Monica Anne Tran, SID:16478025
November 6, 2004
The King of Courtesy
To speak of the nature of a true prince in 1 Henry IV is to speak of a paradox. Henry IV does not ascend the throne by any natural path to inheritance and Hal does not prove to embody any natural qualities of a prince. The play opens with a king who has unnaturally usurped the monarchy and closes with a prince who calls himself the “king of courtesy” (2.4.10-11). An examination of the state of the current kingship and the quality of “honor” will prove that the worth of the crown is neither determined internally, by a divine right nor externally, through the completion good deeds. Ultimately it is Hal who will assume the kingship as Henry V and for Hal, the worth of a prince is determinant upon the prince’s ability to externally feign nobility rather than be noble in and of himself.
Henry IV’s ascent to the throne challenges the idea that kingship is a divine right if it is a position that can be politically won by usurper. Skeptically, Hotspur notes:
By heaven, methinks 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;
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival, all her dignities:
But out upon this half-faced fellowship! (1.3.201-08)
Hotspur does not make reference to any sort of birthright that has allowed Henry IV access to the throne. Rather, he criticizes that Henry IV’s plight “were an easy leap” as simple as the physical action of stealing Richard II’s appearance. Hotspur questions the king’s “honor,” which he depicts as a quality that can be “plucked” from the surface, from the King’s “pale-face” or “locks.” If honor is a right that is as “wear[able]” as a mask or a wig, then it is a mere projection of kingship that can be indiscriminately transferred from one person to the next. Within this context, there is no higher power backing the kingship and thus, no inherent marker to set the king apart in his majesty.
Having “pluck[ed]” the honor of Richard II, Henry IV only possesses a right which he has stolen and not deserved. Within the same scene, Hotspur gives Henry IV the tiles of “vile politician,” “king of smiles,” “fawning greyhound,” and “cozener” (1.3.241-56)—all of which, are adjectives that describe Henry IV as an imposter and not an actual king. He is a lying politician but not a majesty, a “king of smiles” but not of Wales, obligingly flattered 1 but not meriting flattery. Having murdered his way to the title, Henry IV finds that he has something in common with Richard II, from whom he stole the crown. As it turns out, Richard II was also a murderer who killed his uncle Gloucester. Thus, Richard II only merits comparison to a moon rather than sun, which is a metaphor more appropriate to describe one who is king. This is a challenge to Henry IV’s title twice-over because not only has he usurped the crown, but he has usurped a tainted crown that only holds the “bright honor” of the second-rate moon.
Henry IV, knows that the road to the throne is not paved with the blood of royalty because he himself did not descend from House of York. Having taken the political route to power, Henry IV holds no divine claim to the throne, nor can he profess any great deeds that prove he is worthy of the position. In praising his enemy, Hotspur, the King tells Westmerland:
Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honor's tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. (1.1.77-85)
Having corrupted the state of the monarch, Henry IV sees his son as a continuation of his own worthlessness. Hal’s base inclination to spend his time at the tavern is a mirror the king’s own “vile[ness]” and moral despicability. The same “dishonor” that “stain[s]” the crown similarly “stain[s] the brow” of the heir-apparent who is next in line for the kingship. As the prince, Hal would only bring further “riot” and calamity upon the state of Wales with his degeneracy. As a foil to Henry IV and Hal, Hotspur seems to embody all the qualities that a good king should have. Thus, Henry’s wish for Hotspur as a son is based upon his estimation that Hotspur, as the “king of honor,” can restore external virtue to the crown with the victories he has won for Wales. “Amongst a grove” of men, Hotspur stands apart because he is at the epitome of virtue—the “very straightest plant” in comparison to the King, a crooked murderer and his son, a delinquent youth. Furthermore, Northumberland is “blest” with Hotspur and smiled upon by the gods, while Henry IV is spurned with Hal. Thus, Hotspur is a symbol of the kingship at its fullest—embodying all the qualities of “honor” and virtue that Richard lacks.
However, this “honor” that Hotspur holds in such high regard is the same honor that Falstaff will deem is “air…Who hath it? / he that died o' Wednesday” (5.1.135-6) During Hal’s reconciliation with his father, he marks that there will be a day:
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash'd away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene'er it lights,
That this same child of honor and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honor sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! 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; (3.2.138-48)
Both Falstaff’s insight and Hal’s declaration will prove true in the end when Hotspur falls under Hal’s sword. In praising Hotspur to be a most “brave gentlemen” and “valiant-youth” (5.1.86-100), Hal pits himself against an opponent who he holds high in esteem and from whom he can then reap “multitudes” of honors for killing. By conquering the pinnacle, “the king of honor,” Hal steals, in one singular battle, the “honor” that Hotspur had to earn in many. Having “exchange[d] / [Hotspur’s] glorious deeds for [his] indignities,” Hal emerges from the battle a new prince, while Hotspur takes with him to his grave the truancy of Hal’s youth.
Hotspur’s “honor” constantly beckons to be wagered in battles and can thus only end in death—a death so minor that Hotspur is not even afforded his own last words. Hal’s completion of Hotspur’s words that he will be food “for worms” marks the point in the play where Hal has established his place as the true prince. By killing his rival for the throne, Hal preempts the immediate threat of another rebellion as well as proving himself to be a noble prince, worthy of the future kingship. Although Hal emerges as a new Hotspur, he does not profess to possess a newfound, genuine “honor.” Going into battle with his enemy, Hal only cites that he will “wear a garment all of blood” and “stain [his] favours in a bloody mask.” To “wear” a “garment” or “stain” a “mask” is to only put on a display of pretense that is just as easily removed, as easily “wash’d” away. Hal seems to agree with Falstaff that “honor” is but mere “air” and is a quality that can be just as convincingly feigned as it is truly possessed.
Although Hal solves the problem of having Hotspur as an obstacle to the throne, he still stands to inherit the corrupt title of Henry IV. In his only soliloquy in the play, Hal begins:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
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 wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him…
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, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will. (1.2.195-219)
Although Henry IV thinks that Hotspur is Hal’s foil, Hal shows that he will ultimately be the foil of himself. By comparing his “word” to himself and his “reformation” to his “fault,” Hal creates a situation where he can triumph over his own mistakes rather than those of Henry IV’s. By shifting the attention away from the King’s unforgivable murder to his own delinquency, Hal trades a greater sin for a lesser one. Thus, he eliminates the problem of inheriting Henry IV’s desecrated title by following in his own footsteps and succeeding his “fault” with his “reformation.”
Furthermore, by engineering a fate that will only come about as a result of his own devices, Hal secures that his position as king neither needs nor wants the patronage of any god. Hal’s specific use of the verb “permit” is his way of exercising agency from and control over forces that are thought to be typically governed by Mother Nature and God. Any external force that moves to shape Hal’s future is only a force that he himself “permits” in his life. The Prince knows that he does not hold a rightful claim to the throne and does not pretend that he does by placing himself on equal footing with the gods. Instead, Hal says that he will “imitate” the sun (much like he imitates Hotspur’s “honor”), rather than make the direct comparison that he is the sun. The sun as a measure of time is another force of nature over which Hal has control. He can essentially rewind time to “Redeem [it] when men think [he] least will.” By controlling every externality in his life, by exercising independence from forces that are typically governed by nature, by “know[ing] you all” and knowing even God, Hal becomes the agent of his own future unlike Hotspur, who Henry IV says is “sweet Fortune’s minion” (1.1.83).
As the self-proclaimed “king of courtesy2” (2.4.10-11) Hal knows that it is ultimately his disposition or outward shows of princely-ness that determine him the true prince. Hal requires no mandate from God, no outstanding feats of honor, and no right by inheritance to prove that he is worthy to ascend the throne. Hal’s campaign as the “king of courtesy” is politically effective while allowing him to be personally empowered. By pretending to possess values such as “honor,” Hal makes an impressive show of a prince who is worthy of the respected title. Furthermore, by providing that this “honor” will not overrule him as it does Hotspur, Hal gains control over his fate by proving that he will not be compelled by any force or higher power. As the god of himself and the creator of King Henry V, Hal proves himself to be an immortal ruler, who is born a prince of his own design and will die only as a result of his own destruction.