Within the five acts of English poet and playwright William Shakespeare’s partial history tetralogy I Henry IV, countless universally fundamental themes surface, most notably the complexities surrounding the ideals of honor, the divine right of kings, and legitimate rule. Naturally, as a story which occurs during a period of political and historical turbulence, social rebellion, and cultural unrest, the question of what or who defines the legitimacy and sovereignty of a ruler is a major component of the play’s overall development. This is seen not only in terms of plot, but through the interactions between key characters as well. As the sequel to Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV begins to unravel this controversial issue through the rise to power and usurping of Richard’s throne by Henry IV, formerly the headstrong Bolingbroke.
Through the contrasting characterizations of a tradition-conformed King Henry IV, the insightful, shrewd, and resourceful Prince Harry (or Hal), and the fiery, rash-minded Hotspur, Shakespeare wields an overarching idea that true ability to rule is gleaned more so from personal experience, crafty intelligence, a unique perspective of honor, and wisdom rather than from family or hierarchical birth rights (Mabillard, Amanda. “Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sources for 1 Henry IV.” Shakespeare Online. 18 Aug. 2006.) It is a significant irony then that Shakespeare ultimately chooses to imbue all of these characteristics into the one character who is the actual legitimate heir to the throne: Prince Harry, King Henry’s son.
As one of the play’s most complex and intriguing characters, Hal subsequently comes to symbolize and embody all of the traits that are desirable in a 17th Century ruler. His evolution and personal journey reaches the pinnacle of a brilliant climax during the battle scenes of Act V. Though he is the son of an illegitimate ruler (Henry’s overthrow of King Richard’s throne would not have been viewed or supported as divinely ordained), he is nonetheless on a foreshadowed path to becoming one of Shakespeare’s most revered and honorable rulers: King Henry V.
Whereas the heroic scoundrel Falstaff would mock and even denounce the ideal of honor as nothing but “a mere scutcheon” (Act V, scene i, line 138) and a trait that only dead men can attain, Harry instead places an emphasis on a different kind of honor. For him, a personal loyalty to one’s closest friends (Falstaff in his case) and the ability to serve as a gap between two polar opposite worlds (the sphere of the nobility and the commoners and revelers of the Boar’s Head Tavern), appear to be what make him a truly legitimateand capable ruler.
Perhaps the convergence of Harry’s honor and ruling legitimacy ideals are put to the test in no greater a fashion than during his epic and long-awaited duel with Hotspur in Act V scene iv. The violence of the surrounding battle serves only as a larger metaphor for the inner turmoil and greater conflict now manifesting itself in and between these two young warrior rivals. Their rendezvous appears almost cosmically ordained as Harry compares both himself and Hotspur to celestial bodies: “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere.” (Act V, Scene iv, line 64). Interestingly, Harry’s grasp on honor comes full circle as he stands over Hotspur’s defeated, lifeless corpse and speaks quite arguably the most powerful words of the entire play:
“When that this body did contain a spirit, /A kingdom for it was too small a bound, /But now two paces of the vilest earth /Is room enough…” (Act V, scene iv, lines 88-91).
Harry’s pondering of honor and the gruesome reality of death that comes with violence and war reflect not only his intelligence, but foreshadow his future success in decision-making as King Henry V.
However, one must give credence to the potent argument that, despite his many positive and admirable traits, Harry’s master plan to eventually claim the throne, rapture the hearts of the people, and forever rekindle his father’s approval involves a high degree of deceit and deception. For a time, he must play the part of an aloof, distanced individual, masking his true intentions while simultaneously presenting an appetizing, unblemished exterior. It is indeed no wonder that many commentators have spoken on the level of skill required for a Shakespearian actor to perform the role of Prince Harry. Harry’s very nature and character is that of an actor, played on stage by an actor.
Furthermore, Harry’s occasional mistreatment and insulting of his supposedly close friend Falstaff, with whom he has shared a long and enduring relationship, serves to tarnish his reputation all the more. Although their companionship is humorous and candid in many ways, Harry’s description of Falstaff as “That villainous, abominable misleader of youth…” and “that old, white-bearded Satan” (Act II, scene v, lines 421-422) is certainly not becoming of a future leader and ruler nor of a friend in general.
It is the aforementioned deceit and deception that call Harry’s honor and personal integrity into question. To what lengths is he willing to go in order that the ends may justify the means? Is acting in accordance with this mindset truly an honorable approach to one’s life? Or is he merely the heroic genius many readers have come to fall in love with? These and several other questions concerning the nature of Harry’s perception of honor ultimately cause readers to question his motives and actions. At the very least, intentional deception of one’s closest friends was not seen as an admirable course in accordance with 17th Century views of honor and therefore frames Harry as all the more emotionally complex and intricate. However, his pilgrimage into the colossal world of kingship as Henry V will mold and shape his character and put his true abilities to the test.
1. 1. Cohen, Walter , Jean Howard , and Katharine Maus. The Norton Shakespeare Histories.
London: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
2. 2. Mabillard, Amanda. “Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sources for 1 Henry IV.” Shakespeare Online. 18 Aug. 2006.