Study Guide

Henry IV Part 1 Power

By William Shakespeare

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Our house, my sovereign liege, little deserves
The scourge of greatness to be used on it,
And that same greatness too which our own hands
Have holp to make so portly. (1.3.10-13)

When King Henry threatens the Percys for challenging his authority, Worcester reminds him of the Percy family's role in helping Henry to the throne (making his power and greatness "portly"). Worcester's point is important. If the Percys helped Henry knock King Richard off the throne, they're certainly capable of bumping off King Henry as well. We know the Percys will lead the rebellion against the king later in the play, so Henry's got to find a way to maintain power and control of the crown.

But soft, I pray you; did King Richard then
Proclaim my brother Edmund Mortimer
Heir to the crown?
He did; myself did hear it. (1.3.158-161)

As we know, the legitimacy of Henry's kingship is debated throughout the play and has some important implications. Here, the Percys insist that Hotspur's brother-in-law, Mortimer, is the legitimate heir to the throne, not King Henry. So, not only did Henry usurp the crown, we're reminded that he's not the blood heir to the throne and there's another man who was named a successor.

Time for a history snack: Traditionally, the crown passes from father to son by lineal succession, which was thought to have been sanctioned by God. (This concept is also known as the doctrine of "divine right," which just says that kings can't be questioned by their subjects because they've been appointed by God to rule on earth. Challenging a divinely sanctioned king, then, is considered a major sin.) King Henry not only deposed King Richard II, he also imprisoned him and is responsible for his "mysterious" death, which makes his crime even worse. (This all goes down in Richard II, but there are plenty allusions to it in Henry IV Part 1. Check out our discussion of Henry's sense of guilt over the whole thing in "Warfare.")

Nay then, I cannot blame his cousin king
That wished him on the barren mountains starve. (1.3.162-163)

We've just seen in the previous passage how the Percys claim Mortimer is the legitimate heir to the throne. This, says Hotspur, is why King Henry refuses to ransom Mortimer from the Welsh – as long as Mortimer is in Wales, he can't make a bid for the crown. Henry, of course, tells a much different story. He claims he won't ransom Mortimer from the Welsh because the earl is a traitor, one who married a Welsh woman (Glendower's daughter) and intentionally allowed English troops to be slaughtered by the Welsh army. So, who's telling the truth?

We notice a pattern in the play – we're often given multiple and incompatible accounts of the same events, which makes it kind of hard to take sides – it's never really clear who or what we should believe. On the one hand, the rebels make some valid points about King Henry – he has usurped the throne and he probably does want to keep Mortimer as far from England as possible. On the other hand, Henry's the king and whatever he says goes, right? But, it's hard to obey (or believe) a king whose own rebellion against Richard II has opened the door for more rebellion, against him.

In faith, it is a conquest for a prince to boast of. (1.1.76)

Westmoreland agrees with King Henry that the valiant young Hotspur, a decorated war hero, seems better suited for kingship than Prince Hal, who is next in line for the throne but spends all of his time carousing with his degenerate friends. Prince Hal's wild ways are a major concern because Henry's own claim to the throne is so tenuous. (Remember, his legitimacy has been questioned by the Percys.) And, even though the audience knows how things play out (history shows that Prince Hal becomes a beloved and competent ruler), the play generates a good amount of anxiety surrounding King Henry's heir.

History Snack: At the time Shakespeare wrote Henry IV Part 1 (around 1597), an aged Queen Elizabeth I was nearing the end of her reign. (She was in her 60s when the play was written and performed.) Elizabeth never married and never produced an heir to the throne, which was pretty stressful for those who worried about who the next monarch would be. It seems that, for Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience, the question of legitimacy and succession raised by the play would have been particularly relevant.

It's also important to note the way Shakespeare pits Hotspur against Hal here and throughout the play. By setting up the "honourable" Hotspur as a foil to wild child Prince Hal, the play invites us to consider what qualities make one fit to govern.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor 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 wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors 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 wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
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, glitt'ring 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. (1.2.202-224)

This is arguably one of the most important passages in the play. (It's certainly one of the most famous.) 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.

There's a whole lot more to be said about this great soliloquy, and we talk about Hal's use of the "sun" metaphor in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" so be sure to check it out.

The point we want to make here is this – 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 proved 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 people loyal and in line.

History Snack: Critics generally agree that this speech makes Prince Hal seem like a "Machiavellian" figure. Italian philosopher and poet Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a book called The Prince (published 1532), a "how to" guide for rulers about the maintenance of power. (Elizabethans couldn't get enough of this book – they had a love/hate relationship with The Prince, which also influenced Shakespeare's character Richard III and Christopher Marlowe's c. 1589 play, The Jew of Malta.) According to Machiavelli's popular theory, being a successful leader has nothing to do with being a nice person or doing the right thing. Instead, it's about being inventive, manipulative, charismatic, crafty, and willful – basically, all the things that make Hal who he is.

Sirrah, I am sworn brother
to a leash of drawers, and can call them all by their
Christian names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis. They
take it already upon their salvation, that though I be
but the prince of Wales, yet I am king of courtesy,
and tell me flatly I am no proud jack, like Falstaff,
but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy—by
the Lord, so they call me—and when I am king of
England, I shall command all the good lads in
Eastcheap. (2.4.6-15)

When Hal brags to Poins about getting chummy with a "leash of drawers" (a bunch of waiters) who have sworn allegiance to him before he has even become king, he suggests that slumming with the commoners is a shrewd political move. We get the sense that Hal's time in the taverns is not, as his father suggests, a waste of time, but a kind of education by experience. Hal's capacity to understand and win the loyalty of the men he will eventually rule (and also lead into battle) is an invaluable step in the road to kingship. On the one hand, one could say that Hal seems to genuinely enjoy the sense of camaraderie he shares with the common folk. On the other hand, we can read passages like this as evidence that Hal is merely a cold and calculating figure, the embodiment of Machiavelli's ideal ruler (see previous above). If you wanted to make this argument, we'd encourage you to consider that, immediately after Hal brags to Poins about being on a first name basis with the waiters, he plays a mean practical joke on Francis the drawer.

In faith, my lord, you are too willful-blame,
And, since your coming hither, have done enough
To put him quite beside his patience.
You must needs learn, lord, to amend this fault.
Though sometimes it show greatness, courage,
And that's the dearest grace it renders you—
Yet oftentimes it doth present harsh rage,
Defect of manners, want of government,
Pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain,
The least of which, haunting a nobleman,
Loseth men's hearts and leaves behind a stain
Upon the beauty of all parts besides,
Beguiling them of commendation. (3.1.182-195)

Here, Worcester lectures Hotspur for being rude to Glendower as the rebel leaders lay out a strategy to overthrow the king. This seems like a perfect passage to contrast Hotspur's behavior with Hal's in 2.4.2 above. Here, Worcester says that even though Hotspur is a valiant soldier, his impetuous and combative nature tends to alienate his colleagues. (Like the time Hotspur compares Glendower's birth to a fart. Check out "Language and Communication" for more on this.) At times, the play seems to value Hotspur for his frankness, explosive personality, and courage. (Remember, even King Henry admires Hotspur's boldness when he refuses to give the king his war prisoners.) At other times, we wonder if Hotspur is cut out for leadership. Worcester points out that Hotspur's "pride," "haughtiness," and "disdain" causes him to "loseth men's hearts" (3.1.181). We can't help compare this to Hal's calculating ability to get chummy with men from all walks of life, which may make him better suited to rule the country (2.4).

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wondered at;
That men would tell their children 'This is he.'
Others would say 'Where? Which is Bolingbroke?'
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths (3.2.48-55)

Here, King Henry lectures Prince Hal for spending too much time with commoners and advises him to be "seldom seen" so that, when he does appear in public, he'll be "wonder'd at." Henry (formerly called Bolingbroke) explains how he adopted this strategy before he became king and gained "allegiance from men's hearts." It's interesting to note that King Henry doesn't realize his son has actually adopted a similar (though certainly not an exact same) strategy. Although Henry never stages a dramatic "reformation" like Hal, he seems to have more in common with his son than he realizes. Both men control their public images by manipulating the subjects and inspiring awe and allegiance.

I fear thou art another counterfeit,
And yet, in faith, thou bearest thee like a king.
But mine I am sure thou art, whoe'er thou be,
And thus I win thee. (5.4.35-38)

At the battle of Shrewsbury several English soldiers dress in the king's coats as a method of diversion. This is a savvy maneuver to be sure, one that costs poor Walter Blunt his life when he is mistaken for the king by Douglas. When Douglas encounters the real king in this passage, it's impossible for him to tell whether or not Henry is a "counterfeit." This moment, much like the scene in the tavern where Falstaff and Hal take turns pretending to be Henry, seems to suggest that anyone can play the role of king, as long as they're willing to dress and act the part. With the right clothes (or costume), just about anyone can do it. Check out "Art and Culture" for more on this.

Why then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales. (5.4.62-68)

When Hal confronts Hotspur on the battlefield at Shrewsbury, he deploys yet another celestial metaphor (Hal and Hotspur are like "two stars") to describe his path to kingship. Throughout the play, Hotspur poses a major threat to Prince Hal's lineal succession to the throne. Just before he kills his competition, Hal notes that only one man will remain standing because England cannot sustain a "double reign." In other words, England's not big enough to hold the two of them.

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