Henry IV and Honorable Rebellion

April 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Henry IV, Part One, Shakespeare tackles the subject of honorable rebellion, primarily through the duality of the two characters of Prince Hal and Hotspur. Hal is the offspring of King Henry IV, who attained the throne of England through a rebellion against King Richard II. Hotspur played a minor role in the rebellion, but has now stepped to the forefront to consider a counter-rebellion in light of what he views as the King’s inability to deliver on the promises that gained him the support he needed to usurp the crown. Although generally considered a more attractive character, the consensus remains that Hotspur and the counter-rebellion are less honorable because this conception of honor eschews compromise, ideals, and loyalty. The issue of Hotspur’s unwillingness to compromise is brought to bear early in the play in the scene in which he struggles with turning his prisoners over to King Henry. Hotspur invokes the law of arms, which suggests that he is completely in the right in countering the demand since he is required only to hand over prisoners of noble blood such as Mordake. Except that he was fighting at the time in the name of the King and simple chivalric issues involving the royal right of the liege commands Hotspur to either turn over all his prisoners or effectively announce he is in open rebellion. Hotspur, of course, is not the only stubborn partner in the rebellion, unwilling to bend to compromise. Before the battle at Shrewsbury, King Henry extends an offer to pardon the rebels in exchange for merely laying down their arms. Worcester makes the unilateral decision not to relay the “liberal and kind offer of the King” (5.2.2). Curiously enough, this is one compromise that Hotspur announces he would have accepted. Worcester is not through, however; following the defeat of the rebels, King Henry challenges Worcester on the battlefield on the issue of the offer, and is forced to kill Worcester when he receives no response. While the King is presented as a man willing to make the truly grand gesture of accepting the surrender of the rebels with honor, the rebels come off as uniformly uncompromising or ready to yield. It is as though they feel they have been forced into a position whereby their openly aggressive response must necessarily be retained at all times, even in the surmounting face of ignominious defeat. Hotspur himself, though proud and undeniably attractive when he rides his steed and announces “That roan shall be my throne” is nonetheless almost voracious in his unwillingness to accept victory or defeat on anything but his own terms (II, iii, l.70). Hotspur also manages to be charismatic even when he is being petty and on the defensive, whereas Prince Hal in particular maintains a steady confidence even during his darkest times. To return to the central episode contained Hotspur’s speech on returning his prisoners, his long, often comedic monologue exists primarily to detail his utter exasperation with the conduct of the foppish courier sent by King Henry. It is his uniquely metaphorical description of a pompous court butterfly and the way he contrasts the man’s effeminate qualities with a lack for bloodlust by using such terms as “neat and trimly dress’d, / Fresh as a bride-groom”, “perfumed like a milliner,” “With many holiday and lady terms,” “a popinjay,” “talk so like a waiting gentlewoman” (1.3.32-54) that sticks in the mind, rather than the content of the envoy’s message and Hotspur’s response. The apparently unintended irony of Hotspur’s admittedly poetic speech is that he is hardly less fastidious than that which he is condemning. His rhetorical dressing down of the foppish envoy that caused him such consternation while on the bloody fields of fire for some reason sticks like a burr in his consciousness. Compare Hotspur’s really quite maddening pettiness with the cool heads that Henry IV keeps while he is on the verge of losing crown and that Hal keeps while retaining his eyes on the prize of that crown in the midst of the far more irritating extravagances of Falstaff and his motley crew. Hal compares more favorably to Hotspur despite his lack of eloquence and fire because unlike Percy, the heir apparent keeps a steady focus on the long term goal. When one considers the company that each keeps, it is clear that Hal’s discipline is what separates him from the hotheaded Hotspur; the Prince is alone in staving off self-destruction. One of the themes of the drama is relationship between father and son and how if the son is to rise to the occasion he must attempt a certain level of emulation; Hal does this quite nicely while maintaining his own identity and establishing his own autonomy. It may just be that Hotspur’s father, who was merely a pawn in King Henry’s grasp for power, does not command the respect due. At any rate, King Henry expresses the desire that Hotspur were his son and there is little reason to think the emotion is one-sided. This idea is expressed in the intensity with which Hotspur desperately hopes his father and uncle will bring about their own redemption by dethroning the very man they helped to make king. Treason it may be, but at least Hotspur redeems himself on the battlefield as even Prince Hal deems him to be “valiant.” (V, i.) There can be little denying that Hotspur’s charisma is the focal point of the entire rebellion and he possesses a dramatic flourish that leads one to overlook some of his less admirable qualities, but aside from him the rebellion seems to be fall apart in great deal to the utter lack of loyalty and honor among its members. Worcester is patently out of control once the rebellion transforms from the political phase to the military phase. The incapacity of this ragtag group to rise to the level of their precursors who successfully deposed Richard II is best exemplified the scene in which they all gather to map out their strategy, a scene which inevitably ends as they quarrel over how to divide the spoils of a victory that is far-off instead of coming up with a plan to determine the divisions within the kingdom. When Prince Hal agrees to barter for the honors that Hotspur has won on the battlefield, it is the first moment when he seems to see any honor in the actions that Percy commits. Despite this acceptance and willingness, however, Prince Hal is certainly not ready to take on all of the warrior code to which Hotspur gleefully subscribes. He lacks a certain bloodthirstiness, but in place of that he has something that is sorely lacking on the side of the rebels: loyalty. As an example, it is beyond the pale to even consider the possibility of Hotspur allowing Falstaff to take credit for a battlefield kill as important as that to which Prince Hal allows Falstaff to lay claim. The loyalty that Prince Hal continues to express toward not only his father who has come perilously close to wanting to disinherit him, but Falstaff who continues to be a thorn in his side is remarkably mature. Yet all of that pales in comparison to the fact that by play’s end Hal is even showing a kind of deeply felt kinship toward Hotspur that makes Percy’s loyalties seem almost clannish in comparison, such as the descriptive phrase that is used, “this Northern youth” (3.2.145). Hal’s loyalty encompasses much larger concerns, such as his entire country. By this point, it is clear that Prince Hal’s earlier dismissal of Hotspur’s bloodthirsty qualities were just another part of the layers of unreality with which Hal is constructing his character so as to unveil himself as the truly deserving heir apparent. In fact, Hal holds a deep admiration for the Hotspur’s valor and heroism, which he honors with the placement of “favors” upon his corpse. By contrast Falstaff-ever the comic foil-walks away from this scene looking all the worse for the disloyalty he shows toward the great warrior by debasing Hotspur’s dead body with his misguided and misplaced bravado. This play is structured as a dual narrative that juxtaposes two very different conceptions of an ideal warrior-king while taking on many time-honored components of leadership such honor, courage, and loyalty. To counterpoint those ideals, the story introduces the opposite by showing how failed ideals such as dishonor and cowardice are often found right alongside the nobler ones. These themes are explored in the language of Henry IV: Part I, but they are even more fully expressed within the main characters of the play. A rebellion is attempted in both Richard II and King Henry IV, Part I and many of the same characters have parts in each, though the roles have change significantly for a select few. The rebellion against Richard II goes rather smoothly, at least far more smoothly than the rebellion against Richard’s usurper. This may be explained in part because Richard was a weak king and the rebellion against him was borne from the desire to undertake a great cause. By contrast, the rebellion launched against Henry IV seems at time to be engendered by less than valorous reasons. In place of loyalty and confidence in a just cause, the rebels against King Henry are concerned only with developing strategies that will result in individual spoils. This deadly combination leads to an unwillingness to compromise not only with the enemy, but even among each other. Ultimately, the entire rebellion collapses under the weight of the fractious disunity that marks the rebellious traitors to the crown.

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