The Reading Room
Time to Trim the Fat: Prince Hal on self-love
Written at the end of the sixteenth century, Henry IV, Part I depicts an increasingly commercial, market-driven London, based on transactions, accounting, and imported goods. Harry is not just at ease in this grubby, commercial London, but he thrives in it. As Hal swaggers around the taverns and whorehouses with the “lads in Eastcheap,” he absorbs the language and ideology of commercial London.
It is his shrewd understanding of political investment and economic calculation that eventually make him such an exceptional King. Hal’s ability to separate the calculus of commercial London from the corruption of its shadier characters is what makes him such a good king. Though he may grab a pint with the people (a practice he continues as king), he never forgets his priorities. This is in stark opposition to Falstaff’s pernicious self-interest which is built on a cowardly and corrupt desire to preserve himself over all others. Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV presents a pragmatic portrait of self-interest: self-interest in and of itself may not be inherently negative, but when vice harms the common wealth, perpetrators must be punished.
The first time we see Hal in Act 1, he is stumbling out of a whorehouse talking of “cups of sack” and “fair hot wench[es] in flame-coloured taffeta” – not exactly the portrait of kingly grace (1.1.7-11). Only after agreeing to take part in a robbery with his thieving friends does Hal finally put our minds at ease in a calculating soliloquy. The prince explains the purpose behind his dubious behavior: “I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humour of your idleness.” From the first line, Hal distinguishes himself from his “friends” in Eastcheap, claiming he will put on their “unyoked humour,” and wear their vice of idleness to mask his ambition. Hal compares himself to the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious cloudsTo smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
The ease with which Hal turns away from his Eastcheap crew has proven tough for critics and audiences alike to swallow. Hal knows from the start that his success means the destruction of his lads, yet he willingly pays this price in order to maximize his future political power. Hal effortlessly blends the political with the commercial, moving from a Machiavellian explanation of the utility of political pawns into an explanation of the principle of scarcity. For “If all the year were playing holidays,” Hal contends, “To sport would be as tedious as to work; / But when they seldom come, they wished-for come.” Applying this concept to his political reputation, the prince states that “when this loose behavior [he throws] off / And pay[s] the debt [he] never promised, / By how much better than [his] word” will he appear? Building on the value of scarcity, Hal’s language becomes increasingly economic as he moves from notions of scarcity to those of debts, repayments, and the rate of return on his actions. Hal’s counterfeited knavish behavior is an investment in his future reformation, as he forgoes public glory now so that he may “show more goodly and attract more eyes” when he sheds his base behavior and pays the debt he never chose to take on by becoming king (1.2.185-207). Through his calculated use of performed immorality, Hal turns present vice into future political virtue.
Hal’s profiteering has its limits, however. Though Hal is clearly not above using people for personal gain, he draws the line when individual interests harm England’s. Falstaff personifies this destructive version of self-interest. Over the course of the play, Falstaff’s vice escalates from petty thieving to actions nearing government embezzlement. The difference between Hal and Falstaff’s approach to battle as soldiers and military commanders encapsulates Shakespeare’s differentiation between sanctioned self-interest and corrupt criminal behavior. By Act 4 of 1H4, we have seen Falstaff rob travelers at Gadshill, subsequently lie about his cowardice, not pay his debts, mistreat Mistress Quickly, and display a level of blustering knavishness that manages to be both humiliating and endearing. His actions in Act 4, however, mark a decisive break with this loveable “goodly, portly man” as his greed overtakes any possible sense of loyalty to Hal or duty to his nation (2.4.410). Having been generously given the command of an infantry unit by Hal (a post quite undeserved), Falstaff abuses his position by using the draft to enrich himself at the expense of the military. Falstaff is keenly aware of the sad state of his soldiers and brags:
I have misused the king's press damnably. I have got, in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds. I press me none but good house-holders, yeoman's sons . . . I pressed me none but such toasts-and-butter, with hearts in their bellies no bigger than pins' heads, and they have bought out their services,
leaving Falstaff with an army of “slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth.” (4.2.11-25) Falstaff has used his military office not in service of the state, but squarely in service of himself, harming the Commonwealth’s interests by producing an army so enfeebled that they seem unlikely to reach the battle, let alone win it. Hal walks in at the end of Falstaff’s soliloquy and notes how “beggarly” Falstaff’s troops are. The prince subtly calls Falstaff out on his corruption, claiming Falstaff’s “theft hath already made thee butter,” as Falstaff grows still fatter (richer) at his troops’ expense. Hal admits that he “did never see such pitiful rascals,” to which Falstaff replies “Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better” (4.2.59-66). Falstaff does not value the lives of his “exceeding poor and bare” soldiers, but looks after his own interests at the expense of public welfare.
Falstaff couldn’t care a jot about his reputation. He serves himself and only himself. Devoid of the desire to, at the very least, appear honorable, Falstaff’s self-interest becomes much darker than other forms of personal gain we see in the play. Unlike Hal’s profiteering approach to glory, which ultimately forwards national interests, Falstaff’s self-interest harms England’s interests and is, therefore, ultimately not tolerated. It is Falstaff’s corrupt, dishonorable pursuit of money over all else that ultimately costs him his place in court and, as recounted in Henry V, his life, as the banished Jack Falstaff dies of a broken heart. Once Hal becomes King Henry V, the calculating self-interest that appeared egotistical in 1H4 is now fully aligned with national interests as Hal’s “sinful” pursuit of honor benefits King, Crown, and Commonwealth. King Henry V can simply no longer shoulder Falstaff’s dead weight.
Works Cited: Shakespeare, William. King Henry IV, Part 1. Ed. David Scott Kastan. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2002.