This is an essay that I created for the purposes of my english class and our review of the overbearing theme of “what is great literature”. Whereas my last novel to read “the odyssey” got bad marks for being about violence, this recieves good marks for including a peace-loving and eye-opening relief.
King Henry IV part one is a fantastic play. Taken from the viewpoint of Sir John Falstaff and Hal, the nature of honor and duty shows its true hilarity. Every college student ever to live will be able to feel Hal and will have at least encountered a “Falstaff” character, even if they haven’t ever adopted Hal’s lifestyle or Falstaff’s method of living. Aside from this, Shakespeare was trying to cater to the people of London, and made his plays as humorous as possible, if you only have enough patience to hear through them.
The Fall 2014 English 1020 English class discusses that Hotspurs vices are sometimes thought of as Falstaff’s virtues. Where Hotspur would be seen as quick to war and stay clear of pardoning others, Falstaff is evidently good at steering arguments and avoiding fighting, whatever the cost. If possible, the argument becomes friendly under Falstaff’s watch, and tense under Hotspur’s. Falstaff is willing to listen, though only sometimes, and Hotspur is rarely ready to listen. This helps us contrast where Hotspur and Hal (who is Falstaff’s friend) are coming from, and empathizes us with Hal partly because of Falstaff’s sense of moral peace.
English classes may argue that “Hal empathizes with the common folk” is truly a lie, but that’s English for ya, isn’t it? Hal is a young prince. Hal is a young adult, set to acquire large amounts of responsibility, and he’s little different, or written little different, from any up and coming teenager who will soon have much expected and required of them. Hal and his father, the king, have a bonding moment where he severs from his previous connection(s), Falstaff is inevitably alienated because like any other childhood friend all bonds are broken with time. Hal makes this traumatic shift which appears written in to galvanize the reader to empathize more with the character, whether or not it would be improbable or illogical to us is almost unthinkable, he faces incredible pressure and duty, and it’s a war (for crying out loud!).
Returning on Falstaff is frequent enough in the play, and the various characters in our lives that we may encounter on the shadier side of life (east cheap) are present in Falstaff & co., such as the chiding between Hal and Falstaff over his drinking habit. The audience at large smirks when Falstaff exclaims, at times believable, others not, that “I’ll never drink again”, because the sad truth is that Falstaff has little to no control to the extent of his drinking habit and addiction. “Mr. Remorse” is all Falstaff can ever be when in the quiet sober moments, when not inspired by errands or not critiquing the flaws of another or the world at large.
The king (bowling broke) and Hal are from two different backgrounds (talk about your parents not knowing anything) because they are from two different sides of the search for power. One of them cheated his way from power and tries to maintain his upkeep by being as mysterious as possible and thus leaving people to wonder. The other will earn his place in history naturally, whether or not he wants to. Hal is very hesitant to take on his role and his father is very ready to continue it. Every iteration of the plot has someone to be different, to keep everyone from agreeing, because there’s no greatness in a work of literature without opposition.
Howle has given both the king and Falstaff very different leave to be critical of him. Falstaff is considered in contemporary English classes to be much like a court jester, one authorized to do any prank possible so long as the king is happy. Falstaff is capable of this not because of a direct request or usurpation of authorization, but because he chooses to be this way and Howle chooses to stay. The King is very different from this, as his father and as being endowed with the power of a king, he is doubly able to directly request (where it would be rude to deny) or to usurp by force the attitude and audience that he requires out of his son: Hal is not prone to approach his father for nearly any reason. Thus, Hal has created a negotiable distance between him and his father by being reliant on his friends and their exploits in east cheap to occupy his days rather than the obligations and forced requests of his father under the guise of duty and honor.
Both Hal and Falstaff have identifiable characters, though it is clear that Falstaff is the liar of the bunch, and Hal is only reluctant to action. Falstaff is quick to avoid the concepts of honor or duty, which though he obeys the physical manifestation society thrusts upon him, such as the fact that those who own land in England are obligated to fight. He obeys the laws out of necessity, like those sympathetic to change, but honor and duty are to him merely words, and cannot “set to a leg”. One does not come back to life for fighting without cowardice. Hal, in caving in and realizing his duties as a prince realizes that he must maintain his honor and truth by doing that which others expect of him, even if they aren’t decisions he particularly likes or cannot negotiate to appreciate more. Hal is societally truth-bound, but Falstaff is inwardly and humanly bound to his own wants or needs. If what you’re after is the right action, a person like Hal is who you’re after. If what you’re after is someone who won’t change his mind simply because of what others expect or could expect, then you’re after the most dependable and canniving of liars, the subject of Hal’s many pranks, Falstaff.
Honor is usually represented in today’s world as involving our armed forces, and the act of killing. Somehow we approach death backwards by saying that it prevents more death, when the root of the problem is that rich people want more control to do what they want. Many patriotic people will refuse to see it that way, to say that our great country has been upheld by our armed forces and that those who burn flags do not understand what the flag represents. Shakespeare uses the idea of a divided England, which is of most abhorrence to the Englishmen of that time period, their work had been bringing England together. The north, the percies (woster, glendower, hotsper) represent an opposing and aggrieved group, which though mocked and separate from England, are still humanized in their grief, and the point in the war is not seen as much more than people who have stubbornly started something they can no longer stop, out of “duty”. King Henry teaches us that though England might be considered a good principle, it’s all got to do with the current ruler: their legitimacy to the throne and how they came to power; what they intend to do with their power and their inner motivations; and especially how they approach people who don’t view things in their way or don’t conform to their plan.
King Henry is a wonderful play that illustrates the humanity and imperfections in people while persuading people through its small nuances toward a more empathetic stance on issues like war and duty, while giving them a history lesson in the process. The contrasts between Hal, Bowling Broke, Falstaff, and Hotspur (in different orders and on several issues) give people a wider point of view, instead of a narrower one. By providing opposite and sometimes sensationalistic viewpoints, Shakespeare is using reverse psychology to help his audience agree with the points he has to make. Even if they don’t agree, it’s still prone to give them a performance to enjoy.