William Hazlitt's Ideas Concerning Shakespeare’s King Henry Iv

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I present to you today how Shakespeare’s Henry IV has continually remained relevant through Falstaff’s character, who embodies imperfection, and thus humanity.

Let’s begin by jumping to Act 2 Scene 4 of the play. In this scene we’re presented with Falstaff who roleplays as the Prince, and Hal as King Henry. The two delve into a pretend exchange where Hal exclaims that he should no longer be acquainted with Falstaff due to his gluttonous and criminal behaviour. In response to this, Falstaff as the Prince responds by saying ‘Banish Plump Jack and banish all the world’, with Hal replying ‘I do, I will’. With this response, Hal metaphorically casts aside the parts of his identity which align with Falstaff’s misdemeanor and consequently embraces the power that comes with the duty of King.

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As William Hazlitt commented in 1826, ‘Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men’ ; The metaphor of banishing Falstaff, presents how Hal would be turning his life into the very stagnant pool which William Hazlitt speaks about. This is due to the way in which Falstaff’s description of being ‘thrice wider than other men’ is analogy for how he’s both literally and figuratively larger than life. His embodiment of humanity is evident through his extreme characterisation in the play as being, dishonest yet also incredibly honest, cowardly but still boastful, and through his unending gaiety, selfishness, and large devotion to the pleasures of the flesh evident through his gluttony. Essentially, by refusing Falstaff’s presence in his life, Hal refuses the rest of humanity and even core parts of his very self, as there’s a piece of Falstaff that exists within us all.

Hal’s rejection of Falstaff and consequent adoption of duty highlights how the root of all conflict on earth stems from our desire for control. In my opinion, modern-day social constructs such as environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, left-wing, right-wing movements, etc originate with groups of individuals who hold a collective want for power over their circumstances, it originates with people who desire mass-scale changes to the system in order to feel a sense of justice in their dire situations. However, this only increases the gravity of conflict, as different parties begin to fight for their personal definition of justice and political correctness.

Personally speaking, I believe this conflict flows onto the way in which humans are inherently insecure and have a boundless need to prove their self worth through the acquirement of justice, duty, fame, power, assets, money – essentially, we seek acceptance and glorification. Falstaff condemns this notion in Act 5 Scene 1 with the line ‘honour pricks me on’. As Falstaff reflects upon Sir Walter Blunt’s death, he decides that ‘Honour is a mere scutcheon’, or in other words, a gravestone; Honour is what led to Sir Walter’s demise and it’s a construct which he’ll never be able to feel the grandness of in his death. As such, it’s evident that Falstaff rebuking of honour, fame, and power are due to the way in which he views them as being neither useful to the living nor dead. Instead, Falstaff is rather content with his life at the tavern.

Falstaff’s dismissiveness of honour also goes to show how he values being his genuine, imperfect self. By rejecting the idea of honour, he avoids the labels associated with it. Falstaff does this because of his desire to be ‘no counterfeit’, he wishes to embody life itself without having to worry of how people will think of him for his actions. This notion is emphasised in Act 5 Scene 4, when Falstaff pretends to be dead. The carrying of this pretence is held by the way in which he believes that one’s living self is one’s true and authentic self; because in death, we’re remembered according to how people perceived us and not by how we truly were. To Falstaff, death is the true counterfeit of life.

In summary, the significance of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV has transcended time through the character of Falstaff and the ideas that he presents to us regarding the human condition. These notions are applicable for all humans throughout time, as aspects of Falstaff’s fallible character inherently exist within us all. As such, the human desires for control, acceptance and glorification are highlighted and challenged by Falstaff through his rejection of honour and the glorification individuals seek from it. Through Falstaff, Shakespeare challenges us to be ‘no counterfeit’ in life and to live authentically. While King Henry IV pt 1 communicates what it means to be a King through Hal, it also highlights how one should embrace their imperfections through their inner Falstaff.


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