The themes of leadership and honour in the murky political world of King Henry IV (by Dr Jennifer Minter)
In a world rife with social and political turmoil, William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV part 1 is, at its core, a commentary on the qualities that are most important to a successful ruler. There are a number of characters who each rule in their own social and political context; Henry IV rules England after deposing Richard II; Hotspur leads the rebellion against the monarchy; Sir Jack Falstaff is a self-invented leader among the commoners who make up the majority of England’s population, and Hal, the heir to the throne, is poised to become the most powerful man in England.
Each of these characters has critical qualities that contribute to their success, or lack thereof. Hotspur’s honour and bravery are his key traits that lead to his ascent to power in triggering revolt, but his lack of political tact and courtesy ultimately combine with his quixotic view of honour to facilitate his downfall. Henry IV and Jack Falstaff are antithetical leaders of completely different worlds, and it is this contrast that challenges audiences to question the importance of honesty and deceit and the relationship of leader to one’s subjects. Ultimately, the heir apparent, Hal, synthesizes the best of these influences, helping him transform from a wastrel spending his time in the taverns of London to a war hero, defeating Hotspur in battle and regaining his father’s approval. In many ways, Shakespeare demonstrates the importance of attaining an Aristotelian mean of character in order to be a successful ruler.
The antithetical characters of Falstaff and Henry IV complement each other to highlight their opposite number’s shortcomings. Both are leaders in their own right; Falstaff, the lollard knight, and “king of misrule” is a subversive leader of the common folk; Henry IV, the most powerful man in England, ambiguously stands for law and order and articulates many of the key ideas that revolve around leadership and honour.
Falstaff is in touch with his subjects; he is one of the “moon’s men”, a man of the lower classes; food, women and wine are his “vocation” and he claims that “’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” Through being so in touch with his “subjects”, the tavern crowd become beholden to Falstaff and even under his control somewhat, ironically bringing order to his naturally disruptive world.
Challenges of leadership : King Henry
From the outset, Henry’s desire to participate in the crusade and his concerns about peace, harmony and repentance draw attention to the disunity in England that undermines his rule. The motivation for repentance also stems from the questions of illegitimacy that haunt the King. He is aware that he lacks the divine anointment generally required of royalty, but broaches the question as to whether good governance affords him the right to trust and respect. Although he bears himself regally, he remains “shaken”, “wan with care,” and “pale with worry” (I.i.1). He is referred to variously by others as the “cankered Bullingbrook”. Hotspur sees Henry as a criminal, ‘a poor unminded outlaw sneaking home’ and Worcester is “malevolent to you in all respects”.
King Henry’s anxiety is compounded by Hotspur’s challenge; the refusal to handover the prisoners-of-war sets up a power struggle between the father and preferred son. Pursuant to Henry’s demands, Hotspur only agrees to hand over prisoners of royal blood (according to the law of arms). Henry’s rage conceals a more pressing and deep-seated anger — that the rebels are undermining his honour and legitimacy.
The ideal leader: (devices: comparisons with Richard II; celestial motifs; the themes of theft and prestige)
Idealistically, Henry IV seeks to cultivate a detached image in order to regain his royal status; he seeks to be “mighty and to be feared”. He believes that cultivating such rarity is the best way to endear himself to the citizens of England. Tapping into the celestial motif which Shakespeare uses repeatedly to refer to royalty, Henry states, “by being seldom seen, I could not stir, But, like a comet, I was wond’red at”. Throughout the play, there is an understated comparison between Henry and Richard II, who unlike King Duncan in Macbeth, is no virtuous king. Henry criticises the former leader for being the “skipping king” for his association with the proletariat, and dismisses the pleasures of such classes as “barren” and “lewd acts”. He believes he outshone the “crowned King” because of a royal image, wherein pride and honour were camouflaged by an appearance of humility: “I stole all courtesy from heaven, And dressed myself in such humility, That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts, Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths, Even in the presence of the crowned King.” (This sets up a comparison with Prince Hal at the end of the play; Hal humbly defers to Hotspur, but perhaps, he, too, royally camouflages the pride of a future “rare” king.) Alluding to these parallels with Richard II, Henry criticises Hal at the beginning of the play whom he believes undermines his royal status through his fellowship with Falstaff.
King Henry’s view of honour
Hotspur as the “theme of honour’s tongue” gains credibility from King Henry who extols the aristocratic chivalric code of honour that becomes a hallmark of Hotspur’s character. Initially, Henry prefers him as a son because of his fearless, proud and disdainful attitude. It is this disdain and cavalier attitude that will fuel the conflict between these two proud leaders. (Ironically, King Henry emphasises Hotspur’s honourable disposition, at the same time as the young rebel is arrogantly defying the King.)
Both Hotspur’s and King Henry’s obsession with honour (for different reasons) draws attention to the circumstances of the King’s deposition; the rebels are infuriated that he broke his promise with regards to the sharing of power. Whilst there appears legitimate grounds for their grievances, Shakespeare neither completely rejects nor endorses their subversion.
In Act V, Henry dismisses the rebel’s charges and accusations as mere excuses, declaring that those who are discontented for small and petty reasons and who are driven by the lust for power can always find some reason to try to overthrow those currently in power. (Consider: Falstaff’s logic and the disunity of the rebel camp.)
Comparisons with Falstaff
As the “king of misrule”, Falstaff is depicted as a contrast to Henry but one that sheds light on the flaws in his leadership. Falstaff often puns on stealing “crowns” to symbolically capture the source of the King’s anxiety. As a “thief”, Henry constantly struggles to gain the support of the disunified band of rebels. The fact that he disrupted social order in his grab for power constantly plagues the king who seeks to rationalise and justify his actions. However, as the thief, Falstaff’s actions also conjure up parallels with the rebels whose grab for land and power is thinly concealed beneath their list of grievances.
Sequentially, Shakespeare moves from the tavern world in Eastcheap, during which Falstaff hides behind the arras to Glendower’s castle in Wales. At the end of Act II, the Prince negotiates with the Sheriff and promises to make “the oily rascal” “answerable”. At the beginning of Act III, a disunified band of rebels is planning their land grab. Should the tables and chairs be left the same for both scenes during the stage production, this would link the theme of theft between the two disparate worlds and enable Shakespeare to clearly show the rebels are just as unruly and self-serving in their lust for power as Falstaff.
Despite the strong sense of an existential presence owing to his conspicuous bodily presence (the earth insufficiently bears so “stout a gentleman”), Falstaff’s obsession with wordplay (the “sweet creature of bombast”) enables him to parody and satirise important themes of the play such as the very pressing issue of Henry’s legitimacy. Ambiguously, his size also renders him vulnerable. He states, “I have more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty.” (Is this what makes him act in cowardly ways?)
Whilst the differences are obvious, similarities abound and Falstaff’s puns and double entendres during which he gains “mastery of the double spirit” enable him to playfully subvert the social and political order; the audience must constantly question who and what is a “counterfeit” (“I am what I seem”) and who is playing which role to greater effect.
Motifs: truth and counterfeit: time and honour
The contradiction of the ‘true” thief lies at the core of Falstaff’s being and this ambivalence renders him difficult to define. As a true thief he rationalises: ‘T’is my vocation, Hal. T’is no sin for a man to labour in his vocation’. This ambivalence also pervades the word play throughout as Falstaff reinvents himself in language.
Also, Falstaff claims to be “no counterfeit”, an embodiment of life itself, and as a “true” thief, Falstaff is living exactly as he wants to, with the only measure of time being his attention to his vices. He says, “a plague upon it when thieves cannot be truth one to another.” He warns the prince: “Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit. Thou art essentially made without seeming so.” (In this specific context, Falstaff suggests that as a true piece of gold despite appearances, he should not be turned over to the sheriff by a royal friend who is also true gold despite the appearance to the contrary. Later, during the Battle of Shrewsbury, the king will use “counterfeit” images to foil the rebels, but this could be justified on the grounds that it is not only usual practice but a necessary protection.)
In this battle, Falstaff will also conclude, “I am not a double man” (meaning a phantom or wraith) but “if I be not Jack Falstaff, then I am a Jack” (a rascal). (“How this world is given to lying.”) On one level, Falstaff contrasts the two Jacks – one a knight and one a rascal, but if he is not “double” then he subversively suggests that the knight is indeed also a rascal. During the play extempore, Hal levels similar accusations at Falstaff: “Wherein crafty but in villainy”. Wherein villainous, but in all things? Wherein worthy, but in nothing”.
Falstaff’s practical sense of logic also sheds light on King Henry’s rule. Falstaff argues that because thieving is his true calling in life, it is not a sin for him to steal wallets (I:II: 74-107) By extension, Henry could also argue that his deposition was not illegal or sinful; he followed his vocation as a good politician by governing England. As Shakespeare suggests, although he usurped the crown, should he govern well, then perhaps this action could be justified.
Playing a role
Just as King Henry cultivates the image of the rare king, Falstaff, too, cultivates the image of the surrogate father figure which is clearly on display during the play extempore; this role invites comparisons between these two different role models. Playing the role of father, Falstaff reveals an opportunistic streak as he seeks to extract future favours from the potential king.
Falstaff flounders and makes do with whatever props he has at hand, inventing strategies on the spot in a ranting parody. The props consist of the crown of England as a bald head and a threadbare cushion. As the Prince notes, “Thy state is taken for a joined-stool, thy golden sceptre for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich crown for a pitiful bald crown”. (Act 2/ iv/ 377-488)
Falstaff seeks to redden his eyes to imitate the King’s fury and woe; it must look as though “I have wept; for I must speak in passion, and I will do it in King Cambyses’ vein”. This allusion to Preston’s King Cambyses (1569) implies a ranting leader and in this case Falstaff draws attention to the King’s conflicting emotions born of passion and woe.
Playing the role of King Henry, Falstaff reminds Hal that there is a “virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy company, but I know not his name”. This nameless man is also the wayward “father” of the prince who invites the audience to question Hal’s metal: “Shall the son of England prove a thief and take purses?” Using the motif of the sun to refer to Hal’s royal lineage, he asks, “shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries?” In other words, he may be a truant from duty and squander his time, picking blackberries amongst undesirable company. He further explains, “the pitch (as ancient writers do report) doth defile; so doth the company thou keepest”.
If Hal is learning the language of commoners, Falstaff speaks to Hal “not in words only, but in woes also” and the Prince praises the language, “dost thou speak like a king?” (Throughout, Shakespeare uses the motif of language to suggest that each character, and not just the punning Falstaff, creates and (re)invents self in words that shift and change according to the context. In this case, the language of the king is one of passion; of trials and tribulations; of woe and grief.)
Falstaff has a penchant for self preservation which is expressed through dramatic exaggeration and justification. After the robbery, Falstaff claims he was outnumbered two to one at Gad’s Hill by the men in “buckram” (a number that proliferates); he chose to run and later he will protest that he truly killed Hotspur (As the true thief, are these examples of exaggeration or deceit?. Is he a coward or just a pragmatist?) Compare his actions with Hotspur who stands and fights. Just before the robbery, Falstaff is deserted by his friends; likewise, King Henry has been deserted by his former allies. In the play extempore, Prince Hal foreshadows that he will desert Falstaff, “I do, I will”, but at the moment, he remains true to his friend and protects him when the Sheriff appears, “Go hide behind the arras”.
Falstaff does, however, serve as a reminder of the qualities that Hal must reject, but in the meantime, he helps him acquire certain diplomatic and real-life skills that enable him to eventually surpass Hotspur as the preferred son, and the truly legitimate heir.
Falstaff’s view of honour:
Falstaff’s comic views of honour at times appear realistic and as such, authentically contrast to Hotspur’s idealised but rash chivalric temperament.
In his “catechism”, he questions its practical nature: “What is honor? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air – a trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday…. Honor is a mere scutcheon – and so ends my catechism”.
Falstaff says that “honour pricks me on,” parroting the party line; but he then discredits it and complains that it is useless. “Honour” is of no use neither to the living nor to the dead. When he stumbles across the body of Sir Walter Blunt (slain, ironically, because he is thought to be King Henry), his immediate comment is: “Sir Walter Blunt. There’s honour for you. Here’s no vanity” (V.iii.32–33). His jab about “vanity” is ironic. Falstaff seems to be commenting sarcastically on the extreme vanity, or folly, of Blunt’s death—if “honour” is what has led to his lying cold on the ground, then “honour” seems utterly useless.
It could also be argued that he is dismissive of honour for the same reason that he wants to be genuine and not a “counterfeit”. In other words, he appears to reject a concept that could be an inherently inaccurate representation, because it is by necessity someone else’s impression of self; hence a “double” image. This desire to be his own self free from the judgment of others (“I am no double man”) is evident when he rises from the dead making a mockery of Hal’s eulogy proving the point that honour is merely a bunch of “empty words” devised by another.
From an existential perspective, death is the true imposter and counterfeit of life. Reflecting on the consequence of death, Falstaff concludes that it is the dead body that sets up a counterfeit image; the living body is indeed the true and authentic self. He seeks to be “no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed”. “I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man, who hath not the life of a man. But to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.”
Hotspur and the rebel camp
Whilst Hotspur’s idealistic view of honour is a key aspect of his rise to power, it stands alongside his inability to placate potential allies and enemies as a major factor in his downfall.
- The rebels do appear to have legitimate grievances.
- Hotspur is extolled as the king of honour.
However, there are several defects:
- Their rebellion is disunified and chaotic; they lack a clear leader; Worcester fails to convey critical information to Hotspur during the height of the battle about King Henry’s deal.
- Their lust for power is presented as self-serving. It is presented as a grab for land, and even in this regard there is resentment.
- Hotspur’s honour leads to his downfall; he proves to be rash, impetuous and foolhardy. He is unable to placate his allies and negotiate with his enemies.
It is not clear whether the Percys have a legitimate grievance, or if the king is right in dismissing their claims as the excuse of power-hungry rebels. Shakespeare seems neither to endorse nor to reject the rebels’ claims.
Worcester, who is “malevolent to the king in all aspects”, later charges the King with treachery using the motif of the animal world that reinforces an image of cut-throat survival. He states, “Forgot your oath to us at Doncaster; And, being fed by us, you used us so, As that ungentle gull, the cuckoo’s bird, Useth the sparrow”. In other words, the cuckoo lays its eggs in other birds’ nests and the young cuckoos when hatched speedily destroy the other nestlings. As Worcester remarks, after Henry profited from their “feeding”, support and nurture, and grew to “so great a bulk, That even our love durst not come near your sight For fear of swallowing”. So confident and arrogant was the King, that Worcester believes their very presence became a dangerous threat: “with nimble wing We were enforced for safety to fly Out of your sight and raise this present head”. He has clearly violated “all faith and troth”. (V.1. 58)
The rebels’ disunity and deception
In addition, the disunity among the rebels undermines their claims, casts aspersions on their honour and their quest for legitimacy. Shakespeare asks have they the right to take revenge on a popular and revered king?
Worcester proves to be underhand in his treatment of Hotspur. He conveniently keeps him ignorant of King Henry’s “kind and liberal” offer, knowing that as the leader, Worcester, will be the one to suffer the consequences of their treachery: “We did train him on; And, his corrupting being ta’en from us, We, as the spring of all, shall pay for all.” (V II)
The motif of theft and debt
Whilst Henry insists on unity on the battlefield, the three lords seek to divide their anticipated spoils. Mortimer explains, “The Archdeacon hath divided it; Into three limits very equally”. They offer Hotspur, “the remnant northward lying off from Trent”. Hotspur insists on his feudal rights of conquest with respect to land. In his clash with Glyndwr over the future division of the realm, he complains about being deprived of ‘the best of all my land”. He proposes altering the course of the river Trent so he will not be robbed “of so rich a bottom” (3.1.102). ( One also recalls Falstaff’s quip when alerting Hal to the dangers of the three formidable enemies (Act II, iv), “you may buy land now as cheap as stinking mack’rel”.)
Their attempt to divide the spoils conjures up images of the thieves in the tavern and a sense of disorder. In this regard, the rebels’ confused entrance (III.1) contrasts to the formality of the king’s court. In most stage productions, the tables and chairs from the previous tavern scene are left onstage for the rebels’ meeting which links themes between the two scenes. The rebels cannot decide who should sit down first; ultimately Hotspur takes charge. The fact that he cannot find the map of England that they have been consulting is another symbol of their disorder and eventual disintegration. Shakespeare suggests that, symbolically, they have lost sight of England and her best interests in their struggle for power.
Hotspur and honour
Hotspur lives and dies by the aristocratic code of chivalric honour which revolves around concepts of pride, loyalty, revenge and treachery. King Henry praises his ability to speak naturally in honourable terms. He is the “theme of honour’s tongue”; the Scottish rebel Douglas calls him “the king of honour”. Hotspur declares that “me thinks it were an easy leap To pluck bring honour from the pale-faced moon”. He imagines honour as a near mythic treasure, a physical object to be “pluck(ed) up; a buried treasure at “the bottom of the deep”; often obtained by feats of force and even violence.
As a “Mars in swathling clothes”, Hotspur is the preferred son; King Henry extols his virtues, whilst berating his intransigent attitude towards the release of the prisoners of war. He audaciously refuses to release the prisoners to the king, even if he may “make a hazard of [his] head” and blames the effeminate knight who sought the bargain. This sets up an antithesis with Prince Hal who contrastingly earns the King’s disapproval and shame.
Yea, there thou mak’st me sad and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue, …
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet! (I.i.77–88)
Ironically, Hotspur’s greatest asset becomes the cause of his downfall and Shakespeare encourages the audience to reflect on the chinks in his feudal armour. In this regard, whilst honour is important for a successful leader, it is just as important that it be tempered by discretion, common sense and political tact. Hotspur nurses a grievance that will eventually be to his detriment.
Brashly, Hotspur’s defence of honour at times renders him as authentic and true as Falstaff. His rejection of or disregard for pretentious behaviour gives an impression of truthfulness, but also conceals his arrogance.
Whilst his extravagant chivalry earns him esteem, it cripples his ability to speak with the tact and courtesy necessary for political liaison. In meeting with Glendower, Hotspur mocks the Welshman’s claim that “the earth did shake when I was born”, replying that “so it would have done….if your mother’s cat had but kittened” and that “no man speaks better Welsh”, or nonsense. (Compare Hotspur’s relationship with the brash and boastful, magician, Glendower with Hal’s to Falstaff’s. Both scold the other after a set of monstrous lies.)
The alienation of and betrayal by Glendower is a comment on the necessity of courtesy in successful rule. Mortimer and Worcester chastise Hotspur for his rudeness towards Glendower; despite his courage, he shows a “defect of manners, want of government/ pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain”: these are the perils of his single-mindedness (Act 4.3) Hotspur does not wait for either Vernan’s cavalry to arrive or for Westmoreland’s horses and men to rest. Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, is very sick and decides not to send his troops. Worcester is deeply disturbed by this news, since not only will Northumberland’s absence seriously weaken the rebel forces, but it will also betray to the world that the rebels are divided among themselves. Hotspur refuses to countenance failure.
Glyndwr also sends word from Wales that he will not be able to assemble his forces within the allotted fourteen days. This development is very alarming to both Worcester and Douglas, since the battle will clearly occur before Glyndwr can arrive.
Finally, Hotspur exaggerates the importance of honour as a protective shield from disaster. Adopting a cavalier attitude, he believes that the failure of critical allies to join the fight is “a larger dare to our great enterprise”. He remarks, ‘doomsday is near. Die all, die merrily”.
Is Prince Hall the true “image” or another “double man”
Eventually, Prince Hal proves to be the worthy future King, endorsed by his father and Shakespeare alike because of his ability to synthesise a variety of traits. He is suitably shrewd, cautious, manipulative and honourable according to the context. He proves adept throughout at reinventing self, particularly in language; he reads the situation well and responds practically and prudently. The fact that he has legitimate claims to the throne also predisposes the Elizabethan audience to endorse his journey from wayward son to royal contender.
- Comparison with Henry: he has a legitimate claim to the throne: he can mingle with commoners and royals alike. Comparison with Falstaff: he speaks the tavern language, but knows when to differentiate himself from the world of commoners.
- Comparison with Hotspur: he proves to be just as honourable but more cautious and less disdainful.
The royal heir, Hal, effectively synthesises the critical traits of the other rulers in order to demonstrate his suitability for taking over the throne. He is adept at speaking the language of royalty and commoners alike and his ability to talk to any “tinker in his own language” becomes a sign of his diplomatic skills and powers of perception.
Henry IV’s action in manipulating and betraying the Percy family in his illegal deposition of Richard II reveal to Hal the power of deceit. Hal proves to be just as cautious and just as deceptive and manipulative when it suits his purpose. He professes his preparedness to deceive all of England in his ploy to allow his goodness to be covered up by “base contagious clouds”, the company he keeps, so that upon his transformation to dutiful heir he shall be like “bright metal on a sullen ground” and “appear more goodly/and attract more eyes.”
While Henry alludes to the lack of “sun-like majesty” of the previous king, Richard II (III.ii.79), who lowers the prestigious nature of royalty, Harry earlier states that he will “imitate the sun, / . . . / By breaking through the foul and ugly mists” (I.ii.175–180). Intending to cast off his pretence of idleness, Hal will presumably burn through the clouds and shine radiantly and regally. I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself
The motif of time is apparent: on the one hand, Falstaff is indifferent to time and often wiles away the time, snoring contentedly; contrastingly, Hal is away that he is squandering his time and good name in Falstaff’s company. Perhaps, Shakespeare suggests, Hal has ulterior motives; learning the banter and conversing in puns and double entendres with Falstaff provides a frivolous diversion, but the way in which he seamlessly slips into verse shows his dexterity.
As a “truant to chivalry”, and although condemned by his father , Hal believes that he is profiting from his time in the tavern world, “mingling his royalty with capering fools”. He shows an ability to be able to “drink with any tinker in his own language”. His linguistic abilities also help him later to appease his father’s wrath. To his credit, Hal speaks Falstaff’s language of fellowship, “I am a sworn brother to a leash of drawers; 2.5.6. “I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life”. He believes this will be crucial to his future exercise of power: “When I am king of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap (2.5.12).
Hal can also be just as royally humble as his father. “With three or four loggerheads amongst three or fourscore hogsheads, I have sounded the very bass-string of humility”. Although they refer to him as the “king of courtesy”, he is nevertheless “no proud Jack like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle”, but the mettle of royalty.
We are therefore reminded that Hal stoops linguistically, only to better conquer his subjects. During the play extempore, taking on the role of the King, he describes Falstaff harshly concluding that “there is a devil that haunts thee in the likeness of an old, fat man”. Falstaff is a “huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox … that reverence vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years.”
The anticipated rejection (“I do, I will”) cast in both the present and future tense cuts through Hal’s relationship with Falstaff. He implies that he is one of them, but always (from the outset) maintains a critical distance — generally through wit and double entendres. For example, he adeptly sets up Falstaff for ridicule during the Gad’s Hill robbery. Hal proves the king of subversion by defeating Falstaff at his own game; he undermines the robbery, and robs the robbers, and thereby reveals “king of misrule’s” tendency to run when he is threatened. Hal accuses him at times of being “a natural coward without instinct”.
The fact that Hal returns the crowns and repays his debt of “three hundred marks” to the Sheriff (“the money should be paid back again with advantage”) reveals his nobility of character. (Compare to King Henry and Falstaff who questions the need to settle dues before their due date: ‘Tis not due yet: I would be loth to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?
Economic perspective: and the motif of debt
From a compromise and synthesis perspective, Hal learns both the language of brotherhood and that of honour. During his reference to Hotspur, Hal refers to honour in commercial terms suggesting that he will suitably profit from acquiring and surpassing Hotspur’s feudal brand of honour. Terms such as ‘factor”, “engross; account; reckoning” conjure up images of a successful commercial deal, (3.2.144) suggesting that honour is like a commodity to be bought and sold. (“I shall make this northern youth exchange his glorious deeds for my indignities.” Hal cements his reputation on the fact that he is aware of the debt that must be repaid and proves himself to be calculating and manipulative. (Earlier he repaid his debt to the Sheriff.)
He also knows that pursuing Hotspur’s valiant feudal concept of honour will also endear him to his father and cement his role as legitimate heir. But ironically, acquiring the mantle of honour, Hal proves himself to be suitably humble. (Compare the King’s comments about dressing himself in humility as a royal camouflage.) When Hal mortally wounds the “king of honour”, he resists the tendency to usurp his reputation, “‘take thy praise with thee to heaven’. In other words, just as he returned the stolen crowns after the Gad’s Hill robbery and his father’s crown, he restores Hotspur’s crown of honour. Hal covers Hotspur’s mangled face with a few feathers proving himself to be the ‘king of courtesy’. Humbly, this former ‘truant’ to knighthood, conquers the greatest knight of his time.
It is the rebel spy, Sir Richard Vernon, who pays Hal a most worthy compliment when he remarks on the remarkable transformation, as earlier predicted by the scheming prince. Note once again the celestial image of a noble warrior and the true intentions of Hal. I saw young Harry, with his beaver on, His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm’d, Rise from the ground like feather’d Mercury, And vaulted with such ease into his seat, As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds, To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus, And witch the world with noble horsemanship
Defeating Hotspur in combat, Hal redeems his father’s lost opinion “on Percy’s head”. This victory that quashes the rebellion is the centrepiece in Hal’s transformation. He also proves himself to be suitably humble when it counts. To spare carnage, Harry offers the rebels a solution; he bids Worcester tell Hotspur that, since the whole world knows what a valiant knight Hotspur is, Harry himself will meet Hotspur in single combat to decide the conflict. This way, he proposes, the many men who would die in a fully-fledged battle will be spared.
In showing Hal to have regained his father’s lost opinion and made him again suitable for rule, Shakespeare demonstrates that traits of each of Falstaff, Henry IV and Hotspur are important for a successful ruler.
Shakespeare’s King Henry IV part one focuses largely on the traits that make a successful leader. Hotspur’s honour and impetuosity ironically both gained and lost him power. The contradicting traits of the kings of rule and misrule, Henry and Falstaff, allow Shakespeare to demonstrate the importance of duplicity but also the danger this has in leading to detachment from society. Prince Hal essentially synthesises the qualities each of these characters have, making himself the Aristotelian median, foreshadowing his successful rule through his defeat of Hotspur and regaining of his father’s approval.
How do I write an A+ essay on Henry IV?
Please register for an in-depth essay-writing class(es) on Henry IV. The classes cover what to include in an A+ essay such as:
- clear and concise topic sentences that focus on a progression of key (and different) ideas
- Shakespeare’s important literary devices and their purpose (author’s intentions)
- textual contradictions and complexity (towards end of paragraph) and
- comparisons between characters (in order to avoid character by character paragraphs).
See also our VCE workbook for students: The Language of Persuasion: an essay-writing guide.
Please click here to download a PDF version of the Exercises in the Language of Persuasion: an essay writing guide for immediate use. By using these exercises, you will be able to follow our support material on each exercise (See “turn to exercise”). Each “turn to exercise” includes key strategies, suggested responses, students’ samples and assessors’ marks and comments.