Identify and discuss the two issues with which you feel William Shakespeare is asking his audience to wrestle with most in Henry V, Part I. As you develop this response, comment on Shakespeare’s refusal to match any of his questions with essay answers. Comment also on the immediate relevance of these issues to those of our own day.
One of the great issues of Henry IV, Part I is summed up, but hardly concluded, by Sir John Falstaff at the end of the first scene in Act V. Falstaff, fearful of the coming battle, has just asked the prince to find him on the battlefield, to which Prince Henry replies, “Why, thou owest God a death” (V.i.126). Falstaff takes this opportunity to expound on the nature of honor. He repeatedly wonders what honor is good for: It doesn’t bandage wounds or perform as a surgery; it means nothing to a dead man. This runs contrary to Hotspur’s views on the matter, as the young man esteems honor as a virtue, and something to be earned on a battlefield or retained in the face of insult (perceived, implied, or otherwise). Furthermore, at the end of the second scene of the play, Prince Henry reflects on the façade he makes of his behavior to hide his intentions: He intends to become a great and honorable ruler, and surprise everyone by being so.
The difference in views on honor and the difference in ages between the characters is no accident. Hotspur and Henry are young; they believe that war is an answer. Falstaff is old and has seen the way the world works; he sees honor as an empty word given to a grieving widow or a fatherless child, or a meaningless incentive to go to war. Honor has become less of a widely discussed issue in our modern day setting, although it still holds some weight; more prevalent in discussion is the subject of war. War is a subject of much controversy today, due to the ideals of pacifism in our culture. Our society has become less honor-minded and more passionately- or emotionally-minded.
The second issue surrounds rulership: the system in Henry IV is a mess. King Henry took the throne from Richard II under debatable circumstances, and with the help of the Percy family, but seems to doubt his own shaky claim to the throne—and there are reflections of this doubt and a possibly failing ruler throughout the play. Now the Percy family, having been slighted by King Henry, are using Edmund Mortimer (who was next in line for the throne after Richard II) as their reason for rebellion, as King Henry refuses to rescue Mortimer from the Welsh. This rebellion is considered acceptable, because King Henry illegitimately usurped Richard II in the first place. The robbery of Act II could also be considered a lapse on King Henry’s part, since the targets were in his employ and didn’t have strong enough security (especially for a treasury!) to ward off a few bandits. Shakespeare provides a three-dimensional view of possible leadership in Henry IV: The cold King Henry, the wild and conniving Prince Henry, and the spitfire...