Breaking through the foul and ugly mists:
Chiasmus in I Henry IV
In Shakespeare’s historic play King Henry the Fourth, Part One, the ingenious playwright uses an interesting and powerful method of presenting the honorable by introducing that character at the rock bottom of his potential and, as Hal puts it, breaking through the foul and ugly mists/ Of vapors that did seem to strangle him (I.ii, 155-6). Chiasmus, in Shakespeare’s plays, is the inversion of two characters’ reputation and personality traits. In I Henry IV this technique can be seen in the shifting of the reader’s perception of Harry Percy, more vividly known as Hotspur, and Hal, the Prince of Wales. Hotspur and Hal start out on two utterly opposite ends of the spectrum of honor and nobility. As the play progresses, we can witness Hal’s transcendence, turning point, and rise to the peak of his potential. We also are shown Hotspur’s gradual dive to shame (and ultimately death) as he loses his temperance and patience, and is consumed by confidence and greed. The literary effect of chiasmus terminates with, once again, the characters on opposite ends of the spectrum, but somewhere along the shift, they cross paths and the original hierarchy is inverted.
At the beginning of the play, Prince Hal starts out on the lower half of the hierarchy. He spends the majority of his time in the tavern, drinking away the money that he earns by robbing travelers during the night. He is introduced to the readers as immature, irresponsible, and ignorant to his destiny and potential. But Shakespeare doesn’t let his readers see Hal this way for long: in I.ii, Hal’s intention of transcendence to princedom is evident in his revealing soliloquy:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. (150-6)
Though Hal seems ignorant of his destiny and importance in the court, Shakespeare allows us to see that he intends to rise to his full potential. From this point on, Hal begins ridiculing his friends, and realizes that they are contagious clouds who smother up his beauty.
Harry Percy, a.k.a. Hotspur (Shakespeare never ceases to amuse me with his witty nicknames– and this one is certainly derived from the Prince of Darkness himself), is introduced to us as the courtier of Golden Mean. He is nearly everything a prince should be: he valiantly captures the prisoners King Henry desires (even though he will not give them over to the king), he is courageous, quick with words, and has a goal of honor. In I.iii, 201-8, he expresses how much importance he places on honor and how simple he thinks it is to obtain it:
By heavens, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities;
But out upon this half-faced fellowship!
But even within this speech one of his faults is uncovered. Towards the end of this tangent he is shaming the practice of sharing glory and honor with others. This reflects his egotistical intentions and his preoccupation with the obtaining the title of honor. In this scene we also learn of Hotspur’s other downfalls: his exponential anger, his lack of temperance, stubbornness, and ignorance. He doesn’t know his own history, he disregards letters warning him, and he is totally consumed with the idea of victory and honor; he even battles in his sleep.
Scene II, act iv reflects Hal’s midway point. He has not yet risen to his full potential, but we know he intends to show his father that he is worthy of his title of the Prince of Wales. Hal and Falstaff put on a little play-within-a-play, in which Hal plays the part of his father, King Henry, and Falstaff acts as Prince Hal. King Henry (Hal) reprimands Prince Hal (Falstaff) for passing time in the tavern with Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan (368-9). Prince Hal (Falstaff) pleads with the King not to banish Falstaff and Hal’s reply shows that he has the makings of nobility, whereas before they were absent.
Falstaff: … banish not thy Harry’s company– banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
Prince: I do, I will. (381-3)
This passage is extremely compelling because it is so ambiguous. The line of Prince Hal (acting as King) is full of meaning, yet the meaning can be interpreted in a couple different ways, simply because of the roles that Falstaff and Hal are playing. We sense that Prince Hal means what he says in terms of his own banishment of Falstaff and the entire tavern realm because we already know of his intentions, but there is uncertainty due to the vagueness of his reply, and also the fact that he is not playing himself, he is acting as the king.
Hal moves up another rung on the ladder to nobility when, in III.i, he persuades his father to trust him that he has changed. He states that he will kill Hotspur, much to King Henry’s great pleasure, and he stuns his father with his economic, mercantilistic language, which Henry doesn’t fully understand.
This in the name of God I promise here,
The which if He be pleased I shall perform,
I do beseech Your Majesty may salve
The long-grown wounds of my intemperance.
If not, the end of life cancels all bonds,
And I will die a hundred thousand deaths
Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow. (153-9)
After this statement of his intention and promise, it is clearly shown that the hierarchy in which Hal and Hotspur are arranged has flipped, and Prince Hal is the more honorable of the two.
Throughout the play, we are shown increasingly more of Hotspur’s negative traits, until it comes to the point that Shakespeare’s readers see him as more selfish and greedy than valiant and brave. In III.i, we are shown a Hotspur that behaves very selfishly when Mortimer deals out the land that Mortimer, Glendower, and Hotspur are to cover in their rebellion. And we also begin to see that all he can do is fight: in response to Glendower’s claim of great academic and poetic accomplishments, Hotspur states that he would rather hear a dry wheel grate on the axletree (128) than mincing poetry. ?Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag (130-1).
Hotspur’s selfishness is displayed in its near entirety at the end of act V, scene iii, in his pre-battle speech, if we can give it so great a name. Previous to this speech, he has been very impatient and overconfident, anxious to get the battle rolling. This short statement before the battle sums up how low Hotspur has sunken on the hierarchy.
Let each man do his best. And here draw I
A sword, whose temper I intend to stain
With the best blood that I can meet withal
In the adventure of this perilous day.
Now, Esperance! Percy! And set on. (92-6)
He is fully engulfed in the thoughts of battle, but from what we’ve seen, he usually is. We have learned that the Harry Percy we met at the very beginning of the play is in no way who he proves to be. The real Harry Percy is selfish, overconfident, greedy, and seriously lacks control of his temper. We, as readers know that this hot-blooded character is going to be killed by Prince Hal himself. Now who’s the valiant and courageous one?
By the end of the play, the way Shakespeare’s readers see Prince Hal and Harry Percy have been completely switched. Hal, the former tavern dweller and robber has turned into the noble Prince of Wales, and deserves the title. He even respects the honor in his opponents (V.v, 30-31). Hal, Prince of Wales has earned the trust of his father by fulfilling his promise. In response and gratitude to Hal’s materialized promise, King Henry refers to his power as our power (V.v, 34). And where is the courtier of the Golden Mean? Dead. And it certainly was not a noble death. There’s no better way to shame a person than to totally uproot their confidence. By the end of the play, Hotspur is not honorable, even in his own terms.
Shakespeare’s use of chiasmus in I Henry IV lends a very interesting twist to the plot. And what’s even more compelling is that within the play itself, Hal is using chiasmus as well when he intends to rise from his drunken, thieving status to the justified Prince of Wales. Shakespeare’s use of chiasmus works marvelously in persuading the reader to view Hal as honorable in the end. This should remind us all that we can always move up from where we currently are, and become all the more virtuous by doing so.