If I had to guess, I'd say Prince Hal (later Henry V) was Shakespeare’s favorite character, or at least the one he considered most interesting. It's certainly the largest role in Shakespeare. The wayward prince who transforms himself into a hero-king has more lines and appears in more plays than any other of the Bard’s creations. Within a single play, only Hamlet and Iago have more lines than King Henry has in Henry V. Add in his lines from Henry IV Parts I and II, he surpasses them both.
And yet, despite the space Prince Hal takes up in Shakespeare’s universe, it’s difficult to describe who he really is. Shakespeare’s most pervasive character is also one of the most slippery and elusive. Luckily we now have Harrying: Skills of Offense in Shakespeare’s Henriad, from Harry Berger Jr. a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to help us in the hunt. The key to understanding Prince Hal, Berger argues, is not to ask ourselves what Shakespeare thinks of the Prince, but what the Prince thinks of himself. In doing so, Berger gives us an interesting—if uneven—look into the inner-workings of a Prince who is both powerful and broken, compelling and repellant.
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In Richard II, Prince Hal’s father, Henry Bolingbroke, steals the crown from King Richard. Suddenly, Hal, a young man who loves hanging out in taverns with thieves, finds himself heir to the throne. He doesn’t appear in Richard, but he sends a rude message to his father, who complains about him. Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II track the Prince’s progress from prodigal son to reformed, heroic King, culminating in the moment when he rejects Sir John Falstaff, "the tutor and feeder of [his] riots."
Henry V gives us the new King’s triumphant conquest of France. Henry VI Part I begins at his funeral.
In all, Prince Hal/Henry V is present in five plays. But those who write about him cannot even agree on what to call him. Is he Hal, like his riffraff friends call him? Harry, like his father calls him? Should we call him Henry? Or even just "Prince," like it says in most texts (a nod to his Machiavellian tendencies)?
People disagree about the Prince’s name because it signifies who we think the "real" Henry is. There are two main candidates: Good Hal, and the Bad Prince. When we first meet him, the Prince goes by "Hal," the reprobate tavern-dweller. To his more sympathetic critics, Hal is a man of the people who has no desire to be king, but who knows that he has to give up the life of fun he enjoys and do his duty. Good Hal weeps to leave his friends, and does bad things (like banishing Falstaff or threatening to spit babies on pikes) only because they are necessary.
The Prince’s first soliloquy in Henry IV Part I ought to strip us of these illusions. He tells us that "Hal’s" behavior is a mere act, a fraud committed against his friends, his family, and his subjects ("…herein will I imitate the sun, / Who doth permit the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty from the world…) This is Hal as the Bad Prince, who will "so offend, to make offence a skill," a man of Machiavellian ruthlessness untethered to any higher principle.
One has to look hard to uncover the man beneath all of the players he projects. In Harrying, Berger finds something underneath all the masks, a quality so omnipresent in the Prince’s public and private speeches that it’s easy to miss it: his overwhelming desire to be forgiven for his father’s sins and for his own.
To Berger, Prince Hal’s predecessors, especially Richard II and Falstaff, were all aware of their sins. They invited and provoked the ills done to them, getting perverse satisfaction from their eventual punishments and deaths. Henry’s own guilt manifests in constant "act[s] of desperate moral self-protection," where he persuades others that they are culpable in the harm he is inflicting on them. His speech justifying the invasion of France, his seduction (and near-rape) of the French princess, and even his conversation with God can all be boiled down to the words: "It’s not my fault."
The Prince is very good at talking his way out of culpability. Yet convincing others to take the blame does not bring Prince Hal satisfaction. The last time we see him alone, he is praying to God for forgiveness, but he knows it won’t work: "More will I do," he says, "though all that I can do is nothing worth…"
This interpretation is tragic, but it is also preferable to portraying the man as mere hollow ambition. It takes a soulless villain and turns him into a spectacularly flawed human being. Harrying covers a lot more than the Prince himself—it discusses the offending-skills of Prince Hal’s father, of Richard II (who offends his way into usurpation), of Falstaff (who teaches Hal how to offend him to death), and even of Richard III. His reading of Prince Hal, however, is the most illuminating.
Berger’s biggest strength is that he mostly reads to understand characters as they understand themselves. His all-too-common weakness is a fondness for academic jargon that sometimes obscure interesting truths. It’s also unfortunate that, when it comes to choosing names for Prince Hal, Berger decides to go with "Harry." Berger actually says it’s partly because he better sympathizes with someone who shares his own first name. But Harry is Prince Hal’s father’s name for him—their estrangement makes this a poor choice. I favor calling him "Prince Hal"—a name that combines the Prince’s Machiavellian coldness with Hal’s deviant spiritedness.
Prince Hal once appeared to me as Shakespeare’s wisest prince, capable of being both ruthless and good. But the closer I looked, the more his heroic qualities faded, the more the cipher-like qualities shone forth. Berger adds depth to Prince Hal’s emptiness, presenting a Prince who is propelled forward by an ever-gnawing self-doubt, who is never happy with himself, even when he seems to get everything he wants. But Prince Hal is not Hamlet. His doubt doesn’t paralyze him: it motivates him, sometimes beautifully so. It also hardens our hearts towards him. Perhaps this tension is what makes him so interesting to Shakespeare and to us.