Theme of Conflict in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV
Shakespeare’sKing Henry IV Part I’ centres on a core theme of the conflict between order and disorder. (Act 5 Scene 1, lines 115-138) Such conflict is brought to light by the use of many vehicles, including Hal’s inner conflict, the country’s political and social conflict, the conflict between the court world and the local world, and the conflicting moral values of characters from each of these worlds. This combination of certain values exists on many levels, and so is both a strikingly present and an underlying theme throughout the play. Through characterization, Shakespeare explores moral conflict. In the play Hal has ‘reformed’, moved away from his former mentor Falstaff and become a good and honourable prince.
Hal’s remark to his father indicates a now strong, independent mind, predicting that Douglas and Hotspur will not accept Henry’s offer because of their love for fighting. Henry’s reply in turn indicates a change in attitude towards his son, newfound respect. Acknowledging Hal’s prediction, the king orders preparations to begin, and we see he has his own set of solid moral values: knowing that their cause is just’ helps him to reconcile with his highly honourable conscience that there is indeed cause for war. Still maintained is the conflict between the very format of the text, with Hal and Henry’s conversation held in formal verse typical of the court world, in which Hal is now firmly embedded. Falstaff, however, sustains his equally typical prose speech, which indicates to the audience the enduring division between the court and tavern worlds.
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As soon as the king leaves, Falstaff immediately proclaims his unashamed cowardice, asking Hal to protect him in battle. The prince retorts with an insult to Falstaff’s enormous size and abruptly bids him farewell. Gone are the jests that would accompany a conversation between these two at the beginning of the play, and Hal’s reactions to Falstaff now represent his moving away from the tavern world, and that he now belongs to the court world. Falstaff is extremely honest about his feelings towards the whole affair, bluntly stating that he wishes it all were over, exposing his strong reluctance to fight and interest in self-preservation. Again the prince offers only a rude retort before his exit, commenting that it’s a wonder Falstaff isn’t dead yet, as he well should be with all the overeating and overdrinking he indulges in.
Falstaff’s soliloquy questioning the value of honour is an ironic contrast with how Hotspur and Hal regard honour. By now the contrast between their highly ordered morality and Falstaff’s own moral disorder is obvious. Falstaff’s inclusion at this point, when Hal has left his side and moved on, is necessary to point out the differing morality between the two, which was once so similar. Falstaff is of paramount importance to the sub-plot dealing with Hal’s decision between continuing his carefree lifestyle or maturing into the role he is destined to play as a respected prince and later king. This soliloquy continues the theme of another of Falstaff’s in Act 4 Scene 2, in which he is equally undisturbed by his amorality, and shows that his highest concern is for his own well being.
Falstaff begins by remarking to himself how absolutely unnecessary it would be to go to one’s death before one time. He uses the metaphor of owing money, making a comparison between paying bills and death. It is characteristic of a member of the materialistic tavern world to draw a metaphor with such a concrete, solid and no-nonsense thing as finance. He simply cannot understand why one would be willing to pay such debt before it is owed – he himself is ‘loath to pay’ such a thing as his life in what he sees as a worthless and empty cause. He personifies death in his metaphors, saying he will not surrender to ‘him’ until he must, and will wait until death is inevitable. Falstaff takes no risks, and the mere idea of throwing one’s life away for this abstract thing that men call honour seems ludicrous to him.
Anyhow, he resolves that honour will spur him on. But, he wonders, what good will honour do him? He establishes that honour can indeed lead to the suffering of many wounds, but not to the remedying of them. He is not interested in anything that risks his personal comfort, and as for honour, he only cares about what it can do for him. According to Falstaff, not a great deal. He eventually establishes, in his characteristically simple fashion, that honour is but ‘a word’, and in that word is contained nothing but ‘air’. Falstaff is truly exemplary of the tavern world. He wants things that he can see and touch, tangible things, and has no interest in concepts such as honour. As he reasons, why would you want honour if it only leads to death? Those who have honour are dead! His resolution that ‘honour is a mere scutcheon’ hints at his cynical view. It is straight from the tavern world – survival is more important to him, unlike those of the court world who live by honour, and care not if it leads to their death, but only that they one day may come to be ‘honourable’, whether dead or alive. He closes with the comment that what he has told us is his ‘catechism’. This suggests an idea that his religion is to avoid honour, and ever to question its value.
Falstaff’s blatantly honest soliloquy has provided the audience with a direct insight into his mind and contrasts well with Hal and Hotspur’s speeches, in which their moral order and regard for honour is evident. Falstaff helps to show the change in Hal to the audience. Falstaff himself is no different to the Falstaff of Act 1, unlike Hal who has obviously undergone a great deal of change. Falstaff’s speech is highly typical of the tavern world’s way of thinking: straightforward, sometimes humorous, spoken in prose, and only the values of the tavern world taken into consideration, with no regard for such insubstantial, un-physical concepts as an honour. In this way, and speak directly to the audience, Falstaff effectively expresses his unashamed resolution not to submit to the moral order.
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