I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor 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 wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him ...
So, when this loose behavior 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, glittering 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 offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
(1 Henry IV 1.2.202-210, 215-224)
I am surprised at my students' general animosity toward Hal in this speech. They find him dishonest and manipulative and vain, and ignore the irony of disregarding Hal's more lofty goals because he's not being straightforward with his loutish pub friends. They expect honor, as it were, among thieves. How dare he refer to the guys he hangs out with as "base contagious clouds"!
I wonder, how can they not recognize the favorite children's allegory of "the ugly duckling" in Hal's statement that those clouds "smother up his beauty from the world" and that he will break "through the foul and ugly mists/ Of vapors that did seem to strangle him"? Isn't that the dream of every adolescent? How do they not hear echoes of the Bush administration's frequent attempt to lower our expectations before major announcements? Isn't that a wise tactic for managing people's unrealistic expectations? Or if that seems too politically manipulative, how can they not recognize the standard rubric of successful businesses: "underpromise/overproduce"?
Hal is real world, pragmatic and clever. Even without the foreknowledge of what use he will make of his "wilder days," we must be impressed by his plan to capture people's imagination and turn it in his favor; it is masterful.
But no; they label him "Machiavellian." And I think the problem centers on his admitting that he will "falsify men's hopes." That just sounds ugly. Hope is a powerful force in our lives. (Questioning it, poet Kay Ryan refers to it as "the always tabled/ righting of the present.") And young people are full of optimistic hope. Having that challenged, along with their sense of loyalty to one's comrades, however unacceptable they may be to one's father, makes accepting Hal's careful character-building less palatable.
Posted by Randall