A Machiavellian Analysis of Henry IV, Part 1

April 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

It can be difficult for the modern reader to appreciate the power struggle underlying HENRY IV, Part 1 (1H4). As causes of the War of the Roses and the struggles of the House of Lancaster recede from memory, it is useful to have a lens through which to examine the political and military machinations of Henry, Harry and Hotspur as they struggle to define both the future of England and their personal claims to leadership. The Prince provides such a lens. Written in 1513, just 83 years before the play, Machiavelli’s tract on foreign policy and leadership provides a deeper understanding of the actions of these three characters. As the play opens, Westmorland informs Henry IV that he has received a post from Wales that is …loaden with heavy news, Whose worst was that the noble Mortimer, Leading the men of Herefordshire to fightAgainst the irregular and wild Glendower, Was by the rude hands of that Welshman taken, A thousand of his people butcherèd, Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse, Such beastly shameless transformationBy those Welshwomen done, as may not beWithout much shame retold or spoken of (1H4 1.1.37-46).This missive was followed by even “more uneven and unwelcome news” that Percy has followed “his uncle’s teaching” and “to his own use he keeps” all the prisoners except the Earl of Fife (1H4 1.1.70-75). In this way, Henry’s enemies are introduced and Hotspur’s loyalty called into question.The first step in applying a Machiavellian analysis to this situation is to determine whether the struggle pertains to a hereditary principate or a mixed principality. Given that the Welsh and Scottish forces remain distinct and separate groups over which the English retain limited control, one is inclined to characterize this as a “mixed principality”, an entity that is “not entirely new but like a graft freshly joined to an old kingdom” (Machiavelli 5). Following this analysis, the loyalties of the combatants appear conflicted at best because the problems associated with such a state are derived from “a natural difficulty … which is that all men are ready to change masters in the hope of bettering themselves” (Machiavelli 5). As the play opens, Hotspur and Worcester appear as exemplars of combatants who are struggling to change masters. Their loyalty to Henry conflicts with their loyalty to the Percy family.Under these circumstances, Machiavelli advises “one of the best and most effective policies would be for the new possessor to go there and live” (Machiavelli 6). While Henry remains firmly ensconced on the throne in London, both Hotspur and Harry venture forth in the world and engage in interactions that could conceivably achieve the benefit that Machiavelli says results from such relocation – namely “when you are on the spot, you can see troubles getting started and can take care of them right away” (Machiavelli 7). Hotspur takes Worcester’s advice to return to Scotland with the prisoners and “Deliver them up without their ransom straight” (1H4 1.3.257). Moreover, while he is in Scotland, he should enter negotiations and “make the Douglas’ son your only mean / for powers in Scotland, which /… will be easily granted” (1H4 1.3.258-261).While not exactly the same as “going and living there”, these travels could serve much the same purpose as that imagined by Machiavelli in that they provide first-hand information. Unfortunately, Hotspur’s temperament prevents him from making the most of such travels. Although the reader is not witness to Hotspur’s negotiations with Douglas, the negotiations with Owen Glendower show that Hotspur is incapable of “going and living there” – either literally or in the more metaphorical sense of being able to silence his own impulses long enough to learn first-hand Glendower’s strengths as an ally. Instead of taking the opportunity to get a sense of the Welsh terrain and size up Glendower, Hotspur senselessly antagonizes him, insulting everything from his ability to speak English (1H4 3.1.114-117), his history of repelling Henry IV (1H4 3.1.65-67) and his magical powers (1H4 3.1.24-34). Curiously, although Harry neither relocates nor travels the distances traversed by Hotspur, his behavior seems to achieve more of the ends sought by the Machiavellian advice to “go there and live there”. We see him traveling a different kind of distance from the seat of power and playing an altogether different role with his companions at the Boar’s Head Tavern. Although only a “temporary inhabitant of Eastcheap” (1H4 39), his ability to step outside his customary role and observe life outside the palace makes him a more effective ruler in the long run. This is consistent with the Machiavellian adage that prince devote attention to learning because “what he learns will be doubly useful; first he will become acquainted with his own land, and understand better how to defend it” (Machiavelli 41). A Machiavellian analysis also sheds light upon the behavior of Henry, Harry and Hotspur during the Battle of Shrewsbury. Hotspur’s allies betray him and leave him on the battlefield with little support. He continues to voice enthusiasm for battle despite Douglas’ characterization of the loss of Glendower’s support as “the worst tidings that I hear of yet” (1H4 4.1.126). However, as he prepares for battle, Hotspur begins to vacillate. When Blount comes with “gracious offers from the King” (1H4 4.3.30), Hotspur explodes with his list of grievances against the king. However, at the end of this scene, he raises the possibility of accepting the king’s offer, saying “And maybe so we shall” (4.3.112). Such vacillation opens him to the “contempt and hatred” warned against by Machiavelli who noted that “what makes a prince contemptible is being considered changeable… He should be sure that his judgment once passed is irrevocable” (Machiavelli 50). In this time of crisis, Hotspur has not been able to win a popular base or exercise consistent judgment; had he survived, this vacillation (and his lack of reasoned responses) would hold him up to contempt and hatred. In holding out this opportunity for peace, Henry appreciates the Machiavellian maxim that military might is the poorest way to retain or win a mixed principality. Machiavelli notes that “the whole state is harmed when the prince drags his army about with him from place to place. Everyone feels the inconveniences, every man becomes an enemy” (Machiavelli 7). Blount tries to dissuade Hotspur, saying, “you conjure from the breast of civil peace / such bold hostility, teaching his duteous land / audacious cruelty (1H4 4.3.43-45) and promises that “you shall have your desires with interest / and pardon absolute for yourself” (1H4 4.3.49-50). Henry’s unexpected offer at reconciliation shows he understands that in the long run, “defense by armies is useless” with respect to mixed principalities (Machiavelli 7). While Hotspur and Henry weigh strategies and prospects for war, Harry goes into battle. His crisp, decisive actions are consistent with Machiavelli’s description of the “military duties of the prince” (Machiavelli 40). His victory over Hotspur shows that despite his questionable behavior earlier in the play, he has not fallen prey to the risk that “being defenseless makes you contemptible” (Machiavelli 41) or charges of “mismanaging his clemency” (Machiavelli 45). The Prince, therefore, provides an effective lens through which view the actions of Henry, Hotspur and Harry. Beginning with the characterization of the border skirmishes as a mixed principality, the relative strengths and weaknesses of these characters can be evaluated in Machiavellian terms. Only Harry appears to have metaphorically heeded the advice to “go and live there”. Despite his initial military successes, Hotspur’s failure to heed this advice leaves him stranded without sufficient support at Shrewsbury. While Henry has the support of characters he spent time slumming with, Hotspur has shown himself to be worthy of hatred and contempt. In conclusion, The Prince provides a penetrating analytic tool to analyze the behavior of these characters, particularly with regard to their actions in Shrewsbury and its ultimate outcome.

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