely, that words (especially promises) have permanent meaning, bind the parties to the promise, and thus guarantee a stable future (to the extent that anything can be guaranteed). In order to get the throne, Henry and his friends pretended to be loyal (as they were obliged to be by their oaths of allegiance) only to break that loyalty to increase their own power. Now, they have inherited the world they created.
It’s worth dwelling a moment here on a key issue in many of Shakespeare’s plays, the matter of language. For one important way to explore characters in Shakespeare is to look very closely at the language they use and the purposes for which they use it. In these opening scenes of the royal court in Henry IV, Part 1, for example, Bolingbroke’s language merits close attention. In his response to Hotspur on the matter of the prisoners, Henry uses words which are hardly diplomatic (e.g., “foolish Mortimer,” “wilfully betrayed,” “redeem a traitor,” “revolted Mortimer”), and when Hotspur protests, Henry addresses him as a servant (“sirrah”), before sweeping away, leaving Hotspur absolutely furious.
Why does Henry do this? Or, more pertinently, what is the significance of Shakespeare’s showing us this? Given what we know about Henry’s skills, it seems clear enough that he’s deliberately provoking his former allies into a quarrel. The issue of the prisoners hardly seems something non-negotiable, and Hotspur is being agreeable enough (at first). Either Henry’s political skills have let him down badly (which might be the case, given that he’s sick and worried about his son) or it’s part of his deliberate power strategy to deal with those who are now dangerous, since what they helped him to do to Richard they are now capable of doing to him.
The point I wish to stress about this here is that there is no way to tell precisely what Henry’s motivation is for talking to Hotspur in this aggressive manner. Because he uses words, not to express his real feelings or thoughts, but as a political tool to achieve a particular end, we have no way of ascertaining his real intentions or feelings. This, indeed, is one of the first things we perceive about him. As I mentioned above, all that talk about a crusade to the Holy Land (in 1.1) reveals itself as so much moral posturing, for we learn that Henry has known all along about the crisis that makes such a crusade impossible. And we cannot conclude from all that pious talk whether or not Henry is sincere in his desire or not (we get no detailed look at him in private or in soliloquy, something which might enable us to see the private man beneath the public figure).
And our difficulty in figuring out Henry IV’s real character, real intentions, and real feelings is something which his former friends now have to deal with as well. The Northumberland family have no particular reason to hate or fear Bolingbroke, except the most important: now that power is the only arbiter of political disputes, I have to be afraid of what someone else’s power might do to me, if I don’t get him first. I cannot trust the King to mean what he says.
[Parenthetically, it’s interesting to think about how much in civilized life depends upon people meaning what they say and living up to their promises, and how much of our social interaction is poisoned or made impossible in a climate where words are routinely used deceitfully. I’m tempted to offer the huge generalization that all our business and social life ultimately depends upon people’s keeping their promises, meaning what they say (at least most of the time). Perhaps that’s why we nowadays, long after the concept of honour has ceased to be effective, have so many lawyers and contracts and very detailed laws.]
The opening court scenes in Henry IV, Part 1 manifest a style of politics which is distinctively modern (in contrast to the medieval world of the opening of Richard II) and focus on the central issue of modern politics: What is the basis for trust and stability in a world where the only political reality is power? When we cannot rely upon people’s sense of honour and truthfulness, how are we to deal with each other? And the answer that scene gives is clear: there is no basis for trust--power must be met with power.
There is one further element to stress about these opening scenes: that is the point that here decisions have to be made. This world is an urgent one, in which the participants have to respond to problems which they have to face up to if they wish to survive. The political world is thus a world of action. It has room for neither contemplation or fun. We see this most notably in the emphasis on time and the importance of time. In the power political game, one has to scramble to keep up; any delay may cost one an important advantage. And whatever the nature of Henry’s illness, he has lost none of his decisiveness in making important decisions:
Cousin, on Wednesday next our Council we
Will hold at Windsor. So inform the lords.
But come yourself with speed to us again.
For more is to be said and to be done
Than out of anger can be utterèd. (1.1.102-106)
THE WORLD OF THE TAVERN
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Henry IV, Part 1 is that it forces us to contrast that world of the court--Henry IV’s world--with something entirely different, the world of the Tavern--Falstaff’s world, where life’s priorities and activities are entirely different. This contrast is forced upon us in two main ways: first, the opening of the play alternates the scenes between these two locales, and second the major figures in the play, Prince Hal and Falstaff, move between these two worlds. Particularly important here, of course, is that Prince Hal is in a position of having to choose between the two of them.
In terms of what I said earlier, the contrast between the world of the tavern and the world of the court is a major and recurring source of irony. We have in this play, so to speak, competing visions of life, of what matters most in life, and so, although the two worlds are, in some respects, miles apart, our response to one of them constantly qualifies in an ironic way our response to the other.
That we are strongly pressured to compare these worlds is obvious enough from the opening of 1.2, the first tavern scene, where the opening lines pick up the theme immediately announced at the ending of 1.1, the first court scene. Those lines closing lines (quoted above), which stress the urgency of time and the need for quick, decisive action, link up directly with the opening lines of 1.2 and serve to introduce the marked contrast between the royal court and the Boar’s Head tavern. Falstaff’s opening question asking Prince Hall to tell him the time brings out an emphatic reply that the question is utterly irrelevant to the way Falstaff lives. In the process of making his reply, Prince Hal vigorously insults Falstaff with a rhetorical excess which seems to indicate that he takes great pleasure in the process:
Thou are 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? 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-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day. (1.2.2 ff)
These opening exchanges indicate that in this world, unlike the court, time is irrelevant. When one lives for the pleasure of each moment, one does not need to subordinate one’s desires to a strict schedule and scramble to keep up with events. One keeps track of the time according to one’s desires for pleasure, and if that means sleeping in until noon, that’s fine. Here, in the tavern, one is free to subordinate time to one’s desires, rather than to feel that one must answer to the demands of a strict schedule (as in the royal court).
The same freedom is endorsed by the style of the insults. Gone is the formal poetry of the court diplomacy, the carefully studied phrasing of high-stakes diplomacy. Here the conversations rely on a freewheeling prose, delivered with an enormous gusto and often with a satiric mockery of the seriousness of religious or political rhetoric (many of Falstaff’s speeches are clearly parodies of judicial or religious language).
In the tavern free-wheeling insults are the stuff of conversation, not because there’s a desire to hurt anyone, but because they enable the speaker freely to indulge in the great pleasures of linguistic excess. No play that I know of is more full of extraordinary verbal insults than Henry IV, Part 1 (the Shakespeare insult generator on the Internet relies very heavily on expressions from this play). These insults are given and taken as a sign of affection. In the royal court, the language one uses needs to be carefully chosen, because quarrels turn on the phrasing of a reply or a request; the person who does not mind carefully what he says and how he expresses himself can quickly be in trouble (Henry’s insults to Hotspur turn the latter’s mind decisively to rebellion, as Henry probably intends). In the Boar’s Head, language, like life, is something to be enjoyed to excess without regard to the rules of careful political dealing.
To put this another way, in both the royal court and the Boar’s Head, people are always playing games. But the political games devised by Henry and the Northumberlands are dangerous, carefully crafted, and secretive; the games in the Boar’s Head, by contrast, are open, free, anarchic. One can change the rules, invent new games as one goes along, change stories, take on different roles, and enjoy the rarest and freest of human activities, the full play of the imagination, without fear of repercussions. Since there is no hidden agenda, beyond the setting up of the next jest, the people here are open and free with their affections for each other.
The whole business of the Gadshill robbery, for example, is to set up Falstaff, so that Hal and Poins can listen to how Falstaff is going to lie his way out of their exposure of his cowardice. The young men know that they are never going to be able to pin Falstaff down, but they also know that witnessing his amazingly fertile imagination talk his way out of it is going to be great fun, a living testament to the anarchic spirit of life which the fat knight embodies. As much as anything else, the Prince and Poins undertake the exploit in order to provoke Falstaff into a linguistic excess which they know will be delightful for its own sake, for the fun of the moment.
If we look at the tavern in this light, we can readily enough understand Prince Hal’s fascination with and enjoyment of it. That his father disapproves he knows well enough, but (and this is a frequent observation) Falstaff is also Prince Hal’s father, providing him everything Bolingbroke cannot, an unrestricted zest for pleasure, excess, and freedom, a richness in living which is entirely incompatible with the carefully controlled, dangerous world of the royal court. And there is little doubt of Falstaff’s genuine love for the young prince, an open affection that we have never seen in Bolingbroke.
In that connection, it is significant that Prince Hal has no mother and, thus, no real home life in the court. His father is summoning him to be an adult, to take up his place in council (which he has lost), and enter the world of politics, which is entirely dominated by serious adult men caught up in time-consuming serious and dangerous affairs. It’s not difficult to see in Prince Hal’s hesitation at plunging himself into that world a desire to linger for a while in a very different environment where he does not have to have his guard up all the time and constantly be on show. For that reason, I think we have to be careful about coming too quickly to any firm conclusions about that really important soliloquy of his at the end of 1.2. There, of course, he sounds extremely calculating, reassuring us that he’s just using these tavern folk as apparent cronies in a shrewd long-term political plan. And he may well be doing that (in fact, that’s how it all looks later). But he may also be trying to persuade himself, trying, that is, to rationalize his love for Falstaff with a scheme his father might approve of. For there seems little doubt that Hal genuinely enjoys himself in the tavern and loves to play games with Falstaff. Certainly to the spectators, the marked contrast between the serious, dangerous, and stern climate of Henry’s royal court and the sheer fun of Falstaff’s tavern leaves little doubt about where we would prefer to spend and evening.
There’s more to the contrast than this, of course, and we will be coming to that in a fuller discussion of Falstaff. But the opening movement of the play clearly invites us to compare the court and the tavern and to recognize how mutually incompatible they are.
THE REBEL CAMP
The significance of this contrast become more complex in at the end of 1.3, when we see the rebels plotting their action, and we get our first good look at Hotspur. The leaders of the rebels, Worcester and Northumberland, are, like Henry IV himself, caught in the consequences of their own self-interested support of Bolingbroke in his rebellion against Richard. Those consequences include now a permanent fear of what Henry might do to them if they ever drop their suspicions.
Worcester’s words of suspicion about Henry (quoted earlier) are as close to political paranoia as a reasonable person can get, and it’s clear that such thinking leaves only one option: fight until one prevails or goes under. In that absence of trust, there is no other alternative and no prospect for peace until the one person left in control is so powerful that he has no one to fear.
If we read this play with Richard II still in mind, we can see an important point emerging: those who use power deceitfully but efficiently, the way Bolingbroke and Northumberland have in deposing Richard, will soon enough find themselves with nowhere to turn to but their own power, even if there is no immediate threat, simply because in a Machiavellian world everyone is always afraid of everyone else (unless there’s a compellingly strong single power to enforce the peace). If we frame the problem in terms of the concept of dialogue (which we introduced in the lectures on Richard II), we can see that dialogue between Henry and the rebels is impossible, because they don’t trust each other’s words. The opening argument between Henry and the rebels, interestingly enough, focuses on what Hotspur has actually said, but it quickly becomes clear that the precise language he used is irrelevant, because there is no firm trust in language (of the sort we witnessed at the ceremonious opening of Richard II, for example).
Hotspur, of course, is a rebel of a different sort. He is immune to the fear Worcester expresses because he has no clear understanding whatsoever of how the political world has changed. He’s a throwback to a much older and more traditional sense of politics as a matter of military honour won by individual prowess in battle:
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!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drownèd honour by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear,
Without corrival, all her dignities. (1.3.194-205)
After a prolonged immersion in the court of Bolingbroke, we may well find that such a firm assertion of the importance of personal value as a matter of public manifestations of individual courage comes as something of a breath of fresh air, and it is not difficult to sympathize with Hotspur. We know where we stand with him, for he says what he feels, without duplicity. He, we quickly recognize, is incapable of pretense or even (for that matter) of hiding his feelings. He is the least Machiavellian of characters.
But we need to see how hopeless such an attitude is to work effectively in the modern world. Hotspur’s sense of honour comes without an ounce of deceit; indeed, he lacks the most necessary of all the Machiavellian virtues, the ability to conceal what he is feeling and shape his exterior appearance to suit the situation. What he feels, he utters, even if, as with Glendower, what he says may be politically inappropriate and strategically foolish. More than that, however, he is incapable of recognizing that others may be deceitful. They may trick him or betray him or manipulate his sense of honour so that he works on their behalf. And Hotspur is manipulated throughout the play by the Machiavels he has to deal with.
The second point to note about Hotspur’s conception of honour is the strong militaristic shape it takes. It’s a code of honour based upon blood, the killing of one’s enemies in hand-to-hand combat, one of the oldest and most durable male systems of conferring status. In this activity Hotspur is a champion, but his commitment to glory through competitive blood combat makes him appear sadly out of date. There may have been a time, long ago, when such a code might form the basis for living (in the world of King Arthur, for example), but at a time when the key issue is establishing peace in an unstable political world with no trust, such an attitude is a dangerous anachronism. Appreciating this element is important, because we need to be careful not to sentimentalize Hotspur and, in the process, to see him as somehow a fit standard for the modern political world. For in the world of English power politics, Hotspur has become an anachronism. He is, of course, the person one wants to have as one’s comrade in any fight once the battle starts, but once the fighting is over, he’s not a person fit to negotiate his way through the complex deceits of modern politics.
Still, Hotspur is the only one of the major players in the civil war who does not deceive, who is what he appears to be, and who openly declares his feelings, even at the risk of insulting potential allies (like Glendower). He is, in a sense, the only consistently honest major character in the play. He is also the only major character who enjoys a healthy and loving marriage, a relationship remarkable for its humour, mutual respect, openness, and love. Nothing in the play does more to establish the attractive emotional qualities of Hotspur than the scenes with his wife. In that sense, Hotspur seems a fully integrated character, sure of his values, confident of his identity, and honest in declaring what he thinks. The fact that such a character is hopeless at dealing with the modern political world is as much an indictment of that world as it is of his own character. That fact raises the thorny issue (to be discussed in later lectures) of whether it is possible in the modern world to be honest and honourable (in the old sense) and survive as a politician.
These characteristics, combined with his political naiveté, make him easy to manipulate, of course, and Hotspur is manipulated by almost everyone. He is persuaded to rebel because that gives him an opportunity to fight and win more honour (he has little interest in personal power and no fears about what Henry might do to him). His potential allies let him down, his father betrays him, and his uncle lies to him by not reporting Henry’s offer of clemency. Prince Hal uses him to enhance his reputation, and Falstaff mutilates and uses Hotspur’s dead body as a commodity for financial gain. What Hotspur represents thus has a value in this society, but it’s not an intrinsic value (except to him); the value comes from the ways in which Hotspur’s qualities can be used to further deceitful political agendas.
If Hotspur is a permanent rebel because he is always needing someone to fight in order to demonstrate his worth to himself and the world, then Falstaff is also a permanent rebel, but of a very different sort. Hotspur’s sense of honour, the source of his participation in the political rebellion, is a very traditional code of military conduct. Falstaff, by contrast, repudiates any notion of a code which might measure his conduct. In that sense, Falstaff is an anarchic spirit, ready to defy any rules in order to satisfy his own appetites.
No character in Shakespeare, other than Hamlet, has been written about more extensively than Falstaff (modern Shakespeare criticism began with a long essay on Falstaff), and his presence in Henry IV, Part 1 is the single most important factor which has made this play the most popular of Shakespeare’s history plays (with the exception of Richard III). And Falstaff’s name and the adjective derived from it, Falstaffian, are terms which have entered the popular idiom to denote a giant zest for life, a huge appetite for pleasurable experience at the expense of any conventional notions of restraint, honesty, or moderation.
Falstaff is an enormous paradox. He is a huge man, who is so quick witted and so deft at manipulating language that he remains eternally elusive (much of the humour of Falstaff emerges from this combination of the enormously fat clown with a lightning wit). He is quick to use others and has no sense of honesty, yet he gives and inspires great affection in those around him. He is a relatively old man, yet he refuses to admit the fact. He is a knight of the realm, yet acknowledges no sense that being a knight requires of him any decorum, loyalty, or respectable behaviour. He is an enormously selfish man, but he brings out of others some of their best qualities of wit, good fellowship, and conversation, as he himself says in Henry IV, Part 2,
Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me. The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter more than I invent, or is invented on me. I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men. (1.2.5)
We can interpret Falstaff as some sort of Lord or Misrule, a figure of irrepressible energy and joyousness in life who exists as a counter to the necessary order and stability in political society. And it may well be the case that Falstaff’s theatrical origins include many such figures, the Kings of the Harvest Festivals where the rules of order are temporarily suspended in the name of communal celebrations free of normal restraints.
But we must be careful not to sentimentalize Falstaff (he invites us to do that, of course), because if we do, we will fail to take account of his more corrosive qualities. For Falstaff does not, like a festival lord of misrule, represent the temporary overthrow of traditional order in the name of communal celebrations (that form of misrule depends upon and confirms the existing order which sanctions such a temporary letting go). His attitude includes also a deep skepticism which undercuts all value, which empties words of any stable meanings, and which therefore makes any form of shared life in a peaceful community impossible.
What brings this point out particularly well is Falstaff’s rank. He is a knight, ostensibly a member of the upper class responsible for law, order, and good government. His subversive qualities would be far less powerful, were he simply a fat common layabout. But he has the same rank as, say, Sir Walter Blunt, and is entitled to join all the commanders in the consultation with the rebel leaders before the battle and, as a knight, has the right and the responsibility to take command or the common men whom he presses into the king’s service. Thus, his skepticism operates from within the system of “official” ordered value, and his refusal to comply with any restraint, his mockery of other people’s attempts to do so, his ironic deflation of the rhetoric and actions of authority (like his contempt for Blunt’s sense of honour)--all these offer a much more corrosive ironic counterpoint throughout the play.
This quality is most evident in Falstaff’s contribution to the exploration of the theme of honour. Over against Hotspur’s unequivocal tradition notions of honour, we have Henry IV’s. This sense of military honour permits him to have several other knights dress up in his royal armour and impersonate him on the battlefield, so that his enemies will wear themselves out chasing and fighting the wrong person. From Henry’s point of view, this is clever military strategy--efficient policy at work; from Hotspur’s point of view it is a denial of what true honour requires, which is not something politically expedient or efficient but something deeply personal, a manifestation of one’s true character honestly and publicly announced and maintained. From Falstaff’s point of view, all honour which requires one to run the risk of losing one’s life (especially in someone else’s cause) is absurd. In fact, any sense of honour which holds one back from seizing a good opportunity to enrich oneself is merely an empty word, to which he is not prepared to pay attention (although he is prepared to use the appearance of honour to serve his own interests).
When we enjoy Falstaff’s actions in the tavern, we should also see how, out of this approach to life, his attempt to cheat the hostess out of money, his conduct with the conscript soldiers, and his mutilation of Hotspur’s body follow quite consistently. These actions complicate our response to him. In a stable society, at peace with itself and observing shared and honestly observed rules of conduct, such actions would seriously prejudice our opinion of the fat knight. But in this play, our judgment is made much more difficult, because Falstaff’s actions are, in some respects, not all that different from what others are doing on a much bigger scale.
After all, Falstaff may well be abusing the king’s press, but Henry is forcing people to dress up and be killed on his behalf, to uphold his claim on the throne, which he won by rebellion and murder. Falstaff mutilates Hotspur’s dead body, but Worcester and Prince Hal bring about Hotspur’s death. Falstaff may rob the traveler at Gadshill, but others have stolen or are planning to steal the entire kingdom. In a world where the leaders routinely dispense with moral considerations in their pursuit of power and manipulate language to suit their political purposes, Falstaff’s actions appear less reprehensible than they otherwise might. After all, if the king and the lords are lying, stealing, and deceiving, why shouldn’t he? At least the scale of his operations is much smaller, and he seems to have much more fun doing it (and bringing pleasure to others in the process). Moreover, he is quite candid about what he is doing and does not attempt (as Henry and the rebels do) to justify his actions as somehow morally defensible (except in mock justifications which parody the official language of the court). In fact, his impersonation of them, his appropriation of their high-toned language for satiric purposes, reminds us constantly of the hypocrisy of their special pleading. On top of all that, he has, as he observes, a capacity to bring joy to others, to make them laugh, to inspire their affections, in a manner quite impossible in the royal court.
That’s why the presence of Falstaff is much more subversive than a sentimental picture of him might suggest. He candidly acknowledges what he does and why he does it, and our knowledge of what is happening on the larger scale doesn’t give us the solid assurances we need to deal with Falstaff as we might wish. If Falstaff is wrong (and his conduct would seem to be quite unacceptable to any normal dealings with each other), then where can we turn to find out some standard by which to measure the man? Is the difference between right and wrong conduct now simply a matter of one’s political rank?
In that sense, Falstaff’s references to himself as a devil take on a certain resonance. Of course, he belongs to the famous tradition of the Vice, the clown-devil with a dagger of lath, surrounded by his cronies and dedicated to creating havoc among ordinary folk. Most of the obvious allegorical connections with such a figure have been taken away or toned down, so that we see Falstaff primarily as the spirit of anarchic play. But for all his fun, he carries also the disturbing presence of a skepticism which undercuts all meaning, all restraint, all settled order. That is the reason why Prince Hal knows that he is going to have to sever the connection between them at some point.
At the very centre of these various political issues stands Prince Hal, and how we interpret his actions in relation to the various other characters and themes will determine in large part how we understand Henry IV, Part 1. Hal apparently undergoes a significant transformation in the course of the action, emerging by the end as a shrewd and successful political operator, every bit as efficient as his father. In that sense, Henry IV, Part 1 is, first and foremost, the opening chapter in Shakespeare’s study of the education of the modern ruler. This focus on the education of the modern ruler continues in Henry IV, Part 2 and reaches its culmination in Henry V, where we see Prince Hal, now king, fulfilling all the political duties of the king with maximum speed, efficiency, and success. Since we will be dealing with Henry V later, I’ll confine my remarks here to Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1.
Traditionally there are two common ways to interpret Prince Hal’s development. The first, which is the older of the two, sees it as an unironic celebration of a great king in training. According to this view, Hal learns from the tavern important qualities which serve him well later on (e.g., how to understand common pleasures, like drinking small beer, and the working life of his subjects, how to relate to the people). He acquires a more mature understanding of life by acting as a young rebel (mildly) and always retains his warmth and affection which govern life in the tavern. In Prince Hal, then, Shakespeare is offering us, so this view has it, a picture of the growth of responsibly mature modern political leadership, a celebration of the very best the new political order has to offer, a king with the “common touch.”
[Parenthetically, it is interesting in this regard to recall Empson’s observations on the reputation of the historical Henry V as the first really English king, the first to use the English language in his official correspondence, and one of the first kings to acquire a glorious reputation as an Englishman.]
The second view is less charitable. It sees Prince Hal as a coldly calculating Machiavel right from the start, a man who is, in effect, using his friends as means to a political end, without much regard for their feelings. Hal, in this view, is far from warmly human and affectionate: he is, by contrast, a selfish and cruel political operator, fond of painful practical jokes (for example, his treatment of Francis), whose every move is part of a calculated game plan. Hence, Prince Hal is Shakespeare’s picture of just how nasty and inhuman successful political operators really are (or need to be).
How are we to choose between these two readings of the character? The script can sustain either one, and, if these were the only two options, the style of the actor playing the role would indicate which one we were dealing with in any particular production. However, I’d like to suggest a middle course here, between these two extremes. For me, Prince Hal is Shakespeare’s exploration not merely of what it takes to be an effective political leader in a Machiavellian world but, more importantly, of what such leadership costs. In other words, I would argue that Prince Hal’s great success (and there is no doubt that he is spectacularly successful) comes at a price, and that price turns out to be very high.
I admit that this view of Prince Hal is not so clear in Henry IV, Part 1 as it becomes later in the series of plays (especially in Henry V), but it has the merit of making the best sense of the evidence and turning the play into something more challenging than a celebration or an indictment of modern political leadership. It becomes instead an exploration of the links between political effectiveness and a loss of human richness in one’s life. To establish this point quickly, let me list some obvious points.
Prince Hal has quite clearly committed himself to following in his father’s footsteps. He never debates with himself that point, and his first soliloquy at the end of 1.2 (which is much disputed) tells us unequivocally that he is resolved to emerge and make a grand stir in the political realm. Furthermore, this soliloquy informs us that Prince Hal has a firm grasp on the fact that the essential quality of the powerful leader is theatrical, the ability to put on a dazzling and surprising public performance. His justification for being in the tavern, after all, is that it will, like a good play, enable him to make a crowd pleasing show out of his transformation. In that sense, he’s fully committed to the modern political world (just as everyone else in the play is, other than Hotspur); he has no sense of any other ways of operating (so this play does not include an exploration of political options, as, for example, Julius Caesar does--nor does it ever engage in the nostalgic option that one can go back to the old ways of governing before Bolingbroke’s rebellion).
But there may be more to his sojourn in the tavern than such rational self-interested calculation. There is also a sense that in the Boar’s Head he can experience a happiness which is not available in the court. He can be himself. He can experiment with life, joke, make friends, and indulge in whatever takes his fancy, as he says: “I am 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 midnight” (2.5.86). He can, in other words, shape his conduct to suit his feelings (his “humours”), something not possible in the royal court. Such freedom will disappear as soon as he enters the political world. Hence, it is not difficult to understand why he likes the tavern. Life with Falstaff is so much more fun, so much more imaginatively alive than life with father at the palace.
It’s true that that soliloquy at the end of 1.2 sounds very calculating, deliberate, and self-serving, especially the latent contempt in the opening lines:
I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness. . . . (1.2.173-4)
But these lines might be, as I mentioned above, more than just the declaration of an insidious rational intention. It may well be the case that in them Prince Hal is attempting to justify to himself the time he spends at the Boar’s Head. If he can attach a political strategy to hanging out with Falstaff, then he will be able for a while longer to enjoy a form of life which is unachievable in the palace.
This sense of his motivation emerges in a later scene in the following remark:
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.’ (2.5.94-97)
His remarks here are, of course, a travesty of Hotspur’s character, but there’s enough truth in the exaggeration to indicate that Prince Hal has a shrewd idea of the pointlessness of basing one’s life on the value of killing others. But the word that interests me here is that adverb yet. It adds an important qualification to Hal’s criticism of Percy, for it indicates that he is aware that at some point in the future he is going to have to play the role of Hotspur, he is going to have to, as it were, out-Hotspur Hotspur, to make him, as he later tells his father, his “factor,” his instrument in achieving political goals.
This remark comes across as a casual joke, but it suggests an interesting inner tension in Prince Hal, his awareness that the political life he is going to choose in the near future will require of him conduct (in a political role-playing exercise) which he knows is not spontaneously felt, not an essential part of himself, something which he can see through easily enough, but which is a necessary political role he will have to take on temporarily to achieve his political goals efficiently. Hotspur’s way of life may, for Prince Hal, be ridiculous, but it’s something he’s going to have to deal with on Hotspur’s terms soon enough. His political future demands that.
Hal also knows that he is going to have to sever his connections with Falstaff. In fact, this play telegraphs this divorce in one of the funniest and yet most moving scenes in the entire play, that part of 2.5 in which Falstaff and Hal pretend they are in the royal court and they alternate roles. Once Hal takes on the role of the king (his future destiny) he offers an official condemnation of Falstaff:
Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father Ruffian, that Vanity of Years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it? Wherein cunning, but in craft? Wherein crafty, but in villainy? Wherein villainous, but in all things? Wherein worthy, but in nothing? (2.5.409-418)
In response to these questions, Falstaff (speaking in his role of Prince Hal) defends himself:
But say I know more harm in him than in myself were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it. But that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff,
Banish not him thy Harry’s company,
Banish not him they Harry’s company.
Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world. (2.5.425-438)
This, of course, is all part of the fun and games they have devised, but (depending on how the scene is played) the moment has extraordinary reverberations. Falstaff is making the case in his own defense. But is he still in the role of Prince Hal speaking to King Henry IV (the situation when the speech began)? What seems to have happened here is that somewhere in the middle of the play-acting Falstaff senses the reality underlying the pretense. The phrase “thy Harry’s” may well mean Bolingbroke’s son, Prince Hal, but it might also mean that part of Prince Hal which belongs with Falstaff, the “Harry” part of him. The colloquial vigour and intimacy of the name and the formal repetition in the closing lines suggest that Falstaff is appealing to a bond established between them because, like Prince Hal, he knows
their bond may be ruptured. The game may be still going on, but the tone of it has been quite transformed.
The key moment in this exchange (and potentially one of the most poignant moments in the play) is Prince Hal’s reply to this defense, and how these lines are delivered will indicate, more than anything else, the nature of Prince Hal’s character and motives. For he states quite simply, “I do; I will.” I have seen this line delivered by Hal right at Falstaff with a tone of immense regret and love (and with Hal’s arms around Falstaff’s neck); in other productions I have seen the line tossed off casually. Of these two alternatives (and there are obviously others) the first one evokes Prince Hal’s awareness of what is going to have to do, the sense of the loss he will have to sustain, together with his resigned but determined acceptance of that loss.
This important moment is decisive also because at that instant the political world breaks in upon the tavern fun, and the Prince, by the end of the scene, knows that he must go and join his father’s enterprise. When we next see him he is in conference with his father, declaring his allegiance to his cause and his readiness to play the political role which has been waiting for him. In a sense, this play-acting in the Boar’s Head is the last truly carefree moment the Prince enjoys, and it ends with him declaring his determination to leave Falstaff. From now on, Prince Hal’s play acting will be on the wider and more dangerous stage of English power politics.
Of course, the formal public rejection of Falstaff does not occur until the end of Henry IV, Part 2, but it’s noticeable that the next time we meet the fat knight he is starting to complain about illness and decay, a process that continues throughout the second play. And Prince Hal does return to the tavern. But he’s cast his lot with the political world, and the scenes between him and his Boar’s Head cronies never regain the freedom and zest of the early parts of this play.
That divorce from Falstaff registers with us (and with Prince Hal) as something of a loss. Falstaff has pleaded, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,” and there’s a certain truth in that statement. To work as an effective political leader, one has to banish plump Jack. That is obviously necessary. But that banishment takes with it all the vital things that Falstaff makes available to those around him, the things I have referred to repeatedly already, like spontaneous affection, careless rhetorical excess, the joys of an unsuspicious friendship, games where one’s life is not at risk, even love. As I mentioned, it brings out the cost of turning oneself into a king.
It also takes away Falstaff’s keen sense for the hypocrisy and absurdity of much of the lofty rhetoric associated with political leadership. In the tavern one can afford to make fun of the language of authority (political and religious), to, as it were, unmask its pretense to be firmly grounded in moral practice. On the larger stage, one’s language has to fit the roles required of leadership and that requires taking seriously (or pretending to take seriously) what anyone who associates with Falstaff knows is empty moral posturing. Hence, there is a sense that giving up the tavern for the royal council involves more than simply a loss of carefree good times; it also involves surrendering oneself to the roles one has to play in a game where the stakes are much higher and where the rules cannot be changed when the imagination prompts and where one cannot permit one’s critical awareness of one’s own hypocrisy to interfere with the efficient carrying out of whatever actions the situation demands (or speaking whatever language one’s role requires at any particular moment).
There may well be a feeling of this loss (or at least the beginning of it) when Prince Hal has killed Hotspur and stands over the corpse and what Hal believes is the dead body of Falstaff (in 5.4). Here he is standing over his dead rival and his apparently dead friend, yet there’s a curious sense of detachment about him. He can pay tribute to Hotspur’s spirit, but in calling attention to his feelings, he seems to suggest a noticeable lack of any deep emotion:
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal;
But let my favours hide thy mangled face. (5.4.93-95)
In paying tribute to Hotspur’s great spirit, Prince Hal acknowledges that if Hotspur were conscious he wouldn’t be paying him this compliment. Whatever he’s feeling at the moment, he’s very clearly in control of it, so much so that his ability to imagine Hotspur alive and think about how he would react differently in that situation indicates no immediately passionate response. What he’s saying, in effect, is that in a different situation he would have to take on a different role. The tribute is a fine one, appropriate in the circumstances, but perfectly controlled, just what one might expect from someone with a fine command of appropriate political rhetoric but with no deep feeling.
The subsequent tribute to Falstaff is similarly detached (enough to make a feeble joke about the body), and when he discovers Falstaff is alive, Hal does not indicate any great surprise or moving feeling. It’s as if, having donned the role of mighty passionate warrior and out-Hotspured Hotspur, Prince Hal can drop the role. He’s made his point, and is not, like Hotspur, wedded to it. That particular part of the multiple performances he will now have to play is over. That’s why he can also let Falstaff take whatever credit belongs to killing Hotspur and let Douglas go.
What I’m trying to point to here is a sense that Prince Hal, in turning himself into a political actor, becomes a consummate role player, efficiently discharging his duties in whatever mode that requires (heroic warrior, magnanimous winner). But the efficient discharge of a particular role lacks the spontaneous energy of the earlier life in the tavern. There’s a calculation behind it. And once there’s no more reason to play a role, Prince Hal seems to have little use for it.
I admit I’m heavily influenced in this sense by what comes in the later plays, because what we see there, especially in Henry V, is a king whose mastery of all the roles of kingship is complete but who, we sense, in turning himself into such an efficient and necessary political operator loses any spontaneous sense of self. He becomes merely the totality of the public roles he plays and is gradually emptied of all complex humanity, in a process that is not unlike that of Michael Corleone, who becomes the shrewdest and most successful Godfather of all at an enormous price (in Godfather II), the loss of his family and the deadening of his emotional centres.
Henry IV, Part 1 does not underline this development; indeed, the ending makes clear that there is still a good deal more of the story to come. But the major development of Prince Hal is well launched and with it the theme exploring what the human cost of effective political leadership might be. If we read the later plays, witnessing the very public rejections of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 and learn of his death (from a broken heart brought on by Henry’s rejection of him, so we are informed by one of Falstaff’s tavern friends) then the triumph of Prince Hal as he becomes the perfectly successful king carries a strong ironic reminder that the price of effective political leadership might be more than most people are willing or able to bear.
POSTSCRIPT: SHAKESPEARE’S POLITICAL VISION?
If might be worth wondering for a moment or two what, if anything, we derive from Henry IV, Part 1 in the nature of a political vision. Can we take away from this play a sense of what political leadership and political life amount to? Alternatively put, is Shakespeare endorsing, celebrating, or indicting the success of Bolingbroke and his son over the rebels? Is there anything here remotely relevant to our understanding of modern politics?
These questions (and other like them) are much debated these days, usually in the form of a question like the following: “Is Shakespeare defending the establishment of the modern vision of the state as controlled by an unscrupulous but efficient political leadership? Or is he undermining that vision of the state, holding it up for criticism, exposing its arbitrary injustice?”
These are complex questions, and I shall make no attempt to deal with them in any detail here, but a few final observations might be in order.
First, there are reminders throughout Henry IV, Part 1 that those at the bottom are given little consideration. The men whom Falstaff gathers in to fulfill his quota of soldiers are those who have no money to purchase their way out. They are those with little stake in the structure of authority, and they are consequently, as Falstaff cynically points out, “food for powder.” And even in the tavern, where people can forget about politics and play imaginative games with each other, the lad who keeps the beer coming, Francis, is an indentured servant, forced to labour for years in order to qualify as a bar man. There is no sense in this play that these people have any resources to deal with their lowly situation nor that any one in power cares enough about them. Thus, if the play is calling attention to the injustices built into the political system it depicts, it is certainly not suggesting that there is any remedy at hand either in the consciousness of the people at the bottom or in the political vision of those higher up. There is also a strong suggestion here that these people pay heavily for incompetence at the top: the casualties of civil war are not confined to those whose decisions initiate it.
Second, if we see this play as, in part, a celebration of the political skills of Prince Hal in acquiring the expertise to be a star player, there is a sense of the emptiness which this commitment brings with it. A view of politics which sees it, as this play does, as consummate role playing divorced from any political vision other than short-term success over one’s immediate enemies undermines the very skills which it endorses. Inevitably the question arises: Why dedicate oneself to the enterprise, then, given that it has brought Bolingbroke no peace of mind and launched England in a series of inconclusive civil wars? Falstaff’s presence in the play as the ironic satiric counterpoint to the high political rhetoric powerfully adds to this undermining of any claims to some higher moral purpose in political leadership.
At the same time, however, it seems clear that the self-perpetuating civil wars are inevitable in a political order based only on power and devoid of trust. To the extent that all political order exists for the security of the citizens governed, we are (I think) invited to see that the only answer here (if there is any) is for one person to get so much power and skill, that no one will be able to muster forces against him. Just how that might happen, of course, the play does not make clear.
Third, there is no room in this vision of politics for women. We have said little about the women in the play, because there is little to say. Significantly, the one moment where they emerge as most important is at the court of Glendower, the magical Welsh rebel, who belongs to a world far from the practical, hard-headed, self-serving power grabbing of the English court. There the women are linked to the magic and mystery of spells and music. But significantly, the wonderful contributions of music and song are in a language that no Englishman can understand, and the one person who is truly moved by them, Lord Mortimer, plays no significant political role in the rebellion (although his claim to the throne is their ostensible justification for fighting against Henry). And from the news of what the Welsh women did to the bodies of the dead soldiers, we are invited to see them as belonging to some barbarous culture antedating the modern age (although Falstaff also mutilates the dead). So whatever we are to make of the women in this play, there is no sense whatsoever that they hold any influence over or answers to the problems of modern politics, a thoroughly male business (a point which this play may not be celebrating at all but holding up as one source of the problems).
What does this add up to? I’m not sure if I can summarize it easily. We are a far distance from the opening of Richard II, where politics is conducted in open traditional rituals in which everyone speaks the same language, in which gardeners going about their business in the palace gardens can see connections between natural and political order. In that world, single combat can be the arbiter of justice because there is a shared faith that God has an interest in the human community and will intervene to protect the right.
In Henry IV, Prince Hal’s offer to fight Hotspur in single combat is, by contrast, a theatrical gesture, made in deference to that old tradition but without any conviction. He knows he won’t be taken up on it. In this world, God does not manifest Himself in history nor in the traditional rituals of justice. That is so apparent that Bolingbroke’s repeated references to a crusade strike one as incomprehensible (until we learn in Henry IV, Part 2, that the expedition is part of his political strategy to keep his domestic enemies busy in foreign quarrels). Frequent mention of God’s name, of course, is an important part of public rhetoric (as we shall see in Henry V], but faith in God is not longer an essential part of the political or judicial process.
Is this, then, a totally cynical view of history and politics? I don’t think it is quite that, although the vision is certainly ambivalent. On the one hand, this play seems to be saying, effective political leadership must come from the top if life is not to be an endless parade of civil wars; on the other hand, such leadership now consists of and requires, above everything else, the effective command of theatrical pretense merely for the sake of maintaining power, without the need for any further religious, dynastic, or moral justification (other than as part of the pretense).
This ambivalence is sustained throughout Henry IV, Part 2 and culminates in Henry V. In that last play, we have the glorious celebration of Prince Hal’s (now Henry V) amazing political success in everything he attempts. But the very last words of the play tell us that all these achievements amount to nothing, because a few years after his death, everything goes back to the way it was during the rebellion. If this does not amount to a revolutionary doctrine satisfactory to ideologues who want to emancipate the working classes, then it seems to me it indicates at least some radical paradox at the heart of the new politics which makes it, in some fundamental way, self-defeating.