Evil men do not understand justice


What recourse does one have when a King, who rules by Divine Right, is deposed and usurped by another? The Heavens who have chosen the now usurped King cannot be thought to sit idly by while an illegitimate sovereign now reigns. Shakespeare’s second installment of his Second Tetralogy explores how the Heavens resolve the problem of the illegitimate sovereign. In particular the First Part of Henry IV explores how the Heavens attempted to solve the question of the illegitimate King. The first act of the play demonstrates that an uprising of supporters of the slain King Richard II is underway and both Prince Hal and his friend Falstaff discuss the relation of the Moon’s power to govern the affairs of men. It appears that the Law, which governs the Heavenly Bodies and men, is personified by Shakespeare in the First Part of Henry IV as a means of gaining satisfaction against King Henry IV for his usurpation of God’s chosen King, Richard II.

Some have seen Henry IV, Part One[1] as a play about the creation of a Prince and King in the character of Prince Hal; however, the play focuses on the career of a usurper.[2] Falstaff and Prince Hal discuss the new situation that they find themselves in. Falstaff says to Hal, “let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 28-31.) The moon has the power to make the ocean rise and fall at will and that same power governs men according to Falstaff. The moon is governed by God, and therefore the moon appears with water, the prominent literary image of redemption and a new beginning.  The moon will be used by God to cleanse the Kingdom of England by stirring the passions of the people into a outright rebellion.   The rebellion of the Welsh seems to be caused by stirrings of the moon in accordance with Falstaff’s belief of the moon’s power over mankind. The Prince responds to Falstaff by saying, “Thou sayest well, and it holds well too, for the fortune of us that are moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon.” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 32-35) The question that Prince Hal now must face is how to protect stability in England despite the wrath of Heaven against his father. Yet, to demonstrate to the Heavens that he, Prince Hal, is deserving of the throne his father stole, Hal acknowledges, “And pay the debt I never promised” (Act 1 scene 2, 216) This prophetic statement by Hal indicates that his father will in fact be saved from Divine justice, instead the Prince and the English people will be forced to pay for the sins of Henry IV.

Having disposed the King, Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke is prepared to turn his attention to the restoration of time and the kingdom of England; he proposes a crusade to the Holy Land. However, as King Henry IV, Bolingbroke faces his first threat from the Welsh, who as supporters of the late King Richard II are prepared to revolt against the usurper King.[3] Because of threats to his throne the crusade must be put on hold.  The play of the First Part of Henry IV focuses around the hostilities the new king faces in the aftermath of his execution and disposition of the previous king. In particular, a theme of the play is posed by the King’s son Hal; he will be forced to pay for the actions of his father in taking the thrown. The play looks to the relationship of the Heavenly Bodies and political affairs; England’s political affairs throughout the play are chaotic. Something seems to be seeking retribution for the deposing of God’s chosen monarch. The Law appears in various forms throughout the play, each seeking retribution against the King. The threat of a Welsh uprising is also an indication that Shakespeare plans for Part 1 of Henry IV how the Heavens handle usurpers.  Henry’s rule has ushered in a period of lawlessness in England that will last until the last of the Lancaster Monarchs has reigned. As Falstaff states, “I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company.”(2, 2, 10) The only way to restore the rule of law and order in England is restore the monarchy to a King who represents lawfulness rather than lawlessness. Henry’s choice to overthrow his cousin Richard plays out in the play to show the consequences of his choice: England and his family will suffer Divine justice.

The final element of the story of Divine Justice against King Henry IV is the war against the Welsh.[4] Falstaff says, “Rebellion lay in his way….” (5.1.29.)  The rebellion, a result of the moon’s power over the passions of men, symbolizes the Divine Justice against King Henry and as Falstaff indicates the rebellion was predestined when Henry usurped Richard. Rebellion by the Welsh calls into question the English Constitution under Henry IV and even his successors; primarily the weakness and irresponsibility of the King. Prince Hal comes into his own during the war as his plan expressed in his soliloquy in the first act. He draws others to himself, much like a jeweler places a diamond against a black background. And by executing his plan, and taking part in the war, Hal has made himself the object Divine Justice will aim toward.[5] This is evident by the action of Part II of Henry IV as Henry IV is terminally ill rather than dying from an external condition. Prince Hal kills the rebel leader Hotspur at the end of the play; and if the rebellion is the heavens seeking Divine Justice upon Henry then Hotspur must be the chief sword for that Divine Justice. This action places Hal, and not Henry, in the sights of the heavens as they seek retribution for the death of their legitimate, Divine Right King Richard.  As the Kingdom is taking account of what has happened in the rebellion, the King observes, “Thus did rebellion find rebuke…”(5.5.1) The divinely ordained rebellion was rebuked by the son of the man who disobeyed the Lord’s command that Richard be King of England. The theme at the beginning of the play, the restoration of time and the Kingdom, alludes to the words of Henry after the rebellion has been put down. Time represents a temporal order, indicating that Henry has restored a temporal monarchy after a period of Divine monarchs.

Many Shakespearean critics claim that the story of the play Part I of Henry IV is the story of Prince Hal and his career on the path to becoming king of England. Yet, the story of the play focuses on the Divine Justice planned out by the heavens against the usurper King Henry IV. The Prince interferes with this plan of the heavens by intersecting himself in the rebellion and killing the leader of the rebel army. The movement of the play does involve the establishment of Hal as the true and proper heir of Henry IV but in the sense that Hal becomes the focus of Divine Justice throughout Part II of Henry IV and Henry V where Hal becomes King Henry V. The rebellion is the main object of the play whereby Prince Hal reveals himself as the proper heir to the lawless, usurper King Henry IV. Rather than being good, this event actually shows the inevitable downfall of one of Shakespeare’s most important characters.


[1] All quotes from the play taken from Folger Shakespeare Library: Henry IV, Part 1. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1994.

[2] David Berkeley and Donald Eidson, “The Themes of Henry IV, Part I” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1968), pp. 25-31 accessed from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2867838 on 5/1/10. The authors argue in “The Themes of Henry IV, Part I” that one of the themes in Henry IV, part One is the education of a prince. However, they ignore that the play also demonstrates Divine justice on usurpers. More importantly they fail to notice that Prince Hal, while “learning” to become King models himself on his father who is a lawless usurper in the eyes of the heavens. Thus, the Prince’s education is complete when he kills the leader of the divinely ordained rebel army, Hotspur.

[3] Trafton, Dain A. “Shakespeare’s Henry IV, A New Prince in a New Principality” in Shakespeare as a Political Thinker edited by John E. Alvis & Thomas G. West, (ISI Books: Wilmington, DE. 2000) pg. 94-104. This article is similar in the argument that I make in that the story of Henry IV is about Henry IV despite other underlying storylines. In addition, Trafton argues that Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 demonstrate the consequences of Henry’s decision to overthrow the Divine Right King Richard II.

[4]Leggatt, “Henry IV, Part 1: A Modern Perspective” in Folger Shakespeare Library: Henry IV, Part 1. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1994. Similar to the argument made by Berkely and Eidson, Alexander Leggatt in his essay “Henry IV, Part 1: A modern perspective” argues that the movement of the play is towards the establishment of Hal as the true heir to Henry. However, his focus is on the battle of Shrewsbury where Hal proves himself the heir by killing Hotspur. This point I do not disagree with, as Hal’s killing of Hotspur shows him the proper object of Divine Justice.

[5] In Hal’s soliloquy at act 1 scene 2 he hatches a plan to make himself appear as the proper heir to Henry’s thrown. He says, “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill….”(1.2.223) Indicating that he will throw off attention on his father, making himself appear as “the sun.”

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