The Prodigal Prince
The Prodigal Prince: An Analysis of the Redemption of Prince Henry in Shakespeare’sThe History of Henry the Fourth [Part I]
Thesis: Prince Hal outwardly acquires the skills and character necessary for leadership as the play develops by relying on the qualities of awareness, self-consciousness, and noble character which he already has.
II. The Prince’s First Soliloquy and its Contents
A. The Notion of the Redeemed
B. Parallels to the Prodigal Son
III. Evidence for the Opinions Perceived by the Prince as Depicted in His First Soliloquy
A. Falstaff and the Prince in the Tavern
B. The Prince and the King in the Palace
IV. Change in Perception of the Prince
A. Vernon and Hotspur
B. Rescue of the King
V. Distinction Between Outward Redemption and the Consistence of the Prince’s true Character
A. Response to King’s Insults
B. Prince’s Defeat of Hotspur
C. Response to Falstaff’s Claim of Defeating Hotspur
D. Release of Prisoners
A. Discussion of King’s Opinion of Richard II
B. Final Distinction Between Perceptions of Prince and His True Character
The Prodigal Prince: An Analysis of the Redemption of Prince Henry in Shakespeare’sThe History of Henry the Fourth [Part I]
The History of Henry the Fourth [Part I] concerns itself with war. In the time in which the events of the play take place, England is fraught with war. It is not war against an outside foe, which often has the effect of rallying a country around a common cause, but rather a civil war; a war in which countryman is pitted against countryman, while a nation stands divided. In no other circumstance could the nature of leadership be better observed or more direfully tested than when the very ground on which the King’s throne stands begins to divide and crumble. Shakespeare’s Henry IV finds the King in just such a position.
In the setting of the play, the King’s assent to the throne has caused much of the chaos within the country. As an usurper of the throne, it would seem that the leadership of Henry IV would come under the greatest scrutiny, since it is more severely tested and more in question than that of a “rightful” monarch. In the play, however, this does not seem to be the case. The King’s ability to lead is rarely questioned, rather it is his son’s mettle that is often suspect. The play seems to primarily concern itself with the ability of Hal, the Prince and future king, to rule the land, as his reign gradually approaches. More specifically, it concerns itself with Hal’s nature as a leader. Does he, a man who is notorious for the vulgar company he keeps, have the heart and mind of a king? The answer Shakespeare offers rests decidedly on the side of the affirmative.
During the development of the play, Hal acquires the talents and skills necessary to rule as king. Or, to be more precise, Hal demonstrates that he has the heart and mind of a king in his awareness of human nature and in his consciousness of himself. He understands people’s opinions of him and his behavior, and he comprehends his own situation with a clarity that is rare among even the most adept rulers. Hal realizes that his association with Sir John Falstaff and the like has given him a reputation for vulgarity and common behavior. More importantly, however, he recognizes that the predicament in which he finds himself can be used to his advantage. The strongest evidence of his awareness comes at the end of the second scene of act one, in Hal’s first soliloquy.
In this soliloquy, the Prince gives voice to his notion that the redeemed is more revered than the steadfast. He compares himself to the well-appreciated sun that comes out after being obscured by the clouds for a time. Hal plays upon the modern axiom that “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” when he comments that “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work;…” (I. ii., ll. 201-202). Finally, near the end of the soliloquy, Hal candidly explains how he feels people’s perceptions of him will change:
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promiséd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off. (I. ii., ll. 205-212)
Although it is not directly expressed in the text, it seems that these lines echo the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. Just as the father rejoices to the fullest extent of his means when his wayward son returns, Hal expects the people’s admiration of him to be all the more intense for his having been redeemed. While the son that remains at home receives no extravagant reward for his diligence, the prodigal son receives a banquet replete with his father’s finest livestock in honor of his salvation. Hal fully comprehends this notion and expects his country’s feast in his honor to be just as lavish. In the course of the play, his prediction proves true.
A good deal of evidence exists in the text of the play to support Hal’s perception of the public’s opinion of him. One of the first examples of this opinion occurs in the tavern at Eastcheap when, in jest, Falstaff plays the role of the King, Hal’s father, and chastises Hal for the company he keeps, excepting of course “…a virtuous man whom / I have often noted in the company,…” (II. iv., ll. 422-423)—Falstaff. Hal continues the role-play by assuming the role of the King and also criticizing the Prince, now played by Falstaff, for his associations, especially Falstaff. While humorous, this exchange in the tavern provides a glimpse into the common perception of the group. The humorous context in which this perception is presented hightens the impression that Hal is so aware and familiar with his situation that he is comfortable enough in his knowledge to laugh at it. In a clever inversion by Shakespeare, this dialogue in the public tavern actually gives the audience an insight into the King’s opinion of Hal and his band. Later, in a conversation with the King, Hal will hear how the subjects of the realm perceive him, as well as a further account of his father’s opinion.
In the second scene of the third act, Hal and the King have a conversation concerning the ignoble behavior for which Hal has become notorious. Initially, after broaching the subject with his son, the King tries to impress upon him the extent to which the people expect his failure:
The hope and expectation of thy time
Is ruined, and the soul of every man
Prophetically do forethink thy fall. (III. ii., ll. 36-38)
After expressing this point, the King brings his personal displeasure to bear on Hal. His displeasure manifests itself as rather sharp insults, intended to goad Hal into reform. In more than one instance, he compares Hal to the enemies of the Crown. First, he mentions that Hotspur “hath more worthy interest to the state / Than thou the shadow of succession” (III. ii., 98-99), and then follows by placing Hal in league with the rebels. Clearly, the King’s personal feelings concerning the matter of his son’s delinquency are much more negative than those of the common people. Hal’s response to his father’s tirade, however, reveals the sprouting of the seed planted in his first soliloquy.
In his response, Hal begins to draft for his father his vision of the future:
For the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;….
(III. ii., 144-148)
In his own prophetic words, Hal details exactly how he plans to redeem himself to both the people and the King. These lines are a strong testament to Hal’s awareness of his plight. In the very same text, he also admits to a consciousness of his disregard for noble behavior. In act five, this consciousness causes him to offer himself as a sacrifice to prevent the outbreak of war by proposing a single fight with Hotspur. Although his request is denied, opinion concerning the Prince begins to change rapidly.
In the following scene in act five, Hotspur inquires as to how the offer of a single fight was made. He immediately assumes that it was in contempt, which would make Hal seem vulgar and ignoble. Vernon replies to the contrary:
No, by my soul. I never in my life
Did hear a challenge urged more modestly,….
He gave you all the duties of a man;…
And chid his truant youth with such a grace
As if he mast’red there a double spirit
Of teaching and of learning instantly….
England did never owe so sweet a hope,
So much misconstrued in his wantonness.
(V. ii., ll. 51-68)
Soon after Vernon is swayed by the apparent change in Hal, after he has endorsed him with ringing praise, Hal redeems himself in his father’s eyes by warding off the attack of Douglas and saving the King’s life. At this point, the King reveals just how deep his suspicions of the Prince ran. He divulges the fact that he had supposed that Hal had been hoping for the King’s death. Fortunately, the defeat of Douglas convinces the King of his son’s true noble character, and Hal becomes a Prince in his father’s eyes.
While this evidence demonstrates the success of Hal’s plan for redemption, there are a number of difficulties with an analysis in which Hal merely sets a goal for himself and then executes the necessary steps to achieve that goal. Hal’s redemption is not simply a matter of rising from the depths of his youth because of the fact that he was not actually corrupt in his youth. He is merely perceived as such by those around him. A testament to this presents itself when Hal does not participate in the highway robbery with Falstaff. Instead, he retrieves the money from Falstaff and returns it to its owners, along with a compensation for their troubles. Hal’s behavior in other parts of the play also demonstrates this strength of character.
Most of the incidents that do not fit the notion of an internal redemption occur toward the end of the play. Before these are examined however, Hal’s response to his father’s criticism in act three deserves a second look. The simple fact that Hal responds coolly to his father’s harsh accusations demonstrates a maturity and understanding befitting a very wise and experienced person. This maturity again presents itself after Hal slays Hotspur. Without anyone present to hear him, Hal speaks only the best of his adversary. He recognizes the misguided nobility of Hotspur and hopes that he is remembered only for his honor, and not for his rebellion:
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven.
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,
But not rememb’red in thy epitaph.
(V. iv., ll. 97-99)
The honor present in these lines speaks volumes concerning the true nature of Prince Hal’s heart. More pivotal evidence follows.
After taking the life of the head of the rebels, it seems that Hal should go on to crown himself with both the rescue of his father and the triumph over his adversary. Instead, Hal allows Falstaff to claim the victory as his own. Why does Shakespeare incorporate these aspects into Hal’s conduct? The answer lies precisely in the fact that Hal is indeed a noble and just man. In allowing Falstaff this glory, Hal demonstrates to the audience and to the reader that he has a tender heart and deserves the virtuous garb of royalty. Incidentally, it seems that this gesture puts to rest conjecture that Hal is not a true friend of Falstaff’s, and that he merely needs him to execute his public redemption. Clearly, this sacrifice plumbs the depth of Hal’s love for his comrade and illustrates his desire to maintain Falstaff in his company. In a sense, he allows Falstaff his own redemption.
Hal’s last deed in the play cements his ability to rule and his just claim to power. As his last action, Hal frees his prisoners without ransom, and allows them to return to their homes. This forgiveness depicts the extent to which Hal’s maturity, awareness and benevolence are developed. He looks past his power to punish those who rebelled against his father, those who sought his death, to a vision of the future. By acting mercifully toward Douglas, Hal not only acts generously, but he probably leaves Douglas with a better impression of the character of the Prince than he had before. In the future, this respect may engender loyalty.
The argument that is presented by the King in his discussion of Richard II’s reign in act three is often used to counter the notions of redemption presented in the Prince’s first soliloquy. The King argues that Hal is in danger of being perceived as too common, too vulgar, just as Richard was. He seems to subscribe to the notion that it is the steadfastly honorable, awe-inspiring ruler that serves best. This does not, as some might argue, eliminate Hal as a candidate in this category. The fact that people perceive him as someone who overcame the indiscretions of his youth in order to rise to his rank does not render him less inspiring. Perceived as an honorable person at the end of the play, the Prince can still inspire from the distant pedestal of royalty, with the advantage that he is also praised for his salvation.
While, from the point of view of the public and his father, Hal gradually sheds the tattered and sullied rags of his youth and dons the magnificent robes of royalty, the audience sees the man behind the outer vestments. They are able to see a man, a Prince who achieves glory and awe in the public eye, but who has always had the qualities of awareness and self-consciousness with which to rightfully rule as the eventual king.