9. Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fourth

A play by Shakespeare’s being part of the English curriculum each year when I was in high school impressed on me that his plays are literary classics. This is confirmed by Encyclopedia Britannica’s describing him as “widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time.” It goes on to say, “No writer’s living reputation can seriously compare with that of Shakespeare, whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory theatre, are now performed and read more often in more countries than ever before,” and to devote a full twenty pages to its article on him.

But Shakespeare’s plays works on government and politics? Here is how Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff justify their including his two plays on King Henry the Fourth in their The Great Ideas Program collection of works on political theory and government:

“Shakespeare’s historical plays are not merely dramatic re-enactments of actual events. They reveal what motivates and what happens to men in the struggle for power. Shakespeare probably never read a line of Machiavelli, but there were Machiavellian currents and Machiavellian figures in the Elizabethan court. He himself created many such figures, full images of flesh and spirit, with an anguished self-awareness.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government in The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 117)

Adler and Wolff survey the historical context in which the two plays were set, consider two problems running through the plays which are important in political philosophy: the question of the legitimacy of a ruler and the question of how to educate a ruler, and discuss other three questions about the plays. Here I’ll just summarize what they say about the two problems.

Legitimacy of a Ruler

Henry IV’s grandfather, Edward III, reigned from 1327-1377. He was succeeded by his son, Richard II, who ruled from 1377-1399. Richard was a minor when he became king, and the time of his minority was one of popular discontent and political strife. After he declared himself of age in 1389, a period of constitutional rule and of general peace and prosperity followed. However in 1397 he assumed the role of an absolute ruler, crushing the opposition of parliament and the barons. In 1399, while Richard was suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, Henry of Lancaster, a cousin of his who had been exiled by him, organized a plot to overthrow him and landed in England, where many of the barons rallied to his cause. When Richard returned from Ireland, he found himself without supporters and was forced to abdicate. Parliament was summoned, accepted Richard’s abdication, and declared Henry to be king, as Henry IV, in 1399.

According to hereditary right Henry’s claim to the throne was not as good as that of some other claimants‒the House of March, who were descended from the third son of Edward III (Lionel, Duke of Clarence) whereas Henry was descended from the Edward’s fourth son (John of Gaunt, Dike of Lancaster). Thus the declaration of Henry as king set a precedent for the principle that Parliament is superior to the king. However at that time England was not yet a constitutional monarch and so Shakespeare’s Henry IV felt that his title to the crown was weak, telling his son:

“God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.”
(Second Part of King Henry IV in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 26, page 496)

Adler and Wolff discuss how Hobbes, whose views I considered in my last post, would have viewed Henry’s concern. Although Hobbes would have opposed Henry’s gaining the throne by rebellion against the legitimate ruler (Richard II), when Henry had succeeded in making himself king (and thus becoming the legitimate ruler) Hobbes would have upheld him against those who rebelled against him. “Hobbes, in other words, is always on the side of the ruling party and condemns all rebellion‒always mindful of the fact that a state of war is a state of misery” (Adler and Wolff, page 124). The rebels, on the other hand, viewed Henry as still an illegitimate ruler and thus thought that it was acceptable to try to usurp his power. What do you think?

How to Educate a Prince for His Royal Office

The qualities of a prince or ruler and how they should be developed are discussed in various works‒Plato’s The Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Tacitus’s The Annals, and Machiavelli’s The Prince‒that we have already considered in working through The Development of Political Theory and Government. Although the problem of princely education has become less important in modern times, a similar and related replaces it: in a government by the many or by all, it is necessary to educate everyone so that each citizen will be able to assume the responsibilities of political action.

Nobody seems to be in charge of the education of Prince Hal (Henry IV’s son, Henry Monmouth) for his royal office, unless we call Sir John Falstaff (his fat, boastful, and cowardly companion) his tutor, and the King expresses concern over what he is learning. In the very first scene of Part I, the King expresses his discontent with his son and his wish that he would be more like Harry Hotspur (Henry Percy, the son of Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland). And Act III, Scene 2, of Part I, consists mainly of a dialogue between the King and the Prince in which the King exhorts his son to change his ways and be more like the King in his youth or like Hotspur, who threatens to take the crown from Henry IV. However, although the Prince vindicates himself to a certain extent by beating Hotspur in combat at Shrewsbury near the end of Part I, he continues to behave just as before.

Why does the Prince seem to ignore his father’s advice and public opinion? A partial answer is given by him himself in a soliloquy at the end of the first scene in which Falstaff appears:

“So, when this loose behaviour I throw off…
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which has no foil to set it odd.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.”
(First Part of King Henry IV in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 26, page 437)

After he becomes king, he fulfils this promise to himself and rejects Falstaff when the latter approaches him in a crowd of people and seeks his attention. In a separate question Adler and Wolff discuss whether Prince Hal’s earlier seeking the companionship of Falstaff in order to seem the nobler when he reformed was a worthy purpose. What do you think?


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