Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Introduction


26Characters and contrasts

Fathers, sons and subjects

It has been frequently noted that the basic outlines of character in Henry IV, Part One are etched by a clever and intricate series of parallels and contrasts. The comparisons begin in 1.1 when King Henry complains that he envies Northumberland's being father to "so blest a son" as Hotspur, and wishes that "some night-tripping fairy" had exchanged their children: "Then would I have his Harry, and he mine" (TLN 93). Here a minor parallel--two fathers who, as time proves, both undervalue their sons--is linked with one of the play's most important structural pairings of Henry Percy (Hotspur) and Prince Hal, the future Henry V. As the play progresses we are drawn into the game of comparing these two "Henries." They are acutely conscious of the game themselves, frequently mocking each other's predilections and debating each other's worth. On its simplest level Henry IV, Part One is a competitive quest between Hal and Hotspur to become "the theme of honor's tongue" (TLN 84).

27Another important parallel is set up between Hal's father-substitute, Falstaff, and King Henry. Henry is a stern parent, prone to giving long-winded lectures and making unfair public comparisons between his own son and other people's children. It is little wonder that Hal has more fun with "that father Ruffian," Falstaff. A yawning generation gap is evident between Hal and his real father. Henry has no idea of what Hal is really like. He shows in his interview with Hal that his feelings towards his eldest son are all tangled up with his guilt over the murder of Richard II. Henry cannot help equating Hal's wild behaviour with Richard's and it is all too easy to view his heir's debauchery as punishment for the murder of his cousin-king. Falstaff provides Hal with a very different kind of parenting. He is indulgent, affectionate, and body-focused. It is sometimes suggested that he takes on a maternal, nurturing role in the very masculine world Hal inhabits, and some recent productions have added a homoerotic dimension to their relationship. Certainly Falstaff and Hal share a different kind of language to the court: their battles are battles of wit conducted in prose. By exchanging insults with Falstaff, Hal can relieve some of his filial angst.

28Both Hal and Hotspur rebel against Henry IV: the father-son relationship mirrors that of king and subject. In fact Henry sarcastically expresses his surprise that Hal has not joined the rebels under Percy's pay. By such means, personal family relationships are linked to the wider political situation throughout Henry IV, Part One. The struggles depicted in the history plays are dynastic and the marriages, quarrels, habits and obsessions of the country's most powerful families are of national significance. Like Hal, Hotspur is subjected to successive lectures from the senior members of his extended family, Northumberland, Worcester, and Glendower. Although he thinks he is his own man, these father-figures easily manipulate him into an action which will involve thousands of lives. The private play of power within these families has an enormous public cost. Old certainties about the structure of society under a king whose right to rule was absolute have been shattered by the deposition of Richard II. In the new fractured world under Henry IV, the younger generation has to make its way against an older group of cynical and experienced intriguers.

Who is Prince Hal?

29One of the most puzzling aspects of Henry IV, Part One for today's critics, directors and actors is the figure of Prince Hal. Is he a cold-hearted schemer, a misunderstood adolescent, or a genuine hero-in-the-making? Hal is presented as an enigma. His own father completely misreads him, and so do most of the other characters in the play. His mission, he tells us, is to create, by means of a dramatic reformation, a dazzling public image. In the meantime it is difficult to judge just who the real prince is.

30From Hal's point of view the world offers a range of possibilities. In one direction is the world of Falstaff and Eastcheap, a world offering sensuality, self-indulgence, freedom, comedy and an escape from responsibility. Here Hal can feel the warmth of friendship, good humor and instant acceptance, although he can also be lied to, exploited, and drawn into crime. Opposed to Eastcheap is the court, an altogether less appealing environment. Its mood is established by Henry's opening line "So shaken as we are, so wan with care." It seems a harsh, unforgiving, somber place, where onerous duties beckon, but it too has its other side, offering the support of a real family and a solid base for purposeful action. A third alternative is Hotspur's life of martial action and honor. His perspective also has its attractions, offering the glory of a single-minded commitment to chivalric values without the bother of difficult questions about motives or outcomes.

31It is easy to feel sympathetic towards Hal if we view him as a figure trying to make his way through these disparate worlds: a young man with the destiny of the country on his shoulders who has to make difficult choices about the right way to act. But it is possible to see him as having already made those choices. His first soliloquy, beginning "I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness" (TLN 296), is the problem here. Hal announces a plan to transform himself in the public eye through a dramatic change in behaviour. From this speech it appears that he knows where he is going from the very start and that his "loose behaviour" is simply part of a stunning bit of image-manipulation. If this is so, it could be argued that Hal is cynically manipulating his friends and family as well. Some critics suggest that this soliloquy is simply a theatrical convention; an announcement about the plot of the play which has nothing to do with personality. Actors still have to deal with the speech, however. Sometimes it is presented thoughtfully as if the ideas are only just coming to mind, and sometimes it is delivered with defiance--directed at either Eastcheap or the court.

32It is worth noting the similarities between Hal's language in the "I know you all" speech and King Henry's at the beginning of the very next scene. Henry says: "I will from henceforth rather be myself, / Mighty and to be feared" (TLN 326-327). Hal, comparing himself to the sun breaking through the clouds, says: "That, when he please again to be himself, / Being wanted he may be more wondered at" (TLN 301-302), and later in 3.2 he promises his father, "I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord, / Be more myself" (TLN 1911-1912). Who is the self that Hal proposes to be? When King Henry talks about being "myself," he seems to mean "myself-as-king," as opposed to his natural disposition or "condition." Perhaps Hal sees himself the same way. Henry and Hal both seem to perceive kingship as involving the assumption of a different but real personality.

33Both Falstaff and Hotspur win regard and affection for being themselves, but those selves are obviously flawed. Hotspur is idealistic, forthright and completely trustworthy, but he is also a traitor who rashly leads his followers into disaster. Falstaff is infinitely wiser than Hotspur--he is inventive, flexible, and witty--but his absolute self-indulgence makes him wholly unreliable and ineffective in the workaday world. Towards the end of the play in 5.4, Hal has a moment alone on stage with the corpse of Hotspur and the supposed corpse of Falstaff. For both he delivers an affectionate, but clear-sighted epitaph. His farewell to Hotspur begins, "Fare thee well, great heart! Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!" (TLN 3052-3053) and to Falstaff he says, "Poor Jack, Farewell! / I could have better spared a better man" (TLN 3069). This is one of Hal's most likeable moments, it shows generosity of spirit, compassion, and honesty. It can also be seen as an emblematic moment of selfhood for Hal. The apparent deaths of his old rival and friend leave space for him to assert his own claims for attention and respect.

Falstaff: the subversive subject

34Hal's finest moment is typically subverted by the figure of Falstaff. When Hal sadly leaves Falstaff's huge corpse on stage the corpse pops up and announces that he had only counterfeited death. It is a breathtaking comic reversal of expectations and a neat counterpoise to the heroics of Hotspur's dying moment. The revival of a character thought to be dead is an old stage tradition, used very frequently by Shakespeare; most spectacularly in one of his last plays, The Winter's Tale. It is a device which lifts the mood of the audience beyond the fiction of the play, drawing attention to the playwright's sheer audacity.

35Falstaff is an audacious creation all round, a figure of comedy and carnival, thrust into the middle of a history play. In the play-scene of 2.4 Hal casts Falstaff in the role of the Vice. He is "that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father Ruffian, that Vanity in years" (TLN 1411) and a "villainous, abominable misleader of youth" (TLN 1420). Hal is referring here to the emblematic figures who would tempt the protagonist of the medieval "morality" play into a life of sin and degradation. The Vice quickly developed into an ambiguous figure who would provide comic relief through energetic clowning, disguise and wit, enjoying a complex rapport with the audience. Shakespeare draws on these traditions for his portrayal of Falstaff and echoes the morality play in the broad structure of Henry IV, Part One. The play can be viewed in terms of antithetical character types and the moral choices placed before Hal, the figure of youth. It is important to remember, however, that the morality play casting is partly Hal's construct. In the play-scene he jokingly creates a public image for Falstaff which complements the rebellious image he has created for himself. This self-conscious acknowledgment of theatrical antecedents invites a closer consideration of the role-playing that is so much a part of Hal's story.

36Falstaff is reminiscent of many other archetypal comic figures including the braggart soldier, the buffoon, the fool, the trickster and the rogue. He has also been persuasively linked with the Lord of Misrule: the figure who presides over all the playful pranks and role-reversals of traditional festive holidays (see Critical Reception, Section 3, "Accounting for Falstaff in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries").

37Yet Falstaff is much more interesting and certainly much more fun than any erudite list of dramatic archetypes. Like all rogues, he is an inherently ambiguous figure: a character composed of apparently contradictory elements who always inspires a mixed response. Falstaff runs away roaring at Gad's Hill, yet falls asleep behind the arras while the sheriff is looking for him; he leads his ragged soldiers to their deaths without compunction, yet delivers compelling speeches about the physical cost of war; he violates Hotspur's corpse and steals the glory of his death, but he makes us laugh and for that we would forgive almost anything.

38Did Falstaff become too large a character for the plays he inhabits? Are the subversions Falstaff represents--his dismissal of honor, his romancing of gluttony, sloth, theft, and anarchy--contained by the wider perspective of the play, or is his perspective too appealing? Whatever we decide, it is important to note that in Henry IV, Part One Falstaff is not killed off. Despite a few rehearsals for the rejection which occurs at the end of Part Two, in Part One Falstaff is a comic survivor.

39In his "I know you all" soliloquy Hal muses:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work (TLN 305-306).

40It is just such seemingly indisputable assumptions that Falstaff turns upside down. Falstaff is too witty and too changeable for the holiday he represents to ever become as tedious as work. Others in Henry IV, Part One consciously play roles, but Falstaff is addicted to theatre. He adopts the voice of piety one minute, blasphemy the next; he can contradict himself within the space of a sentence: "I ... swore little, diced not above seven times--a week" (TLN 2018). Honor is just a word which should be ignored when necessary and time is something for others to believe in. For Falstaff, identity and language are never fixed or absolute. It is a liberating perspective and, for the length of Henry IV, Part One at least, an exhilarating possibility.