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Reading Henry V as Part of Tetralogy

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Though Henry V can be read and appreciated as a stand alone piece, it is most valuable when considered as part of a tetralogy. The two parts of Henry IV depict the characters and present the initial stages of the conflict in a way that pushes one to reconsider Henry V as a continuation of the previous two plays. The dynamic evolution in the portrayal of Prince Hal can clearly be seen from the study of Henry V. In particular, Henry IV Part 1 sets up two of the main characters, Hotspur and Falstaff, who are only mentioned in Henry V. These two individuals are essential to better understanding how Prince Hal becomes the king that he is and why he makes the decisions that he does. Through his interactions with them and through their deaths, Hal gains their qualities — boldness and determination from Hotspur and wit and wordplay from Falstaff — and adds them to his own charisma. The two parts, in association with V, help us see the two-part process by which this happens: the death of Hotspur allows Hal to acquire qualities that will lie in him until Falstaff’s death. That death serves as a catalyst, thereby allowing the acquired qualities to translate into noble actions on the field.

Shakespeare subtly sets up two critical characters who later play a decisive role in the making of Henry V. The young nobleman Harry Percy, known as Hotspur and only present in Part 1, is the son of the Earl of Northumberland. His family, the Percy family of the North, is essential to the plot, as the Percys are critical in helping Henry IV gain the throne. Feeling that King Henry IV no longer respects his debt towards them, they lead a revolt, thus forming the narrative for Part 1. Hotspur is immediately portrayed as a valiant soldier, his nickname originating from his “hot” and fierce attitude in battle. It is in this context that he is first mentioned in the play by Westmorland, who narrates that Hotspur has won back Holmedon and taken multiple prisoners (1.1. 52-5). He is then referred to by the King himself, who envies Northumberland for having “so blest a son”, “A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue” (1.1. 80). Unlike many of Shakespeare’s antagonists, Hotspur is never portrayed as evil, but rather shown in a complimentary light. The weaker qualities of Hotspur’s character are a consequence of his very strengths: he is stubborn and impulsive. As an example, Hotspur tries to bargain with the King for his prisoners against a ransom to get back his brother-in-law, Mowbray (1.3). In this scene, Hotspur lets his temper act out, as he does not take time to consider that the requests are coming from the King directly and that Mowbray is considered a traitor in the royal court. Along with those weaknesses, Hotspur is a rash and boastful young adult. In 5.2, Worcester lies to him by telling him that Hal has insulted the Percys. In response, and in a reaction disproportional to the present situation, Hotspur calls for a duel with the Prince. Though Shakespeare takes time at the beginning of the play to set Hotspur up as a strong and central figure, he is quick to show that Hotspur’s priorities make him fall short of his goals.

Shakespeare wants the audience to make a clear comparison between Prince Hal and Hotspur. Beyond their shared first name, he gives them the same age and gives their wives the same name (Kate). Against his rebellious but noble Prince, he paints Hotspur as the driven antagonist. Next to Hotspur, Hal appears as an irresponsible young man, who does not deserve the crown. The two never actually interact until the very end, when they meet in a duel, but they are constantly considered together in the audience’s and in the King’s mind. For him, Hotspur is the epitome of the perfect son, with only some minor qualifications. When Hal finally expresses his opinion about Hotspur, it is only with the positive terms with which he challenges Hotspur to a duel. Hal prefaces his request with the following lines: “I do not think a braver gentleman, // More active-valiant or more valiant-young, // More daring, or more bold, is now alive” (5.1. 89-91). The challenge presented is combat and Hal needs to prove his worth by defeating Hotspur. For his part, Hotspur even recognizes that Hal is taking away his honor in his last speech: “I better brook the loss of brittle life // Than those proud titles thou hast won of me. They wound me my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.” (5.4. 77-9). The Prince wins the duel and, as he kills Hotspur, takes on the very qualities that he so admired in him.

While Hotspur represents the noble court world, Falstaff is the main comedian of Hal’s preferred world, that of the commoners. Falstaff, present in both parts of Henry IV, is depicted as a fat, old, and disorderly man. He is the personification of their world’s central location: a cheap pub in Eastcheap, London. Falstaff spends his time drinking, making poor sexual references and desperately looking everywhere for money. One of his particular vices is a greed that leads to corruption. As the Percy-led revolt intensifies, Hal asks Falstaff to join him on the battle with soldiers from various towns (4.2). Falstaff only succeeds in bringing “pitiful rascals” (4.2. 57) because he let go of the more able men in return for sums of money. As opposed to Hotspur, Falstaff is constantly portrayed in terms of his faults, but there are passages where Shakespeare lets through glimpses of wit and wordplay. The most poignant instance of this is at the end of 5.1 in Part 1. Falstaff speaks about honor and brings up the problem of the living men having to suffer on its behalf. In a strongly delivered speech, Falstaff reduces honor seamlessly to just a word: “What is honour? A word.” (5.1. 133). Though these characters are essential in themselves, it is most interesting to see how they interact with Prince Hal.

Falstaff and Hal are connected from the very start. The first time both characters are presented is in 1.2, in which one can see their familiar attitude towards each other. Hal does not hesitate to jokingly and affectionately insult his friend: “Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon” (1.2. 2-4). The two are constantly shown as being very close to each other, Falstaff feeling almost a paternal link to Hal. This is most apparent when it is announced that Hal is going to become King and Falstaff seems to be worried for him. On the other side, Hal enjoys playing tricks on Falstaff, as he is easily fooled and always has an inclination to exaggerate stories. However, Hal protects Falstaff and is there for him when needed. For example, there are multiple occasions when the police come looking for Falstaff in the pub, but Hal is quick in finding an excuse for him. Falstaff relies on Hal in multiple instances and seems to be growing from his presence; in fact, Falstaff explicitly expresses this by saying that “Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing” (1.2. 82-3). However, Hal’s feelings towards Falstaff, and all the commoners in general, are more confusing. Hal seems to be comfortable within their world as he spends almost of his time with them and finds humor in it. This is contrasted with passages when Hal admits that he is putting on a front so that his father, and England in general, do not expect anything from him — so that he can better impress them when he becomes King (1.2. 173-95). His relationship with Falstaff is completely ended when he is crowned in Part 2 and asks that Falstaff is “not to come near our person by ten mile” (5.5. 63). Hal realizes that in order to become the King that he desires to be, he cannot afford to keep his intimate relations with low commoners. Falstaff does not understand this and ends his days consumed by the sadness resulting from Hal, now the King, not talking to him anymore.

Hotspur and Falstaff both have important qualities and faults, but their power lies in their influence over Hal. Through their respective deaths, Hotspur and Falstaff pass along their best traits to Hal. The Hal shown in Henry IV Part 1 is a young and intelligent man, but he lacks the appropriate priorities and family values. Indeed, King Henry IV wishes that his son were more princely. However, through saving his father from being hurt and from killing Hotspur, Hal is able to demonstrate his ability to be the soldier that he is required to be. Following the death of Hotspur, Hal appears to be a true leader, directing troops towards Wales. What separates the two characters is Hal’s ability to take on Hotspur’s best qualities, while leaving aside his impulsiveness. An example of this can be seen through Henry V’s pleading words to God “Not today, O Lord, // O not today, think not upon the fault // My father made in compassing the crown.” (4.1. 274-6). Henry there admits the fault in his father of having usurped the throne of its rightful owner, but never does he make the mistake of pronouncing it aloud or of showing a shred of disloyalty. In contrast with Hotspur, Hal is willing to recognize his mistakes and accept blame. When asked to calm down by his uncle and his father in the first scenes of Part 1, Hotspur ignores them and continues to assert that his actions are rightful. The contrasting scene can be found in Part 2 (5.2), when the Lord Chief Justice tries to justify himself for his actions against the young Hal. Hal, now King, responds by thanking him for having rightfully imprisoned him. As such, Hal takes on the qualities of a family-oriented man who weeps by his dying father’s bed, and of a soldier who is invincible, and adds them to his own temperament and introspection.

However, these qualities are not enough to make Hal the king that he is capable of being, until the middle of Henry V. The start of Henry V shows a king who relies on others to make decisions and who shies away from responsibility. The King announces war with France in part because the money-seeking Canterbury and Exeter advise him to do so. He lays the the guilt of the war on them when he announces that “Therefore let every man now task his thought, That this fair action may on foot be brought” (1.2. 309-10). However, scenes towards the middle of the play, like 3.3 or the famous St Crispian’s day speech, show a King that has a powerful command of language and a will that inspires all his soldiers to want to fight. Without having read Henry IV, it is hard to think about this, mistakenly attributing these qualities to his growth. However, the two previous parts allow us to reconsider this. As stated above, Henry has many fine qualities, but there seems to be something holding him down. Studying Falstaff allows for a better understanding of this behavior. Though Henry cuts the tie between the two worlds at the end of Part 2, he still has very strong links to it as the characters desperately try to get involved in his life. Thus, indirectly, these two forces tug at him and he is unable to fully assume leadership. In 2.3 of Henry V, it is stated that Falstaff is dying because of Henry. This is due to the fact that Henry no longer considers their friendship worthy, although Falstaff is still very dependent on him. By pushing Falstaff to his last breath, Henry is able to let go of his young and rebellious old self and completely assume his new character as the King. Falstaff’s death enables him to really display his aforementioned qualities. Similarly, Henry needs to make his friends Nim and Bardoff face justice, as he cannot have any remaining connections with his previous world. Perhaps most importantly, Henry also acquires Falstaff’s great wordplay, allowing him to motivate and energize his soldiers.

At the outset, Prince Hal is intelligent and funny, but lacks certain, highly necessary kingly qualities. The reading of Henry IV serves as a potential way to understand how Henry V acquires these qualities. Hal kills Hotspur and gets his good traits, but they lie somewhat dormant in him until Henry indirectly kills Falstaff. Not only do these two characters help to explain how Hal becomes the King he does in Henry V, they also justify the actions he takes as a King, actions that might have seemed questionable and rash without the context of Henry IV.

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Reading Henry V as Part of Tetralogy. (2018, February 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from
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