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Essay on Shakespeare Henry the Fourth, Part I, Act I

This paper examines Shakespeare’s use of the word/concept “wholeness” in the first act of this play. (4 pages; 1 source; MLA citation style.


Shakespeare is still read and performed because his insights into human nature were profound and true. His psychological ability is matched by his linguistic talent: he uses language beautifully to convey his meaning.

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This paper examines Shakespeare’s use of the word “wholeness” in Henry the Fourth, Part I, Act I.


Despite a careful reading of the act, I didn’t find the word “wholeness”. It may be that I got so wrapped up in following the plot that I simply missed it, but since I read carefully I assume it’s not there. Or perhaps the edition I have has used another word in place of “wholeness.”

“Wholeness” is the noun made from the adjective “whole” and that word has several meanings, including both “complete” and “healthy.” However, Shakespeare doesn’t use these words, either; at least not in an obvious way. (I was looking for one word that is conspicuous by appearing repeatedly, as in “To be or not to be” or “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”). Since Shakespeare hasn’t used any synonyms for “wholeness” in this way, a linguistic approach fails. We have to look at the circumstances of the play and the characters who appear in it, and see if we can relate wholeness to them.

Overall, the play seems to relate less to wholeness than to fragmentation: there is a rebellion brewing in the North; Prince Hal is playing almost a dual role (both heir to the throne and street thug), and Falstaff is at once an engaging character and a despicable man. Within this splintering scenario, we do find examples of cohesion, however. It’s almost as if Shakespeare wants us to find those words that speak of wholeness in the midst of chaos.

The first speech in the play contains these lines: “Those opposed eyes … / All of one nature, of one substance, bred, / Did lately meet in the intestine shock / And furious close of civil butchery / Shall now … / March all one way and be no more oppos’d…” (I, i, 9-15).

What the king is saying is that the rebellion is over; there will be peace again. We can see this as an example of wholeness—rebellious factions will no longer tear the country apart. However, the very next character to speak tells the king that this isn’t going to happen after all, that there’s been further trouble, and that Mortimer has lost a battle with Glendower. The situation is so serious that the king cancels a crusade to the Holy Land.

A more fanciful example of wholeness, perhaps, can be found in the king’s speech where he says he wishes “some night-tripping fairy” had exchanged his son Hal for Henry Percy’s son, whom we know as “Hotspur”. (I, I, 86-89). Hotspur is “sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride” while Hal is stained with “riot and dishonour.” (I, I, 83-85). The king finds Hal to be diseased, unwholesome if you will. In other words, here the idea of wholeness is used in its sense of health: mental, physical and moral. The king clearly believes that Hal is a wastrel, a scoundrel, someone who is not whole.
The idea of duality (splintering) occurs again when Hal, Falstaff and the rest plan a robbery. The plot grows more complex when Hal and Points lay a plot-within-a-plot to rob Falstaff once he has robbed a group of pilgrims.

To make sure they are not recognized, Points says he will provide masks for himself and the prince. In effect, then, Hal, who is playing a part when he is with Falstaff, will now play a second part, that of a thief. What I’m trying to get at is the idea that a prince is a man who wears many different “masks”, both literal and figurative, depending on where he is and what he’s doing. We can see him as a “split personality”, or perhaps someone who exhibits many different personalities. This again gives us a basis to say that in much of this act, Hal is not whole.

At the end of Scene II, the prince has a speech that clearly illustrates the dichotomy between what he is and what he pretends to be. He says that for a while he will imitate the sun, which allows itself to be covered up by “base contagious clouds” until such time as it breaks through the “foul and ugly mists” and shines out brightly once again. (I, ii, 197-202). That is, he will allow everyone to think he really is a “punk,” until it’s time for him to assume the throne when he will stop his drinking and carousing and behave properly. He will, in effect, reconcile the two distinct parts of his persona into a whole person.


Henry the Fourth, Part I, Act I is about disintegration and illness if we accept that Prince Hal’s street-tough persona can be seen as a sort of split personality, which then becomes an example of a “diseased” (unwholesome) character. We see a situation that is not whole, and characters that are not whole, so that the first act appears to deal not with wholeness but with its reverse. Perhaps Shakespeare is challenging us to understand his meaning by exploring its opposite.


Shakespeare, William. Henry the Fourth, Part I. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974: p. 847-885.

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Essay on Shakespeare Henry the Fourth, Part I, Act I. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved July 10, 2021, from