Shakespeare's Hal in "Henry IV" as the Prototypical Machiavellian Prince? An Analysis

Hausarbeit, 2014

14 Seiten, Note: 2,0



1) Introduction

2) Hal at the Beginning of 1 Henry IV

3) Hal’s Reformation

4) Hal’s Machiavellian Strategies

5) Conclusion

6) Sources
a) Primary
b) Secondary

1) Introduction

How do you justify a monarchy? Usually it is through the divine right of kings and the belief that they are sent by god to rule in his name on earth. The question remains however, how the rule of a king can be justified if he cannot look back on a long line of royal ancestors or came to power through force and by deposing the rightful king. This question of legitimacy greatly concerned the Italian politician Niccoló Machiavelli in his most famous work “The Prince”, tying to establish guidelines on ensuring stability of a new ruler. Simultaneously, four of Shakespeare’s Histories engage greatly with the theme of legitimacy.

The plays Richard II, 1+2 Henry IV and Henry V all focus on the question how kingship is constituted. Richard II insists that he is a king appointed by god and therefore cannot be deposed by mere mortals. He is, however, driven from the throne and then killed. His usurper Henry Bolingbroke - now on the throne as Henry IV - is under great duress since the beginning of his reign. Meanwhile, in the north the Percy Family is revolting because of unfulfilled promises Bolingbroke made to them. They are joined by Owain Glyndwr from Wales and Edmund Mortimer, Richard II’s would-be heir to the throne.

Adding to the rebellions that are threatening his kingdom at the time is the concern about Henry’s son Prince Hal. Being the Prince of Wales, Hal is heir to the throne and therefore the key piece to a stable kingdom.

His behaviour, however, is not one typically seen in a Prince of Wales: apparently uninterested in politics and the state of the country, drifting through life, drinking, going to brothels, picking pockets, robbing people and associating himself with folk who are considered anything but good company for a prince.

It may not seem so to others, but Hal’s behaviour is well calculated. He cannot make the case that he has inherited the throne from a legitimate king appointed by god, he has to come up with a different strategy to secure his claim.

This paper aims to show how Shakespeare portrays Hal as the prototypical Machiavellian prince - legitimizing him as the true king. In order to prove that, I will first look at Hal’s situation at the beginning of 1 Henry IV, then move on to his staged reformation, and lastly discuss how he uses the advice given by Machiavelli in “The Prince”.

2) Hal at the Beginning of 1 Henry IV

The Play starts with Hal’s Father, King Henry IV, who is told of the news that Henry Percy, or Hotspur, has taken some noblemen as his prisoners while fighting in the North. This should make the king happy but he reacts in a very different way:

HENRY IV: Yea, there thou mak’st me sad, and mak’st me sin In envy that my lord Northumberland

Should be the father to so blest a son -

A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,

Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,

Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride - Whilst I by looking on the praise of him See riot and dishonour stain the brow Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged In cradle clothes our children where they lay, And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet! Then would I have his Harry and he mine. (1 Henry IV, 1.1. 77-88)

Henry IV is worried, because Hal is the Prince of Wales and therefore successor to the Throne. Hal appears to rather be around doubtful creatures and thieves in a tavern in Eastcheap than behaving like a prince. Doing nothing all day but drinking or jesting with people who are not exactly the kind of company a man of his status is supposed to be found in.

His companions include Prostitutes, drunkards, and most of all, a fat, old knight by the name of Sir John Falstaff. The pair appears to be very close and seems to like each other a great deal which is evident in the way they tenderly tease each other:

FALSTAFF: Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?

HAL: Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old

sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon

benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that

truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day. (1 Henry IV, 1.2. 1-10)

Falstaff is even able to convince Hal to rob pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Or at least Falstaff thinks he has his young friend convinced because Hal has something else in mind.

He and his companion Poins are planning to execute a jest on Falstaff:

POINS: Now, my good sweet honey lord, ride with us tomorrow. I have a jest to execute that I cannot manage alone. Falstaff, Peto, Bardolph, and Gadshill shall rob those men that we have already waylaid - yourself and I will not be there - and when they have the booty, if you and I do not rob them, cut this head off from my shoulders.


HAL: Well, I’ll go with thee. Provide us all things nec-

essary, and meet me tomorrow night in Eastcheap; there I’ll sup. Farewell.

(1 Henry IV, 1.2. 142-171)

Why does Hal do this to the man who supposedly is his friend? A rather simple answer, yet one that seems to question his capability as Prince of Wales and future king: he likes to make fun of people that are beneath him in social status.

Not only does he plan the fake robbing of Falstaff to listen to the “incomprehensible lies the same fat rogue will tell” (1 Henry IV, 1.3. 165-166) afterwards, but he also plays a callous game with Francis, a drawer at the tavern. This game only delights Hal, who has his companion Poins yell out for Francis every few seconds, while Hal questions the poor lad about some sugar he purchased from him earlier. Francis may not be the brightest but he knows he cannot just walk away when the Prince of Wales is talking to him and therefore rather neglects his duty of tending to the guests. This goes on for a while, until the Hostess walks in and yells at poor Francis for his disregard of paying customers.

All this behaviour of Hal leads to him having a lousy reputation with the nobles in the kingdom and at the royal court. No one, not even his own father, thinks he is fit to rule or that he will be a good king:

KING HENRY: God pardon thee! Yet let me wonder, Harry, At thy affections, which do hold a wing

Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors.

Thy place in Council thou hast rudely lost - Which by thy younger brother is supplied - And art almost an alien to the hearts Of all the court and princes of my blood. The hope and expectation of thy time Is ruined, and the soul of every man Prophetically do forethink thy fall. (1 Henry IV, 3.2. 29-38)

3) Hal’s Reformation

In truth, things are not as they seem for the reader. Hal is a master of roleplaying and has been playing a role from the beginning of 1 Henry IV. First, he plays the role of the do-nothing, no-good son who seems lost. His most famous soliloquy shows just that but it is only the audience to whom he speaks, letting the viewer in on what he is going to do throughout the play:

PRINCE HAL: I know you all, and will a while uphold The unyoked humour of your idleness.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds To smother up his beauty from the world, That when he please again to be himself, Being wanted he may be more wondered at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wished-for come, And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents. So when this loose behavious I throw off And pay the debt I never promised, By how much better than my word I am, By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes; And like bright metal on a sullen ground, My reformation, glitt’ring 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. (1 Henry IV, 1.3. 173-195)

As stated, it is Hal’s most famous monologue, and that for good reason. It is the turning point from which everyone in the audience knows the motives behind Hal`s behaviour.1

The first stage of his plan includes playing himself down to the point where everyone’s opinion has of him cannot get any worse, and then, “when men think least I will” (1 Henry IV, 1.3. 195), he is going to take on another role - the role of the reformed prince, who is ready to take his place as England’s king.

His plan being that his changing will surprise everyone and, therefore, will hold him in higher regards which will be amplified by how unexpected it was.


1 Hal is walking through the Tavern in Eastcheap while his monologue is coming from the off and is underlined with music to clarify that Hal is thinking it. All the time the monologue is playing, Hal is greeted by his “friends”, they smile and wink at him and it is clear that they really like and respect him. But Hal acts differently. His smile is distant and the viewer can clearly see that it is a role he is playing. The real Hal, according to Shakespeare, is the one that speaks in the monologue, and he has his eyes set on greater things than hanging around in a tavern all his life. (The Hollow Crown 2012, 0:10:25)

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Shakespeare's Hal in "Henry IV" as the Prototypical Machiavellian Prince? An Analysis
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München  (Department für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Shakespeare's Histories
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shakespeare, henry, prototypical, machiavellian, prince, analysis
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Benjamin Waldraff (Autor:in), 2014, Shakespeare's Hal in "Henry IV" as the Prototypical Machiavellian Prince? An Analysis, München, GRIN Verlag,


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