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“I want to be invisible…I paint my face and travel at night.” Ralph Reed, as quoted in The Virginian Pilot and Ledger Star, 11/9/91
Attaining “invisibility,” or privacy from the glaring eye of the public, remains a distinct desire of modern society. This goal has spawned the creation of “high-tech” home security systems, pseudonyms for anyone from famous authors to the average person purchasing “indecent” material off the Internet, and safeguards on computers’ hard drives. Moreover, the book market has been inundated by works that teach how to protect personal information from the prying eyes of telemarketers, con artists, or vengeful former lovers. J.J. Luna, author of How to Be Invisible, a guide to “protecting you assets, your identity, and your life,” aptly describes the situation: “Privacy is now poised to become the most sought-after luxury of the twenty-first century” (Luna 1). But why do people go to such great lengths to keep their public and private lives separate? Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One seems to offer the answer. Henry IV presents us with a rich medley of characters who, not surprisingly, have “erotic, fiscal” and “self-deceptive” “impulses” (Steiner) that drive their private actions. However, as the play’s political situation becomes increasingly convoluted, the characters’ private desires become intertwined with politics and “matters of state” (Steiner). The Prince of Wales, Hal, clearly shows the positive impact of politics on one’s private life; when the lazy and immature Hal is thrown into war, he rises to the occasion and proves himself honorable. His friend, Sir John Falstaff, however, fails to understand the larger significance of the war and instead of fighting valiantly, he chooses to remain dominated by his private fiscal desires. It is thus through politics, through the meshing of public and private life, that the characters of Henry IV are forced to reevaluate their private “impulses” in light of their public consequences; successful political action, then, depends on balancing private desires with political needs.
Erotic impulses constitute our most private desires. It thus comes as no surprise that popular celebrities often try to hide their relationships from the press. Moreover, when President Bill Clinton’s own private life was thrust into the limelight, he was also loath to dole out details of his affair with Monica Lewinsky and ended up perjuring himself. Similarly, the warriors of Henry IV conclude that erotic impulses have no place in political dealings and they consequently try to suppress their wives’ desires. However, Shakespeare clearly suggests that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do this. Lord Mortimer listens carefully to his wife’s Welsh pleas and to Owen Glendower’s translation. He assures her that, “I understand thy kisses, and thou mine / And that’s a feeling disputation [dialogue by the feelings]” (3.1.204-205). He tells her that although she cannot “be a soldier too” (3.1.193), she can soon join Glendower on his march to battle.
In sharp contrast to Mortimer’s loving speech to his wife and attempts to understand her frustrations, Harry Percy or Hotspur is rude and impatient with his wife. Initially, Lady Percy asks Hotspur very nicely why he has been snubbing her:
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep? (2.3.39-42)
In this speech, Lady Percy shows genuine concern for her husband and his strange behavior. She is worried about his developing insomnia and preoccupation over battle at the expense of their marriage. However, instead of allaying her concern, Hotspur merely ignores her pleas and demands that his horse be brought to him. By obsessing over the war and overly suppressing his natural erotic impulses, Hotspur is not only spurning his wife, but is also setting himself up for a deafening political defeat.
In our money-driven society, many people allow their fiscal desires to dominate their lives. In addition to the standard “workaholic,” there are people who are willing to risk their safety or even their lives for a financial reward. There have been many cases of wives or husbands murdering their spouses to collect their life insurance policies. Moreover, fiscal desires provide the basis for some strange and disturbing television shows and movies. One such television show, Fear Factor, features people who willingly eat insects, jump out of airplanes, and crawl through sewage drains to reap some financial reward. On a more serious note, a recent movie, The Glass House, depicts an egocentric business mogul who murders his best friend so that he can have custody of his friend’s children and of their four million dollar inheritance. The old saying, “You can’t buy happiness” appears to be lost on some of these people.
In Henry IV, Falstaff’s private life is consumed by financial desires; he is hedonist to the core who needs extensive funds to buy an “intolerable deal of sack [wine]” (2.4.543). At the play’s opening, Falstaff is just an isolated drunk whose actions have no real significance on the larger world. However, when Hal puts him in charge of a band of foot soldiers, he is given the opportunity to change. And Falstaff does consider the merits and pitfalls of acting honorably:
Honor pricks [spurs] me on. Yes, but how if honor prick me off [kills me] when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a [replace a lost] leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air a trim [fine] reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction [slander] will not suffer [allow] it. Therefore I’ll none of it. (5.1.129-140)
Instead of allowing his feelings of public duty to penetrate his private fiscal impulses, Falstaff selfishly concludes that since honor is of no use to the living man, he will not die trying to attain it. He ends his speech by again linking honor with death and calling honor “a mere scutcheon” (52E1.140-141), which is a painted decoration for the coffins of the dead.
Additionally, Falstaff goes beyond merely attacking the abstract idea of honor; he undermines its principles to achieve his fiscal goals. We are first introduced to him as a somewhat ruthless and covetous man who jumps at the opportunity to steal money from innocent travelers. Moreover, he insists that if Hal does not join him on this little venture, then Hal has “neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee, nor thou cam’st not of the blood royal if thou darest not stand for [rob someone of] ten shillings” (1.2.143-145). Falstaff’s dishonorable deeds to further his own fiscal desires at the expense of the royal family do not stop there, however. When Hal puts him in charge of a brigade of foot soldiers, Falstaff impresses only the wealthiest, “toasts-and-butter” (4.2.21) men who can afford to pay their way out of service. While Falstaff acknowledges that he has “misused the King’s press [power of conscription] damnably” (4.2.12-13), he is delighted to have received, “in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds” (4.2.13-14). Falstaff’s actions in this situation are unique in that they could have a direct effect on the war and, by extension, on the English realm. By choosing a bunch of “dishonorable” (4.2.31) and “discarded unjust serving-men” (4.2.28) to be his soldiers, Falstaff is single-handedly weakening the English forces. However, Falstaff does not consider the larger consequences of his selfish actions; he merely marvels at his own cleverness and ability to fulfill his private fiscal desires at the expense of the English public.
With Owen Glendower, Shakespeare presents somewhat of a “fiscal” foil for Falstaff; Glendower recognizes the significance of the war and consequently reevaluates his own fiscal impulses in light of their political ramifications. Glendower, the leader of Wales, is a wise and powerful warrior who is accustomed to getting his way and not tolerating insolence. However, when the fiery Hotspur insists that his share of the land under the rebels’ proposed land division “in quantity equals not one of yours” (3.1.96), Glendower agrees that Hotspur may straighten out the Trent River so that his holdings include a fertile valley: “Come, you shall have Trent turned [straightened]” (3.1.135). Glendower gives in to Hotspur at his own fiscal expense because he recognizes the potentially disastrous results that internal division among the rebels could have on their war effort.
Several characters in Henry IV also exhibit self-deceptive impulses that hinder their political action. People often act in a self-deceptive manner because they want to hide from reality and feel better about themselves. In Jane Austen’s Emma, the protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, is the perfect example of self-deception. Emma is the town matchmaker, yet she has convinced herself that she does not want a spouse and is content to be single. It is only after Emma is able to get past her self-deceptive barriers that she can recognize, and act on, her love for Robert Knightley. Similarly, alcoholics’ and drug-abusers’ refusal to admit that they have a problem often slows down the process of recovery.
At the play’s beginning, Prince Hal appears to be living in self-deception. He spends his days frolicking in various taverns and hatching immature plots to embarrass Falstaff. We initially see Hal as being extremely egocentric; he does not seem to care that his callow behavior is disgracing the royal family. In fact, Hal mocks the young warrior, Hotspur, whom his father most admires: “I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North: he that kills me some six or seven Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work'” (2.4.112-116). However, as testament for Hal’s self-deception about his own warrior aspirations, we see him embody Hotspur’s fighting spirit as he enters the battle. Sir Richard Vernon, a relative of the Percys, describes the approaching Hal as follows:
I saw young Harry with his beaver [helmet] on,
His cushes [thigh armor] on his thighs, gallantly armed,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat
As if an angel dropped down from the clouds
To turn and wind [wheel about] a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship. (4.1.103-109)
Hal goes on to fight valiantly in the war and ultimately reject the callow pursuits of his youth when he meets Falstaff on the battlefield. When the “idle” (5.3.39) Falstaff, too concerned for his own well-being to draw his sword and fight for his country, refuses to lend Hal his sword, Hal furiously remarks: “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (5.4.55). With this indignant retort, Hal recognizes Falstaff’s pathetic rejection of his public duty and realizes his own desire to fight for his country and father.
While Hal is able to shake off his self-deception and fight bravely, other characters are not as lucky. Hal enters a war in which his side has a clear military advantage; although Douglas and Hotspur do fight bravely, their self-deceptive impulses lead them to wage a war which they have little chance of winning. Additionally, Douglas and Hotspur do not consider the larger effect that their personal military failure could have on the other rebels. Hotspur’s self-deception can be traced back to the play’s beginning, when he receives a letter from a noble who refuses to join Hotspur’s forces because “the purpose you undertake is dangerous, the friends you have named uncertain, the time itself unsorted [unsuitable], and your whole plot too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition” (2.3.10-14). Instead of seriously considering this accurate analysis of his situation, Hotspur merely scoffs at the “lack-brain” (2.3.16) noble and reassures himself that his plan is fool-proof: “By the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was laid; our friends true and constant: a good plot, good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends” (2.3.16-19). However, when Hotspur learns that his father is ill and that his father’s forces will not fight in the war, he begins to clearly see the true weakness of his side: “This sickness doth infect / The very lifeblood of our enterprise” (4.12E27-28). But his self-deception immediately returns and he quickly notes that by winning the war without his father’s army, the small band of rebels will enjoy greater “opinion [prestige]” (4.1.76). This self-deception ultimately culminates when Hotspur, faced with the fiery Hal, notes that Hal lacks his military status and implies that this battle will be the “end” (5.42E68) of Hal: ” [I] would [wish] to God / Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!” (5.4.68-69). It thus comes as no surprise, after witnessing Hal’s public failures when he was dominated by self-deception, that Hotspur and his over-confident ally Douglas are decisively defeated in the war.
While Henry IV is clearly chock-full of characters who miserably fail to balance their private impulses with their political needs, King Henry IV himself does understand political mechanics. Thoroughly disappointed with his son’s behavior, he warns Hal that by being such a public figure, “So common-hackneyed in the eyes of men / So stale and cheap to vulgar company” (3.2.40-41), he is losing the respect and mysterious air that is essential to a successful king. Moreover, he compares Hal’s frivolous behavior to that of Richard II, the former king whose crown Henry usurped: “The skipping King, he ambled up and down / With shallow jesters and rash bavin [burnt out] wits” (3.2.60-61). This is one of the few speeches that the very private King Henry makes to his son, and it exemplifies his understanding of what it means to be king. While Henry’s successful usurpation of Richard’s throne has traditionally been attributed to his powerful army of angry nobles and to his stellar planning, Shakespeare seems to suggest, as one of the unifying themes of Henry IV, that his successful rule partially depended on his ability to balance his private and public impulses.
Luna, J.J. How To Be Invisible. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Steiner, George. “The Writer and the State.” New York Times. January 1986.
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