A Theme Of Nobility And Power In Shakespeare’s Henry Iv

Set during the political and social unrest of early 15th-century England, William Shakespeare’s historical play, Henry IV Part 1 demonstrates that those in power must separate themselves from the lower-class of society. Prince Hal, “the blessed sun of heaven”, stands above the crumbling world of nobility and lawless rebels in his ability to deceive and manipulate at the Eastcheap tavern, allowing him to “falsify men’s hopes”. Although looked down upon as the “shadow of succession”, Hal’s Machiavellian desire to make his reformation appear more dramatic represents a startling intent of self-control and cold calculation. Shakespeare insinuates that Hal’s riotous company at the tavern may persuade him to descend into moral depravity, and hence he must separate himself from his associations at the tavern for when he becomes king. Furthermore, the playwright presents nobility as a divine quality which demands respect from the ordinary masses. Yet, for Shakespeare, it is common society which is manipulated by the powerful to fulfil their political interests.

Hal’s anarchic friendships at the tavern undermine the moral righteousness that he must exhibit as a prince; therefore he must purge himself of such company when it is time for him to act regally. Due to his lowly interactions at the tavern, Prince Hal is seen by Hotspur as a “nimble-footed madcap” and the “same sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales”. The image of poverty in Hotspur’s lines debases Hal’s perceived capacity as a prince, as he is seen as belonging to the lawless underworld of the tavern. The unruly environment persuades Hal to descend into ethical depravity. Falstaff questions Hal’s nobility in his line “the true prince may – for recreation’s sake – prove a false thief”. Here, Shakespeare presents our interests, and our identity, as being shaped by the people who we befriend. Even the most aristocratic individuals may succumb to “lewd” acts such as robbery. King Henry further denigrates Hal’s image by implying that Hal does not measure up his ancestor’s honourable “flight”. His image of falconry conveys the strict moral code in which royals must abide to. However, Hal is aware of the “inordinate” image which he projects to the public. He tells us of his true motivation to associate with the cronies of the Eastcheap tavern: to stain his public imagery with “riot and dishonour” so that his emergence as a true prince will become more impressive. He juxtaposes himself with the “beauty” of the “sun”, which is smothered up by the “foul and ugly mists” of the “contagious cloud” in the tavern. The image of disease further highlights the tavern’s moral corruption, while the sun’s radiance ensures the audience that Hal will be a sovereign free of iniquity. Hal’s eventual plan to banish his “unrestrained loose companions” is due the “displeasing” image of him that his associates project. As Hal develops the emotional maturity and leadership required for a king, he will seek to eliminate his past associates who will “strangle” the stability of his reign, demonstrating that such associations are lethal and detrimental to his public image as king. Consequently, Hal must abandon the heinous nature of the tavern in order to assume his “princely privileges”.

Shakespeare presents nobility as a showcase of magnificence for society, which ultimately generates the respect needed for nobles to retain their kinship. King Henry harshly condemns Hal for his “vulgar company”, who “hold their level with his princely heart” and “accompany the greatness of his blood”. Henry views nobility as a sacred privilege to be withheld from the “mean” lower-class, suggesting that such people could “stain” the purity of the noble blood. He asserts that if Hal continues to associate with commoners, he will never command the respect that a king requires, which was the case for Richard II, who “mingled his royalty with capering fools and had his great name profaned with their scorns”. For Henry, a king is not merely obliged to serve as a ruler, but also as an admirable figurehead for society. Shakespeare is suggesting that familiarity with commoners will breed contempt, comparing it to mere “honey” which men will “loathe the taste of”. As such, Henry is depicted as the polar opposite of the puerile naivety which Richard represented, describing himself as a grand “feast” instead. For Henry, a king’s appearances must be rare and unusual, “seldom, but sumptuous”. In the same vein, the imagery of brightness in his lines “by being seldom seen…like a comet he was wondered at” further highlights the contrast between himself and his infamous predecessor, as Henry illustrates himself as a gift ordained from a divine power. Thus, Shakespeare portends that rulers must generate a respectful aura in order to be well-regarded by their subjects.

However, by separating themselves from common society, those in power feel no moral constraint for their manipulation of the lower echelons of society. Falstaff explicitly connects materialistic values, such as honour, with the violence propagated by the warring rulers of society. He views it as a mere “scutcheon” – implying that it is a completely heraldic device used at funerals, nothing more than a flimsy decoration for the coffins of the dead. He continues to debase honour by deriding it as a mere “word”, suggesting that political language is skilfully used to obfuscate the callousness of war, and to manipulate the population into committing terrible atrocities for an altruistic quality. Consequently, Shakespeare presents honour as an illusion designed to assuage nobles of the “shame” they would feel for leading the underclass of society to their deaths. Therefore, the impoverished lower-class are the most victimised by the constant military expeditions between feuding nobles; they are dehumanised as a “commodity of warm slaves”. Hence, Shakespeare illustrates the moral depravity of the powerful, who are willing to “toss” their personal subjects into battle in exchange for even more power. The wretched sight of Falstaff’s impoverished soldiers – ranging from “good householders, yeomen’s sons” and “discarded unjust serving-men” would likely be viewed by the audience as an unjustified atrocity; yet, Prince Hal is apathetic towards the bleak conditions of Falstaff’s “pitiful rascals”, suggesting that the demands of royals override the necessities of the poor. Therefore, Shakespeare demonstrates that common society is used as a pawn to fulfil the political desires of the powerful.

Shakespeare asserts that nobles must disconnect themselves from the abhorrence of common society in order to preserve their moral compass, and that Hal must purge the tavern in order to assume his royal duties. Yet, because King Henry views the public as an audience, his support for his rule over England is maintained due to his rare and elegant appearances. Moreover, Shakespeare denounces the ignominious sacrifice of commoners for war, which is often permitted by those who are in power. Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 thus demonstrates that in order for nobles to rule appropriately, they must distance themselves from the moral corruption of commoners, yet it is this patronising attitude towards the rest of society which permits the recruitment of innocent civilians for war. 

16 December 2021
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