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In his histories from Richard II through Henry V to Richard III, Shakespeare depicts the English monarchy as a game between family and friends of vying for a gold ring — the crown. Shakespeare gives his reader a central metaphor through which to see this equation in King Henry IV part one. The prank Prince Hal, later King Henry V, and his friend, Poins, play on their friends, particularly Falstaff, parallels the plot’s focal passing of the crown.
In the first act, Poins outlines his plan to play a prank on Falstaff and their other friends to Prince Hal, “They [Falstaff and others] will adventure upon the exploit [of stealing money from travelers] themselves, which they shall have no sooner achieved but we’ll set upon them” (I.ii.169-71). This exactly represents the larger action that takes place in this same piece. King Henry IV, previously Bolingbroke, usurped the crown from King Richard II in Shakespeare’s play of that title, and now, in this King Henry Hotspur is trying to take from “Bolingbroke,” the name he contemptuously insists on using for the king, the crown which the king ‘rightfully’ stole already. Hal’s prank can, in fact, be seen as the summarizing play within the play so popular in Elizabethan drama. Not only does Hal’s light-hearted game sum up the events of this history, it also works as a microcosm of the events in King Richard III, a tragedy wherein Richard steals the throne from his brothers, Edward and George, who, in turn, stole it from Henry VI. The metaphor becomes even more obviously applicable when we hear Falstaff’s self-defense for giving up the stolen money so easily, “Was it for me to kill the heir apparent?” he trickily states, “Should I turn upon the true prince?… The lion will not touch the true prince” (II.iv.262-5). The justification Falstaff gives for allowing his appropriated prize to be appropriated from him without a fight is that he “instinctively” knew that his thief’s identity was one with a divine connection. This is exactly the story all kings, especially new ones like to pawn off on their new subjects in order to win them over. That is, that God is on their side, otherwise they would not have achieved the crown. It would be to Falstaff’s advantage, having just lost the metaphoric crown (the money), to give its new possessor a story which overtly flatters and supports him. Furthermore, though Prince Hal initially re-admits his victim, Falstaff, into his group of friends after tricking him, ultimately Hal denies him, saying, “I know thee not, old man” (Henry IV part two V.v.50). This is identical to the behaviors of Bolingbroke toward Richard II in Richard II, and Prince John toward the rebels (lead by the Archbishop of York and Lord Mowbray) in Henry IV part two. Both pretend to be friendly to their opposition at first, but really only do so to maintain their own positioning. As soon as it is maintained, they turn.
Shakespeare’s representation of the coming and going of monarchs as a game manifests itself in his choice of words as well. In all three of the consecutive Henry plays the concept of “winning” is applied to the acquisition of the throne, a word which equally applies to beating everyone else in a game. For the last, and therefore important, couplet of Henry IV part one, King Henry says, “And since this business so fair is done / Let us not leave til our own be won” (V.v.44). The word “won” is doubly stressed — because of its place as the last word, and its position of completing the rhyme. In Henry IV part two, some of Prince Hal’s last words to his dying father are, “You won it [the crown], wore it, kept it, gave it to me” (IV.v.220). In this phrase the Prince tries to alleviate his father’s fear that the way he “came by the crown” was sinful by implying the intrinsic nature of the monarchy — a mere game — as a justification for his father’s partaking in getting it. If the crown can be “won” then it isn’t wrong to win it. In Henry V, when this prince becomes king, he repeats this sentiment by essentially calling the monarchy, through use of preterition and substitution, a game of leapfrog when wooing his soon-to-be-wife. “If I could win a lady at leapfrog… I should quickly leap into a wife,” he tells her. He does “quickly leap” into her, kissing her before he ought because “nice customs curtsy to great kings,” and becoming engaged to her in a brief conversation in which neither understands the other. Therefore, we might infer back that winning a lady is indeed done as leapfrog for him. He also tells her, “I will have it [France] all mine: and Kate, when France is mine, and I am yours, then yours is France, and you are mine” (V.ii.136-9,173-5). Here, King Henry describes his coming into possession of France as equivalent to his marrying the Princess Kate. By substitution then we see that becoming king (at least in power) itself is a game of leapfrog. This is an appropriate game to choose, not only because of the sexual pun present in “leap[ing] into a wife,” but also because it illustrates the monarchy. Kings take turns standing, and when they are on top they trample on everyone else’s backs, most notably those backs of previous and future monarchs.
In addition, Shakespeare repeatedly has his characters compare the fights for kingship to childish or trivial games. The Dauphin’s opening ‘present’ to the King of England in Henry V, “tennis balls, my liege” (I.ii.259), acquires the King’s venomous response, “When we have matched our rackets to these balls, we will in France… play a set shall strike his father’s [the King’s] crown into the hagard” (I.ii.162-4). Likewise, Hotspur refers to fighting war as a “sport” in King Henry IV part one (I.iii.296). In part two, Hastings of the rebels’ side announces, “Our army is dispersed already… like a school broke up” (IV.ii.104). Thereby he compares real grown soldiers ready to sacrifice their lives to mere schoolchildren. He trivializes the war to the level of a play fight that might take place in a schoolyard. When Prince Henry kills Hotspur in a swordfight, Falstaff sharply states, “You [Hotspur] shall find no boy’s play here, I can tell you” (Henry IV part one V.iv.74-5). Although Falstaff makes the activity adult in this biting line, he still sticks to the fact that it is “play,” albeit men’s play. Falstaff himself is also responsible more directly for turning the battlefield into a place of men’s play. Rather than taking his role as a soldier seriously, he proudly admits, “If it be a hot day and I brandish anything but a bottle — I would I might never spit white again” (Henry IV part two I.ii.212). He shows this to be a true claim in the previous play when Prince Henry, looking for a pistol in Falstaff’s holster “finds it to be a bottle of sack” (V.iii.55). And, even if there were a “pistol” in his holster, it wouldn’t necessarily be any more serious as Falstaff’s friend named “Pistol” is a harmless jokester (see Henry IV part one II.iv.190). For Falstaff, the battlefield is the same as any tavern. When King Henry V is put into the unnerving position of hanging his old friend Bardolph, he justifies and explains his so doing with the line, “When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom the gentler gamester is the soonest winner” (Henry V III.vi.109-10, italics mine). Here, the younger King Henry draws a sustained metaphor comparing different types of ruling to different ways of playing a game. The analogy between ruling a country and playing a game extends beyond the fight and to more mundane kingly practices. For instance, at the end of Henry IV part two, Justice Silence sings, “Do me right, / And dub me knight” (V.iii.72-3). P. H. Davison’s footnote on the lines explain that “Do me right” was an Elizabethan drinking challenge, while “Dub me knight” refers to the contemporary practice of ‘knighting’ whoever drank the most alcohol or drank urine. Here, the regal ceremony of knighting people is put on par with, and mocked as, an adult game.
The Henry plays continually make self-conscious gestures towards revealing the inherent acting-nature of the kingship. Not only are the kings shown within the context of plays (even in this word is another potential parallel), the kings themselves are also expected to play — to play games, and to act. Shakespeare’s content and medium come together to blur the line between being king in reality and being so just fictionally. Shakespeare depicts the play-acting element of being king by having scenes in all three plays where either a king pretends not to be one or visa versa. In Henry IV part one, a quite comic scene occurs between Falstaff and Prince Hal wherein Hal plays his father, the King, and Falstaff plays Hal, the Prince. The last act of Henry IV part two undermines this comedy however, for when Hal is crowned “King Henry V,” he, as P. H. Davison’s note says, “Adopts a new style of speaking… he speaks with a new authority, taking on the judicial accent of the Lord Chief Justice.” It is actually not quite “new,” it is simply a fully affected act, which he performs in the beginning of part one in the comic scene nearly as well. When, in the first of the two scenes, Hal pretends to be the king, he calls Falstaff “white-bearded,” “swollen,” and “old.” Almost identically, he ‘genuinely’ shuns Falstaff when he truly becomes king, calling him, “so… swelled, so old,” and covered with “white hairs” (Henry IV part two V.v.50-5). Later in this same play, many of King Henry IV’s close followers dress as him on the battlefield so as to protect him from so-aimed attacks. In part two, Hal dresses down, “a prince to a prentice” (II.ii.169), to spy on Falstaff. He does this again in the first scene of act IV in Henry V so as to find out the true minds of his troops.
Playing King of England is an act, attaining the position and participating in its ceremonies is a game. However, I don’t think this means that the role is an impossible one to actually possess, that it’s always simply an unreachable construct that everyone pretends at. I think it just means that Shakespeare sees the crown as not being as serious a thing to possess as is commonly thought. It’s a joke, a gag, a prank, always a gold ring made of cardboard. Where there’s “a kingdom for a stage,” so too can there be ‘a stage for a kingdom’ (Henry V, prologue line 3). Being King means playing.
Shakespeare, William. Henry IV: part one. Ed. P. H. Davison, New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. Henry IV: part two. Ed. P. H. Davison, New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Shakespeare, William. Henry V. Ed. A. R. Humphreys, New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
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