Henry IV Part 1
How we cite our quotes:
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. (1.1.4)
Yikes! King Henry wishes Harry Percy (Hotspur) were his son (instead of Prince Hal) and he's not afraid to say it out loud. (You thought your parents were hard on you. How would you like to have Henry for a dad?) Henry's fantasy about being tricked by fairies into raising a child that's not his own is pretty common in Elizabethan literature. (Changelings pop up in plays like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Thomas Middleton's The Changeling.)
Here's why we think Henry's little fantasy is so interesting. For King Henry, the term "changeling" is associated with civil rebellion and disloyalty. When Henry lectures the rebels Vernon and Westmoreland for badmouthing him and starting a war, he describes the disloyal subjects as "fickle changelings and poor discontents" who are eager for rebellion (5.1.4).
What does this tell us? Well, it seems to us that Henry views his son's very teenage rebellion as a threat that's just as dangerous as civil rebellion. In the play, what would ordinarily look to us like a little family drama is often portrayed as a national crisis. Makes sense, if you think about it. Prince Hal's the guy who's supposed to inherit the throne. If he can't get his act together, the kingdom's in serious trouble, wouldn't you agree?
Why, yet he doth deny his prisoners,
But with proviso and exception,
That we at our own charge shall ransom straight
His brother-in-law, the foolish Mortimer;
Who, on my soul, hath wilfully betray'd
The lives of those that he did lead to fight
Against that great magician, damn'd Glendower,
Whose daughter, as we hear, the Earl of March
Hath lately married. Shall our coffers, then,
Be emptied to redeem a traitor home? (1.3.3)
When Henry accuses Mortimer (Hotspur's brother-in-law) of being a traitor and refuses ransom him from his Welsh captors, we're reminded that family loyalty can shape political alliances. Not only does Henry suggest that Mortimer's a traitor for marrying a Welsh woman, the daughter of Owen Glendower, he also suggests that Hotspur's insubordination is driven by family allegiance. On the other hand, there's a whole lot of family disloyalty in the play. (Northumberland, we're talking about you.)
Well, thou wert be horribly chid tomorrow when thou
comest to thy father: if thou love me, practise an answer.
Do thou stand for my father, and examine me upon the
particulars of my life. (2.4.39)
When Falstaff proposes he and Hal perform a skit so the prince can practice what he'll say when he's confronted by the angry king, we're reminded that Falstaff has been a kind of surrogate father figure to Hal, mentoring the young prince in the seedy ways of Eastcheap life. Hal must eventually decide where his loyalties lie.