Tragedy or Comedy? Will We Ever Know?

Mid way through Act III, we are still poised with the question: Is Shakespeare writing a tragedy or a comedy? Act III scene ii we are presented with Harry promising to let go of his foolish and immature lifestyle and act as the royal prince he is. Now that war is approaching, Prince Harry declares that now is the time to make the transformation. He says when men think least I will” (I.ii.195), when people least expect him to change, then he will.  Although a very serious speech in the play, it leads us to think that Henry IV is swaying towards tragedy. 

Another important aspect of this scene is Harry revealing that his childish and un-royal life self is not the real him. He exposes the psychological game he’s been plotting in his mind. The point of Prince Harry acting in his outrageous ways is to make himself look better when he becomes king, that he is capable of change and creating a better reputation. He promises his father he will defeat Hotspur in battle. It is obvious when two people battle, someone will die. This makes me believe that Shakespeare is writing a tragedy. Tragedies always end in death.

The following scene takes yet another twist. Act III scene iii opens with Falstaff complaining about how small and weak he has become. Meanwhile, there has been no description of Falstaff losing weight or dieting. Shakespeare has turned scene iii into a comedy. Falstaff says :Ye lie, Hostess: Bardolph was shaved and lost many a hair, and I’ll be sworn my pocket was picked. Go to, you are a woman, go” (III.iii 51-53). In this line, Falstaff is claiming his pocket was picked in order to get out of paying his bill at the Tavern. Obviously, Shakespeare incorporated this scene to make a fool out of Falstaff for comic effect. Which still leaves the question, are we reading a tragedy or comedy. Our previous scene was about war and foreshadowing death but now we are placed back into the tavern (which symbolizes comedy). What are we to make of these two scenes as far as genre? 

Continuing on to Act V, we are back to Prince Harry who is preparing for battle and redemption from his father. Shakespeare seems to be following a pattern of drama/tragedy followed by a comedy scene. This leaves the audience and reader to pick their own interpretation of the play. Even if it does end in death, does it still make it a tragedy? A true tragedy would not incorporate tavern scenes, is it comic relief? Shakespeare seems to be breaking the rules of applied genre and creating his own, innovative type of play. 

 

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