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Henry IV: Character Introduction

From Henry IV, First Part, by the University Society. New York: University Society Press.

Henry, Prince of Wales

With respect to Henry's youthful follies, Shakespeare deviated from all authorities known to have been accessible to him. "An extraordinary conversion was generally thought to have fallen upon the Prince on coming to the crown - insomuch that the old chroniclers could only account for the change by some miracle of grace or touch of supernatural benediction." Shakespere, it would seem, engaged now upon historical matter, and not the fantastic substance of a comedy, found something incredible in the sudden transformation of a reckless libertine (the Henry described by Caxton, by Fabyan, and others) into a character of majestic force and large practical wisdom.

Rather than reproduce this incredible popular tradition concerning Henry, Shakspere preferred to attempt the difficult task of exhibiting the Prince as a sharer in the wild frolic of youth, while at the same time he was holding himself prepared for the splendid entrance upon his manhood, and stood really aloof in his inmost being from the unworthy life of his associates.

The change which effected itself in the Prince, as represented by Shakespeare, was no miraculous conversion, but merely the transition from boyhood to adult years, and from unchartered freedom to the solemn responsibilities of a great ruler. We must not suppose that Henry formed a deliberate plan for concealing the strength and splendour of his character, in order, afterwards, to flash forth upon men's sight and overwhelm and dazzle them. When he soliloquizes (I. ii. 205 et seq.), having bidden farewell to Poins and Falstaff,
"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" -
when Henry soliloquizes thus, we are not to suppose that he was quite as wise and diplomatical as he pleased to represent himself, for the time being, to his own heart and conscience. The Prince entered heartily and without reserve into the fun and frolic of his Eastcheap life; the vigour and the folly of it were delightful; to be clapped on the back, and shouted for as "Hal," was far better than the doffing of caps and crooking of knees, and delicate, unreal phraseology of the court. But Henry, at the same time, kept himself from subjugation to what was really base. He could truthfully stand before his father (III. ii.) and maintain that his nature was substantially sound and untainted, capable of redeeming itself from all past, superficial dishonour.

Has Shakspere erred? Or is it not possible to take energetic part in a provisional life, which is known to be provisional, while at the same time a man holds his truest self in reserve for the life that is best and highest and most real? May not the very consciousness, indeed, that such a life is provisional, enable one to give one's self away to it, satisfying its demands with scrupulous care, or with full and free enjoyment, as a man could not if it were a life which had any chance of engaging his whole personality, and that finally?

Is it possible to adjust two states of being, one temporary and provisional, the other absolute and final, and to pass freely out of one into the other? Precisely because the one is perfect and indestructible, it does not fear the counter-life. May there not have been passages in Shakespere's own experience which authorized him in his attempt to exhibit the successful adjustment of two apparently incoherent lives? . . . From the coldness, the caution, the convention, of his father's court (an atmosphere which suited well the temperament of John of Lancaster), Henry escapes to the teeming vitality of the London streets, and the tavern where Falstaff is monarch. There, among hostlers, and carriers, and drawers, and merchants, and pilgrims, and loud robustious women, he at least has freedom and frolic. "If it be a sin to covet honour," Henry declares, "I am the most offending soul alive." But the honour that Henry covets is not that which Hotspur is ambitious after: -
"By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon."
The honour that Henry covets is the achievement of great deeds, not the words of men which vibrate around such deeds. Falstaff, the despiser of honour, labours across the field, bearing the body of the fallen Hotspur, the impassioned pursuer of glory, and, in his fashion of splendid imposture or stupendous joke, the fat knight claims credit for the achievement of the day's victory. Henry is not concerned, on this occasion, to put the old sinner to shame. To have added to the deeds of the world a glorious deed is itself the only honour that Henry seeks.
(Dowden: Shakespeare.)

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare William. Henry IV, First Part. University Society. New York: USP, 1901. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/henryiv/2kh4charactershal.html >.

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