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Prince Hal and an analysis of honour in The History of Henry IV by Shakespeare

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To What Extent is Prince Hal Portrayed as an Honorable

Man in Shakespeare’s The History of Henry IV [Part One]?

In today’s world, honor is not commonly considered to have the greatest amount of importance, and there are contrasting opinions on what exactly honor means nowadays. In Shakespeare’s day, honor was attributed the highest importance—or at least Shakespeare’s plays reflect the great weight that honor has among characters of higher class. However, even while the importance of having honor was much more prevalent in that time, there still existed common misconceptions of what honor really was. Several characters in Shakespeare’s The History of Henry IV [Part One] hold distinctly different views on what honor is and how important it is (Bryan 294). One such character is the Prince of Wales, Hal, who seems to reject the idea of honor early in the play. However, in order to make such a claim, it is necessary to identify a clear definition of honor. Sir Francis Bacon maintains that “The winning of Honour is but the revealing of mans vertue and worth without disadvantage” (Davidson 283). It is important to note that one gains honor in the sight of man by the revelation of his virtue; however, honor is not dependent upon reputation, but on integrity. This is an important distinction, because many confuse that “shadow” of honor, reputation, with the “substance” of honor, integrity, which could lead an individual astray in the pursuit of honor (Davidson 283). Having established a definition, it then might appear that Hal has forsaken all honor early on in the play, but as the play progresses, his honorable qualities begin to manifest themselves, much in the way Hal that predicts in Act I, Scene 2. By the end of the play, Hal not only clearly presents himself as an honorable man, worthy of one day taking the throne, but he also gains a deeper understanding of what it means to show honor.

Some may argue that Hal demonstrates absolutely no sense of honor while he is staying in the taverns of Eastcheap in the first few acts of the play. This opinion is not completely unrequited; the audience can infer from Hal’s dialogue and interactions with his group of bandits that virtue is not among his highest priorities. For example, when Prince Hal asks Falstaff, “Where shall we take a purse tomorrow, Jack?” (Shakespeare 11), it is evident from Hal’s dialogue that stealing is something that he and his fellow miscreants have made a common practice of. Surely no righteous prince who has never stolen before would so casually suggest doing such a thing. This shows us that Hal is lacking in basic moral principles, and in Act II, he is also portrayed as rather cruel. While Hal is waiting in the tavern with with Poins after taking the loot Falstaff stole, he plans a joke to play on Francis, one of the drawers in the tavern. Hal tells Poins, “I prithee, do thou stand in some by-room while I question my puny drawer to what end he gave me the sugar; and do thou never leave calling “Francis,” that his tale to me may be nothing but ‘Anon’” (Shakespeare 40). Hal’s decision to get a laugh at the expense of placing Francis in a position where he must be helplessly mocked until he is chastised by his boss clearly demonstrates some of Hal’s undignified qualities. Prince Hal’s behavior in the first half is the play is without a doubt unworthy to be called honorable; however it is an overstatement to claim that his character entirely forsakes honor, for his small displays of integrity in Acts I and II foreshadow his redemption which is to come later in the play upon the reformation of his behavior.

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Such a demonstration of hidden virtue manifests itself when Prince Hal has his conversation with the sheriff, who is looking for Falstaff and the other men who carried out the robbery in Act I, Scene 1. Hal tells Peto that “The money shall be paid back again with advantage” (Shakespeare 59). Of course, the sheriff let on no suspicions that Hal had taken part in the robbery, and Hal has no personal incentive to return the money. Yet Hal decides that he will ensure that the money is not only paid back to its rightful owner, but with interest. This scene gives a clear example that Hal has some sense of integrity, however his positive qualities are arguably outweighed by the negative. However, this should not lead one to the conclusion that Hal is totally without a sense of honor. In fact, in Act I, Scene 2, Hal explains his poor behavior and lets the audience in on his secret:

“herein will I imitate the sun, /Who doth permit the base contagious clouds /To smother up his beauty from the world, /That, when he please again to be himself, /Being wanted, he may be more wondered at /By breaking through the foul and ugly mists /Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.” (Shakespeare 15)

At this point, the audience can understand that Hal does not in fact struggle with vice, but he is simply allowing everyone to believe this of him so that when he finally has his “reformation” (Shakespeare 15), his new self will stand in such stark contrast to his old faults that his redemption will be worth his initial fall from grace. At this point, it is clear that Hal understands the fact that his present behavior is wrong, so the audience knows that Hal has at least some notion of integrity. That being said, it could be argued that Hal’s deliberate choice to lie to everyone in the kingdom about his true character is extremely unhonorable in and of itself because of how deceitful it is. Nonetheless, Prince Hal’s monologue clues the audience into the fact that there is more to the Prince than he leads everyone to believe. It is then to be determined whether or not Hal’s true character—which is revealed in earnest after he returns home to serve the king—should be considered honorable.

Although Hal’s behavior is unfitting for a prince in the beginning of the play, it is clear from the play that he gains a greater understanding of honor as the story progresses. Again, it is important to remember that a man’s honor is established by recognizing his integrity—not by him simply having a reputable name alone. Critic Clifford Davidson writes, “To Bacon’s claim that honor is the true sign of inward virtue, Shakespeare would counter that such an assumption is in danger of taking the shadow for the substance” (Davidson 286). Considering this, it is believable that Hal’s plan to reform his reputation is not necessarily honorable, because his only desire is for others to believe that he is an honorable person, rather than to show them that he is an honorable person.

Later in the play, however, it becomes evident that Hal moves past the childish notion that honor is contingent upon reputation. In Act III, Scene 2, Hal’s father reprimands him for ruining his reputation as the Prince of Wales; afterward, Hal promises his father, “I will redeem this on Percy’s head” (Shakespeare 74). It is clear that Hal intends to replenish his reputation as the Prince of Wales by gaining victory over his foe, Hotspur. Immediately before their fight, the Prince says to Hotspur, “all the budding honors on thy crest I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head” (112), which again clarifies Hal’s intentions to rob Hotspur of his honor and take a good name for himself. Hal makes good on his promise to have Percy’s head; however, Hal doesn’t exactly use this victory how he initially expressed he would. Hal never takes the time to revel in the glory of killing the valiant warrior Hotspur; thus he does not use Hotspurs death to the gain of his honor. Upon killing Hotspur, Hal instead eulogizes his once-enemy. Later when Falstaff attempts to rob Hal of his brilliant triumph, the Prince makes no objection and instead chooses to display the virtue of humility rather than demanding the credit he is due—and consequently, the merit to his reputation—which he had so clearly yearned for earlier in the play (Kaenel & Edward 40). It is clear from his actions that Hal comes to realize that the root of honor is virtue, and he loosens his grip on his dream of being glorified for his change in behavior. Instead, Hal behaves humbly and accepts that his honor comes not from getting credit for killing the valiant warrior Hotspur, but for fighting with valour for a just cause. This turnabout tells the audience that Hal not only appears to become more honorable as the play progresses, but he also gains a deeper understanding of what it means to have honor.

Another way Hal redeems himself is by demonstrating how dedicated he is to the righteous cause of defending his father’s kingdom. After Hal is injured, his father pleads with him to leave the battlefield, but the Prince protests, “God forbid a shallow scratch should drive /The Prince of Wales from such a field as this, /Where stained nobility lies trodden on, /And rebels’ arms triumph in massacres” (Shakespeare 109). As the Prince of Wales, Hal surely believes in the virtue of submitting to authority, and his dialogue suggests that he is unwilling to rest until the royal armies triumph over the rebel forces. Hal’s brave fighting not only attributes valour to him, but it also speaks to his integrity, as he is willing to lay down his life to protect the kingdom and his father, the (supposed) God-ordained king.

Hal’s relationship with honor throughout the play has shown to be an interesting one. Hal starts out in the taverns of Eastcheap, where his behavior shows that he has little sense of virtue; the story progresses to his surprising monologue, where Hal explains that he is only acting the way he is so he can amaze everyone when he becomes king, and thereby encourage people to believe that he has great honor because he left behind a life of vice and turned to virtue. However, his monologue only demonstrates that Hal seeks the “shadow of honor” rather than honor itself, and it is clear that, although he displays a few infrequent honorable qualities, hehas for the most part misunderstood what it really means to be honorable. When the play begins to draw to an end, Hal amazes his father with his great dedication to the cause of protecting the crown, and he even forgoes the glory of triumphing over Hotspur and instead—in the true spirit of honor—he humbly accepts that his triumph over his past of immorality is enough. Overall, as the play progresses, it is evident that Hal demonstrates his honor more and more, and at the same time, it is clear that Hal has come to understand the true meaning of honor. By the end of the play, Shakespeare has certainly demonstrated that Hal has indeed become an honorable man.

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