By playing constantly with characters’ appearances, Henry IV Part 1 asks questions about the difference between appearance and essence—about the difference between what a character seems to be and what that characters is—and about the possibility (or impossibility) of concealing one’s true character. The play opens with King Henry’s lament that his son Prince Hal does not seem to be princely material at all, which leads the king to wonder whether his Harry (Prince Hal) was mistakenly born as the Earl of Northumberland’s son Harry (Hotspur), a young man whose honor and ferocity seem much more princely. Although King Henry’s wondering is more hope than actual suspicion, it raises a very real question: must one seem royal to be royal? Prince Hal’s trajectory through the play demonstrates that the answer is both Yes and No. Though he begins the play as a party boy who seems a misfit prince and an embarrassment to his father the king, by play’s end Prince Hal has become the man King Henry always hoped he would become and fulfills the role his birthright has prescribed for him: he is a serious, brave, honorable prince who appears just as noble and authoritative as a monarch is expected to appear. Yet even before he undergoes his outward transformation in appearance, Prince Hal alerts the audience to the power of his essential character to transform his outward semblance. In his aside in Act I, Hal explains that he will begin acting like a dignified prince soon and that his errant behavior will in fact end up enhancing the honorability and nobility of that new (true) appearance by providing a dramatic contrast.
In addition to the major transformation of Prince Hal’s appearance, the play is full of smaller demonstrations of the power of true vs. false appearances. Poins and Prince Hal’s ruse of robbing their friends after their friends had themselves robbed some travelers presents a virtuosic play on appearances: they conceal their identities to rob Falstaff and his cronies in order first to enjoy Falstaff’s attempts to appear courageous as he concocts his story of being robbed and, second, to reveal their ruse, demonstrating that the robbery was not what it appeared to be and laughing at Falstaff’s extreme cowardice, exposed for all his friends to see. Falstaff and Prince Hal also constantly reference one another’s appearances, making relentless fun of each other’s respective corpulence and skinniness as if their looks were inextricably connected to their essential characters. At play’s end, appearances play a crucial role in the Battle of Shrewsbury as King Henry’s side dresses up numerous soldiers in the king’s robes to deceive their opponents. Douglas cannot even discern who the real King Henry is and thinks that he’s killed the king when he’s actually slain Sir Walter Blunt. Still, Blunt’s commitment to his false appearance (he maintains that he’s King Henry until his dying breath) reveals his true loyalty to the king. At the same time, Falstaff acts out the appearance of a corpse in order to save his life and reasons to himself that playing dead makes no false appearance at all, since only a real corpse is a real “counterfeit.” Ultimately, the play suggests that, no matter how contradictory appearances might seem, they can also provide fairly faithful mirrors for essences.
Appearances Quotes in Henry IV Part 1
…thou mak’st me sad and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishnor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow,
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appear’d
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?
Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,
And I must know it, else he loves me not.
Why, hear ye, my masters: Was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true Prince? why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true Prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a coward on instinct. I shall think the better of myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant lion, and thou for a true prince.
…at my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; ay, and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the Earth
Shaked like a coward.
These things, indeed, you have articulate,
Proclaim’d at market-crosses, read in churches,
To face the garment of rebellion
With some fine colour that may please the eye
Of fickle changelings and poor discontents,
Which gape and rub the elbow at the news
Of hurly-burly innovation:
And never yet did insurrection want
Such water-colours to impaint his cause
It is not possible, it cannot be,
The King should keep his word in loving us;
He will suspect us still, and find a time
To punish this offence in other faults:
Suspicion all our lives shall be stuck full of eyes…
Look how we can, or sad or merrily,
Interpretation will misquote our looks…
Therefore, good cousin, let not Harry know,
In any case, the offer of the King.