Values and Human Conscience in Shakespeare's King Henry IV

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Shakespeare's, King Henry IV Part I’s an examination of timeless human conscience and behaviour of 15th century Elizabethan England compellingly transcends time and translates to the modern audience of the 21st century through its focus of universal human values of moral choice and individualism - an enduring resonance rooted in humanity - establishing the plays significant value as still intensely relevant in a modern world. King Henry IV Part I as a political commentary on royal legitimacy and social order, asks important questions about ambition and power, exemplified in Hal’s moralisation of Hotspur’s death ‘Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!’, that spoke directly to the politics of Shakespeare’s time and continue to echo in the modern world, asserting the instability of politics in our modern world and the enduring relevance of the common human affliction between political motivations and human virtue. Shakespeare brings to the fore values of personal integrity and morality espoused in his time through the creation of characters Hal and Hotspur and four centuries later, we still continue to identify with their motivations, ambitions and failings, illuminating the human desire of individuals continually seeking to reinvent themselves. We can (I think) infer a binary of the diversity of humankind, and the shifts in similar perspectives towards what constitutes the value of the prominent notion of honour throughout history, underscoring its significant value in asserting itself as a powerful and significant play.

The inevitable climatic confluence of the play’s two youthful opposites poses, the dichotomy between the enduring value of human life in pursuing glory, and the reality that an individual’s destiny is dependent on an individual’s moral choice to further personal gain for respect and valour; potentially unravelling in death, in light of contentious and overly ambitious incentives. Shakespeare's, use of his creative license to render the political climate of his time, a feudal system marked with a stronghold of Christian beliefs of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and codes of chivalry that challenged shifts from classical decorum to revolutionary rebirth of emerging Renaissance align with the representations of the dramatic foils Hal and Hotspur. Hotspur embodies traditional medieval chivalric ideals, his abstract concept of honour is turned palpable through the personification ‘to pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon’, his unceasing pursuit of glory creates the violent image of forcefully seizing honour, conveying his political ambition as driven by obsession and superficial vanity, a clear disparate contrast to Hal, who represents Renaissance humanistic values. The extreme incentives of rebellion Hotspur is willing to employ to personify honour, to the extent of manifesting a civil war that creates civil unrest and discourse, invites the reader to construe this ambition as a sign of internal conflict and instability, alluding to the instability of politics of Shakespeare’s time.

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Queen Elizabeth I’s reign marked with the absence of no heir to inherit her, asserts the significant relevance of rebellion, attributed to an ideological shift in political thinking between medieval and modern eras resonates with the enduring political divisiveness of countries throughout history evident in WWI and WWII, and continually in our modern world seen in the civil wars [such as Syria and global terrorist attacks.] Representing modern absolutism, Hotspur’s naivety and undiplomatic indiscretions were exploited to further deceitful politics, Shakespeare asserts the continual relevance of self-serving ambition in a modern world is, by its nature, irrational and idealistic, mirrored in the modern Australian politics by Julia Gillard who set the precedent of changing Prime Minister within the Labour Party.

As analogous to their commitment of civic duty to country, the boundary is drawn between Hal’s level-headedness to not only recognise Hotspur’s self-serving idealism of honour, which he refuses to share; ‘But out upon his half-faced fellowship’, the accelerated pace connoted his heroic acts absurd. This reckless ambition may be a key factor to his ascent to power but intriguingly is a parody that inadvertently hastens his eventual downfall, a sharp antithesis to Hal, who instead utilises another dimension of ‘role playing’ as a means of political subversion in his transparent Machiavellian pretence. Hotspur, the least Machiavellian of characters, ironically is the image of ‘honour’s tongue’, lacks the ability to conceal what he is feeling and is incapable of recognising that others may be deceitful. Intriguingly, it can be inferred that Hal is an unusual Shakespearean hero in that he succeeds without much suffering compared to Hotspur as Hal assimilates the virtues of Hotspur to enhance his reputation.

Shakespeare’s representation of honour as an enduring political motivation for the authorisation of power sheds light on the uncertainty between actions for the greater good and those of self-interest. This concern at the centre of feudal tradition of chivalry, presents Shakespeare’s construction of competing perspectives through the contrasts of Falstaff’s lack of honour and Hotspur’s obsession with honour, culminate against Hal’s chivalrous acts of honour. In his sardonic prose soliloquy, through the use of blunt, utterly non-chivalric language, depicts ‘Honours is a mere scutcheon’ (5.1) depicts his rejection in the face for employing acts of self-preservation, a stark contrast to Hotspur’s violent ideal of honour ‘to pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon’ that implicates his intention to personify honour is a forceful obligation driven by self-serving ambition. Hal’s transformation as a character, exhibits honourable sacrifice ‘to save blood/Try fortune with him in a single fight’,
positioning us to view Hal’s interpretation of honour as gallant and noble. This multiplicity of views represents Shakespeare’s construction of a dramatic foil that highlights the dichotomy of antithetical representations of standards of honour.

Hal, confronts a reality of brittle transitoriness, through Hotspur’s death, casting off his old identity transcend his previous idea of ‘reformation’, ultimately reinventing himself in light of his ambition to challenge and redefine expectations from divine appointment, but must henceforth consciously preserve his act of a ‘true’ prince. Just as Elizabethan England experienced the rebirth of Renaissance humanism and pragmatism, Hal inherently represents, this change in attitude toward society and war, underpinning how Shakespeare is asserting the ethical border between immorality of modern individualism and politics still retains enduring relevance in a modern world. This scene is the pivotal climax marked with poignancy, pathos, and a certain chilliness in Hal’s elegy ‘Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!’, and interestingly the male posturing of that Hotspur harks in his death speech, ‘Than those proud titles thou has won of me’ has dissipated, inconsequential in the momentm and Hal is perfectly controlled however somewhat detached. The benign mood represents the momentary pause in battle not of celebratory victory but reflection, emphasising the Prince’s new solidarity. Hal praises Hotspur with dignity and integrity, retaining his respect for his dramatic foil, Hal asserts a fine command of appropriate politic rhetoric, and the fact that Hal allows Falstaff to take credit for the killing of Hotspur is, in itself, proof enough that Hal is not concerned with personal gain, Hotspur’s greatest flaw, revealing his humanity and nobility. Shakespeare thus resolves the question of honour and destiny, and offers a realistic portrait of the enduring value of life, in the face of death, questioning the value of life; do such extremes to personify honour outweigh the basic human need for survival. Furthermore, Shakespeare asserts that are human beings are flawed, reflected in their personalities and eventually in their destinies, there can come by realisation of being a good leader through selfless credible acts of honour for the greater collective and not self-serving ambition.

In a modern world, Shakespeare’s demonstrates in his complementary yet antithetical representations of Hal and Hotspur the continuing power of ‘honour’ as political value, asserting enduring relevance of virtuous acts of honour are imperative values of humanity in leadership, political or moral. Shakespeare sheds light on the power of human beings to forge their own path, which is ultimately reflected in their choices between employing ambitious and inhuman means of pursuing honour, personified by Hotspur, or to retain one’s humanity and recognise valour at an appropriate time, represented in Hal’s innate performance of deeds, with practical virtue and moderation as a microcosm for (Shakespeare’s writing of) the true moral worth of the magnanimous man.

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Values and Human Conscience in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV. (2020, October 20). WritingBros. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
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