Henry IV Part 1 Art and Culture Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.
Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for
me, and I'll play my father.
Depose me? if thou dost it half so
gravely, so majestically, (2.4.447-450)
We discuss this quote in our discussion of "Family," but we think it's worth mentioning here as well. When Prince Hal insists on playing the role of the "king" during the skit at the Boar's Head Tavern, he enacts a kind of "deposition" of the current monarch, his father (played by Falstaff). This passage is interesting for several reasons. First, it calls our attention to King Henry's very real fear that his son, Hal, wants nothing more than to bump his father off the throne so he can be king. (Henry reveals his anxiety in Act 5, Scene 4 after Hal saves his life in battle.) This passage also calls our attention to the idea that being "king" is little more than a "role" to be played. That's kind of a dangerous assertion for Shakespeare to be making on stage. The suggestion in this scene is that just about any good actor can do it and even King Henry from time to time acknowledges the theatricality and manipulation that's involved in governing a kingdom. (See "Power" for more on this.)
Shall I? Content. [He sits down] This chair
shall be my state, this dagger my scepter, and this
cushion my crown.
Thy state is taken for a joined stool, thy golden
scepter for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich
crown for a pitiful bald crown. (2.4.389-394)
Perhaps more than any other moment in the infamous play-acting scene at the Boar's Head Tavern, this passage calls our attention to the workings of Shakespeare's theater. As we watch (or read) the scene unfold, we're reminded that we're witnessing a little play (Hal's and Falstaff's) within a larger play (Henry IV Part 1). Shakespeare is famous for these kinds of self-conscious moments. He does the same thing in plays like Hamlet and Taming of the Shrew.
Falstaff's props – a "chair," a "dagger," and a "cushion" – are not so different than the kinds of items a prop department might come up with for a five act performance. After all, they're just things that stand in for the real items, as Hal reminds us when he insists that Falstaff's "golden sceptre" is actually made of "lead."
O Jesu, this is excellent sport, i' faith! (2.4.403)
Mistress Quickly, who has been recruited by Hal and Falstaff to play the role of the "queen," can hardly contain herself during the impromptu play at the Boar's Head Tavern. She's not a very good actor, but her frequent exclamation, "O Jesu" and her hearty insistence that the little play is "excellent sport" is pretty significant because the play truly is so much fun. But what makes it that way? Well, part of the attraction is watching the prince and his disreputable cronies (a barmaid and a fat, drunken knight) impersonate and mock the royal family for "sport." In other words, it's completely rebellious and we all know that being bad is fun.
History Snack: A lot of critics objected to the Elizabethan theater – they thought it was a breeding ground for moral degeneracy, sexual deviance, and so on. Theaters were also located in bad neighborhoods, along with brothels and dives like the Boar's Head Tavern. In fact, some thought that taverns, playhouses, and brothels were pretty much synonymous.
By staging such a rebellious play in a tavern, Shakespeare draws out attention to everything that was so naughty and dangerous about the theater. Why do it? Well, basically, this is one of Shakespeare's ways of thumbing his nose at authority and those pesky theater critics. Hmm. That's an awfully funny message to be sending during the performance of a play that's all about civil rebellion.