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Prince Hal in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV

Henry IV is one of William Shakespeare’s most discussed historical plays. This is due not so much to the plot, but to the famous and complex two characters, Prince Hal and Falstaff. Shakespeare depicts the situation in England, in the time of Henry IV. Prince Harry of Wales, also called Prince Hal, has a very interesting evolution as a character throughout the two parts of the play. He starts as a rogue and a common thief who spends all his time in the Eastcheap tavern with a gang of villains, but eventually ends up being crowned as King Henry V at the end of the second part of the play.

In spite of his bad habits and his apparent lack of any serious preoccupations in the first scenes of the play, the prince proves to have a strong sense of honor and responsibility that becomes gradually more and more manifest. His apparent idleness at the beginning proves to have been in fact a careful preparation and self-education on his part, so as to become a good king and resolve the conflicts of the country. In this and in many other aspects, Hotspur serves as a foil for Prince Hal.

Hotspur’s incommensurable ambition leads him to perdition while the prince carefully prepares his way to the throne with righteousness and patience. Thus, Prince Hal is from the start situated somewhere at the limit between Falstaff’s absolute villainy and laziness and Hotspur’s great ambition and restlessness. Hal’s moderation makes him a winner in the end, and he seems to learn the best skills from both Falstaff and Hotspur.

Therefore, Prince Hal’s evolution in the play is very significant: he plays the villain for a while but he does so deliberately, so that he might ascend to glory in a more dramatic way. At first, he is allured by Falstaff’s view of life as a continuous jest, but he is awakened to the sense of responsibility when he sees his country more and more torn up by conflict and wars. Thus, the image that the reader has of Hal at the very beginning of the play is definitely a negative one.

In the first scene of Act I, the king complains to his friends about his son’s idle behavior and promotes Hotspur as being more fitted for the crown than Hal: “Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin/ In envy that my Lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blest a son,/ A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;/ Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;/Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:/ Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,/ See riot and dishonour stain the brow/ Of my young Harry.

”(1 Henry IV, I. i. 78-86) The image that King Henry IV has of his son seems at first justified when the scene changes and Falstaff and his gang appear led by the prince himself. Hal seems to lead a double life, one during daytime and one during the night. He is the prince during daytime, but always a rogue planning some mischief and having fun in the tavern with the common people.

The day and night symbolism in the play is very suggestive. In this first part of his evolution, Hal seems totally devoted to Falstaff and his life philosophy. Night functions here as a symbol of villainy: the men are able to steal and act as villainously as possible because no one will see them.

However, Falstaff deftly turns this symbol and gives it a positive meaning: he advocates that the villains are protected by Diana herself, the goddess of the moon, who in fact represents the opposite of sin, namely purity and chastity: “Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not/ us that are squires of the night’s body be called/ thieves of the day’s beauty: let us be Diana’s/ foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the/ moon; and let men say we be men of good government,/being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and/ chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.

”(1 Henry IV, I. ii. 23-29) It should be noted therefore that Falstaff’s jesting and permanent dissembling are not in fact altogether villainous. He is more like a punster, someone who turns all the meanings upside down and makes life seem a mere joke. Most of the dialogues between Hal and Falstaff, made up of delightful puns and jokes, allude to the prince’s dishonorable behavior for an heir to the throne.

Falstaff’s pun on “here apparent” and “heir apparent”, reveals the importance of the image the prince has built for himself: “Yea, and so used it that were it not here apparent/ that thou art heir apparent–But, I prithee, sweet/ wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when/ thou art king? and resolution thus fobbed as it is/ with the rusty curb of old father antic the law? Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief. ”(1 Henry IV, I. ii. 53-58)

Both Falstaff and Hal are nevertheless conscious of the names they have acquired for themselves during their adventurous night lives. Falstaff comments thus that the people are talking very bad of Hal, remarking wittily that there is much wisdom on the streets: “…would to God thou and I knew where a/ commodity of good names were to be bought. An old/ lord of the council rated me the other day in the/ street about you, sir, but I marked him not; and yet/ he talked very wisely, but I regarded him not; and/ yet he talked wisely, and in the street too. (1 Henry IV, I. ii. 77-82)

Falstaff is, as his name indicates, the symbol of falseness and deception: “Thou judgest false already…”(1 Henry IV, I. ii. 61) All though the play he will keep lying, inventing and playing as many tricks as possible. Hal’s association with him is not accidental. It could be said at first that Falstaff is the one who corrupts Hal, although he sustains the opposite opinion and vows the prince has corrupted him: “O, thou hast damnable iteration and art indeed able/ to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm upon/ me, Hal; God forgive thee for it!

Before I knew/ thee, Hal, I knew nothing; and now am I, if a man/ should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. ” (1 Henry IV, I. ii. 85-90) However, the prince’s involvement in the night life with Falstaff serves in fact another purpose. Hal is not corrupted by Falstaff, but, on the one hand he plays a false role, just as if he were an actor, and on the other hand he experiences a life of villainy previous to adopting that of sacred honor suited for a king. For both of these things, Hal needs Falstaff at first.

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