Literature Spotlight: Shakespeare’s King Henry IV

“I met this crown; and I myself know well

How troublesome it sat upon my head:

To thee it shall descend with better quiet,

Better opinion, better confirmation;

For all the soil of the achievement goes

With me into the earth. It seem’d in me

But as an honour snatch’d with boisterous hand,

And I had many living to upbraid

My gain of it by their assistances;

Which daily grew to quarrel and bloodshed,

Wounding supposed peace. All these bold fears

Thou seest with peril I have answered;

For all my reign hath been but as a scene

Acting that argument; and now my death

Changes the mode: for what in me was purchas’d

Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort…

How I came by the crown, O God, forgive!

And grant it may with thee in true peace live.”

– The King, from Act IV Scene V King Henry IV Part 2

I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, nor do I yet have my Ph.D. in English Literature from Oxford University. However, I am in love and obsessed with literature. Recently, I have become overfond of Shakespeare. When I say overfond, I mean overfond. I don’t know why, but I am just obsessed with the wordy, romantic verbiage, the long, graceful sentences. It all just spills off the page, demanding to be read.

Perhaps it’s nerdy.

Most likely, you all probably noticed that this is another “spotlight” post, so yes, I will be going over the themes that stuck out to me most while I read this (just like I did with The Goblet of Fire which you can read HERE). There was, honestly, so much that I learned and felt and gleaned from as I read this play. It made me stop to think, and it even spurred some of my tough decisions.

I love it when books do that.

So, without further adieu, the two most prominent themes I saw in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV were responsibility and loyalty. The responsibility and loyalty traits tend to go hand-in-hand in this work of art, so I’m going to add one more theme: nobility.

Before we dive into these beautiful, rich themes, I wanted to just point this out:

  • The title of the play is King Henry IV, however, it is interesting to note that the King himself is absent from many of the play’s scenes. It’s almost as if Shakespeare named the play after the fourth Henry because everything revolved around him. It was not about him, but everything occurring happened because or in consequence of King Henry’s presence or his actions.

Just thought that was an interesting little nugget – no, I didn’t get it off an essay junk site. Just a little observation of mine.

Moving on…

Themes

  • #1 – Responsibility and Loyalty

In the opening scene of the play, we find a distressed and saddened King Henry IV mourning over the much blood and pain brought upon his country by war. King Henry IV, mind you, murdered Richard II to obtain the crown (which is what he was talking about in the section I quoted), so he feels not only pressure from the surrounding environment, but also guilt over his unlawful path to Kingship.

Contrast, now, this saddening picture of England’s regale King with a smelly, dirty tavern and the room above it. In this room sits the king’s own son: Henry. Or Harry, or Hal, which is what most of his companions around the tavern call him…even the drunkards, the wenches, and the bartenders. Prince Hal is the complete picture of a prodigal son from the middle-ages. Having forsaken his role as crown prince and heir to the throne, he spends most of his days there, laughing, drinking, and, once, even deciding upon robbing a band of wayward travelers with his companion Falstaff, who is supposed to be the knight taking care of him.

Prince Hal lives indulgently, requesting and getting whatever he wishes, until one night, the King sends for him.

Upon receiving the word, he is annoyed, fatigued, and frustrated. His whole life must now be obstructed for his father’s business. What a bore. Upon his arrival there, he is scolded by his father, completely humiliated in front of his brothers (who have, since his departure, remained loyal to their father), and burdened with the thought of war. Yes, to war, Hal goes indeed.

Since his absence, rebellion has broken out, and Hotspur, a rogue knight, has become tired of waiting on the king without proper due. Striking off with some of his family, they form an alliance with the Scots (who are already rebelling) and wage war against the King of England.

“And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,

That this same child of honour and renown,

This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,

And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.”

– Prince Hal from Act III Scene II of King Henry IV Part 1

As I read this, I actually went to grab an orange hi-lighter to hi-light these four lines. To me, they only spelled one word: foreshadow. Prince Hal and Hotspur, I thought, would have a toe-to-toe somewhere near the play’s ending.

Be he as slimy, self-indulgent, rude, inconsiderate as he was, Hal goes with his father and at his father’s bidding. I found Hal much more passionate for this course than he was for lounging around the pub in Eastcheap.

As predicted, Hal and Hotspur meet in battle. It is during this time in the play when everything comes together. Hal’s character arc is complete as he stands valiantly in his rightful place to kill the rebel Hotspur. Their fierce, headstrong dialogue is riveting, and it was in this scene that Hal finally took responsibility for who he was:

Hotspur: If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.

Prince: Thou speak’st as if I should deny my name.

Hotspur: My name is Harry Percy.

Prince: 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.

Hotspur: Nor shall it, Harry; for the hour is come to end the one of us; and would to God they name in arms were now as great as mine!

Prince: I’ll make it greater ere I part from thee; And all the budding honours on they crest I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.

– From King Henry IV, Part 1 Act V Scene IV

Now, naturally, the two hot-headed young men go at each other and fight, Hal ultimately slaying Hotspur. However, the significance of this moment is not the rebel’s death; it is the admittance Hal shows to his personage. When Hotspur addresses him, he spits back how appalled he is that Hotspur should say it in such a way that would make him deny it. He is not afraid of who he is, and he will not shy away from it. Secondly, he says flat out “I am the Prince of Wales.”

Now, that was a lot of explaining, but to the point: loyalty and responsibility are seen in Prince Hal’s character throughout the story, and even to his father’s death. I almost cried reading Hal and Henry IV’s dialogue as the King was about to die. The loyalty, devotion, and admittance of responsibility shown on BOTH of their parts was beautiful. The King owned to his frightful deeds, and the Prince took the crown gently, humbly, and thankfully. I felt that the greatest theme in this play was responsibility. It also crossed over into loyalty as well, especially when Hal had to decide whether to remain loyal to his true identity as crown prince.

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

– 1 Peter 2:9 NIV

We too, like the rambunctious Prince of Wales, are children of the King of kings. That makes us princes and princesses, heirs to Christ’s heavenly realm. We are chosen. Will we choose to wile our lives away with Falstaff’s, Mistress Quickly’s, and Doll Tearsheet’s? Or will we take on our identity, proclaim it, fiercely, boldly, for the enemy to hear, and take our places as the royalty we are? This has been such a huge part of my life lately and reading this play confirmed everything the Lord was speaking to me about.

Oh, and before we move on to the second theme, here’s a clip from BBC’s The Hollow Crown depicting the skirmish between Prince Hal and Hotspur. It’s actually verbatim to the original Shakespearean text, and you can follow along like I did. As far as adaptations go, I had to put this one in here just because it was so good.

Just an FYI, the guy behind the tree is Falstaff. After Hal kills Hotspur and leaves, Falstaff plays dead. Hal sees him and briefly says his prayers for him. However, after Hal leaves, Falstaff stabs Hotspur’s thigh and actually claims to have been the one who killed him. Annoying git.

He really rubbed me the wrong way throughout the entire play. If I had to define and sum him up in three words: glutton, imbecile, and drunkard. But, when you contrast him with other characters, you actually find yourself loving the other characters so much more.

It’s neat.

Ok, moving on.

  • #2 – Nobility

In this play, a key role with all of the characters was their identity in nobility. This also ties in with the loyalty and responsibility traits as well, and I’ll bring it all together at the end.

All of the characters in the play, most notably, King Henry and Hal. These two, it would be fair to say, are the main characters of the play. King Henry comes more into the spectrum in the second part of the play, and his role there is spectacular.

What I’m getting at is this: both Hal and his father forget who they are in the play, and both of them seek their identities and eventually find them out by the play’s end.

Hal’s identity, as mentioned in the loyalty trait, was found when he battled Hotspur in the field. However, the King’s mind is constantly wandering and distraught. Although it doesn’t come out until the end of the play, he is still hanging in the shadow of his murder of King Richard II. It dominates his demeanor, his actions, his thoughts, everything. He cannot be who he is because of the heavy burden he gave himself when he unlawfully took the crown.

In fact, this is even further driven home when Hal, by his father’s death bed, begins to speak to the crown as if it were alive. The king sleeps, but the crown is off his head: he is at peace when the crown is gone. I thought it was pretty symbolic: when the crown is no longer on his mind literally on his brain, he sleeps in peace. Hal sees the effects of the crown on his father, and, as I just said, I he starts talking to it like it were alive (keep in mind, Hal and the king are in the same room, but the king is sleeping):

“Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,

Being so troublesome a bedfellow?

O polish’d perturbation! golden care!

That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide

To many a watchful night! Sleep with it now!

Yet not so sound, and half so deeply sweet

As he whose brow with homely biggin bound

Snores out the watch of night. O majesty!

When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit

Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,

That scalds with safety….

[note: now speaking to the King] …This sleep is sound indeed; this is a sleep

That from this golden rigol hath divorc’d

So many English kings. Thy due from me

Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,

Which nature, love, and filial tenderness

Shall, O dear father! pay thee plenteously:

My due from thee is this imperial crown,

Which as immediate from thy place and blood,

Derives itself to me. Lo! here it sits

[Putting it on his head]

Which God shall guard; and put the whole world’s

strength

Into one giant arm, it shall not force

This lineal honour from me. This from thee

Will I to mine leave, as ’tis left to me

– Act IV Scene V, King Henry IV Part 2

[note: in the last sentence he speaks of leaving the crown to his son just as his father did to him]

The king now sleeps with the crown, but it is with the assurance that it will no longer be his. And yet, as Hal takes the crown, he further confirms his identity: he is England’s future King Henry V. He declares, in a nutshell, that even if all of the strength in the world were put into one arm, not even that could take this new responsibility from him. He feels he owes it to his father, and it is who he is.

King Henry, also very symbolically, wakes up with a start as soon as Hal leaves the room with the crown on his head. He becomes startled, and when he yells to Hal’s brothers to find him, they report that he’s only in the next room, wearing the crown, and sobbing. The King, naturally, doesn’t buy this and decides that his low-life good-for-nothing knave of a son is just intent on becoming King (which will happen no matter what). Hal, who thought the King was dead, immediately goes on guard when the King enters the room and swears that he “never thought to hear you [the King] speak again.” The King gives Hal a two-page lecture (which I won’t get into since this post is already at two thousand three hundred thirty-seven words) about how foolish he is. Hal listens and responds to the King in a way that made so happy I thought I’d cry:

God witness me, when I here came in,

And found no course of breath within your majesty,

How cold it struck my heart! if I do feign,

O! let me in my present wilderness die

And never live to show the incredulous world

The noble change that I have purposed.

Coming to look on you, thinking you dead,

And dead almost, my liege, to think you were,

I spake unto the crown as having sense,

And thus upbraided it: ‘The care of thee depending

Hath fed upon the body of my father;

Therefore, thou best of gold art worst of gold:

Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,

Preserving life in medicine potable:

But thou most fine, most honour’d, most renown’d,

Hast eat thy bearer up.’ Thus, my royal liege,

Accusing it, I put it on my head,

To try with it, as with an enemy

That had before my face murder’d my father,

The quarrel of a true inheritor.”

– Act IV Scene V, King Henry IV Part 2

Then the King has an emotional breakdown at hearing his son utter such devoted, wholehearted words. It was emotionally difficult to read everything the King said to Hal thereafter. He confessed and begged of God forgiveness for having taken the crown so forcefully and so vilely. If you read the first lines I quoted in the beginning, that is what he says in this next section. Of course, it goes on for a lot longer, but his burden is finally lifted.

He finally lets go and allows himself to feel love for his son, to let his son feel love for him, and that is truly the best ending I could ever have asked for in the play.

Well, besides the fact that the last scene is Hal’s coronation and Falstaff’s arrest. 🙂

I digress…

At that beautiful moment in time between father and son, the King dies. God released him from his burden for a few sweet moments of freedom before his death. He lived constantly in his chains of guilt, and when he finally let go, he was free. It was no longer who he was.

Once again, 1 Peter 2:9.

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

– 1 Peter 2:9 NIV

Hal and his father were royalty. They were esteemed, noble, gracious people. Hal, forsaking it completely, went off the deep end toward wayward living. The king, likewise, did not forsake his role as king, but did inwardly, letting the guilt and shame corrupt his thinking and his reign. It wasn’t, however, until they both forsook their sinfulness (on Hal’s part) and their condemnation (for the King) that they were freed and were able to assume their noble positions.

In the beginning of the play, when Hal is brought before the King, the King yells at him furiously and says:

“Could such inordinate and low desires,

Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts,

Such barren pleasures, rude society,

As thou art match’d withal and grafted to,

Accompany the greatness of thy blood

And hold their level with thy princely heart?”

– Act III Scene II, King Henry IV Part 1

My friends, we are nobility. We are God’s chosen children. Anyone can be, and we are here accepting his invitation to princedom and princessdom (if that’s a word). Will we let sins, pleasures, guilt, shame, or things of that sort “hold their level with our princely hearts?”

We must understand who we are if we are to live in freedom of bondage. We must let go of that which binds us, because not only is it wrong, but it takes our eyes off of who we are and whose we are. Never forget that we belong to Christ. We are his crown princes and princesses, waiting to enter in to the goodness He has promised us. And one day, He will reward us for our slaying of the Hotspur’s, the disposing of the Falstaff’s, the setting aside of guilt, and the selflessness of confession.

Didn’t Shakespeare teach us a lot in this play?

Yeah, I thought so too.


Well, guys, there it is. My second “spotlight” post! I hope you enjoyed it!

Oh, and before I officially sign off, let me say that I am definitely planning on watching King Henry IV on The Hollow Crown. I mean, I want to watch the whole series, starting with Richard II. Honestly, who doesn’t want to watch a series with Benedict Cumberbatch (Not now, John, I’m on a case), Michelle Dockery and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey is the greatest), Tom Hiddleston (oh dear), and Ben Whishaw (all I see is Paddington)? I’m pretty excited, and from what I’ve heard (and seen so far) it looks like a pretty stinking verbatim adaptation. Super excited for it!

Alright, signing off, guys, and don’t go forgetting who you are – you don’t want to end up like Falstaff! (note: he went to prison XD ).

Fare thee well, brave hearts,

Emily 🙂

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