Exploration Of Lasting Issues In The Play Henry Iv By Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part 1 has maintained its relevance over 400 years, exploring social order, politics and role-playing through King Henry IV, Prince Hal and Falstaff. Especially, Hal’s powerful line ‘Herein I will imitate the sun,’ emphasises Hal’s development which allows Henry to continue his effective rule as King, and reveals Falstaff’s unjust nature. Shakespeare challenges social classes and portrays Machiavels, which contrasts the modern world, while our society has improved, there are still social and political issues to be dealt with.

Reformation of dignity is explored through Prince Hal’s crucial lines ‘Herein I will imitate the sun’ and 'I do, I will’ signifying his returns to his designated role. The sun represents the established order of the world, where Hal is responsible and respectable. Separation of class contrasts our current society’s absence of distinct classes, though social distinctions are still present.

After Hal claims he will ‘redeem his honour on Percy’s head’ to his father, Hal’s reformation is evident as Vernon acknowledges Hal with images of royalty and celestial imagery in ‘as if an angel dropped down from the clouds,’ and ‘which became him like a prince indeed.’ Moreover, Henry compliments Hal with ‘Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion.’ Additionally, Hal’s experience allows him to empathise and connect with his people, while such qualities are lacking in Henry. Such connection between a leader and his/her people is evident following the recent shooting in New Zealand, when Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, demonstrated unity with her people as she attended the funeral wearing a hijab.

The play delves into politics, especially with Machiavels who justify their immorality with a positive outcome. Henry Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard defies ‘divine right’, undermining the natural order of social classes. Pathetic fallacy in ‘How bloodily the sun begins to peer’ foreshadows disorder during Henry’s rule. While many opposed Henry’s reign, his usurpation of the rightful king was revolutionary as he lacked a claim to the throne, yet proved to be a more effective King, reviving the life of his lands. Similarly, our modern world suffers from corrupt leaders such as Adolf Hitler, initially praised for the recovery of Germany from the damages of World War I, but overtook other countries violently and killed millions of Jews.

Falstaff is corrupt with greed, evident when he recruited soldiers in return for money: ‘I have got in exchange of a hundred-and-fifty soldiers three hundred and odd pounds.’ Falstaff embodies the Lord of Misrule through his lack of responsibility and guard, as he spends most of his time in the tavern. He falsely claimed he killed Hotspur in the hopes that such honour will bring wealth and status: ‘I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you.’ However, Falstaff denies the very existence of honour, and is only self-interested and negligent of his duties as a Lord. Falstaff can be contrasted with Hotspur, who’s strong obsession of honour and chivalry leads him his defeat. Falstaff’s motivation to improve his lifestyle is reflected in the aspiration of people who are constantly trying to enhance their living standards and climb society’s classes, while being lost in corruption and greed.

Politics and role-playing is demonstrated through Henry. Henry’s questionable claim to the throne required him to play different roles, as it challenged the natural hierarchy, supported by God at the top. With the legitimacy of his reign in question, as in 'So shaken as we are, so wan with care,' Henry is pressured to justify his reign by proposing a crusade to the Holy Land to show his strength with God. Is Henry’s value of God merely a facade? Is it a manipulation, used by leaders today, to conceal their flaws?

Henry’s playing of roles is evident in his relationship with the Percy’s. If Henry gives the Percy’s what he owes them for their assistance in deposing Richard II, the Percys have the power to depose him. On the other hand, war will eventually be initiated by the already powerful Percys. While projecting a strong and collected front, King Henry is evidently troubled by his debt. Leaders avoid angering powerful groups, while being unable to condemn their wrongdoings. This is evident in our world’s current situation with North Korea. Nations realise the threat and injustice of North Korea, but cannot risk war and the use of nuclear weapons.

Henry’s desire to characterise as a comet and transcend the ordinary implies that power was used to resolve issues. Henry disassociates with the common people, while criticising Hal for his association with them. A leader’s disconnection can be seen in countries in which innocent people are being massacred. Henry’s method of ruling compares to modern leaders who have introduced many improvements to their nation, even as people question the legitimacy of their right to rule.

King Henry IV Part 1 has remained a relevant play through its exploration of lasting issues. Through scrutiny of Machiavellians and, highlighting issues such as social order, politics and leadership, the play has displayed its continual relevance to modern society, reflecting corrupt leaders and discord within communities . Shakespeare’s play is powerful in revealing flaws in societies, and reinforcing the need for just ruling, honesty and empathy to improve society. 

16 December 2021
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