Kingship and Counterfeit: Shakespeare’s Deconstructionist Vision in Henry IV

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IV. The Work and the Play
Once we recognize Prince Hal as a Machiavellian fox occupying the central position of the stage, we will be able to read Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, as a deconstructive text aiming not only to subvert the logocentrism of the providential concept of historical causation, but also to subvert many other logocentrisms or “violent hierarchies” underlying the two works or plays which for many critics are actually but one work or one play about the same hero, Hal.4

To begin with, let us look at the plot. We see in both parts of Henry IV a serious plot twines with a comic one. The serious plot comprises the plotting scenes, the battling acts, and other serious matters connected with the King, the princes, the lords, etc., whose speeches are not jokes because they mean what they say, and whose concerns are not trivialities because they bear on the affairs of the state. In contrast, the comic plot comprises the tavern scenes, the ludicrous acts, and other funny matters connected with Falstaff, the Eastcheap guys, and other low-class commoners whose conversations are mostly frothy jokes and whose concerns are mostly private, trivial affairs. So, it is only natural to say the serious plot is the main plot and the comic one is the subplot. For one signifies “work” while the other signifies “play.”

But this serious/comic or work/play division is a "violent hierarchy." To privilege the serious over the comic or work over play is a logocentrism because, upon further consideration, we find the division has its own aporia; the comic turns out to be no different from the serious and (the) play is (the) work.

Prince Hal is the very man that mingles the serious with the comic and the very man that knows (the) play is (the) work. Once in an apartment the Prince, hearing how Falstaff disregarded an old lord talking very wisely in the street, commented: “Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in the streets and no man regards it” (Pt. 1, I, ii, 86-7). This joking comment implies in fact Prince Hal’s acceptance of the proverb, his understanding that wisdom can be found even in the streets, and his belief that one should not disregard wisdom because of its place of occurrence. So, it is not surprising that the Prince seeks to increase his wisdom by mixing with “the false staff” outside of the court.

What has the Prince learned, then, in the tavern? For one thing, he must have learned the truth suggested by Falstaff that “the true prince may (for recreation sake) prove/a false thief” (Pt. 1, I, ii, 150-1). We know Prince Hal refused at first to join Falstaff’s plot of robbery, but later he joined with Poins in robbing the robbers “for recreation sake.” On the surface, this act appears to be nothing but play in the sense of sport. Yet, if we think deeply, we will realize that this play is also a practice, a principal practice as to how to rob the world—much like the lion’s whelp practicing in sport how to hunt for prey. This interpretation is intensified by Gadshill’s remarks:

I am joined with no foot-land rakers,

no long-staff sixpenny strikers, none of these mad

mustachio purple-hued maltworms, but with nobil-

ity and tranquillity, burgomasters and great onyers,

such as can hold in, such as will strike sooner than

speak, and speak sooner than drink, and drink

sooner than pray—and yet, ‘zounds, I lie, for they

pray continually to their saint the commonwealth,

or rather not pray to her, but prey on her, for they

ride up and down on her, and make her their boots.

(Pt. 1, II, i, 72-81)

These remarks, though made sportingly, have pinpointed the difficulty of telling statesmen from highwaymen, of claiming oneself as “a true man” rather than “a false thief” (as Gadshill did to the Chamberlain), because “homo is a common name to all men” (Pt. 1, II, i, 90-3)—all men, high and low, are thieves—the only difference is: some men (the great ones) can openly rob the commonwealth with impunity while others (the small ones) are often threatened with justice even if they commit but petty larceny. So, symbolically Prince Hal’s playing the sport of holdup men is an imitation of the politicians’ playing the tricks of stealing a state. Usurpation of a kingdom is a kind of robbery. The lords’ “serious plot” is actually not “high” above the louts’ “comic plot.” This truth was recklessly revealed by Hotspur when, upon finishing his rebellious “noble plot” with his father and uncle, he exclaimed, “O, let the hours be short,/Till fields, and blows, and groans applaud our sport!” (Pt., 1, I, iii, 273 & 295-6). The violent hierarchy of serious/comic or work/play is thus deconstructed.

The double plot of Henry IV is accompanied by the dubious logos called “honor.” Curtis Brown Watson has pointed out that “Shakespeare’s heroes, like the great lords of Elizabeth’s court, feel an allegiance to Christian as well as to Greek and Roman ideals, but Shakespeare reflects a concept of honor—of moral esteem dependent on the public recognition of virtue—whose philosophic roots lead directly back to Aristotle and Cicero” (73). That is, Shakespeare’s heroes may take honor for eternal, heavenly fame as well as for public esteem, but Shakespeare seems to regard honor, as did Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Seneca before him, as primarily a matter of public esteem. Thus, honor for Shakespeare is liable for deconstruction if it is mistaken for a sort of “presence,” an ultimate truth to live on.

In a sense, all the plot details of Henry IV are centered on the theme of honor. The King, the princes, the archbishop, the lords, and all other “worthy” people’s serious acts and “noble” scenes are all intended to “buy” honor as a lasting fame in heaven and on earth, whereas the “false staff,” the gadders, the loafers, the cheaters, and all other “unmerited” fellows’ comic acts and “ignoble” scenes are all left with shame or dishonor. However, is honor really an attainable “presence”? We have seen Hotspur forever hotly spurred on by honor. To him, “it were an easy leap/To pluck bright honor from the pale faced moon,/Or dive into the bottom of the deep,/Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,/And pluck up drowned honor by the locks” (Pt. 1, I, iii, 199-203). King Henry IV called him “the theme of honor’s tongue” (Pt. 1, I, i, 80) from the beginning, imagined “every honor sitting on his helm” (Pt. 1, III, ii, 142), and exclaimed: “What never-dying honor hath he got/Against renowned Dauglas!” (Pt. 1, III, ii, 106-7). Yet, in one single battle at Shrewsbury, Prince Hal could boast to crop all the budding honors on Hotspur’s crest to make a garland for his own head (Pt. 1, V, iv, 71-2). When Hotspur was fatally wounded, he cried out:

O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth!

I better brook the loss of brittle life

Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;

They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh:

But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,

And time, that takes survey of all the world,

Must have a stop. (Pt. 1, V, iv, 76-82)

He knew only too late that honor as the name for military prowess is unreliable. But this is a truth already known to Falstaff, who reasoned about death and honor thus:

Well, ‘tis no matter, honor pricks

me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I

come on, how then? Can honor set to a 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. …

Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere

scutcheon. (Pt. 1, V, ii, 129-140)

So he did not like “such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath” (Pt. 1, V, iv, 59). He chose to live with dishonor and even dishonorably tried to steal honor by claiming that he himself had killed Hotspur.

If honor is just a word, is but air, or is a mere scutcheon, it has no real “presence,” then. The highest honor is to become sovereign of the state. But the crown as the symbol of that supreme power is forever passable from one person to another. Bolingbroke got it from Richard II to become Henry IV by, “God knows, what by-paths and indirect crooked ways” (Pt. 2, IV, v, 184). But while he was suspecting that Prince Hal had hastily attempted to take it from him, the Prince realized that the imperial crown signified not only power but also care, which “keep’st the ports of slumber open wide/To many a watchful night” (Pt. 2, IV, v, 23-4). So he told his father king that he actually upbraided the crown by saying that “thou best of gold art worst of gold” because “thou, most fine, most honored, most renowned,/Hast eat thy bearer up” (Pt. 2, IV, v, 160-4).

We do not know for sure whether or not Prince Hal was telling the truth earnestly about the crown. Anyway, the crown is indeed not a “full presence” capable of signifying in any circumstances the supreme power of a king. In some cases, it can be just a transient trace, a mocking supplement on the owner’s head, just like the cushion put on Falstaff’s head when he was playing Bolingbroke in the play-within-the-play.

Talking of the play-within-the-play, we find it has at least a fourfold construing of deconstructive ideas. First, Falstaff’s suggestion that “This chair shall be my state, this dagger my scepter, and this cushion my crown,” coupled with Prince Hal’s reply that “Thy state is taken for a joint-stool, thy golden scepter for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich crown for a pitiful bald crown” (Pt. 1, II, iv, 373-7), has told us the deconstructive idea that anything can be a symbol of anything or the idea that any signified can again serve as a signifier, and thus diffèrance is inevitable. Second, in this travesty Falstaff’s playing Bolingbroke “in King Cambyses’ vein” (Pt. 1, II, iv, 382) has told us the fact that the world is full of different symbols for the same thing. Here Falstaff clearly claims to stand for the king (he is in fact regarded as the King of Eastcheap). Later, at Shrewsbury, we find “The King hath many marching in his coats” (Pt. 1, V, iii, 25). We know Bolingbroke is the “true” king now. But the King used to be Richard II before. Even now, there is also Mortimer, who is said to be the proclaimed heir to Richard II. And we have Harry Percy, too, who is called “the king of honor” (Pt. 1, IV, i, 10). So, the world of Henry IV has really witnessed the “dissemination” of “player-kings,” that is, people who play the role of king in one sense/way or another. And it is Prince Hal, the ideal prince and future King Henry V, alone, that can “penetrate the surface of names and things” and culminate the search for a player-king (Allman 19). Third, if Falstaff can displace Bolingbroke as Prince Hal’s father in the play-within-the-play, it is possible to consider other symbolic displacements of father and son relations. In Richard Wheeler’s psychological analysis, such displacements include Hal and Hotspur as sons to Henry IV, Northumberland and Worcester as weak and deceitful fathers to Hotspur, and the Lord Chief Justice, whom Hal makes “a father to my youth” (Pt. 2, V, ii, 118), besides Henry IV and Falstaff as fathers to Hal (Wheeler 159). In fact, when the Prince became King Henry V, he also assumed the stance of father to his brothers, as he said, “I’ll be your father and your brother too” (Pt. 2, V, ii, 57). Symbolic displacements as such render the sense of “father” unstable and make possible the reiteration and dissemination of the father/son hierarchy. Fourth, the fact that Falstaff and Prince Hal each in turn played the other’s father suggests that the father/son relationship is indeed a violent hierarchy at times. If to father is to teach, we may well agree with Wordsworth that in a sense “the child is father of the man.” In the case of Prince Hal, for example, it turns out that he was the man to teach his father king the true significance of the crown, and the man to teach Falstaff, his “playful” father, the inadequacy of mere play without work. From Prince Hal we may even go further to consider Hotspur. Hotspur’s death has certainly taught his father not only the vanity of fame but also the importance of military superiority.

Now, to return to our consideration of the characters, we admit that Falstaff can indeed represent Misrule while Lord Chief Justice represents Rule. But this character contrast does not necessarily imply that Shakespeare has endorsed the Rule/Misrule hierarchy, privileging the former over the latter. To be sure, Lord Chief Justice’s final triumph and Falstaff’s shameful ending might incur that association. And Prince Hal’s understanding that “If all the year were playing holidays,/To sport would be as tedious as to work” (Pt. 1, I, ii, 199-200) certainly calls for Rule rather than Misrule. But we must realize that in terms of Rule and Misrule, all rebellious personages are in a true sense embodiments of Misrule. In the Henry IV plays, who has not typified Misrule? Bolingbroke, who rebelled against Richard II? Hotspur, who rebelled against Bolingbroke? Hal, who acted like a profligate against honor? Even Lord Chief Justice can be viewed as an unruly man who could not check his own sense of justice. I agree that “Shakespeare dramatizes not only holiday but also the need for holiday and the need to limit holiday” (Barber 51). But “the need to limit holiday” is built on the assumption that the holiday impulse, i.e., Misrule, is always already there challenging and threatening Rule. The Machiavellian view of historical causation is actually allied with the carnivalesque spirit and the libidinous drive of Id to overthrow the conscious rationale of Rule.

V. Names and Name-Calling
Like honor and dishonor, Rule and Misrule are after all but words employed to call certain abstract qualities which prove no more stable than the personages who are supposed to possess the qualities. In fact, all names betray the same inconstancy. In the two parts of Henry IV Shakespeare has fully utilized names and the method of name-calling to suggest this basic deconstructive idea and bring forth his themes.

It is pointed out that in Tillyard’s study “the sequence of plays from Richard II to Henry V were constituted as a central chapter in the great nationalistic ‘epic’ of England” (Holderness 21). The sequence of plays comprises the two parts of Henry IV along with Richard II and Henry V, and is, as we know, often referred to as Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of English plays. What is meaningful is: Alvin Kernan has called this “epic” of England the Henriad. This means that the four plays actually depict how King Henry came to establish his kingdom, much as the Aeneid depicts how Aeneas came to establish the Roman Empire. But the trouble is: Who is the King Henry in the Henriad? One may readily reply, “Henry IV, Bolingbroke, of course.” But is it? Unquestionably? Can’t it be Henry V, Harry of Monmouth, instead? If we judge by the two parts of Henry IV, we soon find that the son has actually replaced the father in importance, whether we consider the plot, the characterization, the theme, or the quantity of appearance on the stage. We have said above that the plays actually center on Prince Hal. So, the plays are actually two preceding parts of Henry V. To interpret this deconstructively, we can say: whether Shakespeare had made it so intentionally or not, the play title has no true “presence” because it signifies not what it is, but what comes after to replace it. In brief, the Henriad exemplifies indeed the phenomenon of diffèrance in the titles of the plays.

Within this Henriad, now, we find we have four Henrys: King Henry IV, Prince Henry of Wales (later Henry V), Henry Percy (Earl of Northumberland) and his son with the same name but nicknamed Hotspur. What do the four Henrys signify? There are obvious differences, of course, among the four: two are old and two are young, two are fathers and two are sons, two are the ruling party and two are the rebellious party, two are the winners and two are the losers, etc. But all four have the same aim: to gain honor, which means kingship. Yet, in trying to achieve that aim, these four have behaved quite differently. Harold Goddard has pointed out that “on the day when Henry deposed Richard he became a double man, one thing to the world, another to his own conscience” (10). Goddard has also pointed out that besides the two elder Henrys we have two younger Henrys in the same house: the Henry who is “but man” and the Henry who is “Prince” (20). In my analysis, the four Henrys represent four different combinations of the lion and the fox: Hotspur with the most lion and the least fox, Hal with the least lion and the most fox, Bolingbroke with more lion and less fox, and Northumberland with less lion and more fox. But it turns out that the most foxy person, rather than the most lion-like one, is the most successful in politics: kingship is gained mostly by counterfeit. By this “natural” dissemination of Henrys, then, Shakespeare has deconstructed the violent hierarchy of “the lion over the fox” or “strength over craftiness.”

Although all the four Henrys figure importantly in the plays, “Henry” is after all but a common name like John and Dick, rendering no particular meaning in itself. In the plays, however, many names have obvious suggestions which upon further consideration may prove conducive to the understanding of Shakespeare’s deconstructionist vision. Take, first, the name “Falstaff” for example. “Falstaff” naturally suggests “false staff,” and Falstaff is indeed a false staff member of Prince Hal’s in the sense that he is “false” in character but acts as an assistant or advisor of the Prince. Yet, in what sense can we call Falstaff “false”? Certainly, he is deceitful to Prince Hal, Mistress Quickly, and others. He is perfidious to his religion. And he is treacherous to his country. And certainly he is not a genuine knight: he practices counterfeit chivalry and fake militarism, being a braggart soldier all immersed in cowardly lies and cheating lives. But is he really only that? If we compare his falseness with the kingly figures’, can’t we say he is but another fox? In the plays, indeed, there are suggestions that Falstaff is like Reynard the Fox in the medieval beast-fable, who struggles for power against the powerful wolf Isengrim, King Noble the lion, Chanticleer the cock, etc. In Pt. 1, III, iii, Falstaff calls the Hostess of Boar’s Head Tavern “dame Partlet the hen” (50). That has already hinted at the beast epic. In Pt. 2, I, ii, when Lord Chief Justice warns Falstaff not to wake a sleeping wolf, he replies, “To wake a wolf is as bad as smell a fox” (152-4). This reply clearly suggests that while the Lord Chief Justice is a wolf, Falstaff is himself a fox. This comparison makes better sense when later the Hostess complains that Falstaff “stabbed” her in her own house “most beastly in good faith” and asks Master Fang to “hold him sure” and Master Snare to “let him not 'scape” (Pt. 2, II, i, 13-25). These details of comparison suggestively make the world of Henry IV a jungle of beasts, where only the fittest can survive, and the fittest are often the most cunning of foxes.

In this connection, when we return to Falstaff as a foxy companion to Prince Hal, we begin to be aware that instead of being a false staff member, Falstaff is actually a true teaching sample for the Prince. He is the Prince’s true “support” (“staff” in the sense of being a stick or rod for aid in walking or climbing, or for use as a weapon). Or, at least, he is the Prince’s real help for the time being (“staff” in the sense of being a composition of plaster and fibrous material used for a temporary finish and in ornamental work). Falstaff’s principle is: to live is to lie. So, to counterfeit death is only a foxy way of lying in order to live. Likewise, to counterfeit weakness is only a way of lying for power. What he believes in is not “false stuff,” but “true stuff” alive with means for survival. Therefore, the name Falstaff, along with the person’s life, serves to deconstruct our complacent faith in the absolute “presence” of truthfulness in contrast with sheer falsehood, and to tear down the violent hierarchy of privileging truths over lies.

It is often suggested that Falstaff is a rich amalgam of comic types; he is the morality Vice, the traditional Parasite, the Miles Gloriosus, the Corrupt Soldier, and the Fool as well. The Henry IV plays are, of course, far from morality plays. Nevertheless, the naming of such characters as Falstaff, Shallow, Silence, Fang, Snare, Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, Bullcalf, and Rumor does add some allegorical color to the plays. As allegorical figures, these characters do bear the traits their names suggest. However, the names coupled with the persons’ behavior often bring about some deconstructive effect. In the Induction of Henry IV, Part 1, for example, Rumor is made to tell the truth that he is “a pipe/Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,/And of so easy and so plain a stop/That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,/The still-discordant wavering multitude,/Can play upon it” (15-20), although he knows his office is to “noise abroad” untruthful tidings. This self-deconstruction of Rumor’s is in effect rendered more meaningful by the pipe metaphor and the fact that he is painted full of tongues. The pipe metaphor suggests that rumors are but sounds “played” out, and the full-of-tongue painting suggests that rumors are a dissemination of utterances. Such sounds and such utterances are naturally without any “presence” of truth, thus only temporarily fulfilling the hearers’ desires and deconstructively forming a diffèrance of signs or traces.

As to the figures of Shallow and Silence, it is easy to see that they are made to satirize the two main demerits of justices. We know Shallow and Silence are two country justices. Shallow once told his cousin Silence that he had been “called anything” and “would have done anything indeed too, and roundly too” (Pt. 2, III, ii, 16-7). But in one soliloquy Falstaff told us:

I do see the bottom of Justice Shallow. Lord,

Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of

lying! This same starved justice hath done nothing

but prate to me of the wildness of his youth, and the

feats he hath done about Turnbull Street, and

every third word a lie, duer paid to the hearer than

the Turk’s tribute. (Pt. 2, III, ii, 296-301)

So, Shallow is shallow of judicial virtues, and deep in vile practices. That is why he only helped Falstaff recruit such soldiers as Mouldy, Shallow, Wart, Feeble, and Bullcalf. But a Shallow justice needs the aid of his cousin Silence. When Shallow told Falstaff that Silence was in commission with him, Falstaff said, “it well befits you should be of the peace” (Pt. 2, III, ii, 90). Then we as well as Falstaff could find that Silence actually was never silent: he talked about foibles and sang merrily all the time. He was only silent about the justices’ vile practices. Thus, Shallow and Silence are two allegorical figures Shakespeare employed to remind us that on one hand, the name does sometimes suggest the substance (Shallow is shallow of virtues and Silence is silent about truths). Yet, on the other hand, the name is more often than not a misleading trap (Justice Shallow and Justice Silence are never just: Shallow is deep in vices and Silent is noisy about follies).

The ironic turning of names in sense is most impressively exemplified in the case of Hotspur. In the beginning of Henry IV, Part1, Travers came to tell Northumberland that a gentleman had told him that “rebellion had ill luck/And that young Harry Percy’s spur was cold” (I, i, 41-2). This report made Northumberland respond with puzzlement, “Ha? Again!/Said he young Harry Percy’s spur was cold? Of Hotspur, Coldspur?” (I, i, 48-50). This puzzlement is in actuality accompanied by a sudden awareness that the name is but a name; the person can mockingly become quite other than his name.

Since the name is not necessarily the person or the thing at times, it stands to reason that naming is not so important or significant as we suppose it is, and consequently names can be changed without changing the essence of the persons or things bearing the names. However, in real life people do prefer using some names to others under certain circumstances. In the plays, for instance, Prince Henry is variously called Harry, Hal, and many other names befitting the addressers’ statuses and circumstances. We know, of course, there is some difference between Falstaff’s calling him “Hal,” “lad,” or “boy” and the King’s calling him “Harry,” or “son.” But the difference makes no essential difference in the Prince’s character. This truth is easily explained by the fact that we have two Bardolphs in the plays (just as we have four Henrys). One Bardolph is a lord against the King; the other an irregular humorist in Falstaff’s company. Besides, we may be reminded that in the plays we have a place called Gad’s Hill, which sounds no different from Gadshill, another madcap in Falstaff’s company, though spelled differently. Facts like this may teach us that names are indeed arbitrary signs given to stand for persons or things. This truth, already pronounced by Juliet’s observation that “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 43-44), is de Saussure’s linguistic truth and Derrida’s deconstructive truth as well.

Yet, humanity is ever so often beguiled by names. In Henry IV, even the Eastcheap madcaps care so much about their names. So Falstaff asked this favor of Prince Hal: “when thou art king let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty: let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal” (Pt. 1, I, ii, 23-9). This demand for euphemism, as we know, is very common. But euphemism never changes the nature of the grain. Highway robbers are still highway robbers, whether you call them St. Nicholas’ clerks or any other name as suggested by Falstaff.

Still, people think names have “presence” of something. So, in addition to trying to euphemize their own names they often attempt to detract others by calling them bad names. Name-calling is, of course, not always serious. It can be a sign of intimacy or even become a game, a sporting contest, among friends. Once Prince Hal called Falstaff “this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh--,” and Falstaff reacted by calling him back: “you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish—O for breath to utter what is like thee!—you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck” (Pt. 1, II, iv, 237-44). We know they were being humorous in calling each other names. But when name-calling is not meant for jokes, it can be a serious wound to the named target. We need only to remember that Hotspur’s rebellion arises first with the King’s calling Mortimer a traitor and refusing to “ransom home revolted Mortimer” (Pt. 1, I, iii, 91). Indeed, the two parts of Henry IV are a show of who is best called a traitor and who best deserves the name of king.
VI. Sword Wars and Word Wars
To decide who is the traitor or who is the true man (particularly the true prince) usually needs evidence, pro and con. But, curiously enough, people East and West often decide the matter by force. In Richard II, let us recall, Bolingbroke and Mowbray were asked to settle their dispute by having a trial by combat at Coventry. Although, as the story goes, they were prevented at last from proving their true or false characters by such a contest, we know dueling was then, as it is still now, an acceptable way of settling a quarrel. In truth, international wars and civil wars can be regarded as large-scale duels involving many more men with many more deadly weapons for more public, rather than private, causes. In Henry IV, therefore, the wars between the Lancaster House and the rebellious camp can be seen as duels with swords to settle the problem of legitimacy in kingship.

But Henry IV is not merely a series of battles with soldiers and swords. On the stage, we see sword wars are always preceded by word wars. Besides, word wars are practiced not only in the serious plot but also in the comic one. What is most significant is: the results of the sword wars seem to depend invariably on the results of word wars. In Part 1 of Henry IV, for instance, how many word wars do we see before we come to the decisive Shrewsbury battle? In Act I, scene i, we see King Henry IV is grieved to hear new hostilities by the Scots and Hotspur’s retention of the Scottish prisoners. For the King these things mean that a crusade to the Holy Land has to be delayed again by civil tumult. In scene ii, we then see Prince Henry matching wits with Sir John Falstaff. This match is certainly a word war (usually called a debate) about the theme of purse-taking as a “vocation.” In scene iii, we see the King arguing with Hotspur about Mortimer. This argument is also a word war, and it leads not to humor but to rancor. In Act II, scene ii, we see Falstaff and his company robbing some wealthy travelers first, and then we see Prince Hal and Poins setting upon the robbers next in disguise. These highway robberies are two small-scale sword wars. Then in scene iv, we see Prince Hal defeat the boastful Falstaff in the Boar’s Head Tavern by finding an aporia in the latter’s tall tale. This defeat is one of language. In Act III, scene iii, Falstaff picks a quarrel with Mistress Quickly to beguile her of the money he owes her. Prince Hal joins in and proves against Falstaff. Finally Falstaff obtains Hal’s pardon by his witty rhetoric. This tavern scene is obviously a series of word wars. In Act IV, scene iii, Sir Walter Blunt comes from the King to ask the Percys about their grievances. Hotspur grasps the opportunity to recount the King’s faults. Later in Act V, scene i, Worcester visits the King’s camp and presents the Percys’ grievances again. But the King’s reply is: “…never yet did insurrection want/Such water-colors to imprint his cause” (79-80). The mutual thrusts with words naturally cannot stop the impending sword war. Hence Prince Hal challenges Hotspur to “try fortune with him in a single fight” (100). But his challenge is mixed with such praise of Hotspur that the ever-haughty Hotspur will lose alertness with him on the battlefield. That is why he can vanquish him later in action. So, the sword war results, partly at least, from the word war.

In the second part of Henry IV, the acts and scenes are likewise intermingled with word wars and sword wars. In Act 1, scene i, Lord Bardolph and the messengers are contending for truth about the outcome of the Shrewsbury battle. That is a word war. In scene ii, Falstaff is really engaged in a word battle against Lord Chief Justice, who charges him with “living in great infamy” (135) and “misleading the youthful Prince” (143). In Act II, scene i, Mistress Quickly has entered a suit against Falstaff for a large sum of money he owes her. But Falstaff soon mollifies Quickly by his appeasing tricks. He wins this word war as before. In scene iv, there is a brawl between Doll Tearsheet and Pistol. The wrangle finally makes Falstaff so furious that he thrusts at Pistol and wounds him in the shoulder. This sword war, blending with word war, makes Doll claim that Falstaff is “as valorous as Hector of Troy…” (216). Later in the same scene, Falstaff makes an unflattering description of Hal, but when the Prince presents himself, Falstaff claims that he deliberately dispraised the Prince to prevent unworthy folk attaching them to him. This shows Falstaff is really a tough fighter in any word war. In Act IV, scene i, Westmorland comes to Gaultree Forest to negotiate with the Archbishop of York. Although Mowbray advises against surrender without a battle, the Archbishop favors Westmorland’s proposal of meeting with Prince John. In the next scene, Prince John promises that the rebels’ grievances will receive attention and persuades the Archbishop to dismiss his troops. But immediately after the dismissal, Prince John orders the arrest of the Archbishop and the rebellious army soon disperses. These two scenes show the effect of good skills in two forms of word war (negotiation and promise) in aiding a sword war. In scene v, the King thinks that Hal is impatient for his death. Hal refutes this accusation with an eloquent statement of his love. Father and son are thus reconciled. (Their word war comes to armistice.) In Act V, Falstaff continues to gull Shallow and others while Hal, now King Henry V, declares his respect for the Lord Chief Justice and reassures his love for his brothers and subjects. Finally, to the surprise of Falstaff and his fellow rogues, Hal disavows his connection with them and banishes them. The Prince’s word skill has outwitted Falstaff at last.

From the above explication, we can see that word skill in word war is indeed part of the warrior’s vital business. Both a prince like Hal and a rogue like Falstaff need to develop various word skills for various forms of word wars, just as they need to develop various sword skills for various forms of sword wars. We may laugh at Hal and Falstaff’s practicing how to answer the King’s angry scold. But we must know that the rhetorical art is certainly as important as the martial art to a military man. When Hotspur confesses that he has “not well the gift of tongue/Can lift your blood up with persuasion” (Pt. 1, V, ii, 77-8), he has half certified his final failure. It takes a man like Hal to know the real importance of rhetoric and to pity Francis, the next-to-dumb apprentice tapster: “That ever this fellow should have fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman! His industry is up-stairs and down-stairs, his eloquence the parcel of a reckoning” (Pt. 1, II, iv, 96-9). The Prince has taken pride in his own gift of tongue: “I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life” (Pt. 1, II, iv, 17-9). In fact, Hal “masters not only the jargon of the drawers but his father’s abstract, Latinate periods, the ‘princely tongue’ that lets him praise Hotspur ‘like a chronicle,” and the ‘unsavory similes” and complex puns that make him Falstaff’s match” (Sundelson 110). So, he is not just a “king of courtesy” as the drawers have said he is. He is a “king of language” as well.

Falstaff is Hal’s only rival in language skill. Perhaps he is better considered as Hal’s tutor in rhetoric or coach in persuasion. Michael McCanles observes:

No one quotes scripture in Shakespeare more than Falstaff, and no one is more a master of the odds and ends of manners and morals, of sermons and proverbs, and of pious exhortation. Falstaff’s moral piquancy lies, therefore, not simply in his representing holiday as opposed to Henry’s sobriety. On the contrary, his mastery, no less than Henry’s, of the rhetoric of moral exhortation and the stances of self-righteous complacency make him an embodiment of moral ambiguity that is formidable to deal with. (98)

Indeed, Falstaff lives on words. He escapes ill fortune through words. And we love to hear him warring with words. He may be a coward by sword, but never a coward by word. This knight’s eloquence has talked himself into a braggart soldier, into a man big with bluffs and wags. Nevertheless, he is a sophist who is able to talk us into an awareness of all the “false stuff” liable for deconstruction. His frank reflection on living and lying, for instance, has earned himself the name of “a fundamentally honest man”:

He has two sides like a coin, but he was not a counterfeit. And Henry? He was a king, a man of “honor,” of brains and ability, of good intentions, but withal a “vile politician” and respectable hypocrite. He was a counterfeit. (Goddard 35)

In the second section of this essay, I have mentioned that deconstructionists look on all thinking systems as essentially a matter of rhetoric. Accordingly, the maneuvering of “tropes” is for them all important. If Foucault is right in asserting that discourse is always inseparable from power and that there are no absolutely “true” discourse, only more or less powerful ones (Selden & Widdowson 129, 161), then it is no wonder that in Henry IV the last power-winner is Prince Hal, the most eloquent speaker who speaks both prose and verse and knows when to speak what language to whom. He has two great rivals to conquer: Hotspur and Falstaff. The former he conquers in a sword war, the latter in some word wars. Sword needs strength, and word needs skill. As a foxy lion endowed with both strength and skill, the Prince undoubtedly has the advantage to vanquish all wolves and other lions or foxes. This fact helps our deconstructionists to tear down the “violent hierarchy” of placing strength above skill, or sword above word, or lion above fox.
VII. Closure and Conclusion
Deconstruction is a dynamic theory. In holding the possibility of deconstructing any construct or construction, it sees no closure in anything. In its light, history is forever a continuous process of constructing and deconstructing. Thus, history books are only tentative forms of closure. They try to close events and their meanings in certain linguistic forms. Such closures are vain. Events and their meanings are forever subject to different interpretations or closures. The history books or non-history works which serve as the sources of Shakespeare’s history plays are such vain closures. But Shakespeare’s history plays are themselves vain closures, too. The playwright’s posterity can change his texts and the texts’ supposed meanings at will. This deconstructionist reading of Henry IV is just an example of re-interpreting Shakespeare’s interpretation of his source-providers’ interpretations of the events, real or imagined, that supposedly happened to the characters, real or imagined, who supposedly existed in certain supposed period of time. In other words, this essay is nothing but another “gram,” another “trace,” another “supplement,” or another “floating signifier” in the diffèrance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV as a system of signification in history. It surely has its aporias. Hence it boasts of no permanent closure at all.

But people are fond of closures. In a traditional essay like this, it is necessary to give a concise summary called conclusion. Below, then, is my conclusion, which, I must emphasize again, is no more than a summary of tentative closures.

Both Shakespeare’s supposed sources and his Henry IV texts have “truths” of their own. But neither of them have “presence” of any absolute, unchangeable “truth.” Henry IV, like any usual history, is a male story. It is written by a male author (Shakespeare) mainly about a male monarch (apparently Henry IV, but actually Henry V), and chiefly of male interests (concerning war and power). But the story does not necessarily uphold the so-called “Tudor myth.” Shakespeare might wish to share Tillyard’s providential view of historical causation, but he truly advocated, as a “poet of nature,” the Machiavellian-Darwinian theory of “natural selection” in the “jungle of politics.” The entire Henry IV, therefore, can be looked upon as a deconstructive text aiming to unmake the Tudor myth, to undo the logocentrism of “divine right,” and to tear down the violent hierarchy of privileging order over disorder, or Rule over Misrule.

It is beyond doubt that Shakespeare is deeply influenced by Machiavelli. This influence can be seen in the wicked characters Shakespeare has created: Richard III, Iago, Edmund, etc. But to be Machiavellian is not necessarily to be wicked (we need to deconstruct this myth first). A Machiavellian hero is simply a successful hero, a hero who can win power and hold it. In reality, he is not one fit for tragedy, but one fit for epic. Shakespeare’s “second tetralogy” can indeed be regarded as an epic called the Henriad. But the national hero in it is Henry V, rather than Henry IV. And this hero is, no doubt, a Machiavellian (“a good Machiavellian,” if you like).

In The Prince, Machiavelli asserts that a prince needs to be as strong as a lion and as cunning as a fox if he wants to gain power and keep it. Accordingly, the prince must needs be hypocritical on occasions. Now, in Henry IV, the Prince is Prince Henry of Wales. His father calls him Harry in the court. But his tavern friends call him Hal. This double way of calling suggests his double nature: the lion and the fox. Indeed, the two parts of Henry IV can be considered “as in one sense an account of Prince Hal’s training for office” (Holderness 27). The training is to develop the young lion’s strength and skill for power struggle. In that training, therefore, he needs not only natural growth in strength but constant practices in skill. His wild escapades with the rogues are actually his exercises for strength and skill. But “skill” covers rhetorical art (that of the fox) as well as martial art (that of the lion), of course.

Drama is primarily an art of words, not an art of deeds. (We need to deconstruct the hierarchy of deeds/words, too.) A play’s acts and scenes are primarily words in dialogues or monologues, although the words can imply and incept action. Consequently, a playwright is a person well versed in the art of words. Now, Shakespeare is such a playwright. In Henry IV, he has so selected and arranged words for the characters that we have the impression that the characters are engaged not only in sword wars but also in word wars. In fact, the Prince therein is forever preparing for the final rhetorical as well as martial wars. In the end, as we know, he has conquered all his enemies: the foes in the rebellious camp (the Percys and others) and the friends in his own camp (his father and brothers as well as Falstaff’s company). (Here Shakespeare has deconstructed the friend/foe hierarchy in terms of conquest.) And, as I have suggested above, the Prince’s conquest is helped chiefly by his word skill, not sword skill, that is, by his foxy role, not by his lion-like role. (Here Shakespeare has deconstructed the sword/word or lion/fox hierarchy.) If the two parts of Henry IV are actually one whole play, the play is chiefly a “play” with words. No wonder we see wordplay everywhere. And Hal and Falstaff (actually Shakespeare) seem to favor it particularly.

But “play” has another meaning. It is opposed to “work.” Some scholars say Henry IV places emphasis on the needs of “play,” “misrule,” “holiday spirit,” “carnival feeling,” etc. Yes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The old boy in Henry IV (Old Jack, or Sir John Falstaff) plays all the year round. So is he dull? “No!” he answers emphatically. He is right. This “playboy” is everything but dull. He is in fact a master of language, a tutor of rhetoric, a coach of persuasion, a maker of fun, an amalgam of Vice, Paradise, Fool, Miles-Gloriosus, Corrupt-Soldier, Clown, and what not, but surely not a dullard. Rather, he is a sophist of depth, I must emphasize. As discussed above, Shakespeare intermingles serious plots with comic ones, only to show that it is often impossible to distinguish work from play. Play may prove to be just practice for work. In the plays, the Prince’s play with the Falstaff company is indeed a practice for war, an exercise for body strength and mental wisdom. When he plays the role of his father and that of Falstaff in the play-within-the-play, he is both comic and serious. Outwardly he is comic, but inwardly he is serious. Likewise, when he plays a robber of the thieves or the teaser of a tavern boy, he is also comic and serious. In any play he can always learn something to increase his strength and wisdom. For him (the) play is (the) work. By him Shakespeare has deconstructed the hierarchy of work/play.

In effect, through all the characters’ (especially Hal’s and Falstaff’s) words and deeds, or work and play, Shakespeare has deconstructed many other logocentrisms or violent hierarchies. In the foregoing sections, I have pointed out the denial of wisdom as something learned only in the court by great noble men. The tavern is as good a place for wisdom. Statesmen are no better than highwaymen. Honor, as primarily a matter of public esteem, is but a word. The prince is but a kind of thief, and so he is as honorable as a thief. Kingship as the highest honor symbolized by the crown is passable from person to person. Besides, kingship suffers from dissemination: there are always so many claimable kings in the world. The hierarchy of sovereign over subjects is unstable. And no less unstable is the father/son hierarchy in terms of symbolic displacements. Friends can be foes. Lions can be foxes.

Shakespeare even uses names for deconstruction. Henry IV is actually Henry V in disguise. The four Henrys are but four combinations of the lion and the fox. Falstaff is a false staff member and a true support or supplement with realistic stuff. Rumor has truth. Shallow and Silence are justices deep in vice and noisy in folly. Hotspur can become Coldspur. So all names are “grams” or “traces” bearing no true substances. Yet, people are fond of good names. So the thieves want to euphemize their “vocation.” And people like to call others names. But name-calling can be friendly or hostile, humorous or hurtful. Sword wars often originate from word wars, which in turn often come from name-calling. The conflict in Henry IV arises partly from the King’s calling Mortimer a traitor. The entire play is in fact a series of word wars and sword wars between “traitors” and “patriots.” But who are traitors and who are patriots? Henry IV himself is both a patriot and a traitor. And who isn’t both in the jungle of politics?

Indeed, in the light of power struggle, human beings are no better than beasts. That is why Falstaff can say, “If the young dace be a bait for the old pike, I see no reason in the law of nature but I may snap at him” (Pt. 2, III, ii, 325-6). But in the jungle of politics the lion certainly needs to cultivate the art of the fox in order to be an unfailing king. To put it plainly, kingship certainly needs counterfeit. In Henry IV, Hal conquers all by counterfeiting. He is the one who knows when to play a prince and when to play a prentice on the ground that “in everything the purpose must weigh with the folly” (Pt. 2, II, iii, 178-9). It is significant that his father dies in a chamber called Jerusalem, that is, in a counterfeit Holy Land. Even at his deathbed he still recommends counterfeiting to his son: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrel, that action hence borne out/May waste the memory of the former days” (Pt. 2, IV, v, 213-5). The son, a better fox, naturally takes his advice. So, in the end of the play, he lets his brother proclaim the likelihood of a French expedition within the same year. Behind war there always hides some political purpose. Kingship is obtained and maintained, indeed, by counterfeit methods, not by genuine measures. This is perhaps the most salient point we can see in Shakespeare’s deconstructionist vision of Henry IV, where the most foxy lion reigns in the political jungle, believing kingship is no other than counterfeit.

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