Henry IV

– Henry’s Personality Essay, Research Paper

From the opening stages of Henry IV, the impression of Hal is not a good one. His father, King Henry, makes reference to him in the first scene and compares him to Hotspur, who, in the king´s eyes, is much more worthy of the throne of England:

“O, that it could be prov´d

That some night-tripping fairy had exchang´d

In cradle-clothes our children where they lay….

…..Then I would have his Harry, and he mine”

This leaves the audience with a negative view of Hal, who we have not yet been able to meet. When we do, in Act 1, Scene 2, he is with Falstaff, and they are engaged in light banter. Falstaff suggests the robbery in Gadshill, which Hal declines to take part in.

“Who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, by my faith.” This refusal to take part in the robbery gives the impression that Hal is not as riotous as the men he socialises with. However, Hal agrees to take part in another robbery, in which Falstaff, having just robbed the travellers himself, will be robbed by Hal and Poins. The fact that he refuses to take part in a serious robbery, but then accepts the offer of robbing Falstaff suggests that he is more the product of high spirits than of true malice.

At the end of this scene comes one of the most important speeches in the entire play. Hal speaks his soliloquy in verse, which is a contrast to the light conversation in prose earlier in the scene. The verse makes him seem more of a nobleman, and is more fitting to the Prince of Wales. He knows that his companions are unsuitable for a prince, and that his behaviour has attracted serious criticism. However:

“…herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,”

This is not the most endearing of speeches. We have just met Hal´s friends and seen how Hal acts with them, yet here he is planning how he will “throw off” “this loose behaviour”. He makes no reference to how he feels this would affect the people he is close to, and he appears only to aspire to his “reformation, glitt´ring o´er my fault”. This seems particularly callous behaviour, especially as we are now privy to the anguish that Hal causes his father.

However, this speech can be seen in another light. Hal is going to become King one day, and this seems to be something he has no qualms about, and something he accepts. He has not let anyone have any expectations about him, so when he does perform this “reformation” it will actually seem more special. He is also very perceptive and shrewd about people´s opinions – “glitt´ring o´er my fault” – they will probably have a lot more respect for him, and will probably forget, or attach less import, to his previous shortcomings, if he manages to make a miraculous recovery from the life of sin. More people will be impressed by him than if he had led a quiet life –

“[My reformation] Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off”

Some of this speech seems quite unprepared and spontaneous – it seems right that this would be something that Hal would have given a lot of thought. He uses a number of metaphors – each better than the previous, which gives the impression of speaking as he thinks, which does not seem to bode well. How well has he thought this plan out? This speech though, is completely honest – you get no impression of trickery, or deception in Hal´s language. He is aware of his imperfections, and plans to do something about them.

The idea that Hal is totally aware of his future responsibilities, and is preparing for them is further underlined in Act 2 Scene 4. Hal has spent a while in the company of some drawers. He says “I have sounded the very base-string of humility”. All of these drawers have sworn allegiance to Hal, and he “…shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.” Although Hal is quite disparaging about these “good lads”, when he is King of England he will be relying upon “the base-string” of his people to keep him in power. He knows that the most successful kings are those that are popular amongst the peasantry of their country, and he prepares himself for this well, by making himself popular amongst his people.

The impression that Hal really has made a resolution to do something about the way he behaves becomes more obvious in Act 2 Scene 4. Hal has just been summoned to see his father, and Hal and Falstaff are predicting the interview and imitating it. Falstaff is Hal, and Hal the king – the “king” is expressing his views about Hal´s friends, and suggesting that he banish them. Falstaff replies with:

“…banish him not thy Harry´s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

The “king” replies, “I do, I will”. This change of tense is very telling. You sense that the conversation between Falstaff and Hal has slowly gone from jocular to serious over it´s course, and this final ending sounds like it is Hal, not his father talking. The “I will” is determined, and it is felt that nothing could change Hal´s mind. At this point the Hostess, Francis and Bardolph enter, and Falstaff exclaims:

“Out, ye rogue! Play out the play! I have much to say in behalf of that Falstaff.” Falstaff makes one last effort to argue his case, probably sensing that this is something that is very important to his future relationship with Hal, but the opportunity passes.

Later, in Act 2 Scene 4, the sheriff comes looking for Falstaff, in connection with the robbery at Gadshill. Hal hides Falstaff and diverts the Sheriff. This action is the action of a good friend – if Hal was so determined to get rid of Falstaff, and had no affection for him, he would have surrendered Falstaff up to the law. However, he doesn´t.

Hal further shows his affection for Falstaff during the war scenes. He gives Falstaff “charge of foot”. He is putting his trust in Falstaff to do the right thing, as a good friend, but Falstaff fails him, putting out a scruffy bunch of criminals and the elderly as “food for powder”. Later on, when Hal asks Falstaff to lend him a pistol, but finds a bottle of sack in the holster he exclaims,

“What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” – the relationship between Hal and Falstaff has now changed. Hal has realised his responsibility, and is now making ammends for his previous behaviour. Falstaff, though, is still behaving just the same way as he would if he were in a tavern – he doesn´t realise the seriousness of the situation. Hal is disgusted, and exits from his company.

In Act 3 Scene 2, the king confronts Hal with his actions. Throughout the king´s speech, Hal gives only three responses. The first is one that you expect he has given many times before – the standard admission of guilt that you suspect he will not do anything about. The second is short and definitely more heart-felt:

“I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord,

Be more myself.”

This contains much more respect than the previous answer, and you begin to notice that he is becoming aware of the pain he causes his father. The king then goes on to accuse Hal of siding with the king´s enemies to fight against him:

“To fight against me under Percy´s pay,

To dog his heels, and curtsy at his frowns,

To show how much thou art degenerate.”

This shocks Hal into answering, and when he does, he begs the king´s forgiveness:

“I do beseech your Majesty may salve

The long grown wounds of my intemperance”

Hal really does mean this, and the sense that he really was utterly ignorant of the anguish he was causing is almost overpowering. Hal shows himself to be honourable – he swears upon his life that he will redeem himself, in the king´s eyes, “on Percy´s head”.

In Act 5 Scene 4, Douglas and the King are duelling, but the king is losing. Hal enters, fights Douglas and beats him. Had Hal been dishonourable, and wanted his father to die, he would have left the King to be beaten by Douglas and “…sav´d the treacherous labour of your son.” The king leaves, and Hotspur enters, and Hal and him fight. The fight is a very honourable one – they do not insult one another, and when Hal kills Hotspur, he seems genuinely upset: “Fare thee well, great heart!”. Hal does not parade around, lapping up the glory of having killed Hotspur, but lets Falstaff take the praise he claims. When Hal sees Falstaff “dead” on the floor, he says:

“O, I should have a heavy miss of thee

If I were much in love with vanity!”

This is the first admission we hear from Hal that the frivolity he enjoyed with Falstaff holds no more attraction for him, and he has truly changed from his old ways.

Finally, at the very end of the play, Hal does one of the most honourable things possible. He sets Douglas free, saying:

“His valours…Have taught us how to cherish high deeds,

Even in the bosom of our adversaries”.

The fact that he lets Douglas go free is a much more honourable, and respectable, thing to do, than killing him, as it shows that he is capable of forgiveness, which is a harder thing to achieve than revenge.

From this evidence, I have come to the conclusion that there is human warmth in the Prince. From the start, he was behaving like a young man with a lust for life, who enjoyed fun, and was unconsciously causing those around him pain. He was misguided in some of the things he did, but his strength of character won him through in the end, when he behaved honourably towards his father and his own destiny.


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