Hal in Henry IV: How Kings Are Made

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Connor Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Shakespeare questions kingship when he depicts how Henry IV gets the throne. At the same time, he shows how a king should grow, through the life of Hal in Henry IV. Hal makes life-changing decisions and even kills some great rivals to earn kingship.

Kings Screen in York Minster (England).
Henry IV is a history play that deals with the reign of Henry IV and gives moral advice. (Image: Sareena Singh/Shutterstock)

Henry IV is a history play in which Shakespeare conveys many moral points. He shows how a king should make sacrifices, maintain balance, and learn to be a better ruler. The character that bears this growth process is Prince Harry, or as his friends call him, Hal. He is introduced as an irresponsible young man wasting his time but ends up as a potent king who can create and keep balance. The process includes many characters, deaths, rebellions, and stories.

Learn more about The Drama of Ideas in Henry V.

Hal and Falstaff

A vital element of Hals’ growth is leaving fun out of his life and taking on responsibilities. However, he spends a long time in taverns and the ‘fun world,’ and has many conversations with the person who embodies fun: Sir John Falstaff, a knight with no knightly character. Other than fun, he symbolizes cowardice.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Falstaff is Hal’s father-figure. He acts like a father in many situations and deeply desires the role. There are many instances where this desire is shown in how he treats Hal, especially the one-act where he criticizes the prince the same way Henry IV would. Falstaff reminds Harry that his companions are important choices that stay with him forever and define his reputation. However, he aims at concluding ‘him [Falstaff] keep with, the rest banish’.

A photograph of John Jack as Falstaff in a late 19th century performance of the play.
Falstaff in no way resembled a knight. (Image: Napoleon Sarony / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hal responds in a smart way and shows his acting skills; thus, it is one of the core acts of the play. He calls Falstaff a fat jolly old villain who is ‘worthy, but in nothing’. Falstaff tries to act back, pretending he does not know who Hal talked about. But the prince makes everything clear with ‘That villainous, abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan’.

Falstaff defends himself and pleads that Hal keeps him by his side. In the end, Falstaff dies in poverty and isolation, which represents how Hal has decided to leave the world of fun and taverns, to accept his responsibilities as a king.

Learn more about Henry IV, Part 2-Contrast and Complexity.

Hal and Henry IV

Seal against Henry V
Despite what Henry IV thought, Hal became Henry V. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Throughout the play, it seems like Henry IV does not have a good relationship with his son, Hal, and that is why Falstaff is perceived as Hal’s father sometimes. He shows his discontent with Hal and how he wastes time around taverns. Hal has lost his place in the royal council, none of the other nobles see him as a royal, and the people have no hope in his future kingship. Henry IV even compares Hal to Richard II when Henry deposed him and calls him unworthy to wear the crown. Prince Harry tries to defend himself, but his father rejects his defenses.

However, at some point when Henry IV needs to give advice to his son about the ruling, he tells Hal that the crucial element of kingship is acting.

Hal and Hotspur

Hotspur comes from the Percy family. He is the son of Lord Northumberland. He sneers at Hal’s way of life, lack of courage, and unworthiness. At the same time, he tries to prove that he possesses all that Hal lacks and that he can be the gallant king his father desires. They are among the leading noble rebels against King Henry IV, standing alongside the Welsh king Owen Glendower and the Scottish lord Douglas. Hotspur is Harry’s brother-figure and represents one of the struggles that he has to overcome on his way to kingship.

Despite his bravery, Hotspur is not a good example of a king. He is too contained in showing the people how courageous he is in fights, and that is his main concern. He lacks the political wisdom and demeanor of a true king. Hal’s encounters with Hotspur his skills and valor. Thus, Hotspur is a part of Hal’s growing process. In one act, Hotspur’s lifeless body lies on the stage, next to Hal, who is standing victoriously.

Hotspur is the other end of the courage spectrum when compared to Falstaff. In the same act where he is killed by Hal, the young prince stands between his body and Falstaff’s, to depict how he should find a balance of courage to rule successfully.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s Theater and Stagecraft.

Good Kings Learn to Be Kings

Shakespeare believes that a trustworthy king should be ‘trained’ as one. All the characters around Hal, the character contrasts, and the choices he makes show this training process. Even the rebellion against King Henry IV is parallel to Hal’s teenage rebellion, both of which are overcome through severe fights. Hence, Hal in Henry IV, represents how Shakespeare believes a king should be.

Common Questions about Hal in Henry IV:

Q: Who is Hal in Shakespeare?

Hal in Henry IV is Prince Harry, who later becomes King Henry V. He Changes from a fun-seeking young man to a responsible brave king, throughout the play.

Q: What happened in Henry IV part1?

The main focus of the play is the progress of Hal in Henry IV and his growth from a boy to a man worthy of kingship.

Q: Is Falstaff more of a father than the king to Prince Hal?

Falstaff is Prince Hal’s father-figure. He is seen in many acts in place of Hal’s father, but he is not the right role-model for a king. Hal in Henry IV spends more time with Falstaff than with his own father.

Q: Who killed Hotspur?

Prince Harry killed Hotspur. The event symbolizes one of the struggles that Hal in Henry IV overcomes.

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