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In Henry IV, Shakespeare presents a troubled England with a king whose grip on the throne is tenuous at best. Those who had supported his rise to the throne when he overthrew Richard II are now turning against him. The king even doubts the loyalty of his own son and heir, Prince Hal. The royal figures in this kingdom can be divided into two camps: the revolutionaries and the court of King Henry. Still, the characters in each camp are marked by a streak of rebellion. Every character, be he a revolutionary, a supporter of the king, or even the king himself, is at heart a rebel. What differentiates the two groups of players is what they rebel against.
The revolutionaries, Worcester, his brother Northumberland, and nephew Hotspur, recognize that Lord Mortimer was proclaimed heir to the throne by Richard II. At the same time, this did not prevent them from throwing their support to Henry in his bid for the crown. Henry IV’s reign, however, has been a disappointment for them. Worcester brings his complaints to the king by telling him, “Our house, my sovereign liege, little deserves the scourge of greatness to be used upon it – and that same greatness too which our own hands have holp to make portly” (I, iii, 10-13). For this reminder the king banishes Worcester from his court, declaring his “presence [to be] too bold and peremptory” (17). The outrage that Worcester feels at this dismissal plants in his heart the seed of rebellion against the king. The three revolutionaries decide to cast their lots with Mortimer and overthrow Henry. “Let my soul want mercy if I do not join with him,” the exuberant Hotspur cried out (131-132). While the rebels could be seen in a certain light as heroes setting out to correct a wrong that they helped put in place, they are really acting in their own best interest. Indeed, before joining forces with Mortimer, Hotspur and Worcester meet with him to partition the map of the kingdom into various shares for them once they are victorious. Hotspur even takes exception to the plot of land designated for him. “See how this river comes me cranking in and cuts me from the best of all my land a huge half-moon, a monstrous cantle, out,” he complains (III, i, 95-97). His family has been poorly treated by the current king whom they helped empower, and Hotspur is determined not to repeat the mistake. Worcester, too, serves himself, even to the point of lying to his nephew about an offer of peace made by the king and prince. He knows that, even if the king were to pardon them now for their rebellion, he would simply be waiting for another excuse to punish them for it. “Suspicion all our lives shall be stuck full of eyes” (V, ii, 8). While Hotspur’s offenses could be forgotten on account of his youth, Worcester knows that he and Northumberland would eventually be made to pay for their treason. So he relates to Hotspur the prince’s challenge of single combat, but withholds the king’s generous offer of forgiveness if the rebels but lay down their arms. Familiar with his nephew’s loathing for the “sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales,” he knows the challenge will be one that Hotspur will accept greedily (II, i, 229). Thus has he sealed both his fate and his nephew’s.
Even though the king and his court have revolutionaries plotting against them, they are themselves no less rebellious in nature than their enemies. Prince Hal is rebelling against his father. Uneasy with how his father has gained the throne, he shirks his royal duties and spends time in the Boars Head Tavern instead. He even joins his shady tavern-mates in a plan to waylay a group of traveling merchants. Falstaff is rebelling against the concept of honor. He openly admits to being a thief. “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal. ‘Tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation” (I, ii, 102-103). He has no love for the battlefield or ambition for claiming its glories. When Hal tells him that he has procured command of an army for him, Falstaff jests in a manner that betrays both his disdain for military service and also his pride in his own profession. “Well, God be thanked for these rebels; they offend none but the virtuous. I laud them, I praise them” (III, iii, 190-192). Falstaff is a man who scoffs at the very idea of honor, considers the very concept meaningless. “What is honor? A word. What is in that word ‘honor’? What is that ‘honor’? Air. A trim reckoning” (V, i, 133-135). Finally, the king himself is a rebel in nature. Ironically, it is the idea of royal legitimacy that he seems to be rebelling against. He has an uncertain claim to the throne and rules with a sense of the injustice by which he seized the crown. Those who helped him gain the crown are the very ones who now conspire against him, and he has much of the blame to bear himself since he has treated them less than fairly. He has banished Worcester from his court, telling him, “Get thee gone, for I do see danger and disobedience in thine eye” (I, iii, 15-16). He considers his own son, the rightful heir in as much as he himself is a rightful king, to be unworthy of wearing the crown on account of his dishonorable and disreputable behavior, and wishes that Hotspur instead could be in succession for the throne. He confesses to Westmorland, “O, that it could be proved that some night-tripping fairy had exchanged in cradle clothes our children where they lay, and called mine Percy, his Plantagenet” (I, i, 85-88).
What sets these two groups apart is that one is dragged down by its faults while the other redeems itself. The revolutionaries, once they are set against King Henry, are unable to veer from their course of action. Worcester resorts to lying to his own kin rather than trusting the king in his promise of mercy. Hotspur, arrested by his own passions, all too willingly believes his uncle that war is inevitable and the prince has extended a challenge to a duel. These two have taken the path of rebellion and refuse to look back to consider retracing their steps. King Henry and Hal, on the other hand, are men of reflection and are willing to change. When the king witnesses Hal’s faithfulness on the field of battle, he acknowledges that he has had a change of heart concerning his son. “Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion, and showed thou mak’st some tender of my life in this fair rescue thou hast brought to me” (V, iv, 48-50). Hal, for his part, has been planning all along to change his character. He appears to be wasting his youth by spending time with drunkards and thieves who carouse at the Boar’s Head Tavern, but in reality he is lowering expectations that his peers and subjects have for him in order to make all the more spectacular an introduction of himself when he becomes a dutiful and wise king. In this way does Hal work out the rebellion of his youth in order to become the king of majesty whom Shakespeare presents in Henry V.
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