Prince Hal's Aggression

by Marvin Krims

December 1, 2002




    For the most part, people tend to overcome the emotional problems that are a normal part of childhood. From a developmental psychoanalytic perspective, an important factor that contributes to this outcome is increased acceptance and integration of previously unacceptable aspects of the self that had caused inner tensions and therefore had to be repressed. Certain kinds of childhood and adolescent play facilitate this growth process by presenting unconscious, repressed conflicts to consciousness in ways that permit greater acceptance and integration. In this essay, I shall try to show how Shakespeare's 1 and 2 Henry IV portrays how play helps Prince Hal evolve from the mad-cap adolescent of London's underworld into King Henry V of England.2 Although Henry was an effective military leader who won bloody glory in the fields of France, I also shall argue that the transformation from irresponsible Prince to warrior King is not nearly as radical as the rhetoric of the texts would suggest. In this reading, the playful, rowdy son is father to the ruthless, militarist King. 


    The use of play for growth and development is well known in psychoanalytic psychology.3 Freud (1920), observing his young grandson Ernst, learned firsthand about the capacity of play to represent the child's inner concerns. Ernst would toss and retrieve a spool of string over the side of his cot, a game like "peek-a-boo" that he called "fort-da" ("here-there") (See also McCaffrey). Freud interprets this behavior as the child's symbolic recreation of separation and reunion with his mother to overcome separation anxiety (p. 14-17). Waelder elaborates on these observations: 

    A painful experience is repeated in play not after it has been overcome and mastered, but before, while it is still unmastered; and it eventually becomes mastered because of the playful repetition itself . . . Thereby, play becomes aligned with the assimilative proceedures which operate by repetition. (p. 218) 

    In an entirely different context, a discussion of psychoanalytic treatment, Freud (1914) returns to the capacity of play to disclose unconscious conflict. This time, he employs "play" as a metaphor.  

          [T]he patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it. (p. 150)

          We render the compulsion [to repeat] harmless, indeed useful, by giving it the right to assert itself in a definite field. We admit it into the transference as a playground in which it is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything in the way of pathogenic instincts that is hidden in the patient's mind. (p. 154)  

    Although Freud comments here on the transference as a therapeutic substitute for acting out, his use of the "playground" metaphor also invokes childhood play areas where the child's inner concerns also "are allowed to expand in almost complete freedom." This freedom permits the child to express his/her hidden conflicts, which can thus become conscious and thereby available for assimilation.4 

    Winnicott suggests that play begins in the early interactions between infant and mother during the period he called the "transitional phase." During this time, the "good-enough" parent and the baby gradually create a "neutral third space" (perhaps the archetype of the playground) in which the baby may safely play. In this space, the baby's play is determined by feelings and phantasies that reflect his\her deepest concerns; Ernst Freud's "fort-da" game is a nice example. In adolescence, a time when increased biological drives reactivate old conflicts and create new ones, the need for play and other forms of conflict resolution increases.  


    The unique dramatic structure of 1 and 2 Henry IV intermingles grim medieval English history with comic scenes of play: the aging, ill King Henry IV deals with bloody insurrection while his son, the adolescent Prince Hal, raises merry hell in London's underworld. The Hal scenes provide comic relief and sardonic commentary on the adults who live out their murderous impulses and destroy each other. And since Shakespeare's capacity for dramatic mimesis enables him to create characters who feel very real to us, the scenes have received considerable attention from developmental psychologists. Their studies focus on a wide range of adolescent psychology: reactivated Oedipal conflicts (Kris, Faber); Hal's rebelliousness and inability to delay gratification (Arons); anxiety about the threat posed by a murderous father (Stern); and the formation of adolescent ideals (Lichtenberg and Lichtenberg). 

    A few words might be appropriate here concerning the justification for applying psychoanalytic theory to fictional characters -- a lively topic of ongoing debate among literary critics. There is of course no debate about ascribing conscious qualities to these characters; we describe Hal as charming, Falstaff as licentious, Henry IV as repentant. Shakespeare's art enables him to represent fictional characters so lustrously that we easily speak of them as if they were real and actually possessed these qualities. I argue that if we accept that people are driven by inner forces beyond their comprehension, it is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare's intuitive abilities enabled him to represent these unconscious qualities as well and that these can be located by close readings of his texts. Much more need be said on this topic but that is beyond the scope of this essay. 

    To return to the focus of this essay, I intend to explore an aspect of Hal's adolescent personality development not previously noted. Although I concur with the other observers that Hal's adolescent play helps him to tolerate previously unacceptable aspects of himself and thus contributes to his maturation, I shall also argue that Hal is already far too tolerant of and comfortable with a very dangerous aspect of himself: his aggressiveness toward others. Later, when he assumes the throne as Henry V, this long-standing toleration of his aggressiveness, combined with his more recent maturation, makes him both an effective leader of a nation and a champion of violence who will write yet another gory chapter of medieval European history. 

    As Prince, Hal's royal prerogatives give him the freedom to convert London's underworld into a princely playground.5 It is here, in the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap, that the first scene of adolescent play unfolds (1 Henry IV, 2.4.376). The scene is follows yet another episode of Hal's unlawful behavior: this time, assault and highway robbery of helpless pilgrims --and then of his fellow robbers.  

    Paris, like most critics, offers a benign reading of this incident of the Prince's lawlessness: "Shakespeare is at pains to let us know that [King] Henry is wrong in his [unfavorable] judgment of Hal's character" (p. 74). Paris cites Hal's hesitation about robbing the pilgrims, first agreeing to participate ("Well, once in my days I'll be a madcap"), then declining ("Who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, in my faith"), and finally determining to "tarry at home." Paris argues that Hal finally agrees to go along only for the fun of robbing the thieves and then arranges to return the booty to the pilgrims. 

    But Hal's agreement makes him an accessory before, during, and after ruthless criminal behavior. Paris also cites as evidence of Hal's virtue the soliloquy in which he promises to "throw off his loose behavior" and undergo a "reformation" (1.2.182 -205). But this promise is also Hal's admission that he either had no virtue to start with or lost it early on. And Paris completely ignores the fact that Hal instigates the robbery in the first place with his question, "Where shall we take purses tomorrow, Jack?" (l. 102). With this query .--really an invitation for more criminal behavior-- Hal indicates that he is perfectly at ease with assault and highway robbery. In short, Shakespeare presents us with a charming young Prince who is also quite capable of behaving like a thug. Although this encounter with the pilgrims is entirely Shakespeare's invention, contemporary sources confirm Hal's penchant for riotous living; Forojuliensus, writing in c.1437, tells us that the Prince ".... delighted in song and musical instruments and he exercised meanly the feats of Venus and of Mars and other pastimes of youth, for so long as the King, his father, lived." (p.14) 

    Perhaps Hal's charm invites us to overlook this aspect of his behavior or dismiss it by attributing it to his youth. But I argue that his ready acceptance of thuggery as his royal prerogative is as central to his character as his often cited plucky leadership qualities and keen intelligence. It is this dangerous mix of character traits that later makes possible his invasion of France on the flimsiest of pretexts. And while in France, contemporary sources also available to Shakespeare, inform us that his murderousness at times was of such intensity that it exceeded that of other medieval English kings.6 Shakespeare touches directly on this aspect in Henry V when Hal, now King, orders the slaughter of helpless French prisoners.  

    Returning to the scene in the Boar's Head Tavern following the assault on the pilgrims, Hal seems completely unconcerned about the robbery and the repercussions it will have at the royal court. And indeed throughout the scene, Hal does not seem to experience any conscious anxiety or guilt about his misdeeds. Instead, he flaunts his scorn for the world of reality outside the tavern, his father's world. Abetted by his "tutor of riots," Falstaff, he creates a mock court --a theater of the absurd-- within the tavern doors. They convert the tavern into a boozy play area where all laugh at the law, feeling secure ---or at least hopeful-- that Hal's station will protect them. But, as I shall show later, despite his apparent unconcern, Hal also suffers a touch of anxiety and guilt that is beyond reach of the protection afforded by royal prerogatives.  

    In the play impromptu, they burlesque King, Queen, and Prince --an unholy trilogy of father, mother, and son. Hal first takes the part of himself, the Prince soon to be chided for his "riots." Falstaff is the outraged --and outrageous-- King. The bawdy hostess of the tavern is the Queen, whose only role is to enjoy the antics of the men.7 The other habitues of the tavern --mostly criminals and harlots-- represent the rest of the court. Stage props include a tavern stool for the throne, Falstaff's lead dagger for the royal scepter, and a cushion for the crown. Despite the adult depravity, the mise-en-scene imitates children playing "grown-up" in a nursery complete with adult clothing and toys for props. But their game of "make-believe" has moved out of the safe, neutral third space of the nursery into the doubtful security of the tavern, and the Sheriff will soon intrude on their play.8 

    Hal begins the farce. Mockingly, he accepts Falstaff's earlier suggestion that he "practice an answer" for the time when he will be "horribly chid" for his behavior by his father: "Do thou stand for my father and examine me on the particulars of my life" (l. 363-4). This sets the stage for comic enactment of a matter of serious concern for all the denizens of the tavern: the serious repercussions their atrocious behavior is sure to have in the royal court. But for Hal, their burlesque of his family also must reverberate with problems he has had with his real family, especially times in childhood when he, like all children, feared his father's wrath. Thus Hal plays in the here-and-now of the tavern and simultaneously re-experiences the then-and-was of his childhood. 

    Falstaff, in the role of "King," parodically chides Hal for his wasted life:  

          Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thy time, but also how thou art accompanied . . .That thou art my son I have partly thy mother's word, partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villainous trick of thine eye and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip that doth warrant me. If then thou be son to me, here lies the point: why, being son to me, are thou so pointed at? (l.398 -407) 

    Although cloaking his words in jest, Falstaff refers to parental sexual relations and even obliquely casts a shadow of doubt on the Queen's virtue, and hence on Hal's very legitimacy and his right to succeed to the throne. Cunning Falstaff, always an expert on the vulnerable in human nature, knows exactly how to torment the adolescent Prince. And for good measure, Falstaff connects Hal's highway robbery with Henry IV's usurpation of the throne: father and son share both a villainous trick of the eye and, by implication, a villainous temperament. 

    After more raillery along similar lines, Falstaff jeers, "Shall the son of [the King of] England prove a thief and take purses?" (l.409) On the surface, Falstaff, Lord of Misrule, pretends to chide his "son," for the recent episode with the pilgrims. But the chiding is done with a broad wink and all the while, Falstaff ironically congratulates his "son" for riot. Speaking here both for himself and in his role as "King," Falstaff, endorses predatory violence as a thoroughly acceptable prerogative for royalty --and commoners alike if they can get away with it. And it is a somewhat dubious tribute to Shakespeare's art that the fun and laughter in the scene can so easily seduce the reader into joining in the laughter and overlooking the arrant cruelty and gross injustice of their behavior.  

    But Falstaff's jeer "Shall the son of [the King of] England prove a thief and take purses" also may have more personal meaning for Hal. Since they are acting exactly like small children playing "house," and pretending to be father, mother and son, Falstaff's words would resonate with Hal's memories of his childhood and his earlier relationship with his parents. And as is usual in a Shakespeare text, the words are interpretable on multiple levels; for convenience here, I choose to interpret them as a reference to Hal's Oedipal problems, now reactivated under the impact of adolescent development. (We need not bother about just which specific developmental level is being referenced here, for my interest is in process rather than content.)9 As I proceed with this interpretation, I need to provide the reader with a brief digression, a precis of how I understand Oedipal problems and their resolution as these bear on my argument. 

    It has become a commonplace --certainly among psychoanalytic commentators-- that during the Oedipal phase of development, the child desires exclusive possession of one of the parents, usually, but not always, the parent of the opposite sex. In the child's mind, the only way to achieve this is to dispose of the other parent --perhaps the original Other-- and take all.


    But of course it could never be as simple as that. For example, the mere imagining of disposing of a parent usually produces terrifying fears of retaliation in the child's immature mind. For Prince Hal, these primitive fears of retaliation left over from early childhood are reactivated by adolescence and coalesce with his concerns about his father's reaction to his more recent hell-raising. And, as Stern points out in his essay, these fears are even further magnified by his father's real murderousness. But in the tavern scene, Hal laughs off all these anxieties, concealing them beneath a facade of bravado, mockery, and ridicule. 

    In addition to fears of retaliation, there are other problems with Oedipal feelings that bedevil the child. The Oedipal Other parent, whom the child secretly wants to eliminate, usually sincerely loves the child. And certainly Hal's father, although always a mortal threat to his enemies, shows an abiding concern for his son throughout the texts. And the child usually also loves that parent in return, despite harboring destructive wishes. This, of course, vastly complicates the problem for the child. The texts clearly represent this complexity as well by presenting Hal as loving his father, as, for example, when he saves his father's life and regains his respect on the battlefield at Shrewsbury. 

       Thus for Hal, as for most children (and even Oedipus himself), destruction of a beloved parent is not a consummation devoutly to be wished: imagined and guiltily wished perhaps, but never devoutly desired. The Oedipal complex is complex and the Oedipal child is beset by the feelings of love and hate for the same parent, at the same time. 

    These clashing feelings of love and hate, combined with the threat of retaliation, cause the child to suffer intense inner turmoil and psychic distress. These painful feelings in turn lead to a defensive repression of Oedipal feelings, which, as a result of the repression, become progressively more unconscious. Finally, there is no sign of Oedipal desire on the surface, aside from some indirect indicators in dreams, lapsus linguae and the like. The child then appears to be less troubled, at least to the outside observer, although the inner conflict caused by these now unconscious feelings continues forever. The child is now in the so-called "latency phase." 

    Then, with the blazing hormones of adolescence, the repressed, conflicting Oedipal feelings intensify exponentially, along with rather desperate, defensive efforts to ward them off or deflect them. For Prince Hal of the text (and perhaps the real Prince Hal), these adolescent defensive efforts include excessive drinking to reduce tension, immature, irresponsible behavior to deny his wish to replace his father, and the selection of inappropriate friends like prostitutes and cutthroats to distance himself from his attachment to his family. 

    Yet despite the adolescent's attempts to avoid Oedipal desire, the feelings are pressing and inevitably manage to find some sort of disguised _expression. With Prince Hal, this return of repressed feelings occurs when he symbolically acts them out by committing assault and robbery on the highway, a displacement of imagined murder and usurpation in the palace. However, Hal's words indicate that he --like other adolescents-- is almost completely unaware of the inner motive for his acting out and that he has no direct, conscious contact with his underlying Oedipal feelings. But some safe, limited, acceptable conscious contact with these unconscious feelings is exactly what the adolescent needs in order to tolerate and integrate the feelings into a mature personality. I shall try to show that Shakespeare's represents that Hal gains some of this contact from the family role-playing in the unlikely setting of the Boar's Head Tavern.


    So let us return to the Tavern and Falstaff's jeer "Shall the son of [the King of] England prove a thief and take purses?" Note that these words associate "son," "father," "thief," and "take purses" in a single line of prose. According to the interpretation I am applying here, this association resonates with Hal's unconscious Oedipal feelings. At this inner level, Hal "hears" Falstaff's words as telling him that robbing the pilgrims (and the thieves) represents the Prince's wish to take his father's purses. "Purses" is read here as containing multiple meanings: his father's wealth and power and an allusion to his father's women, with "purses" also symbolizing female genitalia. Here Falstaff is behaving rather like a clumsy psychoanalyst who suggests to Hal, his analysand, that the Prince's acting out on the highway represents Oedipal wishes. "So," our hypothetical analyst intones to his patient, "father's little boy wants to steal the family jewels, eh?"  

    Thus, Falstaff's words here may be read as confronting Hal with repressed, usually unacceptable unconscious wishes. The long-established friendship between the two of them, the explicit playfulness in the scene and the humor --all perhaps enhanced by a "cup of sack"-- reduce Hal's anxiety just enough so that he can have some fleeting conscious contact with these repressed, usually intolerable wishes. Of course, the contact is very brief here; but repeated in many ways and in many different contexts, such contact incrementally helps with the process of tolerating the intolerable and accepting the unacceptable. Existential acceptance of the unacceptable (not acting out the unacceptable as Hal's father did with Richard II) gradually helps the adolescent give up his/her immature, irresolute ways and grow up. 

       But the very process of accepting the unacceptable inevitably generates inner anxiety and resistance --we see this in real people, and it is represented by Shakespeare in Prince Hal. Thus, in response to our mock psychoanalyst's comment, the "analysand" Hal tries to exchange roles and put his "analyst" on the spot. "Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for me, and I'll play my father," Hal replies (l.433). Falstaff, however, often the buffoon but always the interpreter of the dark side, retains the "throne" for the moment and inquires, "Depose me?" (l.435). Pseudoanalyst Falstaff tries to keep the focus on his analysand.


    But by now the merriment has begun to fade. Something in Hal's manner, perhaps the way he asks "Dost thou speak like a king?" undermines their playfulness. In this reading, Hal's anxiety about the exposure of his Oedipal impulses upsets the young Prince and makes him defensive and angry. 

    Suddenly, it becomes clear to all that the tavern really is not a safe play area. They must now face a fundamental reality: Prince Hal is heir to the throne, not just a boon companion. Of course, Falstaff recognizes this reality lurking behind the skylarking and acknowledges it with a somber note: "If thou dost it [depose me] half so gravely, so majestically, both in word and matter, hang me up by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or poulter's hare" (l. 435-437). His word "majestically" cryptically identifies the harsh reality lurking in the background. And although Falstaff is not destined to be hanged (Hal later hangs two other former cronies of the tavern), shrewd Falstaff knows that all fathers --especially corrupt ones like him-- must either stand aside or be cruelly discarded. 

    Hal finally exchanges roles with Falstaff and becomes "king." With mounting scorn, barely concealed by playfulness, he attacks Falstaff, now in the role of the chided Prince: 

          Swearest thou, ungracious boy? Henceforth never look at me. Thou art violently carried away from grace. There is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man; a tun of a man is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoll'n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverent Vice, that gray Iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years?


    On the surface, Hal expresses his contempt for Falstaff as a corrupt and corrupting father, that "reverent Vice, that gray Iniquity, that father ruffian." On a deeper level, Hal's "father ruffian" also contains a reference to his real father's deposition of Richard II. But Hal is also a ruffian as he just demonstrated to us on the highway, and so his scorn for Falstaff also contains contempt for himself. And, if we accept Hal's highway robbery as an acting out of his Oedipal impulses, then his attack here on Falstaff also represents the shame that he feels for these impulses as well. Thus, Falstaff is the emblem of Hal's own impulses, conscious and unconscious, and Hal protects himself from the pain of his guilty feelings by projecting them all on Falstaff. 

    And it might be noted that Hal's words here also contain references to earlier layers of development that precede the Oedipal phase. Hal thoroughly condemns Falstaff's oral indulgence: "that swoll'n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly." But we know that Falstaff's pleasures are quite polymorphous, extending well beyond the oral, into the sexual, for example. Therefore Hal's exclusive focus here on Falstaff's orality suggests that the Prince could be struggling with his own oral problems. Thus his attack on Falstaff here also might reflect problems of his own with this earlier stage of development, problems the Prince has with his greedy wishes and with his relationship with his mother.10 Once again, Falstaff is the whipping post for Hal's guilt. 

    Throughout the texts, particularly in the comic scenes, Hal shifts between contact with his infantile wishes and defensive attempts to disown them, often by projecting on to Falstaff. And once he becomes King, this defense finds its cruelest _expression when, as Henry V, he banishes Falstaff from his side: 

              I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

          How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester!

          I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,

          So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,

          But, being awakened, I do despise my dream,

          Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace,

          Leave gourmandizing . . . .

    2 Henry IV, 5.5.49 -54. 

    His denunciation of Falstaff as "surfeit-swelled" recalls his earlier condemnation of Falstaff in the tavern as a "tun of a man." And with his later "I have turned away my former self" (l.59), he plainly tells us that in banishing Falstaff, he symbolically banishes his own greed.11 But soon it will become quite clear that this symbolic attempt to banish his greed is a complete failure when he tries to gobble up all of France.



    A far different sort of play --so different and grim, it can hardly be called "play"-- unfolds in a most unlikely playground: the bleak Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster, at the bedside of the dying Henry IV (2 Henry IV, 4.5). Hal is alone with his father, and the king has stopped breathing. Thinking him dead, Hal puts on the crown and quietly leaves the Chamber. He tells no one that he believes the king is dead, not even his brothers waiting in the next room. There is a furtive, illicit quality to his behavior, even though he tells us that he consciously believes the crown is legitimately due him: "My due from thee is this imperial crown,/ Which, as immediate from thy place and blood,/ Derives itself to me" (l.41 --43). 

    Of course, with his father's body still warm, it is far, far too soon for him to have the crown, and this, in itself, might make him feel guilty. But in the reading I propose, there is a much deeper, even more desperate cause for his stealth: in trying on the crown right beside the "dead" body of his father, he plays out his unconscious Oedipal phantasy that he has killed his father and stolen the throne. His guilt about this phantasy makes him feel like a usurper, an Oedipus, not licitly Rex. Of course, he cannot go into the next room and announce that the king is dead: that would reveal the "murder." Instead, he enacts the way he feels about himself now: he is an evil child who has done something terribly wrong. In his imagination, mere anarchy has prevailed, and he is just like Falstaff after all, the usurping "lord of misrule," but without the redeeming laughter.12


    In both Abbey and Tavern, Hal plays with the imagery of being the usurper. But in the Abbey, it is not quite entirely play, for his "stage props" are real: the royal crown and the warm body of his "dead" father. These trappings of reality provide a more intense, conscious exposure to Oedipal phantasy and the associated guilt than was possible in the foggy unreality of the Tavern. In the harsh, cold atmosphere of Westminster, the son of England needs little suspension of disbelief to prove himself a thief.13 

    When Henry awakens from his stupor, he mercilessly attacks Hal for taking the crown, in what is perhaps an echo of his own guilt about deposing Richard II. At first, the king rejects Hal's plea that he thought his father already dead:


       Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.

     I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.

     Dost thou hunger for mine empty chair

     That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours

     Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth,

     Thou seek'st the greatness that will overwhelm thee.

    (l.92 -96) 

    Henry's "Dost thou hunger for mine empty chair" must strike Hal with particular force, for it touches on his hunger for the throne. In the deepest recesses of his mind, the Prince might feel like a child caught in the act of eating his father's flesh. 

    Stunned, unable to answer, Hal silently listens to some forty five more lines of cruel reprimand. Perhaps the shared guilt of father and son prevents both from understanding that Hal has committed no real crime in the Chamber: he has merely toyed with, and thereby consciously contacted, an otherwise repressed and forbidden phantasy: the Prince imagined himself becoming King in a setting that almost exactly reproduces the unconscious imagery of greedy Oedipal triumph. 

    Finally, Hal defends himself and in doing so, once again attempts to disown his guilt by projecting it outside himself. In the Tavern, he projects on Falstaff; here, at his father's bedside, he projects on the crown, a metonym for himself: 

     . . . . The care on thee depending

     Hath fed upon the body of my father;

     Therefor thou best of gold art worst of gold.

     Other less fine in carat, is more precious,

     Preserving life in medicine potable;

     But thou most fine, most honored, most renowned,

     Hast eat thy bearer up....

           (l. 158-164) 

    As in the tavern, his projected self-reproach widens from Oedipal guilt to guilt about his orality: the crown --not him--"Hath fed upon the body of my father" and "Hast ate thy bearer up." The projection is an echo of his reproach of Falstaff for "gourmandizing."  

    Of course, Hal's most inappropriate timing in putting on the crown invites misunderstanding. Yet for him, it is the most appropriate moment: here, at his "dead" father's bedside, Hal most vividly contacts his childish phantasy that he must kill his father to have what he wants. In this reading, Hal's conscious contact with this ruthless and greedy phantasy, along with the guilt he feels despite his defensive projections, helps Hal to accept and integrate this unacceptable phantasy. This integration helps him to relinguish his adolescent rebelliousness and grow up --for good or ill. 

    In his first soliloquy, in 1 Henry IV, Hal had prophesied this outcome; he calls it his "reformation." He seems to think it a good thing:  

     My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,

     Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

     Than that which has no foil to set it off.

     I'll so offend, to make offense a skill,

     Redeeming time when men think least I will.


    But there is heavy irony in Hal's "reformation": his acceptance of the unacceptable within himself gives him even more freedom to enact the unacceptable in reality. When, as Henry V, he invades France and tries for the French crown, his rioting merely expands from London's underworld to French soil; the habitation of the riot has changed, but not Hal.  

     Accordingly, I argue that rather than reforming himself, Prince Hal has merely consolidated his identification with his father into an identity that accepts greed, murder, war, and usurpation. His robbery of helpless pilgrims was an earlier _expression of this identity. Although monarchical disrespect for law and boundaries is a medieval tradition, it also must be noted that when Hal assumes the throne and banishes Falstaff, he merely exchanges "tutor of riots"; his identification with his ruthless father replaces the ruthless Falstaff, who in turn had been an adolescent substitute for his father. Hal's adolescent attachment to Falstaff, then, is both a reflection of his father's destructiveness and greed and a clear _expression of his own. 


1. An earlier version appears as "How Shakespeare's Prince Hal's Play Anticipates His Invasion of France" in The Psychoanalytic Review 88 (#4): 495-510 (2001).(Back to Main Text)

2. Hal was about 16 at the time represented in 1 and 2 Henry IV. All references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, Ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.(Back to Main Text)

3. For similar explorations, see Goldings on "jump-rope," DeSantis on nursery rhymes; Miller and Spritz on the motion picture Star Wars.(Back to Main Text)

4. Sanville also comments on the parallels between the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis and play: "If we take seriously the conclusions of the infant researchers to the effect that there are powerful self-righting tendencies in the human being and if we see play as perhaps the most suitable modus operandi for actualizing that tendency, then we work to enable a person to convert what seems all too real into partial make-believe. The patient becomes the actor, so to speak, playing-out with the therapist the drama of his own life and simultaneously re-writing the script." (p.85)

Other self-righting tendencies include: dreaming, phantasy, talking to another, reading, attending performances, and sports. In addition, the flashbacks and nightmares of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome serve a similar function (see Freud, 1920 and Zetzel).(Back to Main Text)

5. Wilbern's essay offers a similar reading of the tavern as a playground for Hal. He suggests that an Oedipal reading of the scene is "privileged" but also offers a pre-oedipal interpretation of Hal-Falstaff relationship.(Back to Main Text)

6. See Norwich for an exploration of these sources.(Back to Main Text)

7. The insignificant role of "queen" in their burlesque reflects the lesser roles for women in many of Shakespeare's history plays. See Kahn for a discussion of negative or minor roles assigned to women in the Histories. See also Traub for a discussion of Falstaff as the pregnant mother, a disguised return of repressed and suppressed femininity. Hal's real mother, Mary de Bohun, died in childbirth when he was seven, and nothing is known of their relationship. She is represented only twice in the texts: here in the burlesque and in another glancing reference to her in heaven.(Back to Main Text)

8. Arlow's observation in another context could be commentary on the scene: "Phantasy play quickly becomes a primitive form of theater, complete with the rudiments of plot and a stage, very often enhanced by costumes and props. It seems most logical, therefore, that literature created to be staged should be called 'plays'" (p. 33).(Back to Main Text)

9. See Kris's pioneering study for a precedent for this interpretation. Traub's careful analysis of Falstaff's relationship with Hal compellingly argues for a pre-Oediapl interpretation.(Back to Main Text)

10. Traub's essay on Falstaff as mother is relevant here.(Back to Main Text)

11. Paris makes a similar point here: "[Hal] is externalizing self-condemnation, rejecting his escapism, and reinforcing his commitment to reality, maturity, and repression" (p. 89).(Back to Main Text)

12. His actions might be called "adolescent acting-out," but then all play acts out inner phantasy.(Back to Main Text)

13. Hal's actions at his father's bedside represent how the adolescent's play often crosses the border between neutral play areas and reality. (Back to Main Text)


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Marvin Krims "Prince Hal's Aggression". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 1, 2002, Published: December 1, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Marvin Krims