Henry IV Part 2
From Hal to Harry: The Callousness of the Crown in Shakespeare’s Henry V
Between the events of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, King Harry evolves from a playful and wayward son into a celebrated political adept. He forfeits a life of tavern-hopping and petty larceny in favor of becoming one of the most revered kings and military tacticians in English (literary) history. Throughout Henry V, Shakespeare paints Harry as an affable king whose loyalty rests with the people of England; however, in his quest for redemption through the universal appeasement of his people—be they religious syndicates at the royal castle, squadrons of troops in the fields of Agincourt, or the common masses waiting at home—the emotions of individual characters are often abandoned in the wake of King Harry’s enterprise. Previous to and during the Battle of Agincourt, Harry is constantly at war with his own sensibilities, often choosing to neglect showing his emotions outwardly in fear that such a display might negatively impact the well being of his people.
Using both high rhetoric and hollow sensationalism, Harry consistently elevates the esteem of his soldiers while shielding his own emotions. The majority of Henry V takes places in France, where common soldiers are fighting a war that they don’t quite understand, so before the siege of Harfleur, King Harry delivers his “Cry, ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’” speech to elevate the morale and solidarity of his army. He urges them to continue pressing forward, even through death, and to “dishonour not [their] mothers” (3.1.22)—that is, to overcome any lack of courage they may face during the siege. He insists that “there is none of [them] so mean and base / that hath not noble lustre in [their] eyes” (III.I.29-30), once again encouraging a familial solidarity among his many battalions. In spite of Harry’s universal rhetorical placations, the reception of his speech is mixed, particularly among Bardolph, Nim, and Pistol, three of Harry’s former companions in I Henry IV and II Henry IV. Bardolph appears eager to join the troops, echoing Harry’s decrees to march forward “to the breach, to the breach!” (III.II.I), but Nim and Pistol are much more hesitant to risk their lives for an unknown cause. Nim declares that if he had more lives to give, it would be a noble fight, but Pistol simply breaks out in song. He acknowledges the chivalry and valor of battle by singing, “And sword and shield / In bloody field / Doth win immortal fame” (III.II.7-9), but he soon delves into the precariousness of his own position when he continues singing, “And I. / If wishes would prevail with me / My purpose should not Fail with me / But thither would I hie” (III.II.12-15). In his song of fame and despair, there is a sharp end stop—a period—after the word “I,” indicating an emphasis on the personal nature of Pistol’s concerns. The brevity of the sentence “And I.” and its subsequent line break further contrast the universality of King Harry’s speech to the individual plight of common soldiers. Pistol’s fears are, of course, unknown to Harry, for Harry is too preoccupied securing his army’s morale to worry about the fears of one simple soldier. Pistol’s romantic musings are quickly broken by the entrance of Fluellen, a scholarly Captain in whom Harry believes to be “much care and valour” (4.1.83). Fluellen’s staunch adherence to the success of the war, regardless of an individual soldier’s concerns, places him as a worthy surrogate for the mindset of Harry, who is also incapable of acknowledging individual complaints in fear that the oneness of the army and of his people might lose its footing.
To elevate his army to a level of moral consistency, Harry issues harsh restrictions on individual actions. After the siege of Harfleur, Bardolph is hanged for stealing a Pax, a small religious symbol. When Fluellen gives Harry the news of the former friend’s crime, Harry callously states that the army “should have all such offenders so cut off” (3.4.98). The lack of emotion in his words is echoed during the Battle of Agincourt, when the Boy, the former page of Falstaff, states that Nim has faced the same fate as Bardolph (4.4.62-64). Though Harry’s reprimands are unsympathetic, he justifies the punishments by telling Fluellen that “when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner” (3.3.102-103). In this speech, Harry incites his soldiers to become beacons of morality, for gentleness and civility, in the king’s mind, are paramount in all aspects of victory and in upholding the justness of his cause. Although Harry appears to be genuine in expressing concern for the moral well being of his soldiers, he is also erecting a stoic veil behind which he may hide from the callousness of his actions and the hollowness of his decrees. Harry does not have the patience or time necessary to worry about the fates of individual soldiers. By anthropomorphizing himself into the figure of “lenity and cruelty,” he is able to distance himself from the emotional and psychological repercussions of his actions while also deflecting responsibility for the hanging of Bardolph.
As the king of England, Harry must continually present the semblance of morality and certitude in front of his subjects regardless of emotional ties to the individual character. Because he is the leader of the army, his every move is visible and documented by those under his command, causing him to issue a level of calculability and prefigurement to all of his actions and emotions so as not to disrupt the image of his position or the morale of the community. The extent of his authority is a scathing burden that he must bear alone. With the eyes of his army always upon him, it is not possible for Harry to express his disconcertment outwardly, so he creates an elaborate pretense in which he exchanges his royal garb for the common cloak of Sir Thomas Erpingham. Rather than using this opportunity to discover on an individual basis the concerns and anxieties of those under his command, Harry’s true intention is to momentarily relieve his royal temperament by mingling with the common soldiers.
While garbed in Erpingham’s cloak, Harry takes a respite from the quotidian responsibilities of the king by pretending to be a common soldier. His rhetoric, however, still maintains a level of distance from connecting to the individual soldier. Harry sits in the darkness, waiting to meet a passerby, and Pistol approaches Harry as though he were an intruder. Pistol says to Harry, “Discuss unto me: art thou officer, / Or art thou base, common, and popular?” (4.1.38-39) to which Harry responds, “I am a gentleman of a company” (4.1.40). When asked if he is common, Harry deflects the question, instead situating himself on an elevated tier of morality. Even while dressed as an average soldier, it is impossible for Harry to admit he is ordinary. He understands that it is disadvantageous to give in to his emotions; however, he later says to Bates that “the King is but a man, as [he] is” (4.1.99) and that all the king’s “senses have but human conditions” (4.1.101), an indication that the emotions are and have always been present, but also that they have been intentionally shielded from the public eye. Harry is unable to placate the common soldier, for he is unable to be as explicitly emotionally sensitive as the common man. Later in Act IV Scene I, Harry is talking with Williams and Bates, two soldiers who are voicing their concerns on the legitimacy of the war and their own involvement in such grand political affairs. Williams says to Harry that “if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make” (4.1.138-139). Williams rightly lays the responsibility for the impending English deaths on the King, but Harry refuses to acknowledge individual deaths. To Harry, the death toll is worthy of consideration, but the individual “legs and arms and heads chopped off” (4.1.139-140) are not his concern. Harry’s response to Williams’s indictment is that “the King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers” (4.1.146-147), for such sensitivity is preclusive to the “watch the King keeps to maintain the peace” (4.1.246). The King’s watch is on all of England, limiting his ability to appropriately dally in the affairs of individual soldiers. The callousness of Harry’s justification is without blame, however, for the King cannot afford to take the liberty to develop individual emotional ties without risking the welfare of the entire nation.
Though Harry continually asserts that the fates of individual soldiers are not his concern, the deaths of Suffolk and York, two of his closest companions, bring about a brief stint of sensationalism in the King. Just before the end of the Battle of Agincourt, Harry commends his followers, saying, “Well have we done, thrice-valiant countrymen” (4.6.I). He seeks the counsel of the Duke of York, but, much to his chagrin, he learns from his uncle Exeter that both York and Suffolk have died in battle. Exeter romanticizes York and Suffolk’s final moments by conjuring images of two soldiers, one fallen and one “all haggled over” (4.6.11), each clung together as though they were lovers. The depiction of their deaths gives Harry “mistful eyes” (4.6.34), and as a response to the belligerence of the French and the affection demonstrated by the fallen English nobles, Harry orders each soldier to “kill his prisoners” (4.6.37). The brevity of Act IV Scene VI emphasizes the character development of Harry and also acts as a structural metaphor for the rashness of Harry’s actions. Whereas Harry is accustomed to doling out eloquent and enduring speeches that appeal to mass audiences, he is unaccustomed to facing grief on an individual basis. The scene ends curtly with Pistol crying aloud, “Coup’ la gorge!” (4.6.39), issuing a stark contrast to the “gentleness” that Harry once applauded his soldiers for having. Harry’s habit of calculation has been replaced by barbarism and irrational decisions. The scene ends with the superfluous and uncivilized deaths of countless French prisoners, demonstrating not only Harry’s newfound brutality, but also the inherent repercussions of acting upon personal emotions when in a position of authority.
Though Shakespeare paints Harry as an admirable King, one whose faithfulness to both England and the crown has gone unparalleled in English (literary) history to that point, there are moments in the play when the audience sees the callousness of Harry’s royal position. Shakespeare does not make an attempt to condemn Harry’s broken emotional ties, nor does he applaud them; rather, Shakespeare indicates that Harry’s callousness is a virtuous trait for anyone in authority. To Harry, the “infinite heartsease / [that] kings neglect” (4.1.218-219) is paramount to the preservation of a people.
Shakespeare, William. “Henry V.” Trans. Array The Norton Shakespeare. . 2nd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1471-1548. Print.
A Portrait of Henry V As The Amalgamation of Hotspur and Falstaff
Though Henry V can be read and appreciated as a stand alone piece, it is most valuable when considered as part of a tetralogy. The two parts of Henry IV depict the characters and present the initial stages of the conflict in a way that pushes one to reconsider Henry V as a continuation of the previous two plays. The dynamic evolution in the portrayal of Prince Hal can clearly be seen from the study of Henry V. In particular, Henry IV Part 1 sets up two of the main characters, Hotspur and Falstaff, who are only mentioned in Henry V. These two individuals are essential to better understanding how Prince Hal becomes the king that he is and why he makes the decisions that he does. Through his interactions with them and through their deaths, Hal gains their qualities — boldness and determination from Hotspur and wit and wordplay from Falstaff — and adds them to his own charisma. The two parts, in association with V, help us see the two-part process by which this happens: the death of Hotspur allows Hal to acquire qualities that will lie in him until Falstaff’s death. That death serves as a catalyst, thereby allowing the acquired qualities to translate into noble actions on the field.
Shakespeare subtly sets up two critical characters who later play a decisive role in the making of Henry V. The young nobleman Harry Percy, known as Hotspur and only present in Part 1, is the son of the Earl of Northumberland. His family, the Percy family of the North, is essential to the plot, as the Percys are critical in helping Henry IV gain the throne. Feeling that King Henry IV no longer respects his debt towards them, they lead a revolt, thus forming the narrative for Part 1. Hotspur is immediately portrayed as a valiant soldier, his nickname originating from his “hot” and fierce attitude in battle. It is in this context that he is first mentioned in the play by Westmorland, who narrates that Hotspur has won back Holmedon and taken multiple prisoners (1.1. 52-5). He is then referred to by the King himself, who envies Northumberland for having “so blest a son”, “A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue” (1.1. 80). Unlike many of Shakespeare’s antagonists, Hotspur is never portrayed as evil, but rather shown in a complimentary light. The weaker qualities of Hotspur’s character are a consequence of his very strengths: he is stubborn and impulsive. As an example, Hotspur tries to bargain with the King for his prisoners against a ransom to get back his brother-in-law, Mowbray (1.3). In this scene, Hotspur lets his temper act out, as he does not take time to consider that the requests are coming from the King directly and that Mowbray is considered a traitor in the royal court. Along with those weaknesses, Hotspur is a rash and boastful young adult. In 5.2, Worcester lies to him by telling him that Hal has insulted the Percys. In response, and in a reaction disproportional to the present situation, Hotspur calls for a duel with the Prince. Though Shakespeare takes time at the beginning of the play to set Hotspur up as a strong and central figure, he is quick to show that Hotspur’s priorities make him fall short of his goals.
Shakespeare wants the audience to make a clear comparison between Prince Hal and Hotspur. Beyond their shared first name, he gives them the same age and gives their wives the same name (Kate). Against his rebellious but noble Prince, he paints Hotspur as the driven antagonist. Next to Hotspur, Hal appears as an irresponsible young man, who does not deserve the crown. The two never actually interact until the very end, when they meet in a duel, but they are constantly considered together in the audience’s and in the King’s mind. For him, Hotspur is the epitome of the perfect son, with only some minor qualifications. When Hal finally expresses his opinion about Hotspur, it is only with the positive terms with which he challenges Hotspur to a duel. Hal prefaces his request with the following lines: “I do not think a braver gentleman, // More active-valiant or more valiant-young, // More daring, or more bold, is now alive” (5.1. 89-91). The challenge presented is combat and Hal needs to prove his worth by defeating Hotspur. For his part, Hotspur even recognizes that Hal is taking away his honor in his last speech: “I better brook the loss of brittle life // Than those proud titles thou hast won of me. They wound me my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.” (5.4. 77-9). The Prince wins the duel and, as he kills Hotspur, takes on the very qualities that he so admired in him.
While Hotspur represents the noble court world, Falstaff is the main comedian of Hal’s preferred world, that of the commoners. Falstaff, present in both parts of Henry IV, is depicted as a fat, old, and disorderly man. He is the personification of their world’s central location: a cheap pub in Eastcheap, London. Falstaff spends his time drinking, making poor sexual references and desperately looking everywhere for money. One of his particular vices is a greed that leads to corruption. As the Percy-led revolt intensifies, Hal asks Falstaff to join him on the battle with soldiers from various towns (4.2). Falstaff only succeeds in bringing “pitiful rascals” (4.2. 57) because he let go of the more able men in return for sums of money. As opposed to Hotspur, Falstaff is constantly portrayed in terms of his faults, but there are passages where Shakespeare lets through glimpses of wit and wordplay. The most poignant instance of this is at the end of 5.1 in Part 1. Falstaff speaks about honor and brings up the problem of the living men having to suffer on its behalf. In a strongly delivered speech, Falstaff reduces honor seamlessly to just a word: “What is honour? A word.” (5.1. 133). Though these characters are essential in themselves, it is most interesting to see how they interact with Prince Hal.
Falstaff and Hal are connected from the very start. The first time both characters are presented is in 1.2, in which one can see their familiar attitude towards each other. Hal does not hesitate to jokingly and affectionately insult his friend: “Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon” (1.2. 2-4). The two are constantly shown as being very close to each other, Falstaff feeling almost a paternal link to Hal. This is most apparent when it is announced that Hal is going to become King and Falstaff seems to be worried for him. On the other side, Hal enjoys playing tricks on Falstaff, as he is easily fooled and always has an inclination to exaggerate stories. However, Hal protects Falstaff and is there for him when needed. For example, there are multiple occasions when the police come looking for Falstaff in the pub, but Hal is quick in finding an excuse for him. Falstaff relies on Hal in multiple instances and seems to be growing from his presence; in fact, Falstaff explicitly expresses this by saying that “Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing” (1.2. 82-3). However, Hal’s feelings towards Falstaff, and all the commoners in general, are more confusing. Hal seems to be comfortable within their world as he spends almost of his time with them and finds humor in it. This is contrasted with passages when Hal admits that he is putting on a front so that his father, and England in general, do not expect anything from him — so that he can better impress them when he becomes King (1.2. 173-95). His relationship with Falstaff is completely ended when he is crowned in Part 2 and asks that Falstaff is “not to come near our person by ten mile” (5.5. 63). Hal realizes that in order to become the King that he desires to be, he cannot afford to keep his intimate relations with low commoners. Falstaff does not understand this and ends his days consumed by the sadness resulting from Hal, now the King, not talking to him anymore.
Hotspur and Falstaff both have important qualities and faults, but their power lies in their influence over Hal. Through their respective deaths, Hotspur and Falstaff pass along their best traits to Hal. The Hal shown in Henry IV Part 1 is a young and intelligent man, but he lacks the appropriate priorities and family values. Indeed, King Henry IV wishes that his son were more princely. However, through saving his father from being hurt and from killing Hotspur, Hal is able to demonstrate his ability to be the soldier that he is required to be. Following the death of Hotspur, Hal appears to be a true leader, directing troops towards Wales. What separates the two characters is Hal’s ability to take on Hotspur’s best qualities, while leaving aside his impulsiveness. An example of this can be seen through Henry V’s pleading words to God “Not today, O Lord, // O not today, think not upon the fault // My father made in compassing the crown.” (4.1. 274-6). Henry there admits the fault in his father of having usurped the throne of its rightful owner, but never does he make the mistake of pronouncing it aloud or of showing a shred of disloyalty. In contrast with Hotspur, Hal is willing to recognize his mistakes and accept blame. When asked to calm down by his uncle and his father in the first scenes of Part 1, Hotspur ignores them and continues to assert that his actions are rightful. The contrasting scene can be found in Part 2 (5.2), when the Lord Chief Justice tries to justify himself for his actions against the young Hal. Hal, now King, responds by thanking him for having rightfully imprisoned him. As such, Hal takes on the qualities of a family-oriented man who weeps by his dying father’s bed, and of a soldier who is invincible, and adds them to his own temperament and introspection.
However, these qualities are not enough to make Hal the king that he is capable of being, until the middle of Henry V. The start of Henry V shows a king who relies on others to make decisions and who shies away from responsibility. The King announces war with France in part because the money-seeking Canterbury and Exeter advise him to do so. He lays the the guilt of the war on them when he announces that “Therefore let every man now task his thought, That this fair action may on foot be brought” (1.2. 309-10). However, scenes towards the middle of the play, like 3.3 or the famous St Crispian’s day speech, show a King that has a powerful command of language and a will that inspires all his soldiers to want to fight. Without having read Henry IV, it is hard to think about this, mistakenly attributing these qualities to his growth. However, the two previous parts allow us to reconsider this. As stated above, Henry has many fine qualities, but there seems to be something holding him down. Studying Falstaff allows for a better understanding of this behavior. Though Henry cuts the tie between the two worlds at the end of Part 2, he still has very strong links to it as the characters desperately try to get involved in his life. Thus, indirectly, these two forces tug at him and he is unable to fully assume leadership. In 2.3 of Henry V, it is stated that Falstaff is dying because of Henry. This is due to the fact that Henry no longer considers their friendship worthy, although Falstaff is still very dependent on him. By pushing Falstaff to his last breath, Henry is able to let go of his young and rebellious old self and completely assume his new character as the King. Falstaff’s death enables him to really display his aforementioned qualities. Similarly, Henry needs to make his friends Nim and Bardoff face justice, as he cannot have any remaining connections with his previous world. Perhaps most importantly, Henry also acquires Falstaff’s great wordplay, allowing him to motivate and energize his soldiers.
At the outset, Prince Hal is intelligent and funny, but lacks certain, highly necessary kingly qualities. The reading of Henry IV serves as a potential way to understand how Henry V acquires these qualities. Hal kills Hotspur and gets his good traits, but they lie somewhat dormant in him until Henry indirectly kills Falstaff. Not only do these two characters help to explain how Hal becomes the King he does in Henry V, they also justify the actions he takes as a King, actions that might have seemed questionable and rash without the context of Henry IV.
Rebellion and its Consequences in Richard II, 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV
In William Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, the idea of kingship undergoes radical transformation produced by Bolingbroke’s rebellion. Before this rebellion, the king is regarded as sacred, inviolable and divinely ordained. Despite the grievous misdeeds committed by King Richard, many leading noblemen continued to defer themselves to this divine image of kingship and condemn the idea of rebellion. However, Richard’s blatant abuses of his kingly authority caused several noblemen to abandon this divine image of kingship and embrace open rebellion. This act of rebellion produces several dramatic and radical consequences. It legitimizes the act of rebellion as a reaction against the abuses of the king, and turns rebellion into the natural and inevitable consequence of monarchial tyranny. It destroys the divine image of kingship, introducing the idea that kings are made by men rather than by God and thereby removing the most powerful source of protection for the king’s authority. It establishes the dangerous precedent that any man could become king, so long as he obtains enough physical support. As a result, King Henry IV’s reign is filled with fresh rebellion and civil unrest. In these plays, rebellion is depicted as the natural and understandable consequence of tyranny and power abuses. It shows that a king can’t safeguard his reign against rebellion by solely relying on the concept of the divine right of king; he must instead act in a just and responsible manner by winning respect from his subjects. Rebellion is depicted as an extremely dangerous activity because it could destroy the order and stability of a kingdom and fills the realm with quarrels, slaughter and bloodshed. The act of open rebellion towards the monarch is initially condemned by most of the characters in Richard II. Despite the fact that several people, such as John of Gaunt and the Duke of York, are outraged by Richard’s unwise policies and reckless behavior, they do not support the very act of open rebellion towards him. This is because that the concept of the divine right of kings is the dominant political ideology of this era. The divine right of king preaches the philosophy that king’s authority derives solely from god. The king’s power is therefore divinely sanctioned. No matter how grievous his earthly offenses may be, no earthly mortal could stage a rebellion against his divine authority. This ideology is endorsed even by the people who hold the most bitter grievances against Richard, indicating that it is a widely accepted ideology which is firmly entrenched in people’s consciousness. John of Gaunt is someone who is obviously outraged towards Richard’s blatant abuses of his kingly power. He accuses Richard for besmirching England’s glorious reputation with his disastrous policies. Gaunt is acutely conscious that Richard is directly complicit in his brother Gloucester’s murder. He is also painfully aware of the fact that Richard is “leas[ing] out” (Shakespeare, 998) England’s sacred sovereignty through his questionable economic policies. Even though Gaunt is not afraid to openly condemn Richard’s misconduct, he refuses to stage an open rebellion against him; while Gaunt believes that kings must act in a responsible manner, he still believes in the divine right of kings. He tells the Duchess of Gloucester that he can’t avenge her husband’s death through rebellion because he believes Richard to be the God’s “substitute” (989), his “minister” (989) and his “deputy anointed” (989). By which he means that the king is God’s representative on earth. Therefore, no earthly mortal could disobey Richard’s authority and punish his crimes, and only God has the responsibility and the power to punish the king’s trespasses. Similarly, the Duke of York is also deeply conscious of Richard’s misdeed, he nevertheless frowns upon the act of rebellion and accuses Bolingbroke for being a traitor who disturbs civil peace with his “despised arms” (1009) against the rightful “anointed king” (1009). York even raises a small army to defend Richard’s kingship against Bolingbroke’s rebel armies, and who only unwillingly yields himself to the rebel armies under their duress. Even though both York and Gaunt are conscious to the fact that Richard is unfit to rule, neither of them questions his legitimacy to rule. Their faith in Richard’s legitimacy as king compels them to swallow down their many grievances and to remain as Richard’s obedient subjects. By highlighting the doctrine of the divine right of kings, Richard II shows that outright rebellion is no easy matter, because the rebels are challenging a legitimate sovereign who is generally viewed as being divinely appointed. In addition, the very act of rebellion in Richard II seeks to overthrow the long established ideology on the divine right of king and to replace it with a new-fangled idea which claims that a king must be accountable to his subjects by behaving in a responsible manner. Therefore, rebellion in Richard II entails revolutionary ideological change which seeks to undermine the very foundations of divine kingship. Henry IV’s turbulent reign indicates that such a drastic ideological change introduced by rebellion cannot happen without bringing about further chaos and upheaval. Although the divine right of king is generally accepted in this play, Richard II shows kings cannot safeguard their reign entirely on this principle. This play shows that even in a society which accepts the divine right of kings, rebellion can become the natural and inevitable consequence when its monarch abuses his absolutist power. The divine right of kings can be used to legitimize and strengthen a monarch’s reign against possible acts of rebellion, but Richard II indicates that the sole reliance upon this principle is an ineffectual way to ward off civil disobedience. King Richard is a blind pursuer of the divine right of kings by believing that his “divinely sanctioned” authority possesses some magical power which can protect his crown against any attempts of rebellion. He naively believes that “not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king, [and that] the breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord” (1013). Even when he learns the desertion of his troops, he continues to believe that his divinely ordained name is worth “forty thousand names” (1014), and that he can easily defeats Bolingbroke’s rebellion through the divine power of his name. Richard’s repeated appeals to the nonexistent divine protection become increasingly ludicrous and pathetic when it becomes clear that he has lost all physical support in his kingdom. This play shows that it is the earthly physical support that truly protects a king from rebellion, rather than any mystical heavenly forces. As king Richard’s medieval society is about to be replaced by the upcoming Renaissance world, which displaces the divine absolutism of kings with worldly pragmatism and political virtues; Bolingbroke’s rebellion indicates that the doctrines on the divine right of kings and monarchial absolutism have become increasingly impractical and are in of need modification in order to adapt themselves to a changing world. In Richard II, the king himself is the true instigator of the rebellion. The reason that rebellion occurs is because Richard fails to realize that in order to safeguard his reign against possible revolts, he does not only need to be a legitimate king, he also needs to be a just king. This play shows that when a king loses all forms of popular support through his persistent misconduct, rebellion becomes the natural outcome even in a society that values the divine right of kings. Although a king possesses the divine political title, he also possesses an earthly body, which means that he can be prone to earthly imperfection and failings that prevent him from living up to his divine image. King Richard illustrates this point perfectly. Although he outwardly assumes the title of the divinely anointed king, his private self is characterized by earthly greed, corruption and moral irresponsibility. In Richard II, King Richard himself is entirely the source of rebellion. Although this play is centered on Bolingbroke’s rebellion, the play actually highlights the king’s misdeed rather than Bolingbroke’s rebellion. Bolingbroke is not portrayed as the unscrupulous and ruthless traitor who is determined to rebel against the king’s authority. His rebellion is portrayed as a grim necessity which is instigated by the king’s gross injustice towards him. In Richard’s deposition scene, Bolingbroke remains mostly silent, which betrays his guilty conscience and moral uneasiness. He is only a reluctant traitor who is propelled onto the path of rebellion by the king’s mistreatment towards him. Therefore, the king is the cause and the origin of Bolingbroke’s rebellion. Although Richard is deposed through rebellion, he is brought down more by self-destruction rather than by rebellion. Richard himself confirms his self-destruction by saying that he finds “[him]self a traitor with the rest, for [he has] undeck[ed] the pompous body of a king” (1029) through his his misconduct. Because Richard has destroyed himself through his blatant misuse, he literally undid himself in his deposition scene as he “wash[ed] away [his] balm” (1028) with his “own tears” (1028) and “gave away [his] crown” (1028) with his “own hands” (1028). In Richard II, rebellion is depicted as a reaction towards Richard’s behaviour rather than an act of Bolingbroke’s ambition. This act of rebellion is the result of Richard’s greed rather than Bolingbroke’s ambition. Bolingbroke’s rebellion indicates the flaws and the limitations of a political system which preaches the doctrines of monarchial absolutism. Since the king is perceived divine, he cannot be held accountable to the people. In such a case, the only way to punish his misdeed is through open rebellion. Bolingbroke’s rebellion produces several short term and long term effects. In the short term, it destroys civil peace in England. The rebellion destroys the tranquil harmony within England and produces hostile factions between Bolingbroke and Richard’s supporters. Immediately after Bolingbroke mounted the throne, this factionalism within England nearly erupted into bloody violence as a group of Richard’s supporters seeks to assassinate the new king. This violent plan is a foretaste of a series of violent conflicts which will unfold in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. As Carlishe correctly prophesies, this act of rebellion will destroy peace and stability in England, it will unleash “disorder, horror, fear and mutiny” (1027) and shall make “kin with kin and kind with kind confound” (1027). Civil peace “shall go sleep with Turks and infidels” (1027) , and that future generations with “groan for this foul act” (1027) and “cry against your woe” (1027). In 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, King Henry IV becomes truly embattled. His reign is characterized by a series of domestic rebellion and civil unrest. The noble house of Northumberland, his cousin Mortimer, the Welsh nobleman Glyndwr, and the Archbishop of York all rose up against him. In the long term, this rebellion produces a radical ideological change with regard to kingship. It completely destroys the king’s association with divine forces. It shows that as long as one has sufficient physical support, virtually anyone can become king, with or without the useless seal of divine approval. By destroying the divine right of king, Bolingbroke’s rebellion destroys a king’s greatest source of protection. This is the most important long-term effect of his rebellion. Once he shatters the divine image of king through rebellion, all kings from this moment can be subjected to revolt and deposition. The moment Bolingbroke ascends the throne, he is immediately placed in a very untenable and perilous position, because the old doctrine that safeguards kings from revolts has been destroyed. The opening lines of 1 Henry IV confirms this, which depicts that the newly crowned king is immediately besieged by fresh civil unrest. Henry IV no longer enjoys the self-assured nonchalance of King Richard; instead, he finds himself “shaken” (1188) and “wan with care” (1188) by fresh “civil butchery” (1189). Bolingbroke’s rebellion has opened the floodgate of revolts. In Henry IV’s time, kings are no longer regarded as sacred and inviolable. Henry IV is no longer protected by the magical aura of kingly divinity. He can no longer afford the luxury of taking his subjects’ obedience for granted in the manner of King Richard. Instead, he has to use every trick and strategy to win people’s respect and affection by “plucking allegiance from their hearts” (1228). In the short term, the rebellion shatters civil peace and introduces a series of fresh rebellion. In the long term, Bolingbroke’s rebellion completely reshapes the manners and the style of kingship. Since the divine image of kings is destroyed, a king from this moment has to act more as an earthly politician rather than a divine minister of God. Unlike the irresponsible Richard who has no concerns over his public image, Bolingbroke summons up all his tact and skills to construct and perform an attractive public image to make his person “fresh and new” (1228) and “wondered at” (1228). Since his rebellion has destroyed the inviolability of kingship, Bolingbroke is always in need to pamper to public opinions, because a king unprotected by a divine image will easily lose the crown when he fells out of favour with his subjects. Throughout 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, the newly crowned Bolingbroke has to cope with the long term effects of his rebellion. Since he is a usurper king who has attained power through “by-paths and indirect crook’d ways (1392), he suffers the consequences of his tainted image and compromised reputation throughout his entire reign, which greatly weakens his power. His noblemen, such as Worcester and Hotspur, speak to him with little reverence and often hold him in great disdain. No one worships him as the sacred anointed king. Hotspur simply calls him as Bolingbroke, which signifies his unwillingness to acknowledge Henry as king. As a king, Bolingbroke has great difficulties to find any constant and loyal supporters. Since his kingship is built on very shaky grounds, very people are willing to pledge unconditional support to him. Once Bolingbroke deposes a king, all kings can be subjected to deposition. In addition, it sets a dangerous example of civil disobedience to the people and tempts the others to perform the same act of disobedience. In King Richard’s time, most of the noblemen condemn the act of rebellion; in Henry IV’s time, the noblemen contemplate the idea of rebellion with little dread and moral scruple, since kings are no longer regarded as sacred and divine. King Henry knows that he has stripped the divine protection factor from kingship; therefore, he is under no illusion over the instability of his reign. Throughout his reign, King Henry has to suffer the long-term consequences of his rebellion by battling a series of new rebellion. As a result of the untenability of his kingship, King Henry is subjected to great psychological distress, and becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting the holy land to atone and purify his sins. He becomes increasingly troubled, restless and unable to find peace through sleep. Henry IV has never been able to shake off the unpleasant consequences of his rebellion, and is compelled to endure his untenable kingship and his tainted personal image throughout this entire reign. For King Henry, only death can eliminate some of the unpleasant consequences of his rebellion and that only “[his] death can changes the mood” (1392) of his tainted kingship. However, even though Henry IV believes that his son who inherits the throne through natural succession will enjoy more legitimacy as a king, he is still full of apprehension and uncertainty for his son’s rule. Since his rebellion has stripped a king of his divine shield, Henry IV has to advise his son to resort to extreme measures in order to safeguard his kingship; which is to seek “foreign quarrels” (1392) and to unite the inner division of his kingdom through a common foreign enemy. Henry IV’s dying advice is a perfect indication of the extent in which his rebellion has weakened the idea of kingship. In Richard’s days, the king does not have to do anything to safeguard his reign; but after the rebellion and the collapse of the kingly divinity, a king is made extremely vulnerable and has to use every form of strategy, trick and device to secure and preserve his crown. These three plays of Shakespeare show that rebellion can produce radical effects. Bolingbroke’s rebellion not only destroys the peace and order in England, it also forever changes the very definition of kingship. When Bolingbroke removes one king through rebellion, all kings from this moment onward can be subjected to deposition. The security and stability of kingship is destroyed beyond repair by this act of rebellion. The rebellion also alters the style and manners of kingship. It compels the once unapproachable king to adopt the manners of a shrewd politician who courts favours with the public in order to secure public support. The rebellion modernizes the concept of kingship by compelling future monarchs to behave in a just and responsible way or risk facing the fate of Richard II. Works Cited Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen. New York: Norton & Company, 2008.
What you are in the Dark: A Character Analysis of Prince Hal
In the 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli stated on “The Prince” that leadership came mostly from theatrics. That is to say, to be a good leader one must first be a good actor, or at the very least be convincing enough to get the loyalty of the people. In a time where the political situation of his kingdom was so precarious, when the people were so divided and opposed to one another, it is no surprise that King Henry IV was so concerned with the apparent lack of leadership within his son. He was, however completely unaware of the manipulative and sly nature of Prince Hal, who had a plan of his own in order to achieve the people’s love. While his character may appear to undergo severe character development, Prince Hal (And the future Henry V) was rather acting the different roles both his subjects and his father needed him to take, being then one of the most static characters in the entire tetralogy. Through Prince Hal, Shakespeare explores the idea of a Machiavellian prince, one more focused on the theatrics of politics in order to achieve what he desired.
Throughout Henry IV Part I and Part II, the reader “sees” Hal grow into the future King, the one meant to unite all of England. When he is first introduced, he is (according to his father) a rake, an ungrateful brat, who hung out with the worst kind of people a Prince could hung out with. His closest friend is, after all, the most corrupt and amoral character in the entire tetralogy. He is shown to be gambling, planning a robbery, hanging out with prostitutes and drinking with his foolish friends on a tavern. This makes for a dramatic contrast with the Harry the reader meets on “Henry V”, the King who inspires his soldiers with his rousing speech to go “once more unto the breach”. It would seem like character development will have its hands dipped into the very soul of the Prince, to make him honorable and worthy of following. It will seem that way to everyone, inspiring even to those who can see the wild Prince turn into a worthy King, if it wasn’t for the following speech:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold/ The unyoked humor of your idleness./ Yet herein will I imitate the sun,/ Who doth permit the base contagious clouds/ To smother up his beauty from the world,/ That, when he please again to be himself,/ Being wanted, he may be more wondered at/ By breaking through the foul and ugly mists/ Of vapors that did seem to strangle him./ If all the year were playing holidays,/ To sport would be as tedious as to work,/ But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,/ And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents./ So when this loose behavior I throw off/ And pay the debt I never promisèd,/ By how much better than my word I am,/ By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;/ And like bright metal on a sullen ground,/ My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,/ Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes/ Than that which hath no foil to set it off. I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,/ Redeeming time when men think least I will. (1.2.202-224)
Here, Prince Hal starts demonstrating how not only is he not the dishonorable man the world thinks him to be, but rather that he is playing the role in order to look even better as a King. While this is incredibly manipulative, Prince Hal has various reasons that validate this manipulation: His father is an usurper, and there is civil unrest on the country. He needs the loyalty of his people, needs them to trust him and value him so they will not try to dethrone him once his time comes. By making himself look bad now, his “redemption” will then give hope and amaze all of his subjects. It is this speech that causes all of Hal’s character development to look nothing more than the unmasking of a very clever, very intelligent young man. It also brings up the most Machiavellian aspects of Henry’s personality, as this act that he is putting on is but a little part of his grand plan.
Everything about Hal from this point on becomes the subject of intense scrutiny as there is no way to tell what is the reality of the situation and what is the lie of it. Perhaps the most real moment, the most authentic act on Henry’s part, happens but on the very last part of Henry V, when he realizes that Catherine does not speak English and his only answer is a simple “Oh”. His actions, his relationships, the personality that he displays are all questionable, for they may or may not all be what Prince Hal wants the audience to see.
There is a comparison to be made, between both Hotspur and Henry IV with Prince Hal on that instance. It is claimed multiple times in narrative (in Richard II for Henry IV and in Henry IV Part I for Hotspur) that both Henry’s have the potential to be good monarchs. They are decisive, strong leaders, with a clear moral code and more importantly, honor. The people know they would be good Kings, and don’t hesitate to say so. By contrast, Hal is a rake, a childish young man, a shame to his father, and the people and the King have the ever-growing concern of what may happen once Hal becomes King. The plays then show us how Hal becomes a much more effective leader than his father, and a much better King. This then goes to show that Hal’s strategy was effective: While his father’s (and Hotspur’s, but his would cost him his life) authenticity was not enough to carry him through his reign, Hal’s machinations are enough to not only make him dear in his people’s memories, but also a great King. This emphasizes yet another Machiavellian characteristic in Prince Hal: The duplicitousness of his character, which allows him to triumph.
Prince Hal also dishonors his good name and creates a great riff between his father and himself in order to achieve the appearance of a depraved young man. He admits once during Henry IV Part II that this distance causes him great pain, as he wishes he could weep for his father and yet he knows he will be seen as a hypocrite if he does. In the same manner, he knows what the people think of him, knows of their distrust and of their fear. He does not cry, neither does he openly wield his grief. This demonstrates that Hal is willing to take all of the consequences that his actions have brought and that they will bring, as long as they bring him what he needs, which is the people’s loyalty and respect. He is Machiavellian in this too, deciding that the “ends justify the means”.
Prince Hal will forever be a subject of debate among scholars. He could be wicked and manipulative, as well as noble and intelligent. There is no way to come to an absolute conclusion, as to do so would be to diminish his complexity. He is clever and manipulative, and yet he still feels deeply for his people and wants to do good by them. He infuriates his father, and yet he loves him with all of his soul. He is a warrior made for battle, and yet he demonstrates great rhetoric. It is possible then, that while Prince Hal is but the very definition of a Machiavellian Prince, he is also a noble and worthy man.
Speaking Truth to Power: The Nature of Discourse Between Falstaff and Prince Hal
It is good to be the king, they say. What is perhaps not so good is being close enough to the king that you are presented with the opportunity to speak the truth when you clearly see somebody needs and nobody will. Kings, of course, lied under the delusion that they were anointed by God to take their positions of power and with that anointment came a certain sense of infallibility. Even those kings who did not buy into that concept themselves were in no rush to disabuse the notion among their subjects. Presidents and prime ministers may (or may not) see themselves as invested with power by the grace of god, but perhaps the illusion of infallibility is only heightened as a result of being placed into through the will of masses far more tangibly apprehended than any supreme being. History is full of moments where one close enough to the king to see the truth and speak it held back for fear of retribution for questioning the infallibility just as it is also full of moments where truth was put ahead of fear of retribution. Those in the latter who managed to survived the perilousness of speaking truth to power very likely did so owing at least some allegiance to Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s Henry, IV Parts I and II for the fat knight is one of the greatest instructors in how to proceed along the dangerous path of telling the truth to those in power while still keeping your head firmly attached to your shoulders.
Of course, the iconic Shakespearean character who represents the ability to be brutally honesty with the king is Lear’s Fool. But we are given insight into that complicated relationship only after Lear has ceased to be king. Power lost is not power at all. Power that may come when a Prince becomes a King is something else entirely and ensures for Falstaff that “Practical solutions are all but determined: Hal cannot continue his tavern brawling. Beneath his wit and flippancy thuds the heart of the true Prince, as Falstaff well knows” (Williams 127). That Falstaff acts to a degree in a role comparable to Lear’s Fool cannot be denied, but as counselor is role in guiding the young Hal on his path to the throne must by necessity stand apart.
The slothful, sack-consuming, pun-inducing Falstaff becomes the stand-in for Hal’s father, King Henry, IV whenever the Prince goes undercover as a wastrel. Significantly, Falstaff delivers advice that could have been framed with almost equal language from his father when he counsels “There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and it is known to many in our land by the name of pitch: this pitch, as ancient writers do report, doth defile; so doth the company thou keepest” (Shakespeare 430).
Both father figures obviously have much advice gained from experience to dispense to the young heir-apparent, but the difference between them is that Henry IV is king and Falstaff if Falstaff. Within that difference lies a chasm larger than any appetite Falstaff exhibits. The king may feel free to speak directly to his son in complete honesty. Falstaff, however, must proceed with utmost caution despite perhaps holding far more useful advice for the young Prince and despite, perhaps, being a fountain of much greater experience for ruling over the common folk.
Falstaff most assuredly recognizes that vital importance of one particular aspect related to the kingly future of his drinking buddy that escapes his father, the King, as it relates to those common folk. “Falstaff ruthlessly pricks the prince’s conscience about his family’s theft of the crown” (Caldwell). Why? Because he can? Well, possibly, but more likely because Falstaff is able peer into the future and apprehend the problems that will face Prince Hal upon taking his seat on a throne if there is still among the people a sense of illegitimacy in his sitting there.
He is able to dispense advice of a more cutting nature only by couching it in theatrics or the comic, however. The result, nevertheless, is not lessened by the necessity to frame truths within an ironic system of transmission. It is a fact that in both parts of Henry IV Hal is a an extraordinarily manipulative character who seeks the company of Falstaff only partly because of his entertainment value and “if Hal’s deceptive roleplaying seems Machiavellian, there is an obvious difference between his performances and those of Falstaff…Falstaff plays for pleasure while Hal plays for advantage” (McKinney). That latter description may not be entirely true, of course, since there is an advantage for Falstaff to play a role.
The delivery of hard truths to those who wish not to hear them or from those whom seem unqualified to offer criticism based on their own lapses is usually easier to deliver when that transmission takes place within a framework of roleplaying. So, the massive array of jokes, puns and playacting that make up the discourse between Falstaff and Prince Hal may, in fact, all be a part of Falstaff’s seeking the advantage. The story that Falstaff tells of what happened during that robbery provides great insight the character of the relationship existing between the fat old knight and the future King. How else could Prince Hal react upon hearing “By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye. Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince? why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was a coward on instinct” (Shakespeare 429). It is a brilliant conceived means of saving face for within that span of those few short sentences is an amalgamation of what Hal knows to be absolute lies, absolute truth and a vague commingling of both. Such is the nature of the special code that exists between them. They are both acutely aware the explicit and implicit meaning that takes places during discourse between them and the fact that Falstaff couches his harsh truths behind a comic front while Hal’s father is direct and to the point is highly suggestive.
The truth is that though Henry IV faces no obstructions to speaking plainly and simply to his son while Falstaff must provide a certain amount of entertainment for Hal to deem his worthy as a Machiavellian advisor may reveal that it is actually Falstaff who is the superior counselor to a Prince rather than King himself. Such is the deceptively close alignment between king and knight that “Falstaff, despite being such a humorous character, seems to seriously imitate at least a part of a kingly speech; however, the speech is organized so that first, he can jokingly make fun of his friend (first by calling him illegitimate); second, he can move to a condemnation of Hal’s friends; and third (as shown below), he can employ his own deliberative argument” (Sweat).
Ultimately, of course, Hal will make good on his promise to banish fat Falstaff from all the world, but there is no reason to take that banishment as a personal indictment of Falstaff, much less his worth in speaking the truth to the potential power invested in the Prince. Over the course of three plays, Prince Hal will prove himself to be capable of banishing anyone who has outlived their usefulness to his plans to take his seat on the throne. Worth noting is that by the time Prince Hal has become King Henry V it has become clear that he has all along viewed Falstaff a source of serious counsel rather than a mere object of affectionate entertainment. The King who walks among his warriors on the battlefield in anonymous disguise as one of their own is a man who has obviously learned lessons that could only come from the depths of the Boar’s Head Tavern rather than the heights of the royal palace.
Caldwell, Ellen M. “”Banish All the Wor(l)d”: Falstaff’s Iconoclastic Threat to Kingship in I Henry IV.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 59.4 (2007): 219+.
McKinney, Ronald. “The Trickster as Comic Hero: Falstaff and the Ethics of Chaotic Dissent.” Philosophy Today 51.2 (2007): 176+.
Shakespeare, William. The Works of William Shakespeare Gathered into One Volume. New York: Oxford UP, 1938.
Sweat, Chance. “The King’s Speech: A Rhetorical Analysis of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I.” Univ. of New Orleans, 4 August 2011.
Williams, Robert I. Comic Practice/Comic Response. Newark, DE: U of Delaware, 1993.
The characters Prince Hal and King Henry in William Shakespeare’s drama Henry IV portray an unlikely father-son relationship. Shakespeare demonstrates Prince Hal’s fate by associating him with consistent approaches of negative influences. These forces mainly come from his father, King Henry IV, and the friendship with the worthless acquaintance Falstaff. Aside from the extremely high expectations from his father, Prince Hal deals with the constant comparison of himself and the nobleman Hotspur. These three influences shape Hal into an important leader, which essentially is a fundamental part of his training to become an ideal ruler. In the play, the concept of honor presents a pivotal role through the characters; each character perceives the concept differently. Evidently, the uncertain concept leads them to different courses of action. The idea of honor changes between each individual and in this way the theme of honor does not have one specific meaning. Instead, the word contains multiple meanings due to the characters’ different interpretations of it.
These three distinct people, Falstaff, Hotspur, and Prince Hal, all view the concept of honor in unique ways. While Hotspur and Hal ideally perceive recognition as something significant and commendable, Falstaff recognizes courage as just a word that carries on with the dead. Falstaff is a thief, a delinquent, and a deadbeat who misuses his commission as an officer, as well as neglects to pay his dues at the inn. This combination of evidence reflects the fact that he justifies as a character who is not honest. Before war between the king and the enemies, Falstaff continues to make money by taking valuables and cash from men who decide not to fight in combat. Instead, of taking real soldiers to battle, Falstaff takes people who are beggars and prisoners and uses them as his army which is a highly offensive action. Falstaff explains his idea of honor by describing how it cannot “take away the grief of a wound” (5.1.) and as it is not something that can stay with the living. Per Falstaff, honor is a “word…hair. A trim reckoning” (5.1.), which means that Falstaff views honor simplistically and without meaning. Falstaff proves he has no concept of honor when he claims to have killed Hotspur himself, even though he had just seen Prince Hal kill him. While honesty is not important to Falstaff, it is imperative to others who assign it a specific meaning.
King Henry states that Hotspur is the “theme of Honor’s tongue” to set him as the perfect example of an honorable man, (1.1.). Hotspur’s idea of honor is mainly about redeeming and protecting his reputation as the perfect honorable man. Readers reveal this revenge via the dethroning of King Henry in the battlefield. Through this way of promising a spot as royalty, Hotspur seems to base honor on a respectful scale and believes recognition through defeating one through battle was gained. Before the fight, Hotspur learns that his father is not going to join them in battle, resulting in a delay for Glendower and his forces. Ultimately, Hotspur views the absence of his allies as a challenge; if he can defeat the king’s army, he will receive a reward of high honor. Also, even dying in battle is seen as a way for Hotspur to gain honor, “For let it be, My father and Glendower both being away, The powers of us may serve so great a day / Doomsday is near. Die all, die merrily” (4.2.) Hotspur bases his honor on respectfulness, in which he believes it can be regained through battling and defeating the one who has taken that connection away.
Although readers view Hotspur and Falstaff in their own element which makes it easy to define their views on honor, the audience sees Hal’s in a different perspective due to his acquaintances. King Henry exclaims that he would much rather have an honorable man, like Hotspur, as a son than Hal. It is then evident that King Henry believes that his child is very dishonorable. Prince Hal explains how he wants to change and regain honor by repaying those he has done wrong, “So when this loose behavior I will throw off / And pay the debt I never promised /Redeeming time when men think least I will” (1.2.). Hal is planning to surprise everybody who shunned him for his past actions. Mostly, Hal wants his father to be proud after his exchange of shame for honor. By protecting his father in battle and defeating Hotspur, Hal shows that he was indeed a nobleman. Therefore, Hal’s plan to become an honorable man to his father, and to the nation unraveled perfectly.
Falstaff, Hotspur, and Prince Hal are three extremely different characters who perceive honor in their unique ways. In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part I, courage demonstrated through battle, love, and in some cases, nothing. Hotspur and Hal accumulate similar ideas of honor throughout the drama; honor is a concept of bravery that can only be regained through battle resulting in a victory. Unlike Hotspur and Hal, Falstaff fails to express any interest in one word: honor. Thus, it has no significant meaning to him. Throughout the play, the idea of an honorable mention has commonly prospected in redeeming oneself in battle. Shakespeare demonstrates that honor has no precise definition for one person.
Shakespeare, William. “Henry IV, Part 1: Entire Play.” Henry IV, Part 1: Entire Play. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
“Introduction to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I – Honour in King Henry IV.” Introduction to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I – Honour in King Henry IV. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
“Henry IV Part 1: Theme Analysis.” Novelguide. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
“William Shakespeare, Dramatist–Not Statesman, Not Philosopher.” George Anastaplo’s Blog. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Shakespeare and Gender
Authors often perform the task of cultural historians, eternalizing with their written word the popular perspectives and social opinions of their time. Shakespeare himself perfectly encapsulated in his writing the Renaissance mentality towards gender, and the roles and responsibilities men and women both play in society. In his time- as well as still in ours- women are seen as possessing virtuous traits, such as piety, obedience, chastity, patience, and modesty. Men, on the other hand, fulfill honorable roles, demonstrating great wisdom, bravery, gallantry, power, logic, and strength. However, Shakespeare went beyond reflecting his era’s beliefs, and actually questioned, challenged, and modified those ideals of gender.
In Shakespeare’s plays, Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III, the notion of gender is frequently disputed. Oftentimes, characters do not fit into a perfect mold of “masculinity” or “femininity,” but rather, these traits overlap and characters behave in complex, fluid, and simply universally human manners. The women were cunning, and artfully grasped at power through their speech, family and marriages. The men were sometimes weak, crumbling at the will of their enemies, defenseless and unreasonable. Thus, Shakespeare is raising the question of whether gender is a natural arrangement that simply and effortlessly happen, or if it is a socially created binary that requires frequent reinforcement. Understanding Shakespeare’s intricate construction of gender in his plays will not only give us insight into Renaissance generalizations of gender, but it will also afford us modern-day readers the opportunity of confronting our own notions of gender.
This is not to say, however, that these plays did not follow, to some extent, the conventional ideas of gender. Several of the female characters in both Henry VI and in Richard III have moments of sheer femininity, where they display nothing but the expected, lady-like qualities of a woman. Women are often commended for being compliant and meek, whilst also beings virtuous and graceful.
Lady Elizabeth Grey masterfully achieves said balance, and demonstrates her virtuous elegance perfectly in Act III Scene 2 of Henry VI Part 3. After losing her husband, the widowed Lady Elizabeth Grey is left without any lands, and without any power. Although King Edward’s proposition, of giving the lady her lands if she loves him, would solve Elizabeth’s problems, she immediately rejects him, thus maintaining decorum. In fact, she describes the “love” she feels for Edward as “love till death, my humble thanks, my prayers, that love which virtues begs and virtue grants.” (III.2.73, 74) Lady Elizabeth is careful to make it clearly known that she is in no way behaving inappropriately or without modest, but is rather being, as she herself puts it, virtuous. However, when Edward proposes to, for lack of better words, make an honest woman out of her, she is quick to accept his offer. This scene does not read as romantic or sweet, but rather, as a woman in need practically selling herself to maintain her and her children’s class status and comfortable lifestyle, but doing so in a socially respectable manner.
This exchange is very similar to when Richard tries to woo the Lady Anne Neville in Act I Scene 2 of Richard III. At first, Lady Anne is continually hesitant, rejecting Richard’s attempts and even insulting him. However, Richard’s perseverance, his permanently unfazed and his flattering character ultimately drove the lady to accept his proposal. Although we, the readers, are aware of Richard’s less than romantic intentions for wanting to marry her, we are still expected to believe that she fulfilled her womanly duty of succumbing to Richard’s demands, and agreeing to marry him.
Similarly, quite a few of the male characters in Shakespeare’s plays embody social expectations of masculinity, and what it is to be a “manly” man. Men are expected to show strength, both of body and mind. The perfect gentleman is also supposed to strike a balance between being honorable, clever and reasonable in his demeanor, as well as powerful, tough, and brave in his actions.
In Richard III, the character of Henry Richmond is almost sanctified, painted to be an exemplary man and leader. He is noble, righteous, and aspires to achieve peace, but does not crumble in the face of war. His speech to his men before battle in Act V, scene 5 can only be described as heroic and stirring. He comes off as sympathetic, caring, and admirable. He refers to his soldiers as “loving countrymen,” and he claims that their cause is dutiful, divinely ordained by God himself. Henry displays an optimistic yet modest attitude, and treats his men as his equal, his companions in a just and virtuous battle. Of course, it is important to note that, having written this play under the reign of a Tudor monarch, it is likely that Shakespeare would try to portray the original Tudor, Henry Richmond, a strong, decisive, brilliant leader. However, the fact still stands that Richmond exemplified what a man ought to be.
Another character that also upheld the social expectations for men, albeit in a slightly less conventional manner, is Warwick. In Act III, Scene 3 of Henry VI Part 3, Warwick changed sides, from York to Lancaster, after receiving news of Edward’s hasty marriage to the Lady Elizabeth Grey. While it is easy to assume that it was Edward’s betrayal and humiliation of Warwick that caused him to shift allegiances, it is nonsensical that the loyal and truly dedicated Warwick would switch sides due to such a superficial reason. Warwick did not let his wounded ego get the best of him, and did not sell his allegiance in order to men his pride. Rather, it was Edward’s lack of responsibility and judgment that convinced Warwick. Warwick is honorable and righteous, and he simply wishes to serve a deserving king. Warwick applied his own personal beliefs of morals, honor and duty, and strived to support a dignified king. There are many characters, however, who transgressed the roles they were meant to perform, and acted as they pleased, regardless of their gender or their social standing. Many of the women in Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III manage to exercise a great deal of power despite their social roles. In fact, it is often their position as women that allow then to gain said influence and authority.
The primordial example of this is none other than Queen Margaret, who never fails to cross the faint border between male and female behavior, and embody any characteristic she chooses to. Margaret breaks the norm for women in her times, and does “evil” and “manly” things in order to do what she deems correct and protect her son’s best interest. This makes her a thoughtful and realistic, multi-dimensional portrayal of a female character in a work of fiction. In Act I, Scene 4 of the play, Henry VI Part 3, Margaret takes on a masculine role when she tortures and eventually kills Richard, the Duke of York. She goes against everything that was expected of a lady. She is not demure, gentle, and kind, but rather domineering, cruel and revengeful. She taunts York, belittling him and his attempt at usurping the crown. Her placing a paper crown on his head is a culmination of the passionate fury she feels toward York, and the ultimate manifestation of the ridicule she wishes him to feel. By showing York his son’s bloodied handkerchief, she is not only trying to hurt him even further, she is acting against nature, taking pride and reward in the death of a child, a son. Margaret is ruthless and violent, but she behaves so fiercely in order to protect her son Richard, and secure the future she ardently believes is rightfully his. Her maternal instincts, her love and willingness to protect for her son can be considered as a fundamental, basic part of femininity, thus making her essentially feminine. By placing her in this paradoxical split characterization, Shakespeare managed to create a female character that was incredibly intricate- she was both harsh and merciless, and caring and maternal. A mother and a warrior.
The character of Margaret possesses both male and female characteristics, and these two different ranges come together in one victorious, powerful human being. This character creation reflects a joining of masculine and feminine, and can be related to Shakespeare’s queen and patron, Queen Elizabeth, whom perfectly personified this very juxtaposition of masculinity and femininity.
Many of the female characters, aside from Margaret, are also written as multi-dimensional, complex women. Lady Elizabeth Grey, for instance, was very much an ideal lady in Henry VI, Part 3. She accepted Edward’s impetuous marriage proposal, and she ran for cover when she was in danger. However, in Act IV, Scene 4 of Richard III, she summons up the pluck to address Richard. In fact, what Queen Elizabeth said to Richard regarding his desire to marry her daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, is perhaps one of the harshest, fiercest, and most well-deserved thing someone has ever told Richard. Elizabeth used cruel wit to bring Richard down. She answers Richard’s question of how to woo Elizabeth with a list of preposterous ideas, bringing to light several of Richard’s heinous crimes. For example, she suggests he “Send to her, by the man that slew her brothers, a pair of bleeding hearts; thereon engrave ‘Edward and York’; then haply she will weep.” (IV.4.276-278) She goes on to tell Richard that he could also present to her “a handkerchief; which, say to her, did drain the purple sap from her sweet brother’s body ad bid her dry her weeping eyes therewith.” (IV.4.281-283) Elizabeth is, of course, referencing Richard’s murder of her two sons, the princes Edward and York. She doesn’t stop there, and continues to list more of Richard’s evil deeds, like his murder of George, Duke of Clarence, and her brother, Rivers, and his own wife, the Lady Anne Neville. By doing so, Elizabeth is overstepping her role as diffident and compliant, and brutally defending her daughter with a sharp, unapologetic tongue.
It is curious to note that at the beginning of Act V, Scene 4, all three women- Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York- are all gathered around, tied in conversation by their hatred of Richard, a man. Margaret and Elizabeth, whom have often been pitted against each other, serving as one another’s foil, are now united in their efforts to destroy Richard. The scene does seem to present these women as witch figures, since they are plotting evil and casting curses. Also, it would not pass the Bechdal test, a modern creation which simply tests if a story contains at least one scene in which two or more female characters have a conversation about anything at all, other than men. While the scene does have flaws, they do not necessarily take away from its merit. This scene introduces a rudimentary version of sisterhood. These women are united and work together, outside the boundaries of their gender roles, in order to achieve power and take down a cold and oppressive man. Likewise, there is no lack of male characters that fall short of their masculine expectations, and behave in what can be considered a “womanly” fashion. Richard, the Duke of York, for instance, withers to pieces in Act I, Scene 4 of Henry VI, Part 3. Defeated and hopeless, York did not fight his fate by fighting back or trying to save himself, but rather resigned himself to gracefully accept his inevitable death. In lines 25-28, York states “the sands are number’d that made up my life; Here I must stay, here my life must end.” Rather than playing the part of a valiant man, father and pretender to the throne, he maintains an unaffected and haughty façade, attempting to seem composed in the face of death, but fails to do so, and surrenders to petty behavior, such as not speaking to the other characters, and offending Margaret.
It is remarkable that York’s choice of insults towards Margaret directly attacked her femininity. He called her a “she-wolf,” suggesting that she is violent and merciless in her behavior, akin to a wild animal or a monster. He also refers to Margaret as an “Amazonian trull,” thus accusing her of being a savage prostitute. This particular offense is interesting because it simultaneously reprimands her for not fitting her social role of being soft, mild-mannered, obedient, and made a weapon of her sexuality. York spat out those two bitter, poisonous words with the intent of disintegrating Margaret’s credibility and character, based only on her gender and her assumed sexuality. Not much seems to have changed, as a woman’s promiscuity (or lack thereof) continues to serve as a fundamental excuse for criticism.
Shakespeare’s plays afford us modern readers the opportunity to understand Renaissance culture and perspective on gender roles, and also push us to think critically about our own society. By presenting his readers with characters that both fulfilled their socially expected gender roles, but also acted outside of it for political power, familial love, or simply fear, Shakespeare was able to introduce the novel idea that humans do not fit into a closed box based on their sex, but rather, can choose to act in any manner and to any degree they choose, despite their gender.