The Value Of Shakespeare’s Henry Iv Part 1 In A Modern World

William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part 1 is a dramatic examination of the critical traits of individuals that contribute to a successful leader in a world rife with social and political discord. The play has continually asserted itself as a powerful and significant play for more than 400 years, providing insight into the challenges of governance in our modern world. The play represents the complexities of honourable rebellion and political motivations, primarily through the characters of Hal, Henry IV and Hotspur. Through the comparison of Hal and Hotspur, we can distinguish how individuals in power play a dangerous game and their leadership can subsequently result in the demise of a governing system. “Herein I will imitate the sun”, establishes Hal’s strategic nature. In a modern world, we are confronted with the tension between a politician’s desire for moral integrity and self-interest that demands a favourable public image. Shakespeare’s play compels the Renaissance audience to question the behaviour of their leaders, while modern audiences recognise resonances of this behaviour in their own politicians.

Shakespeare’s character parallel of Hal and Hotspur illuminates the strengths and flaws in potential leaders and ultimately interrogates the qualities that are deemed favourable in leadership. Henry’s opening comments on Hal and Hotspur introduces the opposition between Hal’s absence of chivalric honour in contrast to Hotspur’s embodiment of valour and integrity. Hotspur’s honourable traits are commended by Henry in the metaphor, “theme of honour’s tongue”, suggesting Hotspur is underpinned by honesty and courage. Yet, Hotspur’s recount of his encounter with the King’s messenger after battle, “Out of my grief and impatience / Answered neglectingly I know not what”, exposes his impulsive nature. The imperative voice, “I will not send them / I will after straight / And tell him so”, emphasises his irrational and impatient character with a lack of political diplomacy. In fact, his single-minded pursuit of chivalry results in his poor political judgement, articulated by Worcester, “it doth present harsh rage / Defect of manners, want of government / Pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain”, the cumulative listing underscoring the significant impact of Hotspur’s highly emotional and impulsive nature. In contrast, Shakespeare has characterised Hal as a more promising leader due to his shrewdness and pragmatism. His soliloquy at the end of Act 1 establishes his strategic nature, “Herein I will imitate the sun / My reformation glitt’ring o’er my fault shall glow more goodly and attract more eyes”, the metaphor of the sun illuminating Hal’s potential for transformation to the openness and transparency of a respected leader. Shakespeare elevates Hal’s collegial relationship with the commoners to demonstrate his ability to understand his diverse community of citizens. Ultimately, Hal undergoes a transformation from the prodigal son spending his time in the taverns of London to a war hero, defeating Hotspur in battle and regaining his father’s approval. Shakespeare utilises the character contrast to evaluate the importance of attaining a political shrewdness and pragmatism rather than chivalric character in order to be a successful leader.

Shakespeare’s complex representation of Hal’s political motivations in his soliloquy in Act 1 further critiques the Renaissance value of the Divine Right of Kings, exposing the role of performance and duplicity that is required to construct the perception of legitimate power. The Renaissance perception of the Divine Right of Kings revolves around the notion that the monarchy is part of God’s mandate, and they derive their legitimacy directly from God’s will. However, Hal’s soliloquy establishes an ambiguity around his integrity. Hal shifts from prose to poetry exposing the variation of speech needed to govern as “I can drink with any tinker in his own language”, the metaphor enhancing his capacity for manipulation. The soliloquy ends with a rhymed couplet, emphasising Hal’s ability to make the transition from one social situation to another, and hence coincides with his ability to thrive in both worlds. His metaphors of “base contagious clouds”, “foul and ugly mists”, and “sullen ground” to represent his companions at Eastcheap, elevates the motif of performance as his true attitude towards the tavern becomes clear. In addition, Hal demonstrates the essential quality of powerful leadership as theatrical, “mingling his royalty with capering fools”, so that his transformation will appear more splendid. Further, King Henry has abandoned the conventional form of political authority, arguing that the crown belongs to the one who is most fit to rule. Thus, Henry’s refusal to ransom the “revolted Mortimer”, named by Richard II as the legitimate successor to the throne, can be interpreted as protecting his own interest in political power, as opposed to the national interests of the country. Hal, ultimately synthesises the critical traits and political shrewdness of his father, helping him transform from a tavern wastrel to a pragmatic Machiavellian leader. Shakespeare contradicts the value of the Divine Right of Kings, foreshadowing the successful rule of Hal through his defeat of Hotspur and redeeming his father’s lost perception “on Percy’s head”. Ultimately, the rebellion compels the Renaissance audience to consider the effects of disrupting the Divine Right of Kings, achieving power through duplicitous means.

Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part 1 evaluates the importance of performance and duplicity rather than neo-chivalric values in order to be a successful leader in a world rife with social and political discord. Shakespeare’s representation emphasises his meditation on the qualities of true leadership and raises questions regarding the viability of the belief in the Divine Right of Kings, thus compelling the Renaissance audience to question the behaviour of their contemporary leaders, and evoking a sceptical interrogation of our own modern politicians. 

16 December 2021
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