Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories
Shakespeare, William. The History of Henry the Fourth (I Henry IV) (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 595-672).
Act 1, Scene 1 (606-09, )
The play opens with a shaken King Henry IV, riddled with guilt over the death of King Richard II, repeating his pledge to turn the engines of war against foreign infidels in the Crusades. But there is to be no time for idealistic violence; the king’s past is upon him, and he must concern himself with matters at home. Harry Hotspur (whom Shakespeare makes out to be much younger than he really was) has saved the day for the king, who faces rebellious noblemen in the wake of his taking the throne from Richard, but now Hotspur tries to hang on to most of the prisoners he has taken. Nonetheless, the king cannot help but compare the gallant Hotspur with his own son Hal. While his soldiers face the obscene violence of Owen Glendower’s Welsh supporters, young Prince Hal shames his father with his “riot and dishonor” (85). The king could wish, he says, that this troublesome son were not a prince of the blood but rather a foundling left by a “night-tripping fairy.” Henry IV is at center stage of a violent, treacherous political theater, and his son is skipping about the kingdom seemingly without a care in the world, like another Richard II in the making.
Act 1, Scene 2 (609-13, )
The scene shifts immediately to the prince, but Shakespeare treats us to both sides of the young man—both the irresponsible jester and the king-to-be. John Falstaff is a lord of misrule similar to the sort of rogue you might find in late-medieval morality plays. Falstaff is eloquent and charismatic, but it is clear from the outset that he is not in charge even in his own quarters. Already, his friends are preparing to make a fool of him on Gadshill. He will become a robber robbed, and the reward for others will be, as Poins says, to listen to “the incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will tell”(186-87) when he is outed as a coward. Prince Hal will join in the fun, but he startles us with the self-possession that shines in his final speech of this scene: he “knows” his companions in a way that they do not know him. He comprehends their limited morality and lowborn status, and there can be no question of equality between such men as Poins, Falstaff, Peto, or Bardolph and the heir to the throne. Prince Hal’s father has always possessed the skills of an excellent actor, and continues to show a keen awareness for “public relations.” But Prince Hal demonstrates a clear grasp of this necessary aspect of kingship when he says, “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will” ( 216-17). His virtues will shine more brightly because of his youthful flaws, like a diamond set in onyx. Hal is certain that time is his friend, and in this regard his sunny expectations make for the strongest contrast between him and his gloomy father, who has come to see time as more enemy than friend. For him, time brings not opportunity as it seemed to do in Richard II, but care and sorrow. As “Bolingbroke,” he took brilliant advantage of his exile and returned to triumph over the feckless Richard, but those days are gone.
Act 1, Scene 3 (613-20, )
The king has his hands full in trying to assert his dominance over Percy. Hotspur complains that he had intended to give up his prisoners, but his sensibilities were offended by the “popingay” (50) the king sent to inquire about them. This remark is a slap in the face to the king, who is outraged that Hotspur should make demands in favor of Mortimer, whom the king considers a traitor. After this freewheeling argument with Henry IV, Hotspur unburdens himself still more fully with Worcester and Northumberland, and we begin to see the seeds of further rebellion. Was it for this that Northumberland helped the present king to the throne? Worcester is already thinking such thoughts, and tries to turn Hotspur’s attention to a rational plan of attack. That’s no easy matter, given Hotspur’s high-spiritedness: “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap, / To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon, / Or dive into the bottom of the deep…” (201-03), he exclaims, before Worcester is finally able to lay out a course of action that involves an alliance with the Archbishop of York and Mortimer. Worcester also explains the general logic of king/nobility relations in this difficult era: “The King will always think him in our debt, / And think we think ourselves unsatisfied” (286-87). There is no settled balance of power here; there are only uneasy, shifting alliances—apparently a typical state of affairs in feudal Europe (in spite of idealizing history books that talk about the Middle Ages as a time when everybody had a place and knew just what it was). Henry IV is a powerful king, but he came by his throne with help from others of no mean estate, and he will never feel secure in the loyalty of men who betrayed King Richard. The scene ends with Hotspur eagerly looking forward to the groans of battle—he is to factional strife as eager a suitor as Romeo to Juliet. Already, we begin to see a deep contrast between this hothead and the riotous, yet oddly self-possessed, Prince Hal, whose jesting ways we may come to see as flowing from the calm center of a hurricane of violence, betrayal, guilt, and consequentiality.
Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (620-24, )
Falstaff is easily winded—he has become a criminal weekend warrior, if indeed he was ever in shape to begin with. Structurally, we have cut from Hotspur’s deadly, vaulting ambition to this playful escapade on Gadshill. For Sir John, robbery turns out to be hard work, and frightening work at that.
Act 2, Scene 3 (624-25, )
Hotspur’s time is always cut short—time is not on his side, as it is for Prince Hal. It is obvious from the letter Hotspur is reading that some who do not wish the king well nevertheless find the rebels’ plot inadequate and hasty. When Kate enters, she tries to do what Portia later attempts with Brutus in Julius Caesar: she tries to get her husband to make her an equal partner in the dangerous venture at hand. But Hotspur will have none of this early modern feminism, and declines to fill Kate in on the details: “I well believe / Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know, / And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate” (110-12). Hotspur is affectionate with Kate, which lends him some vitality as a character, but he does not trust her, which limits his appeal.
Act 2, Scene 4 (625-27, )
Act 2, Scene 5 (627-39, )
This scene is full of playacting. Prince Hal teases a poor servant to warm up for his exchange with Falstaff, and then he declares that he will take on the persona of Hotspur and question Falstaff, who enters with a famous line, “A plague of all cowards, I say” (115). When Falstaff begins to recount his story, buckram men multiply. At last, the rascal claims he knew what was going on the whole time. Next we have a rehearsal for the father-son confrontation that the prince knows must soon take place. Falstaff does a poor job of imitating King Henry, so Hal switches roles with him. This comic playacting turns serious when the prince responds sharply to Falstaff’s plea, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” with “I do, I will” (480-81). When the sheriff shows up, Prince Hal promises Falstaff will make things right regarding the robbery at Gadshill. He even offers Sir John a place of honor in the coming wars, and insists that the men who were robbed will be compensated for their trouble. The heir to the throne has been trying out different styles, different perspectives and modes of conduct, but we can see that his thoughts have taken a turn for the serious now that his father’s moment of peril has come.
Act 3, Scene 1 (639-45, )
Hotspur’s charms are on display in this scene, but so are his flaws. He angers Owen Glendower by mocking the fellow’s penchant for mystical mutterings. Hotspur also quibbles about the amount of land allotted to him if the rebellion should prove successful, and even insists that the river Trent ’s course be altered to aggrandize his holdings. When Mortimer tries to explain how much restraint Owen Glendower is showing, given his irascibility, Hotspur is suitably unimpressed. The very course of nature must be altered to suit the prideful whims of these great men. In turn, he is accused by Worcester of “Pride, haughtiness, opinion, and disdain” (183). But Hotspur is at his best in jesting with Kate as Mortimer’s Welsh wife sings an incomprehensible tune in her native tongue.
Act 3, Scene 2 (645-49, )
King Henry now confronts his wayward son, laying bare the secrets of his success: Henry says he carefully managed his image with the common people, appearing so seldom and so impressively that, “I could not stir / But like a comet I was wond’red at” (46-47). The point King Henry makes is one that still applies today—whatever system of government a ruler may preside over, he or she cannot accomplish much without at least some regard from the public. King Richard evidently did not understand this basic fact of governance since he ruined his reputation with the nobility and cared little what the common people thought. King Henry bitterly compares his own son with Richard, and seems pleasantly surprised at the strong answer Prince Hal returns: “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son” (132-34). He also assures the king that he understands something of the public relations lesson just given to him: “Percy is but my factor, good my lord, / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” (147-48). The march to battle begins on “Wednesday next.”
Act 3, Scene 3 (649-53, )
While Hal is gearing up for heroic exploits, Falstaff is quarreling with Mistress Quickly at the Boar’s Head Tavern. Sir John’s accusation against Quickly is a petty attempt to hide the fact that he owes her money, and his claim leads Hal to confess that he is the one who made himself acquainted with the worthless contents of Falstaff’s wallet. Hal informs Falstaff of the good news that he has procured him “a charge of foot” (186), i.e. a company of infantrymen, but Falstaff’s response indicates that he can’t see why the doings of the upper orders should inconvenience him—the aristocratic rebels, he says, “offend none but the virtuous” (191). His place is in the Tavern, and that’s where he would prefer to stay, knightly status notwithstanding. Falstaff’s orientation towards time is not providential, as Hal’s is, but is instead a form of denial: where T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measure out his life in coffee spoons, Falstaff measures them with swigs of cheap liquor.
Act 4, Scene 1 (653-56, )
Things are going badly for the rebels since Hotspur’s father is ill and Glendower must delay his advance for two weeks. But Hotspur’s thoughts are only on his epic confrontation with “The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (95). Hotspur is spirited and noble, but he lacks the capacity for development and doesn’t possess the practical regard for facts that a successful ruler must: a man who doesn’t care whether thirty thousand or forty thousand soldiers will oppose him is unlikely to win his battles for long.
Act 4, Scene 2 (656-57, )
Predictably, Falstaff has pulled a scam on the king’s dime, threatening to draft only those men he knows will pay good money to get out of their service, and he has filled the actual places with poor fools who have no options. But he has picked up “three hundred and odd pounds” (14), a knavish bargain. The prince begins to show his disgust at Falstaff’s dangerous dishonesty, and calls his soldiers “pitiful rascals” (64). Falstaff is beginning to appear as the parasite he really is, and his jests will end in the death of others who have done him no harm. At least at this point, it is difficult not to question the prince’s maturity since, after all, he has freely given such an irresponsible rogue the authority to command soldiers.
Act 4, Scenes 3-4 (657-61, )
Hotspur continues, among his confederates, to abuse King Henry roundly, castigating him for his “seeming brow of justice” (83), and pointing out that Henry owes his crown to the very people he now finds against him, for what they consider excellent reasons. Scroop, Archbishop of York, determines that he had better take precautions against King Henry, who is aware of his being in league with the rebels.
Act 5, Scene 1 (661-64, )
King Henry confronts the rebel Worcester, and the emptiness of the latter’s claims soon become apparent: Worcester complains that Henry promised to take only the Dukedom of Lancaster of which the greedy Richard had deprived him, but then usurped the kingdom. Strictly, this is true, but it is also beside the point since the promise itself was ridiculous. It would be fair to point out that sometimes the nobility and the monarch quarreled and then patched things up (at least temporarily), but Henry’s step of invading English soil during his period of banishment seems too extreme for such patching-up to work. His endeavor was an all-or-nothing affair, I believe, and in Richard II his promise hardly seemed credible even when he made it. It’s also hard to see how someone like Worcester, supposedly a savvy political operator, could have failed to perceive the hollowness of Henry’s “promise.”
Prince Hal offers to settle the dispute by single combat with Hotspur, but this chivalric gesture goes nowhere, and Hal in turn points out that the king’s offer of reconciliation with the rebels stands no chance of being accepted. Falstaff is already sick of the whole affair, and after complaining to the prince, “I would ‘twere bed-time, Hal, and all well” (125), he is inspired in that gallant’s absence to utter his famous definition of honor: “honor is a mere scutcheon” (140). The play in its entirety by no means sides with Falstaff in supposing that honor is a hollow emblem, but this anti-heroic view is acknowledged as a useful counter-narrative to keep the “heroics” of the history cycle in perspective. It is of course an ancient view—one has only to think of Homer’s Thersites in The Iliad to gauge its impressive pedigree.
Act 5, Scene 2 (664-66, )
Worcester points out the obvious; namely, that the king can’t mean to keep the promise of clemency he has just made, and it’s decided to keep this part of the news from Hotspur. Hotspur is as ready as ever to fight.
Act 5, Scene 3 (666-68, )
Blunt has bravely died in the king’s stead, as Douglas, his killer, finds when Hotspur arrives on the scene. The prince has had enough of Falstaff’s cowardly behavior. Alone, he admits that he has got his whole company shot to pieces, and then his jest comparing a gun with a bottle of sack (wine) falls flat with the prince, who rails at Falstaff, “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (55) Falstaff is nonplussed, and willingly forgoes “such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath” (59). As he says, honor sometimes comes to a man in the fog of war, even though his intentions are on anything but gaining honor. The after-narrative may speak kindly of him.
Act 5, Scene 4 (668-71, )
Prince Hal’s redemption of time begins to show in his actions during this scene—disdaining help for his slight wound, he rescues his father from the sword of Douglas . The king’s actions had brought him to this, we might say—it had brought him to a confused battlefield where a determined enemy sought to end his usurped reign. The redemptive answer to this threat is the prince himself. Henry’s ultimate legitimacy, it might be inferred, is none other than Hal, who, as we know, will go on to become King Henry V, whose brief reign would bring glory to England against the French at Agincourt. We learn in this scene that some had said Hal wished his father dead, and now that ugly slander is put to rest. But the prince has still more work to do, and he soon finds himself facing his nemesis Hotspur, whom he kills and praises to the heavens.
Falstaff, in spite of his principles, is also in the thick of battle, and just before the prince kills Hotspur, Falstaff saves his own hide by playing dead when Douglas challenges him. The fat knight is offended when Hal notices him and more or less sets him forth as he really is: “Death hath not strook so fat a deer to-day, / Though many dearer, in this bloody fray” (107-08). Well, it isn’t even so much the insult that gets to Falstaff as the certainty that he is dead—to be dead, says Falstaff, is to be “a counterfeit” (115-16), and then comes the immortal line, “The better part of valor is discretion” (119-20), which sounds like a twisted variation on Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. To make matters still more absurd, Falstaff decides he might as well claim he killed the already dead Percy, and abuses his corpse with his sword. Caught in the act by Lancaster and the prince, Falstaff can only lie through his teeth to the very man who actually did kill Hotspur. Strangely, even before he hears the horn blast that signals the enemy’s retreat, Hal agrees to go along with Falstaff’s ridiculous pretension: “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (157-58). This indulgence may seem strange when we consider how intently Hal had come to look forward to this defining moment: killing Hotspur constitutes completion of the “redemptive” project he has promised the king, and by all rights the act should be trumpeted across the kingdom, not dissembled to serve the private interests of a rogue like Falstaff. One of my professors at UC Irvine remarked that perhaps this odd moment is a nod on Shakespeare’s part to the messiness or fogginess of the chronicles themselves—how difficult it is to know “what really happened” during history’s great events! It’s also true that at least Hal knows, within himself, what he’s made of, though that’s only a partial explanation since a great prince is not a private person but a public figure. Perhaps, too, Hal’s actions flow from the deep sense of English history with which Shakespeare endows him. He seems secure in his triumph now.
Act 5, Scene 5 (671-72, )
Prince Hal shows magnanimity in pardoning the Douglas for the sake of his valor in battle, and there’s still more fighting to do before the rebels are entirely vanquished. Prince Hal will proceed to Wales, there to face Glendower and the Earl of March.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake