My plan to work through the Bard’s work at a rate of one per month has already fallen through. As Robert Burns once said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men…” I will simply contend that, as in all things, it’s not the quantity, but the quality of the time spent. In other words, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Instead, I’ll simply appreciate when I do get the chance to immerse myself. On this play, oh, did I ever immerse myself. It’s said that Henry IV, Part 1 is the greatest of Shakespeare’s history plays. I suppose these things are subjective, and I profess no such authority to speak as such. I’ve not read them all, and I’ve certainly blogged about fewer still, this being only the third in my series. But this one speaks to me on a number of levels. Hopefully that’ll come across here.
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
— Falstaff, Act V, Scene 1
As always, I will not presume to offer critique upon the Bard. My aim here is simply to understand the play within its historical context, both in the Bard’s time and in the era in which the play is set. Along the way, I will offer my thoughts on what’s important to me. More than that would be hubris, for one such as myself does not cast an accusing finger upon a genius. The idea is to raise myself as close to his level as I can, not to bring him down to mine.
Henry IV, Part 1 is part of the cycle known today as The Hollow Crown, dealing with the events during The Hundred Years War and The Wars of the Roses. The events described take place some two hundred years before the play’s creation, but Shakespeare had his reasons to expect his audiences to be familiar with the characters and events. These tales were not only taught in schools, they were part of the popular lore and patriotic tapestry, not unlike George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would be for American audiences today. The details of the events are obscured by the passage of time, and the characters rise to a level of myth that allows the Bard to work his magic through them.
Following in the events of Richard II, the primary question addressed by the play, and the cycle as a whole, is that of legitimate rule. Is the king divinely appointed by God if he overthrows another king divinely appointed by God? As it was in the time of the Greek tragedies, a king and all his descendants may suffer if he has deposed or murdered one who ruled by Divine Right. This is the context from which the Bard draws, the basis of his understanding. Indeed, that’s the entire question of The War of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty that resulted from it, made more desperate in the minds of Shakespeare’s contemporaries by the advent of Protestantism. Shakespeare is often thought to be a closet Catholic, and as I’ve stated before, I’m inclined to believe this. That is to say, I’ve not seen anything to subvert this notion, and the more I read, the more convincing the argument remains in my eye. To me, Shakespeare is not only calling out Elizabeth as a heretic, but he’s saying she’s on the throne only because her grandfather and those who who preceded him in like fashion took it against the will of God. For the minds of a Renaissance audience, it’s powerful stuff.
Henry IV, who has deposed Richard II, now faces these very questions of legitimacy. Those who once aided him against Richard have now risen against him, claiming that he broke faith with them, that he went too far. Henry is plagued by the idea that perhaps this is so, but worse still, these events have come about because God is setting into motion Divine retribution that will bring down he and his family. That is Henry’s fear, a fear made even more real to him when he looks upon his son, Prince Hal. The future heir to the throne is to the king’s mind perhaps the worst possible example of honor and chivalry. He spends his time with drunkards, thieves, and ruffians, most notable among them Sir Jack Falstaff. Falstaff is a knighted peer of the realm, and how he earned this position is anyone’s guess. He’s fat, slovenly, and seemingly beyond either truth or sobriety. On one hand, it could be claimed that Falstaff represents the failure and excesses of the “legitimately appointed” succession of kingship that Henry has since broken. It’s a point in Henry’s favor that if such a knight can exist, the corruption goes straight to the top. However, in the best of Greek tragedy, the seed of destruction lies in the deeds that lead to it. Falstaff, for all of his faults, has the ear of the crown prince. Henry has due cause to be concerned for the future of both his son and of England.
Of course, such an example as Falstaff exceeds best when there is a point of comparison. Enter Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, nicknamed “Hotspur.” Hotspur follows the example of his father, formerly an ally of the king, now set against him. Worse, Hotspur appears to be everything that Prince Hal is not. He is bold, victorious in battle, and the very mark of honor and chivalry. If the cause of righteousness is embodied in the man, then King Henry has further cause to doubt his own legitimacy as ruler when such as Percy stand against him in faith and in deed.
Shakespeare has a save here, however. Prince Hal would be the next ruler by legitimate succession, for the sins of the father do not reflect upon the son. He would spare Hal the Divine wrath and plant within him the seeds to grow in the eyes of God. It is revealed that Hal has used his connections to Falstaff and the common people he represents to ingratiate himself upon them and to be seen more favorably than his father. The idea is that one who falls from grace might not recover it, but one who is seen not to have it in the first place may, in fact, earn it. It’s very Machiavellian, which is not to say that it’s evil. Merely, it is cunning and very aware of circumstance, two conditions that Machiavelli tried unsuccessfully to instill in his own Medici prince.
The only way Prince Hal can achieve his status in the eyes of God and in those of his father is to win honor and glory in battle against Hotspur. He even offers up the idea of single combat, to which the king immediately shoots down. Prince Hal is not only aware of Falstaff’s inherent vices, he calls him on it as virtually every turn. Even so, Falstaff is convinced his way will ultimately triumph because vices are constant where honor is… well, as he puts it, “air.” To Falstaff, better to live at any cost than to die for an idea with no meaning.
This question of honor becomes the central idea for me, and I feel it’s central for Shakespeare as well. As a foil, Falstaff is perhaps the most successful of Shakespeare’s creations, so much so that Elizabeth would command a play that focused entirely on the character and his debauchery. Shakespeare would bow to her wishes with his comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor… but not before he would raise Prince Hal in the eyes of his father, his people, and even of God Himself as a shining literary testament against everything the Tudor queen represents to him. To Shakespeare’s mind, Elizabeth was the bastard daughter from an illegitimate marriage, the consummation of which not only led to her but to the break with the Church of Rome and with God. As so meticulously illustrated in King John, when the crown is faithless to God, the whole of the realm suffers. It’s a point straight from Arthurian legend, which the Tudor era presumed itself to be based upon: the land and the king are one. Though Hal’s father is a usurper like Elizabeth’s grandfather, Hal himself is a good Catholic, a legitimate heir, and (as we’ll later see) a just and noble ruler with the understanding of both the good of the realm and the common citizen.
For the words and deeds of Hal to be presented as such to Elizabeth and to Shakespeare’s audience, the words and deeds of Falstaff must be seen to be as so much “air” as to completely discredit him. Falstaff makes some convincing arguments in his justifications of the life he leads, and it’s a credit to the Bard that he his mastery of rhetoric and understanding of people can lead him to place such words in the mouth of his fallen knight. Honor is linked to base violence, and Shakespeare through Falstaff is asking Elizabeth to stand for all of the deeds of the from Henry IV through her grandfather to herself. Did England ultimately lose the war against France because of the illegitimacy of the throne? Henry V would go on to be a shining example of chivalry, but that same example would be mirrored in the instrument of England’s defeat: Joan of Arc. Did the civil war in England that resulted in this lead to the Tudor dynasty that felled England from the Grace of God in deeds of debauchery performed by Elizabeth’s notorious father, Henry VIII? In my mind, Shakespeare seems to think so. As Henry IV usurped the throne and made it his, so too did Henry VII. But where Henry V would live gloriously and die young as a shining example of chivalry, Henry VIII would wreak havoc, become an imperious despot, and bring the nation to ruin in the eyes of God. The warning Shakespeare would deliver in this parallel is that of Henry VI, the weak issue of the noble Henry V, who would lead the country to civil war. The later comparisons of him to Elizabeth will be the subject of three plays. Elizabeth, who is nearing the end of her reign, has kept England from the Grace of God and without an heir, thus keeping the nation once more on the brink of civil war. Here is the entire point of the parallel with The Wars of the Roses. Keeping in mind that the plays surrounding Henry VI are already written when this play is first presented, the events and accusations are already known. Shakespeare is building the bridge at this point, justifying his position, and perhaps bracing for the worst. I suppose it’s human nature to believe one is living on the edge of disaster. When 1666 rolls around, people will think that to be the End of Days. We tend to think this way even today.
I wonder what the Bard would think if he knew that history still looks upon the reign of Elizabeth as a golden age. Regardless of the tale history tells, ultimately it’s written in pencil and can be rewritten. The truth of those who lived it are the measure by which we judge it in comparison to our own truth. For me, this is where honor plays a part. It’s not a concept that most would accept or understand in our modern times. For some, it’s archaic and subjective, and those who follow such ideas tend to think as Falstaff does, that it’s little more than air, that it has no place in the modern world. How many die in the name of honor? I would turn that around and ask how many truly live without it? Life is arguably meaningless without the meaning we give it. How we live is perhaps more important than simply existing from day to day. This is why I live an examined life. This is why I follow a personal Code. This is why I can look upon a character such as Prince Hal and appreciate what Shakespeare is crafting, building a bridge from the people “doomed” in the eyes of God back to some level of restoration of belief. With a foot in each world and his eyes on the prize, Hal is painted as one of Shakespeare’s most noble characters. I say this in appreciation, without subscribing to the religion or dogma behind Shakespeare’s beliefs. It is enough for me to understand that it was true in the mind of the Bard, and thus it is true in the telling of the tale. What we get out of it is subject to our own interpretation. It doesn’t require me to believe as Shakespeare does to appreciate the concepts of honor and of a Higher measure of self or country. It’s enough for me to simply acknowledge that the whole of the Renaissance is embodied in the idea that man is the expressed creation of some Higher power, and that perhaps in the idea that we are imperfect, the goal is to strive evermore to some Higher potential. That’s what honor is about for me, to be better than we are otherwise inclined. It’s easy to live as Falstaff does. Many do so all the time, living only for wine, women, and song. I will never tell someone they are wrong to do so. Indeed, I feel Shakespeare feels the same, as exemplified in the character of Prince Hal. But like Shakespeare, I tend to believe that perhaps there is more to life than just the simple pleasures of everyday life, that perhaps these things aren’t the instruments of debauchery, but rather the only indulgences for those who do not seek any higher purpose. Perhaps it’s a bit arrogant to put words in the mouth of the Bard, but I feel like this is what I’m drawing from the context rather than adding to what’s there. My understanding is that Shakespeare, as a commoner striving towards nobility himself and standing like Prince Hal with a foot in each world, sees himself as any great poet would, as a mouthpiece for what’s right and true and good. Is this not how we all paint ourselves? Even Falstaff? The trick is to separate what we think we know from what we can demonstrate as true beyond the shadow of a doubt. And even then, it might not be quite as we think it to be. Sometimes it requires that we step back and see the world through archetypes that directly reflect ourselves in the great mirror of humanity. This is what Shakespeare is known for. It’s as true today as it was 400 years ago. This is what speaks to me.
It makes me wonder further: is this basic instinct of worldly pleasure at the expense of Higher purpose what Shakespeare sees when he looks upon the Tudor dynasty? It’s like one idea feeds the next, the individual and the whole, one chasing (or perhaps eating) the tail of the other in a perfect circle, a literary Ouroboros, only with two snakes instead of just one. Or perhaps it’s three snakes, if you want to add the spiritual or religious dimension to it: man, his physical world, and his spiritual world, all chasing one another in some kind of weird dance. In Shakespeare’s time, that meant questioning the place of Divine Right as an assured concept. In ours, we can perhaps look to it as symbolizing something more. A fall means very little without great heights to fall from, and a rise means very little without starting from a lowly position. This doesn’t have to be just about commoners and royalty. It’s a statement of the potential of each one of us to rise and fall according to our own standards and beliefs. We see the world so differently, and yet there is common ground to consider. In a lot of ways, Shakespeare provides us the means to see that common ground and to reassess it in our own way.
On the story front, we know the trajectory. Prince Hal is destined to become Henry V, and Falstaff is destined to fall by the wayside, buried by his own inadequacies and lack of character strengths. The question is never about what happens, but rather why it happens as it does. That’s what the next play in the cycle will reveal. I hope to discuss Henry IV, Part 2 in far shorter order than I did this one.