Henry IV, Part I: Reading Hal as a “Social Person”

A quick FYI: My post is going to overlap ever-so-slightly with Jeewon’s. However, I’ll be looking at mostly different passages and working through different ideas, so hopefully my selection won’t ruffle too many feathers!

I’m thinking about Fowler’s definition of a character as a social person, one whose construction depends “not only upon their contexts of topoi and institutions, but also upon their positions in networks of social relationships” (14). Fowler’s argument suggests that an analysis of character must emerge, not just through the character’s own words, but through a complete mapping of all the contexts in which that character appears. In the first two scenes of the play, Prince Henry is revealed to the audience through a series of lenses, refracted through multiple contexts. So, let’s consider the intersections between character, context, and language at three points: when King Henry first mentions his son at the end of the first scene, when Hal and Falstaff pun and joke at the beginning of 1.2, and when Hal delivers his soliloquy at the end of 1.2.

We first hear about Hal before we meet him, during the King’s complaint in 1.1, 77-94:


Yea, there thou mak’st me sad, and mak’st 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. O that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,

And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

But let him from my thoughts. What think you, coz,

Of this young Percy’s pride? The prisoners

Which he in this adventure hath surprised

To his own use he keeps, and sends me word

I shall have none but Mordake, Earl of Fife.

  • In the King’s speech, I notice his use of three consecutive figures to illustrate Hotspur, the son he wishes he had, a son who is “the theme of honor’s tongue,” “the straightest plant” in a grove, and “sweet Fortune’s minion.” The syntax lines up neatly in accordance with the line, with each figure fitting into one end-stopped line.
  • Now, let’s compare the language used to imagine an ideal son with the language of the son himself, Hal. Notice the way Hal’s metaphors pile up in his banter with Falstaff at the opening of 1.2, 1-11.


Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?


Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

  • Think about what the audience has just heard: Only a minute before, they listened to the King lament “in envy that my Northumberland / should be the father to so blest a son.” Now, they hear “the blessed sun” compared to “a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta”! In this case, the wordplay–and the sense that Hal definitely isn’t living up to his father’s expectations–moves across scenes, not just within them.
  • What’s more, consider the way in which metaphors accumulate here. The connections are rapid-fire, spilling across these lines of prose: cups → sack, minutes → capons, clocks → tongues, dials → signs, sun → wench. There’s a messiness and an excess here, so different from the King’s three neat metaphors that we observed earlier.
  • Finally, let’s turn to Hal’s soliloquy at the end of this scene. This is where we first see the “other side” to his character. It’s notable, of course, that he switches from prose to poetry and that’s he’s alone in the tavern. But, I’m also interested in his use of figuration and the ways in which he’s able to sustain a conceit over the course of several lines. Here’s the speech in 1.2, 183-205, typed out a second time:


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 wondered at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

So when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

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’ll so offend to make offence a skill,

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

  • I’ve marked in bold two of the main figures in this speech: when Hal compares himself to the sun and when he then compares his “reformation” to “bright metal on a sullen ground.” What interests me about these moments is that fact that Hal sustains these comparisons over the course of multiple lines. He proves himself able to develop an abstract thought at length, a skill that’s very different from the rapid-fire punning that opens the scene. In this way, the transformation in language mirrors the transformation of character, a third lens through which we might begin to assemble Hal’s character.

Looking forward to thinking through character with all of you tomorrow!


Richard II Passage for Emphasis: “That England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”

Let’s look at the beginning of Act II, Scene i, focusing on the conversation between the Duke of York and the dying John of Gaunt in lines 17-68. Gaunt has just argued this his own dying words might persuade Richard, but York disagrees:



No, it [Richard’s ear] is stopped with other flatt’ring sounds,

As praises, of whose taste the wise are feared,

Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound

The open ear of youth doth always listen,

Report of fashions in proud Italy,

Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation

Limps after in base imitation.

Where doth the world thrust forth a vanity–

So it be new there’s no respect how vile–

That is not quickly buzzed into his ears?

Then all too late comes counsel to be heard

Where will doth mutiny with wit’s regard.

Direct not him whose way himself will choose,

‘Tis breath thou lack’st and that breath wilt thou lose.



Methinks I am a prophet new inspired

And thus, expiring, do foretell of him:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last

For violent fires soon burn out themselves.

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;

He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;

With eager feeding, food doth choke the feeder;

Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,

Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little war,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home

For Christian service and true chivalry

As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry

Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son;

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out–I die pronouncing it–

Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,

Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege

Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.

That England that was wont to conquer others

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,

How happy then were my ensuing death!


I’m drawn to this passage because it so cleverly plays with the definition of “place.” What, Gaunt seems to ask, is England? Is England a location on a map, a physical landscape, or is England an imaginative location, the site of fantasy, anxiety, and the production of metaphor? In the points that follow, I’ll try to explore the tension between real and imagined spaces in this scene, as well as the ways in which that tension manifests itself through Shakespeare’s language. Per Jakobson: “In poetry, any conspicuous similarity in sound is evaluated in respect to similarity and/or dissimilarity in meaning” (87).


  • There’s a sense, beginning with York’s lines, that England’s place on the world stage is precarious: “Report of fashions in proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation / Limps after in base imitation” (21-23). Line 22 includes a feminine ending (“nation”), so that the meter seems to reflect York’s deflated attitude toward England (behind in fashions, trends, foolishly trying to imitation a more sophisticated nation).
  • In Gaunt’s speech, we see him thinking through not only Richard’s treachery, but also England itself as an island. The island is a doubled space, at once protected from its enemies by nature of its geography, but also susceptible to its own insularity. That doubleness emerges immediately in the parallelism of the verse instance in line 37: “With eager feeding, food doth choke the feeder.”
  • The speech is notable for its repetition of the word “this.” Here, Gaunt describes the ways in which England has benefited from its position as an island nation–”This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war”–before revealing that this land is “now leased out,” spoiled by Richard’s actions. I’d like to suggest that this repetition of “this” creates a sort of “fortress” of words, creating a chain of language that is then broken by Gaunt’s interjection “I die pronouncing it.” In effect, the language forms a barrier that is suddenly broken, just as Richard has ruined England’s privileged position as a secluded, safe, and happy island.
  • Finally, notice how the physical landscape ultimately gives way to the metaphorical: “Whose rocky shores beats back the envious siege / Of watery Neptune, is now bound with shame, / With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds” (63-64). I’m interested in the ways in which these images blend and overlap: We move so quickly from the physical landscape (rocky shores surrounded by water) to the immaterial (shame now stands in for the waters around those shores) and back to the material object (the paperwork which now, in a way, stands in for Richard’s shame!).
  • In our discussion tomorrow, we might also dive more deeply into the language of property and paperwork that runs throughout this scene (the lease, ink, parchment bonds). I wonder if “the map” is also a sort of paperwork that looms behind these images? Then again, I might be running away with that idea a bit…


I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts!


‘Til tomorrow,