All in the Family

As I read the third act of Henry IV I was struck by the dynamics of the two main relationships in Prince Harry’s life. In the 2nd scene Harry is summoned by his father King Henry and their meeting is hardly one that would indicate they are father and son. In the opening line of the scene King Henry refers to Harry by his title, “Lords give us leave—the Prince of Wales and I/ Must have some private conference” (1-2). He does not say leave me with my son; instead it feels like a professional political meeting. Henry then goes on to list Harry’s faults, and how he is really nothing but a disappointment at this point. Henry wonders if God is punishing him for disposing of Richard. Harry responds in the same formal tone as he tries to combat his father’s opinion. He says, “So please your majesty, I would I could/Quit all offences with as clear excuse” (3.2.18-19). I was surprised that Harry remained so formal; he seems to be the type to forget about such formalities. It is an interesting exchange because you would think that there would be more emotion involved with such a heavy discussion. A father is basically telling his son that he is disappointed in him, even ashamed. That is hard to hear, but Harry remains just as clinical sounding as his father. He uses the formal title for his king, emphasizing the subject sovereign relationship over the father son bond. It is not until Harry promises to redeem himself that Henry even refers to him by name. Harry must shape up before Henry will acknowledge any deeper bond to him.

In the very next scene, 3.3 Shakespeare contrasts this with Harry’s relationship to his friend Falstaff. Their relationship is playful and extremely informal. Falstaff does not care that Harry is the Prince of Wales, he teasingly accuses Harry of owing him money and picking his pocket, even calling him by a nickname, “Sirrah, do I owe you a thousand pound?/ A thousand pound, Hal? A million! Thy love is worth/a million; thou owest me thy love” (123-126). Falstaff reveres Harry’s friendship, and maybe enjoys the free ride that comes along with the Prince’s friend, but I think he really does care for Harry and is more eager to show him that than his father seems to be. Falstaff even goes on to tell Harry that he does not care about his title at all. He respects Harry as a man and a friend but the title of ‘Prince’ does not affect how he sees him, “but as thou art prince, I fear thee as I fear the roaring of the lion’s whelp…The king himself is to be feared as the lion. Dost thou think I’ll fear thee as I fear thy father?” (3.3.134-139). The outright lack of formality is a stark contrast to the exchange between Henry and Harry. While father and son interact as if they were merely ruler and subject Falstaff (who really is Harry’s subject) and Harry act more as equals who show a genuine concern for each other.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of these 2 different relationships raises important questions in this play; which is more important family or the crown? We encountered this same question in Richard II; the crown was more important than family in that play, I wonder if the outcome will be different in this play? Will Henry and Harry prove that a real royal family dynamic can exist?
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2 thoughts on “All in the Family

  1. kateconti

    The relationship between the prince and Falstaff is a very interesting one. Falstaff is who Harry "plays king" with. Falstaff represents the common people of the kingdom at this time. Harry uses his relationship with Falstaff to prepare him for the thrown. Harry is a smart man and understands that by hanging with such poor company has its risks, but the reward will come. Harry is preparing himself for King. It is interesting how Harry goes about this. His relationship with his father is not a good one. He chooses to not turn to his father to learn how to be a good king. Harry uses Falstaff, the common man, to find out how to appeal to the people of the kingdom.

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  2. Cyrus Mulready

    This is a wonderful commentary on the mixing of family and politics in these plays. I think our normal reaction (as Americans) to this kind of mixing is a bit of surprise–we tend to separate family and politics. Yet, of course, we also have political dynasties in American history (Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, etc.). And there is a familial aspect to the government of a nation, even when it is not recognized as such. As you nice point out, Ariel, these connections are important in these plays, and perhaps an insight we can gain to our own circumstances through Shakespeare.

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