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MonkeyNotes-Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
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Notes

Henry's speech has caused some consternation among readers. On the one hand, he is quite manipulative, pulling out all the stops in making his son feel guilty: He wonders aloud whether he has been cursed by God for having such a son; he reminds his son that when he was his age he was already making a name for himself; he gives the example of what happens to nobles who act undignified; he suggests that Hotspur would be a worthier son; and he concludes his speech by saying he is probably wasting his breath anyway since Hal is incorrigible and probably traitorous. It is almost a stock parental speech, with all the familiar clichés present.

At the same time, Hal's conduct has been unbecoming, especially by orthodox Elizabethan standards, and the nation is in a state of crisis. Henry is therefore justified in his excoriation. Furthermore, as Hal's father, it is likely he knows what buttons to push. Dramatically, Henry's speech gives Hal the chance to speak eloquently on his own behalf and make good his earlier promise to take on his responsibilities when the need arose.

It should be remembered, as well, that Henry does feel enormous guilt for his usurpation of the throne, no matter how he justifies it politically, and may very well believe that Hal is indeed a punishment for his sins. It was believed in Shakespeare's day that the sins of the fathers and forefathers could be visited upon the children. Henry knows he has sinned by murdering King Richard II; thus he is accursed with a son who is following in Richard's footsteps. Richard lost the support of the people through his buffoonery, and Henry fears that if Prince Hal continues in the same vein, he shall never inherit the throne.


As king, Henry is the hero of the play, but, historically, he was an ambiguous figure. His killing of Richard could in no way be excused, but as king, he was God's representative on earth and had to be obeyed. In addition, Richard II was remembered as a weak king, while Henry, who put down several rebellions as king and faced much parliamentary opposition, was popularly remembered as forceful and brave, despite his flaws. Shakespeare, while acknowledging Henry's guilt, is careful to present him here with due respect and authority in his position as the leader of England.

In this scene, the play reaches its climax. Prince Hal forswears his previous behavior and vows to take on his princely duties and help his father fight the rebels. He has made good on his earlier promise to reform. Now that father and son have reconciled, the king can concentrate on the main threat to the throne: the rebellion. He places the prince in the command of an army and sends him toward Shrewsbury.

According to historical record, Hotspur was older than the king at the time of his rebellion. Had Shakespeare retained the age difference between Hal and Hotspur, comparison of the two characters would not have been possible. By deliberately making Hotspur a young man in the play, Shakespeare can more effectively set the two characters against each other. Hotspur, though now in rebellion, is in many ways a model prince. He commands the loyalty of nobles older than him, he is renowned for his bravery, and he has always won whatever battles he has engaged in. Hal, in contrast, has been frivolous and irresponsible. Hal therefore vows to personally take on Hotspur and thus redeem himself.

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