A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
Comedic Structure in
Henry IV, Part 1
In the last chapter, in our consideration of the overall structure of Shakespeare’s history plays, we argued that generically 1 Henry IV, as the second in a trilogy, is a “muddled comedy,” and also a muddling-through comedy. It is muddled because there is a greater comedy of misrule seen in the rogue Falstaff and a simultaneous tragedy of Henry IV’s long journey into night as the man who supplanted God’s anointed. It is also a muddling-through comedy, a survival comedy in which Hal seeks some viable continuation of the dynasty his father founded. This muddled and muddling-through comedy forms the bridge play of a trilogy, coming on the heals of the tragedy of Richard II and leading up to the heroic comedy of Henry V.
This generic overview is derivable from 1 Henry IV’s place within the cycle of English History plays. We now look at these generalizations more closely for 1 Henry IV as its own independently understandable work of art, though a work of art subject to unfortunate critical contentions which could be less shrill and more insightful if criticism bothered to be careful about generic identification in the first place.
The problem, of course, is that 1 Henry IV is very little about Henry IV, and its criticism is entirely centered on Prince Hal and Falstaff, probably in the reverse order. A great many great critics of the last two centuries have been more or less repelled by Hal’s character, perhaps more as King than as Prince, and that has lent itself to a lionization of Falstaff as the real central figure of 1 Henry IV.
While Falstaff criticism takes a number of idiosyncratic turns, it would seem that the Falstaff story in 1 Henry IV is either a success story or a comedy. We will be glad to see it as a comedy, and as a rare kind of comedy indeed. That rare kind of comedy is, however, frequent enough to have a name: rogue comedy.
Falstaff is a rogue, that is to say a figure who stands outside and opposed to the normal standards, conventions, and moralities of society. Typically in rogue comedies, the rogue finally gets got. Asking us to believe that the rogue can forever stand outside everything society thinks without paying the price is beyond almost all comedic art. But the comedy in rogue comedy is in the length of time the rogue can get away with it, how long he, in fact, succeeds, his comeuppance ultimately made to be of no importance. When Falstaff dies in the opening scenes of Henry V, he meets a typically anti-climactic roguish end of the line. That fact is unimportant for the rogue comedy displayed throughout 1 Henry IV.
The celebration of rogue comedy is typically dual: on the one hand, we celebrate the cleverness of humanity embodied in the rogue who stands out against all that society can throw at him. On the other hand, we celebrate that society is never fundamentally threatened: the rogue succeeds far longer than anyone expects, but ultimately, the rogue is an isolated figure and the fundamental values of the society are never foundationally in danger.
Falstaff has been a timelessly compelling figure on the English-speaking stage. But, after all, any just understanding of the form of 1 Henry IV does have to give large attention to Prince Hal. To many, Hal may not be endearing. To many he may be a prig. To many he may be insincere, Machiavellian, irresponsible, conniving. By some critical accounts, he is also an unregenerate, parochial, vindictive, barbaric warmonger. But in 1 Henry IV, his is also a success story, and going beyond that, we will call it a comedy because in its patterning, the play demonstrates human potential for success and survival.
Say all the bad you like about Hal. The more you say, and the more believably you say it, the more the history becomes not just a history, not just a success story, not just a comedy, but another rogue comedy. And the interesting difference between Hal as rogue and Falstaff as rogue is that Hal appears so comparatively normal and, in the long run of Henry V, so enormously more fully successful without paying a comeuppance price.
At a slightly deeper level of critical analysis of form, it is a commonplace of 1 Henry IV criticism to notice the numerous balances of extremes within the play: Hal and Falstaff, Hal and Hotspur, Hal and Henry, Falstaff and Henry IV, Henry IV and the Earl of Northumberland. The centrality of Hal to almost all of these is often ignored, overlooked, or rhetorically disguised. Hal and Hotspur are extremes of heroism, Hal and Henry are extremes of pretension to the throne, Hal and Falstaff are extremes of expediency. If Hal and Falstaff both turn out to be rogues, Hal is again one pole of perhaps a major balance of the play.
Let us then consider 1 Henry IV as itself and as a comedy, that is a patterned demonstration of faith in human success and survival, and simultaneously as part of a much larger patterned story of the history of England. As already said, 1 Henry IV is a play of balances, and all these balances make sense for comedic import centering on Hal.
It is reasonable then to begin with—but not to end with—Hal. That is to say, in the fight between Falstaffians and Halians, we need from the beginning to take a middle position. 1 Henry IV is not about Hal, and it is not about Falstaff in isolation as themselves. It is a comedic drama which uses both Hal and Falstaff toward its comedic purposes.
We put aside, then, whether we are personally attracted to Hal—very few people are when he has to play straight man to Falstaff. But without engaging our emotional reactions, let us consider Hal’s situation. He is the son of an illegitimate king—even Henry IV’s close political allies see him that way and upbraid him accordingly. Now that the legitimate succession has been done away with, there is nothing to restrain powerful medieval barons of the realm from contemplating becoming kings themselves—most of that will be left for the Henry VI time period, but it has already moved to the surface in Henry V. And other potentates may be thinking other, stranger thoughts, thoughts about the dismemberment of Britain itself, cutting her apart along arbitrarily chosen rivers, for example, which actually engages our attention in 1 Henry IV. And such cutting England apart, it goes without saying, would be over Henry IV’s dead body, Hal’s equally dead body, and probably even Falstaff’s grosser dead body.
Moreover, the king is deathly ill and, whether Shakespeare fully portrays it or not, cursedly ill in the popular English imagination.
Hal needs a plan for survival. Yet what kind of foundation can he possibly lay for a success which has totally eluded his father though a crowned and anointed king? The answers to this question are central to the patterned demonstration of 1 Henry IV.
As an opposite pole to his father, Hal repeatedly patterns his actions to demean himself, to make himself common and available to those beneath him. Henry IV is at a loss to understand his son in this. He has been a good father, carefully counseling his son about the dangers of availability to the public, and he, Henry IV has notably highlighted his own aloof conduct as a model for his son to follow. Hal has not only rejected his father’s advice but has moved well beyond negating that advice to purposefully living at the opposite extreme.
Put more positively, then, Hal has chosen a non-aristocratic path to success (which looks aloof from our standpoint but looks quite democratic in 15th century terms or even Elizabethan terms.) In this, he is something of an emblematic precursor of Elizabeth herself, who always emphasized her close, loving relationship to her people.
Hal loves the English people in the opening scenes of 1 Henry IV by frequenting and appreciating an Eastcheap tavern, set in a common marketing district that went about as far back as London itself with a democratically undifferentiating social ambiance. In this, he has made a very similar choice to Falstaff’s own choice to mix with those considerably below the middle of medieval London society.
Yet while making a similar choice to Falstaff’s, Hal has brought to Eastcheap a different attitude than Falstaff’s. And as the choices which differentiated Hal from his father have partially defined his plan for success, so the contrast between Hal and Falstaff contributes to the definition of Hal’s success formula as well. For in choosing to associate with commoners, Hal has also chosen to tarnish his natural luster as a royal and more as Prince of Wales. References to a clouded sun are some of the defining poetic moments of the play.
And in this, Hal is at an extreme from Falstaff. Falstaff is a boaster. He enjoys lowlife society, but he enjoys it as someone who knows he is superior to it and is quite willing to use his elevated social position to support his braggadocio.
Hal, on the other hand, meekly puts his royalty by, accepts the role of straight man to Falstaff with all its other humiliations, as, for example, the humiliation of playing himself to Falstaff deigning to play Henry IV. Democratic America makes the condescension involved trivial and finally incomprehensible. The original English audience had been trained from birth to flee such lese majeste in literally mortal horror. As patterned action, this deferential attitude in Hal demeaning himself and kingship in Eastcheap culminates in his acquiescence on the battlefield to Falstaff’s claim to having slain Hotspur.
Now those who dislike Hal easily accuse him of being Machiavellian, hypocritical, and manipulative. Hal’s putting his royalty by is certainly challengeable as all of these. And it is a Machiavellian consideration that most leads to this conclusion. Hal is an illegitimate heir to an illegitimate throne. Pretending not to notice, being aloof and haughtily above others would only make Hal a target for the envious but accurate taunts and barbs and the disrespect of all England. (Similarly, Elizabeth standing aloof as the descendant of both York and Lancaster would only have opened her to disrespect as the arguably-illegitimate successor to Tudor upstarts.)
Hal is not just an exuberant young man sowing his wild oats while he may. He is a conscientious prince with an impossible task, and he is quite consciously engaged in manipulating very unwholesome reality into something he can live with and live in. Honi soit qui mal y pense—may he be put to shame who thinks evil of it, a maxim that virtually all Englishmen of Shakespeare’s day had been taught to respect.
Neither Shakespeare nor Hal is ashamed of such hard-headed necessary thinking, and Shakespeare highlights this with one of his most poetic speeches given to Hal to explain exactly what he is about: “I know you all, and will a while uphold/ The unyok’d humor of your idleness” (I.ii.195 ff). Shakespeare gives us perfect liberty to consider Hal a prig. He gives us no liberty at all to think of Hal as anything less than a fully self-conscious king-in-waiting, redeeming the time the best way he knows to be possible.
In these two contrasts, between Hal and Falstaff and Hal and his father, we have probably the lion’s share of the comedic import of 1 Henry IV. It is possible even for an heir apparent to an illegitimate crown to lay the ground work for better times, for survival for himself and perhaps, by God’s grace, success for his people by moving out in strong faith to do what aristocrats normally avoid, to mix with and, in fact, to love the people who will be his subjects, to learn their values, and to earn their practical respect by walking among them.
It is possible that under such horribly ill-omened circumstance, laying aside pretensions rather than putting pretensions on is a key to success. It is possible that “he who would be greatest among you must be servant of all” has some applicability to becoming straight man for a fat and fatuous slumming-it knight of the realm. And one time after another, in one scene and act after another, we see patterns of exactly such things in fact succeeding for Hal.
There are, of course, many other contrastive balances in 1 Henry IV, oft noted by critics, but they tend to reinforce what has already been said:. Hal and Hotspur are opposite poles: Hotspur is a braggart, especially before he puts his armor on. Hal isn’t even a bragger when he takes his armor off.
Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, speaks in strong words and manifest intents, but he fails to come through in a crisis. In contrast, Hal—and Henry IV—restrain what they could say and follow through at the point of a sword on what they have spoken and undertaken.
Mortimer has a real claim to the throne of England, but it is Hal who fights for England, and it is Mortimer who complaisantly contemplates hewing England to pieces.
Glendower is a mystic megalomaniac and wordmonger. Hal is a pragmatic actor.
Douglas is a bold intriguer. Sir Walter Blunt, like Henry IV and Hal who stand behind him, is a plain-speaking patriot entirely prepared to die in the line of duty.
What, then, do these patterned contrasts add up to in terms of a comedic import, as a success formula for Hal? Taking into account all these polar contrasts, we would formulate a comedic import something like this: even in the most ill-omened circumstances, it is possible to hope with God’s grace that a prince will have the sense to put his royalty by; will recognize that his strength is in his identity with the nation he leads and represents, meaning all its people; that he will similarly not stand so much on honor as on practical patriotism, not so much on his genealogy as on his service to national wellbeing, not so much on his ability for intrigue as on his industrious, dependable loyalty to the realm—and that in exactly such ways, success and survival as heir even to an illegitimate throne is believable.
Such success and survival is also fundamentally and fervently desirable, since the deliverance of the English nation from horror, the national, albeit only temporary, deliverance is the deeper-level comedy of the opening trilogy, which begins in the despair of a deposed and despotic child-king and with the moral degradation of a potentially brilliant cousin to the king, moves through a period of intense trial for that degraded cousin-now-king and of refashioning of kingship for his seemingly unpromising son, until a new kingship blossoms in Henry V’s glorious if fatefully shortened reign.
For our discussion of comedic design and comedic import, we have begun by focusing on Hal, because it is largely his success that is demonstrated, patterned in 1 Henry IV, to be fully proved and celebrated in Henry V. But there is much to say about Falstaff’s role within the comedic structure.
From a business theatrical point of view, it is certainly well to notice that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had star comic talent available to it, coming like Abbott and Costello in two forms, fat and thin. The English history plays had not up to this point capitalized on these talents of the company. Given that Henry IV’s reign was one of the furthest from the present with which Shakespeare intended to deal, it was a safer place for humor, which is a pyrotechnical element and, like pyrotechnics everywhere, has strong tendencies to be unstable.
It is even possible that just such considerations tempted Shakespeare to overdo the comic potential of his character, with the result that Falstaff broke free and took on a life of his own as suggested above. We do know that the original drafts of the play made one of Shakespeare’s bigger political mistakes of linking Sir John to an extant family of influence that took umbrage at the misuse of the Oldcastle name.
These, however, are fundamentally comic considerations and bear only tangentially on comedic structure.
More to the comedic point, as we have already suggested, Falstaff and Hal have a roguish similarity. They are both original thinkers who refuse to bind their thought to conventional wisdom. The difference is that Falstaff’s thought then becomes easily dominated by his sensual appetites epitomized in his gross fleshliness. Hal is fundamentally abstemious, almost monkish (as his great Plantagenet progenitor, Henry II was) in his indifference to his physical surroundings. This inescapable difference routinely makes Falstaff the loveable life of the party and Hal, for all his democratic proclivities, aloof, standoffish, the prig of so much negative criticism.
Priggishness is not then incorrect. It is, however, ultimately myopic. Kings are not, at least until very recently in the 20th and 21st century, the life of any party or the cover story for People magazine. By and large, they are not there to outshine their subjects but to empower them in service to the monarch and to the state. Elizabeth herself was walking one of her narrowest of lines in being beloved of her people and yet not one of them, thus aloof in a way very similar to the aloofness that negative criticism hurls at Hal. The cult of the Virgin Queen was clearly fostered by Elizabeth herself and augmented by one courtier after another, even to the naming of the colony of Virginia, as pieces of a thoroughly sophisticated and thoughtful governmental propaganda policy that set Elizabeth in monkish contradistinction to her loving people.
Within the context of Elizabeth’s embodiment of the good sovereign ruler, Falstaff as a character in 1Henry IV goes beyond articulating part of the success story: he defines the limits of what is survivable and profitable—likely to bring success—for a king.
The further we progress in 1 Henry IV and then into Henry V, the more we see why the ideal Christian king needs a monkish abstemiousness. Kings like Henry V and Princes like Prince Hal are not made for the ballroom of Cinderella. They are made to spend life in the saddle, to risk spilling their own blood as well as that of many others, and to lie uneasily wearing the crown in a field tent at night. From a modern point of view, this isn’t at all likely to build congenially photogenic and psychologically interesting monarchs. There is no reason to think it was all that congenial in Shakespeare’s time or in the uneasy years after the Plague when first Richard II and then Henry IV had failed as kings.
Elizabeth in Shakespeare’s day, by sheer personal magnetism and intense good judgment (along with the magnificent feat of Howard of Effingham, Drake, Frobisher and Hawkins in warding off the Armada),was making herself a very successful, engaging as well as engaged queen. Shakespeare’s opening trilogy is arguing a very similar success for Hal, her Lancastrian model. Hal too is engaging and becomes more engaging in Henry V. Shakespeare thus among all his other impossibilities is master of his craft in making Hal both engaging and a prig at the same time.
Falstaff and Hal are also similar in their quick and keen wits. Falstaff again serves the comedic purpose of defining by limitation what kind of quick and keen wit is likely for a successful king. Falstaff’s wit is endlessly creative. It borrows from conventional thought just long enough to turn convention inside out. Hal’s wit starts from the outlandishnesses thrown out by Falstaff and corrects their excesses by referencing essentially solid values espoused by society, the king, the church or even by biblical wisdom. Thus, for example, Falstaff is at the height of creativity explaining away or even commending his corpulence and other physical excesses. Hal routinely throws these up to Falstaff and answers his fantastic flights from a stance rooted in, among other things, Church teachings against gluttony.
Of the two, Falstaff’s is the vastly entertaining, while Hal’s is the self-confidently pedestrian. Hal’s and Falstaff’s practical thought, the thought that runs their lives and their whereabouts, are alike in consistently thinking outside the box and outside conventionality. But Falstaff’s wit is at its best when it brings social thought to confusion. Hal’s is at its best when it quietly or silently goes about the work of restoring society in the worst of times.
And these contrasts in wit and personal morality add to the comedic import essential qualifiers: the kingly success already enumerated as comedic import for Hal in juxtaposition to other characters of the play is qualified by the recognition that while thinking outside the box and outside social constraints is the necessary intellectual environment of the successful king, his “roguish” non-conformity of thought is at the service of a functioning, social state where almost everyone does best to think within the box. If the successful king thinks outside the box, this is in sharp contrast to the dissolute King Falstaff who sees himself above the law. The truly successful king, the king like Henry II, ultimately like Henry V, and like Queen Elizabeth herself, must marry his or her unconventional thinking with an extraordinarily disciplined, largely monkish personal code of service and love to the realm and to its people.
In 1 Henry IV, both Falstaff and Hal are roguish in thought. By the closing curtain, Falstaff has entirely made his way with his roguishness, has lived a highly entertaining and adventurous life by his wits, but he has accomplished absolutely nothing of social worth. He has committed hanging offenses, he has, in the midst of great crisis, lined his purse at the expense of society and of the realm and disgraced himself as a member of the military caste, particularly in boastful lying, which is an anathema to the chivalric code, and in mutilating a fallen enemy, an anathematized act which has already been condemned in the play itself as worthy only of total barbarians.
Hal may, on the other hand, come off as both a prig and a monk, a Machiavellian and a self-conscious calculator. But all of these within the general comedic design are precisely tools for his surviving an impossible situation and for his preparing to be one of England’s most heroic regents.
In the process, Hal has managed to undo a hanging offense (highway robbery), he has provided his father with loyal humility when anything less could undo a cursedly shaken kingdom, and he has killed Hotspur in single and honorable combat which both affords to Hal great personal credit and allows Hotspur the undying fame which has made him through all succeeding centuries one of England’s military heroes.
The pattern is necessarily repetitive, on the sides of both Falstaff and Hal. And it is the pattern that enforces comedic import.
Most comedic import is either about individual success or societal success, the survival of society. But the comedic import discussed in this chapter is fundamentally kingly success and by extension princely success. It is Hal’s success that is centrally important both to the play and to the second trilogy, and Hal’s success can only be success as Prince and King.
And if we carefully review the terms of our description of the comedic import for the play, it will be seen that that import is very appropriate for a nation looking back to Henry II, the first Plantagenet to rule England. Henry II’s monkishly-committed reign is the ideal from which England falls beginning with his son, King John. In the second trilogy to be written but the opening trilogy in historical chronology, England moves from legitimacy destroyed to kingship temporarily redeemed in a monkishly-committed Hal. And Elizabeth herself at the time of Shakespeare’s composition was writing the final chapters in history of England restored to greatness under a monkishly-committed queen.
It was perhaps just such overarching meaning, ultimately comedic import of national destiny under a repetitively successful kind of monarch, that made it possible for Shakespeare to consistently win censor support for the individual pieces of his epic.
The comedic import of 1 Henry IV with its sequel, Henry V was a wonderful explanation to English men and women of the 1590’s why they themselves were living through yet another of England’s finest hours under Elizabeth. Those insisting on an Aristotelian conception that comedy is always about trivial ludicrous people less than ourselves will, no doubt, have difficulty entertaining the possibility of such an import, but there is every evidence that Elizabeth herself and her loyal and loving Londoners fully enjoyed and appreciated what Shakespeare had undertaken.
Thus far in our discussion of 1 Henry I, we have considered comedic import and its relationship to a virtual schematic of the corpus of Shakespeare’s history plays. We have yet to consider 1 Henry IV’s humor structure and its implications. As the character of Falstaff is a critical element for patterning the comedic import of the play, he is even more central for the humor structure and texture of the play. In the next chapter, we begin to explore the multiple forms of humor weaving around and through this character and to consider how they support and enhance the comedic patterning of 1 Henry IV.
Related works in ITCHS: The Irrepressibly Complex Falstaff: A Humor Structure Analysis of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I.