The Transformation of Prince Hal into King Henry V

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

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

Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV, represents the child who grows into the wise King Henry V. We witness this growth through Hal’s choices and companions. He decides to leave fun aside and pick law through banishing the person who loved him like a son.

Gower Memorial in Stratford
Prince Hal who later became King Henry V.
(Image: Immanuel Giel / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Public domain)

King Henry V is the character around whom Shakespeare built his Henry IV play. He shows the audience what a prince must go through and learn to become a king. The readers first encounter Henry V as Prince Hal, who is an irresponsible young man. He spends time in the tavern, helps rob travelers at night, and is seen as an outsider by the court. His father is ashamed of Hal’s acts and even parallels him to Richard II: unworthy of the crown.

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

His chief companion is a fat old knight who symbolizes fun and irresponsibility in the play: Sir John Falstaff. Later, in the second part of the play, Hal shows his stern character who knows very well how to take responsibility and make necessary decisions. He eliminates Falstaff from his life and exceeds people’s and the court’s expectations.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s Theater and Stagecraft.

Hal’s plan for becoming King Henry V

Despite all the childish behaviors, Hal knows what he is doing, and he understands politics well. A vital scene to realize this is act two, scene four, in both parts of Henry IV. In part one, Hal and Falstaff are impersonating the king and the prince, and what Hal says shows the direction he will take later. In the second part, he condemns Falstaff and does not take part in his game. Thus, Shakespeare gives the audience clues on how Hal will act.

Short after this scene, Hal tells Poins ‘I feel me much to blame, / So idly to profane the precious time’. This shows he no longer needs Falstaff or his way of life.

Poins and Hal in Henry IV, Part I
Hal and Poins, his friend who accompanies him in many scenes. (Image: Fred Barnard/Public domain)

In another scene, Henry IV is advising Hal on how to be a successful king. He tells Hal that the key is acting. In later scenes, we see how well Hal can act. The prince once says that his strategy is to keep expectations low to later exceed them. He also chooses law over fun when he needs to pick one.

Learn more about Politics as Theater in Henry IV, Part I.

Hal and Lord Chief Justice

As Henry IV is in his dying bed, Shakespeare needs a new character to embody order. Lord Chief Justice once imprisoned Hal because the prince struck him in an argument about his tavern companions. Who better than the Chief Justice to personify order?

However, Chief Justice knows that Hal dislikes him and expects to encounter various obstacles. He condemns Falstaff and tries to block his influence over Hal. Harry’s father is dying, and Falstaff, his father-figure, is banished. Hal is left practically father-less until he himself tells Chief Justice “You shall be as a father to my youth.”

Hal accepts Chief Justice’s company as his right hand when Justice is defending himself and saying that he cannot do anything against his responsibilities. Hal, who is now King Henry V, astonishes the whole company with his logical and just reaction, exceeding their expectations.

King Henry V Learned from the Past

Richard II, vintage engraved illustration
Richard II, whose rule ended before he expected. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Prince Hal observed the time of two kings closely: Richard II and Henry IV. Richard II was overthrown by his cousin. Henry IV, who succeeded Richard II, had to fight one rebellion after another. Therefore, Hal understood the challenges of ruling and wanted to escape them.

He also knew the concerns of a king. His father, Henry IV, reveals the worries at the beginning of the second play after he has defeated the core of rebellions. He cannot sleep, and concludes, “Then happy low, lie down! / Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Hal shows that he knows being a king is not easy, when he banishes Falstaff in their last encounter, pretending he has never seen this fat old man.

Learn more about The Drama of Ideas in Henry V.

Banishing Falstaff for Good

Despite his fading role, Falstaff still believes that Hal loves him as a father and will give him and his preferred company power. However, when he runs to King Henry V on his coronation day, the king tells him that he is a vain man that was in Hal’s dreams, and now that he is awake, the dream and the person in it are gone. As painful as it may look, it was the right sacrifice to rule justly and exceed expectations.

Common Questions about King Henry V

Q: Was Henry V a good king?

King Henry V was a powerful and brave king. Despite some of his ruthless decisions, he was regarded as a good king.

Q: Who was Henry V’s dad?

Henry IV was prince Hal’s father, who later became King Henry V. Throughout Shakespeare’s play, it looks like they do not have a good relationship, but Hal learns what he should from his father.

Q: Who was Falstaff to King Henry V?

In King Henry V, Falstaff is a fat knight who embodies fun and childishness. In the beginning, he is a father-figure to a young Prince Hal, but when he grows up, he banishes Falstaff to die in isolation.

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

In the first part of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Falstaff spends much time with Prince Hal and deeply influences him. It looks like Falstaff is more like a father, but in the second part of the play, Falstaff is banished when Hal succeeds his father.

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