Aristotelian Tragedy in Henry IV Part I

February 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

Aristotle breaks down the plot of the tragedy into three parts, reversal, recognition and catharsis. Shakespeare includes all three components of plot in his play, Henry IV Part I. He establishes a tragic hero, Harry Percy, and allows him to rise to power and influence. Then at his climax comes the reversal, which results in a fatal stab wound, followed by the recognition, which comes in Percy’s final words before dying. The combination of these two components, mixed with the audience’s ability to relate to Harry Percy and his fatal flaws, lead to the catharsis of emotion at the end of the play. By identifying Harry Percy as the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I and examining Shakespeare’s use of these three aspects of plot it becomes clear that Henry IV Part I can be identified as an Aristotelian tragedy.            

According to Aristotle, a reversal is “a change of the actions to their opposite” (96) that shows the tragic hero’s change of fortune. For a reversal to be successful it must be developed and must arise “in accordance to probability or necessity” (96). In Henry IV Part I, Shakespeare begins this development in Act I Scene I when the Earl of Westmoreland tells King Henry IV of the valiant efforts of Harry Percy at Holmedon. King Henry IV praises Harry Percy’s bravery and says he is “in envy that my Lord Northumberland / Should be the father to so blest a son— / a son who is the theme of honor’s tongue” (1.1.78-80). This praise is amplified as King Henry’s thinks of his own son’s “riot and dishonour” (1.1.84). Shakespeare begins to set up Harry Percy as the tragic hero of the play by introducing his fatal flaw, his hubris, which renders him unable to properly assess his situation and act accordingly, as demonstrated through his interaction with King Henry IV in Act I Scene III. During this conversation Percy blatantly refuses to hand over the prisoners he captured at Holmedon to King Henry saying he will not return the prisoners to the King even “if the devil come and roar for them” (1.3.123).” Unlike his uncles who understand the proper way to speak to a king, Percy is unable to conduct himself properly, which leads him to speak to the king as if he were an acquaintance rather than royalty. Act IV Scene I is another case of Percy’s hubris leading to ignorance. Percy discovers his father has taken ill and will not make it to battle. Instead of recognizing the true reason that his father has not come to battle, his fear of losing to King Henry, and the impact that his absence will have on the battle Percy ignorantly says, “I rather of his absence make this use, / It lends a lustre and more great opinion” (4.1.76-77). Percy’s hubris comes to a climax just before the reversal in Act V Scene IV. As Percy and Prince Hal finally meet on the battle field and prepare to fight, Percy says to the Prince, “the hour is come / To end the one of us; and would to God / Thy name in arms were now as great as mine” (5.4.67-69). This statement makes the result of the battle more shocking as the two men fight and Prince Harry emerges as the victor. As he dies Percy laments the loss of his honor: “O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth. / I better brook the loss of brittle life/ Than those proud titles thou hast won of me” (5.4.76-78). The reversal ends when Prince Harry says to Percy’s dead body, “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”(5.4. 88-91).            

The recognition, defined by Aristotle, is “a change from ignorance to knowledge” (96) that is most successful “when it happens at the same time as a reversal” (96). In accordance with Aristotle, the recognition follows the reversal in Henry IV Part I. Just as the reversal relies on the power dynamic between Harry Percy and Prince Hal, so does the recognition. Prince Hal’s father initially describes his son as wild and unruly; however in his soliloquy at the end of Act I Scene II, Hal reveals himself to be the opposite. He describes his situation by saying, “I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness” (1.2.155-156), and reveals his plan to make himself appear lowly and unworthy of the crown, in order to delight his people with his dramatic transformation, when he reveals his true self. This speech is only heard by the audience and forces the audience to view the Prince differently, while the other characters in the play still view him as unworthy of the crown. The realization finally occurs when Harry Percy recognizes Prince Hal’s true self in Act V Scene IV. With his final words he says “No, Percy, thou art dust, / And food for— (he dies)” (5.4.84-85). Percy finally realizes his mistake in underestimating his opponent and overestimating his own abilities.            

The final component of a tragic plot is the catharsis. Catharsis is a purging of emotions that result from a combination of pity and fear. These emotions occur through the audience’s ability to relate to the tragic hero’s descent into misfortune. Aristotle specifies the type of tragic hero that will elicit the best response from an audience. The hero cannot be a wholly good, as that type of character is not relatable and the audience will feel that the hero’s descent into misfortune is cruel. Also, the hero cannot be wholly evil, as the audience will feel as though the character deserves his or her misfortune. Instead, the character must be a combination of good and evil and must descend into misfortune not because of a vice, but because of a fatal character flaw.

In Henry IV Part I, Harry Percy is the tragic hero. Throughout the play Percy is shown as an ambitious warrior whose hubris leads to his downfall. He is seen as honorable and princely but he is also ignorant and tempestuous, as seen in his conversation with King Henry in Act I Scene III. His hubris leads him to reject King Henry IV, who viewed Harry Percy like a son, and allows him to fall from his high position at the beginning of the play, to his death at the end. Prince Hal, after he kills Harry Percy, poignantly describes Percy’s flaw, when he says “Fare thee well, great heart! / Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk” (5.4.86-87).            

All three components necessary to creating a tragedy are present in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. The reversal and the recognition occur simultaneously and are followed by the catharsis. While the these three components may not be as tightly constructed as those of the Greek tragedies that Aristotle based his definition on, they are used in accordance, allowing King Henry IV to be defined as a tragedy.   

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