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Hal's Education in Henry IV

January 20, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In our recent film discussion on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Gary Schoepfel, HMU Tutor and discussion leader, asked whether Hal (also known as Prince Harry) could have received his education in any setting – did Hal have to visit the tavern to learn as much? Originally, I answered no, believing that he could have received this information about people (commoners) anywhere. I thought that the tavern added color making it better for a drama (which it does). Upon reflection, however, I must change my answer. The tavern allows for a level of baseness that does not exist in day to day drudgery of job life. It offers place and sustenance to whet all appetites. This enables man to show his lowest, meanest self openly. Tavern life also allows for humor and emotion. It welcomes freedom which is the exact opposite of Prince Harry's true home among royalty.

In the play's opening scence, King Henry mentions his dissatisfaction with his son Prince Harry. The King wishes that his son resembled someone like Hotspur, fiery and ambitious, rather than the tavern-seeker and prankster known as Hal. He says, “In envy that my Lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blest a son,/ A son who is the theme of Honour's tongue;...Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,/ See riot and dishonour stain the brow/ Of my young Harry.” (Act I, Scene i, lines 79-86) This introduction allows the reader to expect the upcoming behavior of Prince Hal and his friends, which is riotous and bawdy. Juxtapose this introduction from his father to the actual scene which introduces Hal and Falstaff. In this environment, Hal is very much himself. He is free, witty, relaxed with all defenses down. The film accentuates their lack of propriety by having Hal wake Falstaff with a naked woman in the room. Falstaff then gets up and pees into the urinal, all the while demanding that his debts are an abuse against him. The two are hilarious, inappropriate and witty.

This relationship, between Falstaff and Hal, is irregular and out of the normal order. Being a prince, Hal's formal education took place among nobility, lords and kings. However, Falstaff, and the tavern life, has allowed Hal to connect with emotions and people in a way that is impossible to access through the crown. In fact, in Act III, King Henry confronts Hal about his behavior and even accuses him of treasonous thinking. The King gives Harry a history lesson, explaining how arduous and hard-fought was his path to the crown. In this lecture, he even asks why he has not seen more of his own son. But then, he accuses Harry of thinking to fight in Hotspur's army rather than the King's. He says to the prince, “Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,/ Base inclination, and the start of a spleen,/ To fight against me under Percy's pay” (Act III, Scene ii, lines 124-6). This scene makes clear the fact that King Henry IV avoids emotions that could be perceived as weak. He does not allow for indulgences and, in his age, has become fearful of many people. This history leads him into trouble among his own friends and family. Prince Harry, though, responds that he will fight a duel with Hotspur in order to prove himself to the King. In other words, Hal's tavern education is complete and it is time for him to find a purpose.

Unlike the complex characters of Hal and Falstaff, Hotspur is blind to his own faults – pride, arrogance, passion. He sees these only as assets. Falstaff is clearly not blind to his own faults, but he just chooses not to see them as faults. Falstaff's character is complicated, whereas Hotspur is much more straightforward. Hal, who loves Falstaff partly because of his flaws, learns a great deal from watching a flawed character navigate through life. He sees the raw moments that no one else allows others to see. Falstaff weeps openly, laughs loudly and snores heavily. He indulges in his desires, allows others to see this and comforts himself that thieves are not evil, just needy. In all this fancy dialogue, however, Falstaff knows his baseness. He admits his folly while at the same time being incapable of change. Hal sees this too, and makes note of it as an essential ingredient in his education. Without Falstaff's example, Prince Harry would be like cardboard, a figure cut out of paper. But Falstaff adds depth, which is only achieved in the bawdy, open, free environment of the tavern life.

We will continue the discussion with Henry IV, Part 2 in March. If you are interested, email rfisher@hmu.edu. All are welcome and we would love to hear from you.

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