The Tavern Carnival Playacting, the Grotesque and the Ascension of Hal in



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The Tavern Carnival

Playacting, the Grotesque and the Ascension of Hal in Henry IV: Part One


By Ian Morgan

Shakespeare Seminar

October 31, 2011

First Tutorial Paper

The juxtaposition between social worlds that is embedded in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part 1 is obvious from the first act of the play. Whereas the speech in King Henry’s court is contained in flowing verse and high-minded ideals, the discourse between Prince Hal and his companions is expressed in the language of the tavern, a crude and lewd prose. It is Prince Hal’s negotiation between these two realms, the high and the low, that develops his character from an immature prince to a Machiavellian heir-apparent. Similarly, in his book Rabelais and his World, Mikhail Bakhtin analyzes carnival culture and its relation to Renaissance literature and politics. Bakhtin posits that festivals which inverted the prevailing social order, such as the Feast of Fools, were a necessary release from the stress of living within the hierarchical structure of society and thus ultimately maintained social order. Furthermore, Bakhtin introduces the idea of grotesque realism, a literary style based on the principle of degradation. The tavern scenes of Henry IV: Part 1 include multiple instances of play-acting, primarily between Prince Hal and Falstaff, which suggest a carnivalesque notion of social inversion. The ridiculous nature of these episodes is buttressed by the inclusion of grotesque realism in line with Bakhtin. Through play-acting, Prince Hal lowers himself to the grotesque, inverted, and carnivalesque level of the tavern as a means of ultimately rising to his rightful place as the Prince of Wales.

Grotesque realism is perhaps the most direct expression of the carnivalesque throughout the play, manifesting itself in the relentless joking toward Sir John Falstaff’s corpulence. Bakhtin understands the grotesque body as being literally concerned with the lower realms of the person, the “genital organs, the belly, and the buttocks” (21). With his protruding belly and constant wheezing, Falstaff is the embodiment of the grotesque in the play. Among other monikers, Falstaff is referred to with a diverse collection of corporeal nicknames such as “huge hill of flesh,” a “stuffed cloack-bag of guts, and a “swollen parcel of dropsies” (2.4 236, 2.4 434-35). Each of these insults illustrates the physical image of Falstaff, especially as it relates to the lower body. Even Falstaff contributes to the joke at 2.4 214, by comparing himself ironically to “shotten herring.” The emphasis on food and drink throughout the tavern scenes is also evidence of a preoccupation with digestion and the grotesque. At 2.4 17-18, Prince Hal boasts that he can “drink with any tinker in his own language” and Falstaff calls for a “cup of sack” three time before he begins to retell his tale of the robbery. Bakhtin notes digestion as a tenant of grotesque realism (20).

Bakhtin states that the “essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation… the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract” (19). It is in this light that we can discern the effect of the grotesque on Prince Hal’s path to maturity. Prince Hal represents a different level of society than the other characters included in the tavern scenes. His presence is notable because he is out of place socially, “lowering” himself to the realm of the tavern. However, through degradation comes rebirth. Bakhtin notes that degradation “has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one,” and Prince Hal seems aware of this process (21). In his first soliloquy at 1.2, Hal understands the need to shed “the foul and ugly mists of vapour that did seem to strangle him;” simultaneously, though, he considers the positive effect of lowering himself, stating “my reformation glitt’ring o’er my faults” (l. 190, l. 201). The grotesque serves to illuminate Prince Hal’s own awareness of the transitory and regenerative nature of his ignoble companions. Through association, Prince Hal subjects himself to the “lower-stratum” of society in hopes of being reborn “like bright metal on sullen ground” (1.2 200)

An element of the grotesque that is not posited by Bakhtin, but, I would suggest, falls under his explanation is the varied use of prose and verse. In grotesque realism, Bakhtin explains that “‘Upward’ and ‘Downward’ have… an absolute and strictly topographical meaning” (21). Metrical verse is reserved to the upper echelons of society while prose is used only by the lower; indeed, Shakespeare establishes this fact by presenting both the uppermost and lowermost levels of society at the beginning of Act One and Two, respectively. Act One opens with King Henry’s idealistic verse announcing the need for a holy war: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care, / Find we a time for frighted peace to pant…” (1.1 1-2). Contrastingly, Act Two opens with the casual cadence of a peasant’s voice: “Heigh-ho! An it be not four by the day, I’ll be hanged” (2.1 1-2). The contrast between the two passages is clear, setting the stage, so to speak, for the dual realms of the play. Prince Hal is capable of jumping from one form to the other seamlessly. The Prince’s revelry in the prose, with his long insults and base slang, is unlike his social class and thus a reflection of the grotesque realism toward which his character strives. He uses the prose to lower himself to the level of his companions and away from his royal obligation. When speaking at court or in battle he uses measured verse while when speaking in the tavern he uses a loose prose. Interestingly, Prince Hal sometimes shifts his speech mid-scene depending on the audience. At 3.3 187-96, Prince Hal speaks to Falstaff in prose, but switches to verse to make demands of Bardolph and Peto. This discrepancy in language helps establish the carnivalesque atmosphere within the tavern and the political atmosphere without. As is discussed below, Falstaff is also afforded the ability to switch between verse and prose, but to a lesser extent than the Prince.

While the grotesque enables Prince Hal to descend to the level of the carnival, it is the inversion of social hierarchy that allows him to rise above it. Carnival and similar festivals like the Feast of Fools and the Feast of Asses were a time of role reversal in the Church. Fools and clowns assumed positions of prominence within the structure of the Church hierarchy for the duration of the festival (Battenhouse 35). Bakhtin suggests that this inversion resulted in a “special type of communication impossible in everyday life” driven by laughter (10). Ultimately, the social inversion of carnival was righted as the holiday came to a close and participants returned to typical values. Thus, a sort of play-acting occurred during carnival that enabled communication and allowed a voice to the lower levels of society, albeit a brief and foolish one.

Through this lens that we can examine the various scenes of play-acting that occur within the tavern in Act Two. It should be noted that there are several instances throughout the play when characters deceive each other through disguise—such as at 2.2 when Prince Hal and Poins rob the robbers or at 2.4 when Prince Hal confounds the drawer Francis—but do not “play-act” in the sense we are considering here. Bakhtin notes that the “festive laughter” found in the carnivalesque is also directed at those who laugh, and thus inclusive and not exclusive (12). Instead, the first real instance of play-acting is an impersonation that Prince Hal acts out for Poins (2.4 99-105). Imitating the overly brave Henry Percy and his doting wife, Prince Hal mocks Hotspur’s hyper-manliness and narrow-mindedness. It is important to note that Prince Hal devises the idea of impersonating Hotspur only after completing the practical joke on Francis, when he is “of all humours” (2.4 90). The presence of laughter and joking enable him to broach the uneasy topic of Hotspur, whom the audience knows to be favored by the King more so than Prince Hal (1.1 85-89). The carnivalesque atmosphere allows for the discussion of a taboo subject. And while Prince Hal mocks Hotspur overtly at 2.4 99 when he states “I am not yet of Percy’s mind,” there is a sense that soon he will share some of Percy’s convictions. Prince Hal tries on the guise of Hotspur in a joking manner, yet there is truth to his impression. As he later confesses to the King: “Percy is but my factor, good my lord, / to engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” (3.2 149).

The second instance of play-acting occurs between Prince Hal and Falstaff as the Prince prepares for his impending meeting with his father. Falstaff assumes the role of King Henry and in doing so, cast himself as the Lord of Misrule. A religious designation, the Lord of Misrule was associated with the Feast of Fools and typically involved a lower level citizen being raised to a high status within the church during the festival. This practice was considered a “Christian holiday exercise” that represented the dual nature of man (Battenhouse 34-35). C.L. Barber notes that the Lord of Misrule enabled the expression of “impulses… inhibited by the urgency and decorum of political life (14). The Lord of Misrule enabled the abandonment of social norms in favor of free-flowing communication among the classes. Falstaff begins his role as the Lord of Misrule by employing metrical verse for a few brief lines: “Weep not, sweet queen, for trickling tears are vain…/ For God’s sake, lords, convey my tristful queen, / For tears do stop the floodgates of her eyes” (2.4 378-81). The contrast between his typical prose and his play-acted verse creates a humorous incongruity that is based in class inversion. Similar to Prince Hal’s impersonation of Hotspur, Falstaff is emboldened by the laughter and merriment of the tavern crowd to discuss uncomfortable issues. He touches on Prince Hal’s truancy, stating “I do not marvel where thou spendest thy time (2.4 385-86); on Prince Hal’s illegitimacy, stating “That you art my son I have partly thy mother’s word, partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villainous trick of thine eye and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip that doth assure me” (2.4 388-92); and finally on the merits of Falstaff’s own friendship, stating “there is virtue in that Falstaff. Him keep with, the rest banish” (2.4 414-15). Of course, the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff is already built around mutual insults and billingsgate; play-acting affords them little more comic license than any other conversation. For this reason, Prince Hal’s response to Falstaff’s jibes is interesting.

The third and final instance of play-acting is really a continuation of the second. Prince Hal assumes the role of King and Falstaff assumes that of the Prince. However, the tone is markedly different. As Lord of Misrule, Falstaff dwells on lighter, more ridiculous issues like the Prince’s possible illegitimacy. His speech is softer, employing metaphors for comedic effect as at 2.4 386-88: “for though the cammomile, the more it is trodden, the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears.” Prince Hal as King, however, essentially abandons the premise of King Henry-examining-his-son in favor of a roundabout examination of Falstaff’s character. He puts the blame for his “son’s” unruliness squarely on Falstaff’s shoulders, stating “Thou are violently carried away from grace” (2.4 430-31). Prince Hal’s tone is sharp and his syntax succinct as he summarizes Falstaff’s character in a series of rhetorical questions: “Wherein cunning, but in craft? Wherein crafty, but in villainy? Wherein villainous, but in all things? Wherein worthy, but in nothing?” (2.4 440-42). Falstaff seems to recognize this shift in tone and compensates by a delivering a long-winded, self centered speech defending his own personal worth against Prince Hal’s other companions. However, when he states “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,” the Prince replies curtly, “I do, I will” (2.4 461-63). Though it is known from Act One that Prince Hal plans all along to abandon his foolish ways and friends, it is in this instance of play-acting that he actually communicates this to another character. Yet due to the nature of the game, Falstaff does not know how to respond and they are interrupted by news of the Sheriff’s arrival. He states “Out, ye rogue, play out the play. I have much to say on behalf of that Falstaff,” and the audience gets the impression that the act has assumed a truer status than reality (2.4 466-67).

In each episode of play-acting, there is a level of truth layered in humor. Prince Hal mocks Percy’s bravado, but also suggests that someday the two characters may not be so different; Falstaff mocks Prince Hal’s lifestyle, but also subtly illustrates the pain the Prince causes his father by his constant folly and immaturity; and Prince Hal mocks Falstaff’s appearance and delinquency, but also implies that Falstaff’s use to the Prince is quickly waning. Each playlet jokingly brings to light some issue that is later resolved in earnest. In the first two cases, the element of play is clear, the roles defined. However in the third episode the play-acting is muddied by Prince Hal’s break from character, Falstaff’s shameless self-promotion, and, consequently, the end of the hierarchical inversion central to the process. Though this is not the final scene set in the tavern, there is a sense that Prince Hal has begun to remove himself from the tavern carnival in favor of his royal duty. Falstaff, contrastingly, is not prepared for this. Whereas the Prince notes early on at 1.2 193-94 that “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work,” Falstaff rightly recognizes the end of the carnivalesque as an indication of the end of his utility and begs Prince Hal to “play out the play” (2.4 466, Barber 14).

Prince Hal’s utilizes the tavern carnival as a means of escaping the harsh political climate that will inevitably be his future. Norman Sanders notes that the Prince’s only way of extricating himself is by “engagement with the usual enemies of the social order,” but this is not a permanent solution (31). Prince Hal descends into the grotesque world of the tavern in pursuit of a festive release, a corporeal climax based on social disorder. His rite of passage is tied closely to degradation in the Bakhtinian sense. With degradation comes renewal. Baptized by wine and educated by fools, the Prince’s rebirth in the carnival setting is a cleansing process. According to Bakhtin, the grotesque body is often best expressed as a dual image: “one giving birth and dying, the other conceived, generated, and born” (26). Prince Hal’s promise to banish Falstaff is at once an act of rebirth and death as the Prince casts off Falstaff in favor of his new role. Play-acting helps him negotiate between high and low. Maintaining the grotesque imagery of carnival in tone, the play-acting dwells on real political issues. By breaking character and vowing to banish Falstaff, Prince Hal indicates an end to the tavern carnival and a restoration of social order. His departure from the tavern signals his exit from the low realm of the carnivalesque. In order to literally ascend to the throne, Prince Hal must symbolically rise out of the aesthetic realm of the grotesque.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich. Rabelais and his World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Print

Barber, C.L. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959. Print.

Battenhouse, Roy. “Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool.” PMLA, Vol. 90 No. 1 (1975): 32-52. JSTOR. Web. 30 October 2011.



Sanders, Norman. "The True Prince and the False Thief: Prince Hal and the Shift of Identity." Shakespeare Survey Volume 30: Henry IV to Hamlet. Ed. Kenneth Muir. Cambridge UP, 1977. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge UP. Web. 30 October 2011.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV: Part One. Ed. Stanley Wells. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.


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