Study Guide

Henry IV Part 1 Art and Culture

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Art and Culture

Yet herein will I imitate the sun, (1.2.204)

When Hal confides in the audience that his wild and rebellious behavior is just an act, we're reminded that Prince Hal approaches life as a series of roles to be played. As long as he's in Eastcheap with his rowdy, low-life friends, he'll play the "part" of the errant son. But, when he decides the time is right, he'll throw off his disguise and act more like a prince. (Note: We say a whole lot more about this speech in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," so be sure to check it out.)

[…] I am not yet of Percy's
mind, the Hotspur of the north, he that kills me
some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast,
washes his hands, and says to his wife 'Fie upon
this quiet life! I want work.' 'O my sweet Harry,'
says she, 'how many hast thou killed today?'
'Give my roan horse a drench,' says he; and answers
'Some fourteen,' an hour after. 'A trifle, a
trifle.' I prithee, call in Falstaff. I'll play Percy,
and that damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer
his wife.(2.4.104-114)

Prince Hal seems to have a knack for impersonation, don't you think? Here, he pretty much nails Hotspur's hyper-masculine and somewhat comedic persona. As humorous as this is, getting "into character" is more than just fun and games for the prince. Elsewhere in the play, Hal admits that, eventually, he must emulate Hotspur's courage on the battlefield if he's to redeem his lost "honour" and lead the kingdom. For now, while the prince hangs with his low-life Eastcheap pals, he is not "not yet of Percy's mind."

Well, thou wilt be horribly chid tomorrow
when thou comest to thy father. If thou love me,
practice an answer.
Do thou stand for my father, and examine me
upon the particulars of my life. (2.4.384-388)

When Falstaff proposes that he and Hal perform the infamous skit at the Boar's Head Tavern (where Falstaff plays "King Henry" and Hal plays himself), we see how the impromptu play begins as an exercise (albeit very entertaining one) for Prince Hal to practice handling his angry father the next day at court. This notion that the tavern is a kind of training ground or dress rehearsal space for Prince Hal extends throughout the play. Hal not only practices being a "prince" during his performance here, he also practices playing the role of "king," which will one day be a permanent gig for Hal. It's not long into Hal and Falstaff's little play until the prince insists that he could play the part of "King Henry" better than Falstaff. Keep reading.

Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for
me, and I'll play my father.
FALSTAFF, rising
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.

Give me a cup of
sack to make my eyes look red, that it may be
thought I have wept, for I must speak in passion,
and I will do it in King Cambyses' vein. (2.4.396-399)

Over-the-top and clownish Falstaff is quite a sight when he asks for a "cup" of sweet wine (to chug) to make his eyes appear "red" so he can play the part of a "weeping" King Henry.

Here's something we though you might want to know. In 1595 (a couple years before Big Willy wrote Henry IV Part 1), Sir Phillip Sidney (the awesome but slightly uptight English poet) complained about the "mingling [of] kings and clowns" on stage. Sidney didn't object to the theater, per se, he just didn't like the way some playwrights mixed comedic moments with lofty and serious subject matter. Check out this excerpt from his famous Defense of Poesy:

But besides these gross absurdities, how all their [English writers'] plays be neither right tragedies, nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter carrieth it, but thrust in the clown by head and shoulders to play a part in majestical matters with neither decency nor discretion, so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor the right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragic-comedy obtained.

If then the tree may be
known by the fruit, as the fruit by the tree, then
peremptorily I speak it: there is virtue in that
Falstaff: him keep with, the rest banish. And tell me
now, thou naughty varlet, tell me, where hast thou
been this month? (2.4.441-446)

When he plays the role of "King Henry" during the skit at the Boar's Head Tavern, Falstaff reveals his anxiety about his relationship with Hal. His advice that the prince "keep with" Falstaff suggests he knows he's not suitable company for the prince. King Henry, as everyone knows, would never actually advise his son to keep company with a disgraceful criminal. Play-acting is a way for Falstaff to probe Prince Hal about what will happen when he becomes king.

PRINCE, as King
Swearest thou? Ungracious boy,
Henceforth ne'er look on me. Thou art violently
carried away from grace. There is a devil haunts
thee in the likeness of an old fat man. A tun of man
is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that
trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness,
that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard
of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted
Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that
reverend Vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian,
that vanity in years? (2.4.461-471)

Ouch. Hal's pretty cruel when he plays the role of "King Henry" and insults Falstaff, reducing his plump companion to a bag of "guts." We should note that Hal's treatment of his so-called friend during the play isn't really all that different from the way Hal behaves toward Falstaff when the two aren't play-acting. What's going on here? Why does Hal behave this way? And why does Falstaff put up with it?

FALSTAFF, as Prince 
No, my good lord,
banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for
sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack
Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more
valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not
him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company. Banish plump Jack, and banish
all the world.
I do, I will. (2.4.491-499)

Now playing the role of "Prince Hal" during the play at the tavern, Falstaff takes another opportunity to defend himself when he pleads with the "king" (played by Hal) to banish everyone but "old Jack Falstaff." Hal's cryptic and cold response, "I do. I will" anticipates the way Hal will in fact banish his friend. On the battlefield at Shrewsbury we see Hal begin to pull away from Falstaff and later, in Henry IV Part 2, he banishes his friend outright.

Another king! They grow like Hydra's heads.—
I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
That wear those colors on them. What art thou,
That counterfeit'st the person of a king? (5.4.25-28)

After Douglas kills Sir Walter Blunt, one of many men marching in the king's "coats" (as a diversion tactic during battle) at Shrewsbury, Douglas worries that he's encountered another "counterfeit" when he happens upon the real King Henry. This passage reminds us of the tavern scenes, where Hal and Falstaff take turns playing the part of the "king." Once again, the play suggests that kingship is nothing more than a "role." Successful leaders, much like successful actors, require costumes and acting chops.

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