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MonkeyNotes-Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
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Notes

A new color of nobility is seen in Prince Hal. He admires Hotspurís valiant nature and is deeply concerned for the lives of the soldiers on both sides who will be slain in the war. Therefore, he proposes a duel between himself and Hotspur to settle the matter. Henry, however, brushes this offer aside and reiterates his offer of peace. His motivation here is open to question. On the one hand, he nobly holds out an offer of peace and shows his love and concern for his son. On the other hand, he may think it more risky for his untested son to fight the proven Hotspur than to engage in battle with superior forces.

Regardless, this brief exchange points out the difference between age and youth. The young Hal's gesture is bold and chivalrous, but also a bit rash and perhaps anachronistic; the time when heroes engaged in single combat to determine a battle is past. The experienced Henry, who is well aware of his superior military position, is in no hurry to fight or take unnecessary risks.

Throughout this scene, Henry shows himself to be kingly material. From the start he is supremely confident; the upcoming storm, he says, is a bad omen only for "losers," to victors "nothing can seem foul" (8-9). He shrewdly brushes aside Worcester's complaints by ignoring the issue of his deceit toward them and focusing on Worcester's own motives. He magnanimously offers pardon to the rebels and at the same time firmly warns them of the consequences if they continue to challenge him.


Once more the audience is given the background for the rebellion. The Percies helped the king when he was powerless and friendless. According to Worcester, however, he lied to them about his intentions, saying that he only wished to reclaim his title as the Duke of Lancaster when he really had eyes on the crown. Once he became king, he abused the Percies, who were forced to rebel to protect themselves.

When Falstaff expresses his fear of battle, Hal tells him not to worry. After all, he owes God a death. This is essentially the same reply Falstaff gave when Hal and Westmoreland asked him about the hapless troops he was commanding. Now the shoe is on the other foot. However, Falstaff manages to get comic mileage out of the situation. If he owes God a death, the debt is not yet due. He then launches into a soliloquy on the subject of honor, which to him is a useless concept. What good are words of praise to a dead man, he asks. "Doth he hear it?" (138)

What do we make of Falstaff's speech? On the one hand, he is correct - honor cannot "take away the grief of a wound" (133-4) or restore the dead to life. And to the common man, the wars fought for honor's sake amongst lords and nobles may mean little. The troops that Falstaff commands would certainly trade honor for their lives. And honor is often an empty word: both Henry and the Percies have used honor as a disguise for naked political ambition. The king, under the guise of seeking political reforms took advantage of Richard's weakness, and Worcester, in the name of honor, instigated the rebellion in order to gain political power. When the king says "never yet did insurrection want / Such water colors to impaint his cause" (80-1), he could be speaking of his own manipulations as well as Worcester's.

On the other hand, the upcoming war is being fought for honor's sake. Hal and Hotspur are both honorable, despite their differences, and thus admirable; Hal wishes to prove himself to his father and Hotspur wishes to reverse the insult he perceives himself to have received. The king does deals nobly with the rebels and acts to keep the kingdom together, certainly an honorable goal, especially to an audience for which political stability was extremely important.

It is also worth remembering that Falstaff's easy dismissal of honor occurs because he has little of it himself. He has misused his commission and is perfectly willing to let his troops be led to slaughter. While his speech can be construed as empathetic to those who suffer for honor's sake, he is really only concerned with saving his own skin. Still, Falstaff is a hard character to pin down and a harder one to judge. While Falstaff cannot appear admirable in light of Hal's present behavior, he continues to provide comic relief and a running, rebellious commentary on Elizabethan values.

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