The Legitimacy of Rule and Kingship in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2
By setting the opening of 1 Henry IV amid political instability and fierce rebellion, questions of kingship and the legitimacy of that power are immediately thrust to the forefront of audience consciousness. Interestingly, it is these tensions which drive the plot. The bleak opening lines spoken by Henry IV: “so shaken as we are, so wan with care” are understandable when considering that the nation he rules over is threatened on two borders and that the very nobles who brought him to power are now attempting to unseat him. The threat of the Scottish is made all the more ominous since they are aided by the northern nobles, who assisted Henry when he usurped Richard II, as they have already proved their efficiency when it comes to removing a crowned monarch. In addition there is the threat from the Welsh, which is intensified by the marriage of Edmund Mortimer (a captive Englishman) to the daughter of the Welsh leader, troubling since Mortimer arguably has a better claim to the throne than the King’s own. In the uncertain world which we are presented with in the opening scenes of 1 Henry IV we are liable to ask we are likely to question the legitimacy of the monarch in relation to the volatility of the country and the consequences of rebelling against a ruler.
One obvious explanation for the current troubles plaguing Henry is that he is not the rightful king, since he deposed his cousin Richard II, making his reign unlawful. D S Kastan1 claims; “The real source of instability … rests in the manner in which Henry has become king” and it is undeniable that the memory of Richard II haunts these plays. In Act 1 scene 3 Hotspur even unfavourably compares Henry with his predecessor: “Richard, that sweet lovely rose / And plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke” (I.iii.174-5). There is an almost corrupt quality to the image of a rose and a thorn and definitely a sense of hierarchy; that one is beautiful and the other ugly and sharp. Perhaps, this can be linked to the notion of divinely appointed heads of state, Richard II being God favoured is the “sweet lovely rose” and Henry the illegitimate usurper is merely a “thorn.”
With usurping Richard II, there came not only the moral dilemma of taking the place of a man who only needed to answer to God, but also the practical issue of the nobles who helped Henry IV come to power. From this perspective it could be argued that Henry is guilty of neglect of the people that brought him to the throne, which is especially foolish since they helped him to power by rebelling against the King, exactly the threat he now fears most. The dissatisfaction of the Percys is abundantly clear since they believe that they “did give him that same royalty he wears” (IV.iii.55) and they are now “unappreciated and vulnerable”2 under the new leadership of Henry IV. The reason for the Percys’ actions against Henry IV has nothing to do with the fierce legitimist claims made by these one time rebels; it is the age old concern of self interest:
“The King will always think him in our debt
And think we think ourselves unsatisfied
Till he hath found a time to pay us home” (I.iii.281-3)
Hotspur makes this explicit when he regrets that they have set “the crown / Upon the head of this forgetful man” (I.iii.144-6). In this way it seems that Henry is in trouble, not because he does not fit into the divine succession of monarchs, but because he has forgotten the people who brought him to his current position. In this instance he appears to lack the political skill and foresight to see that he must keep his supporters happy. Apparently this is a misjudgement on the part of Henry, as opposed to the failure of his rule because he was not divinely appointed. However, it could be argued that this is because Henry lacks the divine judgment thought by some in Elizabethan England to be possessed by monarchs.
Written and originally performed at a time when the concept of the divine right of kings was still being propagated by Elizabeth I as a political tool, the plays watch the rule of a monarch who has not lineally succeeded to the throne, but has deposed a lawful king. The concept of the ruler being divinely appointed to God, and as such only answerable to him, made Henry’s rebelling against Richard II as much blasphemy as treason. This particular aspect of Henry’s crime is likely to have resonated more with a contemporary audience who would have been aware of this concept even if they did not believe it. In his description of how dexterously he gained the support of the public, Henry IV inadvertently acknowledges of the illegitimacy of his present rule:
“I stole all courtesy from heaven
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths
Even in the presence of the crowned King” (III.ii.50-4)
The verbs “stole” and “dressed” reveal his awareness of the crime that he has committed. Also, the phrase “crowned King” attempts to undercut Richard II’s authority but in only succeeds in reminding us of his legitimate rule. This is even clearer in 2 Henry IV where Henry explicitly admits the “by-paths and indirect crooked ways” (IV.v.184-5) by which he took the crown from Richard II. This understanding and acknowledgement of his guilt indicates that on some level Henry knows that he is not the legitimate ruler and is troubled by the fact.
The tensions of the opening of 1 Henry IV certainly take their toll on the eponymous character and this is reflected in his language. Tellingly, Henry begins to start using the first person instead of the royal “we,” that publicly signifies the unity of King and country, since he can no longer speak for his fractured nation:
“My blood hath been too cold and temperate
Unapt to stir at these indignities,
And you have found me, for accordingly
You tread upon my patience; but be sure
I will henceforth rather be myself.” (I.iii.1-5)
Henry’s uncertainty, leading him to lapse to first person, implies that his role as king is slightly uncomfortable since the language of royalty does not come naturally. This comes after Henry discovers Hotspur’s rejection to hand over the prisoners “that he believes are rightfully his”3 and in his treatment of Worcester and Northumberland clearly shows that he sees the “danger and disobedience” (I.iii.16) in the attitude of the Percys and is troubled by it. This speech demonstrates how Henry’s confidence in his own ability has been shaken by the rebel forces and also that on some level the crack in his authority results from a fear that his rule is not legitimate. D S Kastan4 argues that for Henry to be himself is for him to be “King in all his regal majesty” but “to be King in this delegitimized world is to be dependent upon a coercive power that can be displayed rather than upon an authority willingly ceded by loyal subjects.”
This calls into question whether a monarch rules by the will of God or by the will of his people. Despite Henry’s worries over the legitimacy of his rule, his real concern for Hal is not his lineage but his political ability. In Act III Scene ii he chastises his son for his “inordinate and low desires”, since he believes Hal’s wild behaviour in the taverns of London has threatened his authority. In this scene Henry admits his manipulation of public opinion to take the throne from Richard II: “Had I so lavish of my presence been / … Opinion, that did help me to the crown” (III.ii.40-3) and in this shows himself to be skilled at playing the part of King which is required. The mystery surrounding Henry meant that he made his “presence like a robe pontifical / Ne’er seen but wondered at” (III.ii.56-57). Interestingly Hal using the same phrase: “wondered at” in Act I scene ii where he informs the audience of his plan:
“Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at. ” (I.ii.187-191)
In terms of understanding and manipulating the English populace Hal has the same understanding as his father, (indicated by the desire of both to be “wondered at”) but Hal takes his plan a stage further. He does this by constructing a negative impression of himself, to make his improvement when he takes the throne, all the more impressive. These political tactics used by Henry and Hal move away from the notion of a ruler being divinely appointed and assisted by God and instead moves towards the impression that to succeed as a King you must know what the people want and then play that part.
In Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 the concern of legitimacy appears to be overwhelmed by that of political prowess. Both Henry and Hal understand that the role of King “can – indeed must – be acted”5 and show their awareness that “legitimacy is something that must be forged no less by kings in Westminster than by Falstaff in the tavern.”6 Both father and son are successful rulers in different ways and key to their success is their understanding of politics and cold ability to manipulate others. Although this may lead to good kings, interestingly, this does not lead to good men. This is most obvious in the case of Hal and Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV, in which Falstaff’s affection for his young friend is unmistakable in his cries of “God save thy grace, King Hal, my royal Hal!” (V.v.41) and he is met with chilling disdain with Hal’s brutal speech beginning “I know thee not, old man.”
In these plays not only are the qualities of monarchs debated but also, especially in the character of Hal, to what extent humanity must be sacrificed on the altar of kingship. Although the audience know from the opening act of the play that Hal’s intention is to reject his “loose behaviour” and London friends, we are still shocked when he rejects Falstaff since there appears to be genuine affection between them. This coldness seems to be a characteristic required for kingship, but a this moment in the play Hal appears to be de-humanised, no longer the “sweet boy” but now Henry V. Despite the fact that we know he was playing the part of the irresponsible prince in the Boar’s Head tavern, his cruel dismissal of Falstaff clearly illustrates that to rule, one’s individuality and humanity must, to a certain degree, be sacrificed.