Like every one of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV Part 1 explores language: its power to inspire action, to transform attitude, to reveal a character, and to conceal one. Prince Hal’s character transformation is initially expressed not by actions but by words: he confides to the audience in an aside that his essential nobility will cancel out his wild appearance. Soon after, he describes his remorse for the past and ambition for the future to King Henry and the king is fully convinced by (and overjoyed to hear) his son’s articulate confession. The words that describe his son’s wish for transformation are, the King feels, as valid as the actions that will prove that transformation complete.
As much as it is a play about the English throne, Henry IV Part 1 is thus also a play about the English language and about the ways in which a person’s language is connected to that person’s destiny and social position. The scenes of the play skip between the high language of the court scenes in verse and the low language of the tavern scenes in prose. Prince Hal is compelling (and powerful) in part because he can hop so adroitly between these realms and can speak comfortably in each. He is, crucially, the only character capable of such acrobatic feats of eloquence. While it intertwines high and low speech, the play also mashes together different kinds of English, featuring Welsh and Irish alongside British English. And, if Prince Hal illustrates how to effectively use language to consolidate power, the play also illustrates misuses of language and the disempowering consequences of such mistakes. Unlike the savvy and adaptable Prince Hal, Hotspur is unable to control his language and often lets his prideful anger run away with his rhetoric, speaking furiously and acting rashly until his eventual demise at Hal’s hand. The entire Battle of Shrewsbury, in fact, is fought because of mangled, misrepresented language: instead of conveying King Henry’s true, peaceful message to Hotspur, Worcester recounts that message as a crass, disrespectful goad to war, prompting Hotspur and the rebels to charge onto the battlefield. Had King Henry’s language been conveyed faithfully, the play implies, it’s possible that the bloody Battle of Shrewsbury might have been avoided.
Language Quotes in Henry IV Part 1
With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me; amongst the rest demanded
My prisoners in your majesty’s behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold—
To be so pestered with a popinjay!—
Out of my grief and my impatience
Answered neglectingly, I know not what—
He should, or should not—for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting gentlewoman
So cowardly, and but for these vile guns
He would himself have been a soldier.
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.
I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life. I tell thee, Ned, thou hast lost much honor, that thou wert not with me in this sweet action.
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.
…you are too willful-blame;
And since your coming hither have done enough
To put him quite beside his patience.
You must needs learn, lord, to amend this fault:
Though sometimes it shows greatness, courage, blood—
And that’s the dearest grace it renders you,--
Yet oftentimes it doth present harsh rage,
Defect of manners, want of government,
Pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain…
…the King hath sent to know
The nature of your griefs; and whereupon
You conjure them from the breast of civil peace
Such bold hostility, teaching his duteous land
Audacious cruelty. If that the King
Have any way your good deserts forgot,
Which he confesseth to be manifold,
He bids you name your griefs; and with all speed
You shall have your desires with interest,
And pardon absolute for yourself and these
Herein misled by your suggestion.
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.
Arm, arm with speed: and, fellows, soldiers, friends,
Better consider what you have to do
Than I, that have not well the gift of tongue,
Can lift your blood up with persuasion.
Ill-spirited Worcester, did not we send grace,
Pardon, and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary,
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain today,
A noble earl, and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.