Henry IV Part 2
How we cite our quotes:
[…] God knows, I had no such intent,
But that necessity so bow'd the state
That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss: (3.1.5)
Gee, Henry IV sure has an interesting take on his deposition of King Richard II. Here, he maintains that he never intended to steal the crown from Richard when he returned from exile. (The deposition of Richard occurred in the first play of the tetralogy, Richard II. Henry has always claimed that he only confronted Richard because he wanted to recover his family's land, which Richard II stole after Henry's father, John of Gaunt, died.)
We're not surprised here when King Henry remembers his usurpation of the throne as a moment in which he was "compell'd" or, forced to "kiss" greatness. Henry seems to suggest that he was "compell'd" by forces greater than himself to dethrone Richard, who was a lousy king that jeopardized the commonwealth's well being. This paints Henry as being passive, as if he was an unwilling participant in the usurpation of the throne. Yet, at the same time, Henry's description of the usurpation as a moment where he "kissed" greatness seems to also hint at his own desire for the crown. Is this some kind of acknowledgement that he's not as innocent as he outwardly claims to be?
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.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will. (Henry IV Part 1, 1.2.29)
Note: This passage is from Part 1 of Henry IV but we think it's worth repeating here because Hal's speech is so relevant to his path to kingship in Henry IV Part 2.
Up to this point in Henry IV Part 1, we've seen the prince carousing with his loser pals and we've also heard his father's complaints about Hal's "dishonourable" behavior. Here, Prince Hal turns to the audience and claims that he's not actually the degenerate he appears to be. Rather, he has merely been pretending to be a sordid wild child so that he can stage a dramatic "reformation" that will shock and amaze his countrymen (and his father) when he reveals himself to be a stand-up guy. In other words, Hal suggests that he's merely playing a "role" (that of a degenerate), which will act as a "foil" to his true nature.
Hal seems to realize that being an effective king requires strategy and what we now call public relations skills. (His father, King Henry IV, has already shown that a king can be knocked off his throne by unhappy and rebellious subjects.) As the man who stands to inherit the throne from his father, Prince Hal's got to figure out a way to keep his subjects in line.
Faith, it does me; though it discolours the
complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it. Doth
it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?
Why, a prince should not be so loosely studied as
to remember so weak a composition.
Belike then my appetite was not princely got; for,
by my troth, I do now remember the poor creature,
small beer. But, indeed, these humble
considerations make me out of love with my
greatness. What a disgrace is it to me to remember
thy name! or to know thy face to-morrow! (2.2.2)
Recall that, in Henry IV Part 1, Prince Hal revealed to us his plan to carouse with the commoners in order to disguise his true nature. If the kingdom believed he was a wild child with a penchant for a low-brow lifestyle, then he would be able to stage a dramatic "reformation" that would stun and amaze his subjects when he finally became king.
Here, in Henry IV Part 2, it seems that Hal worries that he's becoming too much like the "role" he has been playing, as evidenced by his desire for "small beer" (the cheap, light beer favored by commoners, not princes). Hal knows that his taste for the low-life is inappropriate for a prince who will inherit the throne, as is his intimate friendship with Poins. Has Prince Hal's elaborate plot to stage his own "reformation" come back to bite him? Keep reading…