Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part A

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch and rob our passengers,
Which he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honor to support
So dissolute a crew.
(Richard II 5.3.1-12)

King Henry IV's speech to the court in Richard II, Act 5, scene 3, reveals his strong disappointment in his son, the prince. He criticizes Hal's carelessness, criminal behavior, femininity, and overall poor demeanor. Motivated by this overwhelming disappointment and embarrassment, the king angrily vilifies Hal's life, citing both his poor behavior and his decision to associate with socially inferior friends, a lifestyle not befitting royalty.

Stating that Hal "takes on the point of honor to support so dissolute a crew," the king's belief that his son wastes honor by associating with criminal, roguish commoners, such as Falstaff and Poins, reveals several character traits, including social classism and anger. Labeling such fellows as "unrestrained loose companions" and "a dissolute crew," Henry makes it clear that appropriate behavior involves restraint, both moral and social. Given Henry's own actions, including deposing a king, one might consider his complaints a bit ironic. Or it may be that Henry simply would rather his son associate with others of higher social stature.

The king's concern about restraint is also evident in his attack on Hal's masculinity. When criticizing Hal for his conduct and lifestyle, King Henry IV describes him as "wanton" and "effeminate." Yet Henry offers no support for this effeminacy. It seems enough that Hal is not involved in activities similar to Hotspur's, activities steeped in leadership and testosterone and honor, and instead involves himself in "wanton" activities, robbing and drinking and rebelling against his father's wishes. To Henry this is womanish because it fails to follow his concept of order, and that which defies order (unrestrained) is automatically unmanly.

Paul Micevych (SPA '12)

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