The very excellent Amanda Mabillard of Shakespeare Online has developed several essay questions for each of Shakespeare’s plays. Today, I am going to take a shot at answering this two parter on the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV:
Many critics of the play argue that, in the final analysis, Shakespeare has failed to make Prince Hal a convincing character. We are to conclude that Hal has every virtue that makes both a great ruler and a great man — honesty, bravery, loyalty, generosity, intelligence, compassion, etc — in addition to accepting that he has no flaws with which to counter those virtues; flaws that would make him a realistic character. Do you agree that Hal is “too good to be true”? Is it really true that Shakespeare makes Hal flawless? Make reference to Hal’s relationships with his father and Falstaff in your answer.
Discussion and Analysis
In Shakespeare’s time Henry V (Prince Hal) was considered to be the model of the ideal English king. And for more than three centuries after that Shakespearean scholars who had carefully studied the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, 1 & 2 and Henry V) had, almost to a man, concluded that Shakespeare himself was a Henryoloter. That was the conventional wisdom until 1951 when a brilliant scholar named Harold Goddard came along. Goddard posited that Henry V was only apparently a patriotic tribute to an ideal king; that beneath its surface was a Shakespearean mockery of the notion that a warrior king, especially this warrior king, could ever be the ideal.
In her essay question, Mabillard asks this: “Do you agree that Prince Hal is too good to be true?” Not only do I not agree that Prince Hal as portrayed by Shakespeare is too good to be true, I don’t agree that any serious scholar has suggested that he is too good to be true. It is not Prince Hal, but Henry V, that scholars have suggested is too good to be true.
We need look no further for proof that Shakespeare did not intend to portray Hal as a flawless man than to the first 4 and 1/2 acts of Henry IV, Part 1, during which Prince Hal is not only not too good to be true, but not good at all. He is, at worst, a rogue, a prankster and a thief and, at best, a hypocrite.
Let’s examine, as Mabillard asks us to do, Hal’s relationship with the two father figures in his life: His real father, the embattled and insecure King Henry IV, and his surrogate father, the swaggering boon companion, Sir John Falstaff,
First, let’s deal with Hal’s real daddy.
Shakespeare, as he frequently does with his primary characters, builds Hal’s character by showing us how he is viewed by others. The pattern holds true here and the portrait we get of Hal is not a flattering one. The King not only finds his son to be flawed, he finds him to be irrevocably flawed. He is so disappointed in Hal that he openly wishes that Hotspur and he had been switched at birth and that his true son were the honorable Harry Percy rather than the riotous Henry Monmouth:
Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
It’s hard to imagine anything more damning than a father wishing that his son were not his son. Clearly there is something in Hal that has provoked this reaction from his father and it isn’t good. Fortunately, we don’t have to look far to see what it is. Hal himself tells us that he’s irresponsible, lazy, roguish and keeps company with theives, swaggers and drunks. He pronounces, in his most famous sololiquy (“I know you all, and will a while uphold… .”), that he will intentionally play the rogue to lower everyone’s expectations so that when he becomes king everyone will be pleasantly surprised that he is precisely the opposite. His prior dishonor, he says, will make his future honor stand out in high relief.
And let’s not forget Prince Hal’s premature self-coronation after the gravely ill Henry IV falls asleep on his death bed. Hal assumes his father is dead, grabs the crown and places it on his head. Goddard is spot on here when he says that Shakespeare wanted to portray Hal as overly-ambitious, drunk with the idea of power. Goddard provides the textual proof. The words Hal uses when he takes the crown are full of expectation and excitement at the prospect of power, but are quite different later when others, including his father, discover that he plucked the crown while the king still lives.
Hal’s relationship with his father is flawed from the crown to the toe. Hal doesn’t respect the King (if he did he wouldn’t be galavanting about town with the disreputable Falstaff and his pals) and the King wishes he had any other son but him.
Now let’s examine Hal’s relationship with his other father, Falstaff.
To be sure, Hal revels in Falstaff’s company. But most of that revelling comes at the bloat knight’s expense. Although Falstaff clearly thinks of Hal as his friend, Hal never thinks of Falstaff as anything but a source of amusement. Hal serves Falstaff merely to serve his turn upon him.
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour 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 wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
. . . .
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Even if you hold with Goddard that Hal isn’t really a rogue but only playing one on T.V., you must still conclude that his manipulation of Falstaff and his boon companions for personal gain is devious and hypocritical. Hal, then, if not genuinely roguish, is a Machiavel.
Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff, although it should come as no surprise to even the casual reader, provides the final proof that Hal intended to abandon Falstaff all along. The public rejection of Falstaff was surely something the new King had to do to improve his reputation, but what does it say about him as a human being?
I find myself in a quandary on the question of Prince Hal’s character.
On the one hand, Shakespeare was much too original a dramatist to accept at face value the simplistic conventions of his time. While he may have wanted to feed the groundlings their red meat by portraying Prince Hal/Henry V as the ideal king, it is awfully hard for me to believe that he would have intended to portray him as a flawless man. In fact, judging from the subjects Shakespeare chose for his other plays, it is likely that he was attracted to Prince Hal/Henry V as a subject not because he was England’s ideal king, but because he was England’s flawed ideal king.
But Goddard goes too far when he concludes that Shakespeare had written a play beneath the play. I think Goddard does this because the notion that a ruthless warrior like Henry could ever truly be ideal was personally anathema to him. Goddard’s analysis of Prince Hal/Henry V seems to be infused with a twentieth century anti-war bias. Goddard’s ideal king would not concoct a false premise for war and would never slaughter defenseless prisoners. Goddard, therefore, assumes Shakespeare’s king wouldn’t either. Goddard’s contention, being based on assumptions that are not only unsupported by the text, but in direct contradiction of it, is similar in kind to those of the conspiratorialists Delia Bacon and Iganatious Donnelly who claimed that the plays are a grand and unified cipher that reveals that Shakespeare didn’t write them.
Goddard is right when he says Prince Hal/Henry V is a flawed man because the text proves that Shakespeare intended to portray him as a flawed man. But he is wrong, his pacifistic assumptions notwithstanding, when he suggests that Shakespeare, in spite of his mostly tributory text, in his heart of hearts really believed that Prince Hal/Henry V was a despicable character. Goddard’s reading of the Henry IV and Henry V plays turns textual analysis on its head by suggesting that what the words actually say is merely Shakespearean code-speak for their opposite.
If we are to assume anything about Shakespeare’s personal feelings about Hal/Henry, we must assume that Shakespeare shared the biases of his time and admired Henry V and intended to show that admiration in dramatic form.