KING So shaken as we are, so wan with care, Find we a time for frighted peace to pant And breathe short-winded accents of new broils To be commenced in strands afar remote. (1.1.1-4)
King Henry's speech to his council in the play's opening lines tells us that England is in the middle of a grueling civil war, which has left the weary king "shaken" and "wan." (Note: Monarchs often use the plural "we" instead of the singular pronoun "I.") A masterful orator, Henry conveys the sense of sheer exhaustion that accompanies the physical and emotional exertions of warfare when he suggests "frighted peace" is taking time to "pant," much like a soldier catching his breath after battle. This, at first, seems promising, as the allusion to peace suggests the ugly war is over and done with.
But, by the time we read or hear the third line, we learn that "frighted peace" (which now seems to be code for King Henry) pauses for breath in order to speak ("breath short-winded accents) of new wars ("broils") abroad. Hmm. Why didn't the king just come out and say he wants to start a new war "abroad"? Keep reading…
KING […] Therefore, friends, As far as to the sepulcher of Christ—
Whose soldier now, under whose blessèd cross We are impressèd and engaged to fight—
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy, Whose arms were molded in their mothers' womb To chase these pagans in those holy fields Over whose acres walked those blessèd feet Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed For our advantage on the bitter cross. (1.1.18-27)
In the previous excerpt from Henry's opening speech, we learned that Henry wants to speak with his council about a new war in "strands afar remote." Here, we learn of Henry's plans to wage a holy war in Jerusalem. If he's as worn out as he says he is, why would Henry want to do such a thing? It turns out Henry believes that, by uniting English soldiers and waging a holy war against the "pagans" (a derogatory reference to Muslims), he'll redeem himself and his past sins (the usurpation of the throne and the murder of the deposed King Richard II).
Note: We know this because, at the end of Richard II, the play that precedes Henry IV Part 1 in the tetralogy, Henry promises to lead a crusade to Jerusalem. He says "I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand" (Richard II, 5.6.6).
There's a lot to be said about the passage from Henry IV Part 1, but what strikes us the most is the way Henry's speech draws our attention away from thoughts about the bloodshed and human carnage of warfare by redirecting our attention to the violence of the crucifixion instead (Christ's "blessed feet" being "nail'd" to save the souls of Christians). That's not to suggest that King Henry isn't earnest in his desire to a lead a crusade, but we can't help but note that Henry is a very skilled orator and we should remember that his speech is a well-crafted attempt to "sell" the idea of a holy war at a time when the entire kingdom is hurting and "shaken" from a civil war Henry helped create.
KING It seems then that the tidings of this broil Brake off our business for the Holy Land. (1.1.47-48)
Despite Henry's lengthy discussion (in his opening speech) of taking the violence of war abroad to the Holy Land, it turns out that the king has known all along that there will be more bloodshed on English soil first. Henry has recently learned of the trouble brewing with the Welsh and the Scots on England's borders.
HOTSPUR We must have bloody noses and cracked crowns, And pass them current too.—God's me, my horse!—
What say'st thou, Kate? What would'st thou have with me? (2.3.98-101)
In the previous passage we saw that Hotspur associates love-making with effeminacy – he prefers "tilting" with weapons to "tilting with lips." Here, he makes explicit his preference for the violence of war over domestic tranquility when he calls for "bloody noses" and "crack'd crowns." As always, Hotspur's specific use of language is fascinating and there's a disturbing sexual meaning implied in Hotspur's remark. "Nose" is a common Elizabethan slang for penis and a "cracked crown" is Elizabethan slang for a deflowered woman. In the context of Hotspur's call for arms, the language conjures a rather violent and brutal image of rape. The violence of Hotspur's imagery also recalls his earlier reference to kissing his wife as "tilting [with] lips." Hotspur's language seems to turn the bedroom into a battlefield.
There's also another meaning implied in the passage. "Crowns," as we know, are a kind of coin, so, in one sense, Hotspur is alluding to the circulation of counterfeit ("crack'd") coins to upset the country's economy, which (like rape), was a common wartime tactic associated with the mayhem and chaos of war.
GLENDOWER My daughter weeps; she will not part with you. She'll be a soldier too, she'll to the wars. (3.1.200-201)
When Glendower tells his son-on-law, Mortimer, that his daughter is upset about Mortimer leaving for battle against the king's soldiers, his comments remind us that, in the world of the play, warfare is exclusively a man's game. There's no way Lady Mortimer would be allowed anywhere near the battlefield.
It's interesting to note that Mortimer, an Englishman who literary critics describe as having "gone native" by marrying a Welsh woman and joining the Welsh rebel forces, never actually makes it to the battle at Shrewsbury. This suggests that his relationship with his Welsh wife has made him weak and effeminate. (Mortimer, unlike Hotspur, displays genuine affection toward his wife and enjoys her company.) For more on this and the relationship between women and war in the play, check out "Quotes" for "Gender."
We also want to say that Lady Mortimer's desire to "be a soldier too" in order to avoid separation from her spouse reminds us of Desdemona's desire to go to war with her husband in Act 1, Scene 3 of Othello.
FALSTAFF If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet. I have misused the king's press damnably. I have got, in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds. I press me none but good householders, yeoman's sons, inquire me out contracted bachelors [...] and they have bought out their services; and now my whole charge consists of ancients, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of companies—slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth […] for indeed I had the most of them out of prison. (4.2.11-16; 22-26;42)
Here we learn that Falstaff has abused his powers as the captain of a troop of foot soldiers. Not only has taken bribes from able bodied soldiers, "yeoman's sons" whose families could afford to buy their way out of service, he's also amassed a group of "ragged" troops, many of whom are fresh "out of prison."
Critic John Dover Wilson notes that Falstaff's actions here make reference to the Elizabethan military recruitment of prisoners. In 1596 (around the time Shakespeare wrote Henry IV Part 1), Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council mandated the release of inmates from London prisons in order to supply troops for England's Cadiz Expedition, a failed raid on the Spanish fort at Cadiz in 1596.
What? Hungry for another history snack? After the Cadiz Expedition in 1596, writer Richard Hakluyt described the same kind of corruption we see in Falstaff's enlistment practices. In his account of "The Voyage of Cadiz" (1597), Hakluyt writes that a "certain Lieutenant was degraded and cashiered [fined] for the taking of money by the way of corruption of certain pressed soldiers [soldiers forced to enlist] in the country, and for placing of others in their rooms [places] more unfit for service, and of less sufficiency and ability." Translation: A certain lieutenant got busted and fined for taking bribes from men who had been recruited to fight and for replacing those able-bodied men with soldiers who were "unfit" for service.
PRINCE I did never see such pitiful rascals. FALSTAFF Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They'll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men. (4.2.65-68)
Falstaff's attitude toward the rag-tag soldiers he has amassed is a bit startling, but unsurprising given the corrupt enlistment practices we saw in the previous passage. Here, Falstaff refers to his "pitiful" troops as food for gun "powder," men who will fill a "pit" as good as anything else. On the one hand, we could argue that Falstaff's attitude is despicable and cold – a reminder that we shouldn't feel sorry for him when Hal treats him cruelly. (In Henry IV Part 2 Hal banishes Falstaff outright.) On the other hand, we could say that Falstaff's crude honesty is honest and perhaps no different from that of any other character who leads foot soldiers into battle. (When Hotspur decides to lead his troops into battle despite being terribly outnumbered, are his actions any different?) Some literary critics argue that, in a play where powerful noblemen are always attempting to elevate the horrors of war to something "honorable," Falstaff is the only character that calls it like it is. (Check out our thoughts on what Falstaff has to say about the notion of "honor" by reading "Quotes" for the theme of "Principles.") Of course, there are lots of other ways to interpret this moment. How do you read this passage? Is Falstaff revolting? Refreshingly frank? Some combination of the two? Or, something else entirely? How would you stage this moment if you were a director?
FALSTAFF Nay, before God, Hal, if Percy be alive, thou gett'st not my sword; but take my pistol, if thou wilt. PRINCE Give it to me. What, is it in the case? FALSTAFF Ay, Hal, 'tis hot, 'tis hot. There's that will sack a city. The Prince draws it out, and finds it to be a bottle of sack PRINCE HENRY What, is it a time to jest and dally now? (5.3.53-59)
Here, the play's comedic and serious elements collide (pun intended). When Hal asks to borrow Falstaff's weapon and is given a bottle of sweet wine instead, Hal says Falstaff's comedic antics are completely inappropriate. There's a time and place to "jest and dally," but for Prince Hal, it's not on the field of battle.
We, on the other hand, may find Falstaff's joke amusing for the way it depends on his pun that his bottle of wine could "sack" a town ("sack" is a kind of sweet wine and also a word meaning to pillage or plunder). The implication being that warfare causes a kind of devastating "hangover" that's a lot like the effects of binge drinking. (This pun may also suggest that the rebels' instigation of civil war and Falstaff and Hal's rebellious tavern carousing really aren't so different. For more on this see "Rules and Order.")
In any case, this passage marks an important moment for Prince Hal (who has already promised to abandon his old friend back in Act 2, Scene 4). As Hal moves closer and closer to redeeming himself and his lost "honour," we're reminded that the prince must leave his old friend and his rebellious past behind if he is to become an effective political leader.
KING Stay, and breathe awhile. Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion And showed thou mak'st some tender of my life, In this fair rescue thou hast brought to me. PRINCE O God, they did me too much injury That ever said I hearkened for your death. If it were so, I might have let alone The insulting hand of Douglas over you, Which would have been as speedy in your end As all the poisonous potions in the world, And saved the treacherous labor of your son. (5.4.47-57)
For Prince Hal, who saves his father from certain death at the hands of Douglas, courage on the battlefield marks an important the moment when Hal "redeems" himself in the eyes of his father. (We talk more about this in our section on "Principles.") In this passage we can also see that part of Henry's former distrust of his son is related to the rumors that Hal was waiting for his father's death and the moment when he could inherit the throne. For more on this, check out our discussion of "Family."