What makes a good king? In Shakespeare’s play Richard II, the topic of kingship is explored through the conflict between Bolingbroke and Richard II. Once the conflict is resolved, via Richard’s death, Bolingbroke is faced with a new crisis concerning his wanton son. Through King Henry IV’s concern for his son, Shakespeare examines public perception of kingship. This essay will focus on the role of kingship, the importance of cultural capital, and the potential character foreshadowing of Henry IV’s son.
Defining what makes a king is an integral part of Richard II and the central point of Bolingbroke’s claim to the throne, the context of which is important to understanding Henry IV’s concerns for his son. Throughout the play, Shakespeare investigates the divide between two forms of thought on kingship, Richard’s divine right of kings versus Henry’s cultural capital. Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard II, negating any claim he could possibly have to divine rights because he disrupted the natural order of kings.
Sequentially, Henry IV has to appeal to and appease the general public in order to secure his crown. This is why appearance and public opinion are vitally important to Henry IV’s reign, which is also what makes his son’s behavior so troubling. Throughout the play, Henry IV is characterized as a sensible, realistic, and grounded person. He maneuvers around the political game with relative ease and utilizes his charisma to his advantage in winning the hearts of the public. So what happens when the king cannot control his own son?
This is perhaps why this scene is so strange because it shows a rare vulnerability to his crown and reflects poorly on him as the king. Not seeing his son for three months, while he’s gallivanting around with a questionable crew to disreputable places, shows a lack of control on King Henry IV’s behalf. Quite, in fact, similar to Richard II’s control over the nobles at the beginning of the play. It also characterizes Henry IV’s son as irresponsible and reckless, which for a potential king is not even remotely a good sign. Especially when your own father is comparing your behavior to a plague that hangs over him.
This could lead to a point of contention between father and son, or ultimately attribute to losing the crown for either of them. Perhaps even more interesting is that Henry IV says that his son is a plague to “us”, referring to Henry Percy in this scene who has become one of Henry IV’s personal favorites. By divulging this information to Percy, Shakespeare could be foreshadowing a rift between the two parties, allowing Percy to use this information to his advantage and potentially make his own claim to the throne. Henry IV’s moment of vulnerability could be miscalculated.
By saying that, “If any plague hang over us, ’tis he” (5. 3. 3) he fails to realize that his son’s behavior is solely his responsibility and that Percy could easily use his son against him. However, Henry IV’s use of periods in his speech could be indicative as precise and intentional speech, allowing the audience to read this as a test of loyalty. Speaking of his son’s behavior, Henry IV describes his son as unthrifty, “young wanton and effeminate boy” (5. 3. 10). All of which are concerning attributes for a potential future king.
Henry IV’s description of his son seemingly mirrors that of Richard II in this play. While the two are reckless, they are reckless in different ways. Richard II is reckless in his leniency and in his oblivious nature to anyone outside of himself. They also share an affinity for associating with the wrong people, “he daily doth frequent with unrestrained loose companions” (5. 3. 6-7), or potentially showing favoritism. Both are considered to be effeminate, which would demonstrate a lack of leadership and control over both the nobles and general populous.
Generally neglecting responsibility over the realm in favor of arbitrary or self-indulgent means is bound to result in dire consequences. There are many ways to die in a Shakespearean play, however if you are king and have even one of those attributes you are most likely going to be deposed and murdered in a truly horrible fashion. While these attributes are concerning to Henry IV, he also has a glimmer of hope for his son to adapt, mature, and refine these attributes for the better when Percy tells him news of his son. “As dissolute as desperate.
Yet through both I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years may happily bring forth” (5. 3. 20-22). When Percy informed Henry IV’s son of the victory at Oxford, his son responds by saying he would celebrate by going to a brothel, wear a prostitute’s glove as a token, and then challenge the most worthy of jousters. Perhaps the glimmer of hope his father sees in this is that his son is actively pursuing to prove himself in some way and that with time he might grow to discern better methods and battles to prove himself.
This also brings up a point of contradiction between how Henry IV describes his son versus what little information we are given about him from another perspective. His actions would deem him anything but effeminate, which is precisely how his father categorizes him. This could be seen as a political maneuver, specifically an attempt at a redemption story. This scene is interesting in how different it is from the rest of the play. Throughout the play, the audience seldom hears anything about Henry IV’s son until this moment.
Henry IV is a very sensible and realistic person, so sharing this information with Henry Percy seems out of character and context. If anything it seems like a set up for the next play rather than a concluding piece to Richard II. However, I think that this part of the play is significant in how it parallels Richard II with Henry IV’s son and reinstates that issues in regard to kingship are not settled with Henry IV becoming the king. The themes in this play are consistently renewed throughout Shakespeare’s historical plays. Henry IV may at long last have his day in the sun but whether or not it will shine over to his own son is to be seen.