Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henriad
The question that Shakespeare raises throughout the series of Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II, and Henry V is that of whether Prince Hal (eventually King Henry V), is a true manifestation of an ideal ruler, and whether he is a rightful heir to his father’s ill-begotten throne. England is without a true king, being run by a ruler without the right of divine providence on his side– altogether, a very difficult situation for a young, inexperienced, and slightly delinquent Prince to take on. The task of proving himself a reliable Prince and a concerned ruler is of utmost importance to Hal, as he does not enjoy the mantle of divine right– perhaps by being an excellent ruler, Hal can make up for the usurpation of Richard II’s crown. Even though he is unable to change his ancestry, he may be able to gain God’s support by ruling justly, piously, and effectively. Robert Fallon defines this stage of England’s history as “an era when monarchs were expected to share with their soldiers the dangers of the battlefield, where strength of character was equated with strength of arm and a king’s ability to rule was measured by his ability to lead his armies in conquest,” and this is the mindset that Hal must deal with, moving from an irresponsible tavern dweller to a responsible ruler, fit to lead England with God’s support, if not his permission (Fallon, 111).
The association of Prince Hal with dubious, tavern-dwelling creatures like Falstaff is a main point of contention between his supporters and detractors. Because the audience first meets the Prince in Henry IV, Part I, while he is carousing in the tavern with Falstaff, it is necessary for Shakespeare to indicate that Hal is not as enchanted with this way of life as he may seem on the surface. Hal’s asides like “I know you all, and will awhile uphold/ The unyoked humour of your idleness” give him a depth of character early in the play (1H4, 1.2.185-186). Furthermore, Shakespeare gives the audience the reason that Hal acts this way: after Hal is left alone, he speaks his true mind, explaining that
when this loose behaviour I throw off/ And pay the debt I never promised,/ By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;/ And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,/ My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,/ Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes/ Than that which hath no foil to set it off./ I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,/ Redeeming time when men think least I will. (1H4, 1.2.199-207)
Prince Hal shows a great deal of insight in this revelation; his words show that he realizes he has a twofold boundary to overcome: first, he is seen as overly juvenile and flighty by most of his father’s men; second, and more importantly, Hal knows that he has no claim to the divine right to rule, as he is not of Richard II’s bloodline. It seems, then, that Hal knows full well “the way that men respond to the image of royalty, and [is] no less instinctive a politician than...