Some time ago I took a college course that centered around eight of Shakespeare's plays (Henry IV Part 1, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest). One of the requirements of this course was a series of assignments that consisted of "explications" (i.e. essentially written opinions) in response to various questions, quotes and/or concepts raised throughout these works (as well as the various language forms -- prose, verse, etc. -- employed in the various plays or portions thereof). Obviously, if you haven't read the plays themselves, I'd advise you to head to your local library to see what you've been missing! And, once you've done that, by all means come back and check out this page to see if your thoughts about them agree with mine as expressed herein. And, if they don't, by all means feel free to express your own on the artistinsane.com Discussion Board.
In the meantime, for those of you who've already read at least the first half of the plays listed, here are two of the assignments...
(Incidentally, it should be noted that where the course guide is referenced, this is a book entitled, Shakespeare: Power and Justice by Michael Best.)
(Assignment as stated: #1. Choose that passage from "Henry IV, Part One", that affected you the most and write an explication.
#2. Explain as completely as possible (but not more than three typed pages) those qualities and attributes which separated Hotspur from Falstaff.)
Though perhaps less obviously significant than many other passages found throughout this play, when considered in the context of the work as a whole, the events depicted in II.iv.486-526 are worthy of consideration for the insight they offer into the seemingly dual nature of the character of Prince Hal, and the glimpse this brief scene provides us of the style of leadership he will adopt when he eventually succeeds to the English throne as the heroic and beloved King Henry V.
Having informed us in the preceding passage (under the guise of speaking in his father's words) that he is undeceived regarding the truly deplorable character of Jack Falstaff, and hinting in that passage as well at the separation that will one day occur between Falstaff and himself, Prince Hal now displays for us his ability to take control of a situation, and to win the respect of both authority figures and commoners alike. When made aware of the sheriff's presence, he first continues briefly his assault on Falstaff's character (now in his own words), then quickly shows a willingness to honor their friendship by protecting Falstaff from the sheriff's intended punishment. Interestingly, as the footnotes to the text point out, he does this by telling the truth, from a technical standpoint, while obviously telling an untruth in the broader, more accurate sense. Again, this behavior foreshadows that he will display as king by reminding us of the carefully constructed speeches of leaders who must use diplomacy in addressing the varied body of individuals they represent.
Furthermore, the language used in this passage reinforces the image of the future King Henry V's ability to relate to all classes of people by his use of informal prose (with which he normally speaks to his tavern acquaintances) when instructing Falstaff to hide behind the arras, before changing instantly to the formal verse befitting his position of nobility when he addresses the sheriff. It is also interesting to note Prince Hal's level of confidence, whether afforded him by his status or merely his youth, which enables him to maintain an attitude of sufficient tranquility (in this potentially less than tranquil situation) to allow him to correct the sheriff (regarding the time) when he politely bids Prince Hal "good night".
While the above are only surface observations regarding the scene as actually depicted, on a deeper level, several implications can also be gathered from this passage regarding possible motivations for Prince Hal's behavior throughout it. With the knowledge of hindsight provided by the plays that follow I Henry IV, which tell us that Prince Hal does, indeed, "banish Jack Falstaff", and thereby "banish all the world" (in the Morality plays' sense of the word, assumedly), it seems valid to question his reasons for not parting with Falstaff in this scene instead of at a later point down the road.
Surely, one reason is quite simply that Prince Hal, the high spirited young man, does enjoy Falstaff's company, specifically, and the lighthearted atmosphere of the Eastcheap tavern, in general. At the same time, it is clear that Prince Hal, the future ruler, is aware of the dangers such self-oriented characters as Falstaff (and Hotspur) present to a country's sovereign, whose successful rule depends largely on the loyalty and selfless devotion of his subjects. Although it is this awareness that one day leads to his rejection of Falstaff, Prince Hal knows as well that just as Hotspur presented no threat to King Henry IV when he was still merely Henry of Bolingbroke (and rebel to Richard II), likewise Falstaff presents no politicial threat to Prince Hal so long as he remains merely the fun-loving "heir apparent" to Henry's throne. Thus, in light of the realistic attitude he holds regarding the character of his reckless companions, it seems pointless to give them up while it remains quite safe for him to enjoy the pleasures they and his youthful enthusiasm can afford him.
Lest this conclusion seem to imply that the characters of Hotspur and Falstaff are remarkably similar under their vastly differing exteriors (both personality and physique), one need only look briefly at the overall pictures presented throughout this play to see that this is by no means the case. Indeed, as described above, they do both represent self-motivated rebel forces (against established leadership and accepted behavior, respectively), and it is this common trait that ultimately leads to each's downfall. However, their widely divergent personal philosophies, which motivate their actions, illustrate beyond question that these are two very different individuals.
Hotspur's primary character trait seems almost irrefutably to be ambition, coupled with an unfortunate degree of impatience (the latter of which assures that the first will never be fully satisfied). Despite his reputation for a great concern with honor, it is obvious that he is merely, in fact, obsessively attentive to his quest for furtherance of his own political aims. The verbal ill treatment he lavishes on his wife plainly tells us how little he values a happy home life, and how little he cares for others, even those who care for him.
As for his enormous impatience, this is illustrated both by his behavior while reading the letter received just prior to his encounter with his wife (the only occasion, incidentally, where his agitation causes him to slip from his normal manner of speaking in verse into prose), and in the ill judgment he displays by proceeding with his battle plans despite the sad depletion in the number of his expected forces prior to the conflict's initiation.
While not forgetting these negative qualities, it must be said in his behalf, however, that he is, beyond question, a man of courage, a fact displayed by his willingness to face likely death in this final battle, and of course in the many, many battles he has fought in the past (through which he has gained the great admiration of the king). It is the knowledge of these prior battles, incidentally, that proves this courage as it could otherwise be argued that his "bravery" at Shrewsbury is merely an example of reckless ambition overshadowing reason; while this is indeed a factor in this situation, it is not in itself a summation of all the facts surrounding it.
In contrast to this particular trait, one cannot help but notice the myriad examples of Falstaff's cowardice, not to mention his obvious lack of ambition (both of which combine to make him the less threatening of the two characters, at least in the present). Furthermore, while Hotspur tends to disguise his negative qualities in part under the supposed injustices of the king, Falstaff seldom troubles to deny his own true nature and the unsavory activities it prompts him to engage in (excluding, of course, his exaggerated tales of bravery; however, since these serve to provide only harmless laughter as opposed to convincing deception, they hardly qualify as an adequate masquerade). Instead, he frequently justifies his own philosophy and actions ("Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal") and scoffs at those of Hotspur (V.i.125-141).
Perhaps, there is something to be said for Falstaff's argument, considering the fact that he, and not Hotspur, survives through the end of the play. However, as stated earlier, his character, though affable and amusing, is nonetheless deplorable. And, since as also stated earlier, it one day leads to permanent separation from his dear friend, Prince Hal, one must ask how great a victory he wins by surviving the battle of Shrewsbury.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that though both chraacters display a great variety of negative characteristics, it is only Falstaff who wins the open disapproval of Prince Hal's father, even though it is Hotspur, whom the king admires, that represents for the king (and thus for Prince Hal, in the immediate sense) the far greater threat. And, it is even more interesting that it is Prince Hal (who is chided by his father for his ill advised behavior) who possesses the superior powers of discernment, despite his youth, that allow him to be deceived by neither Hotspur nor Falstaff, and to deal with each in the manner that proves most prudent.
In summation, it can be said that both the encounter with the sheriff in the tavern and his relations with Falstaff and Hotspur provide us with examples of the vision Shakespeare has given us throughout this play of Prince Hal's ability to distinguish clearly between, and deal successfully with, the diverse peoples he will one day rule, thereby most vividly illustrating several of the positive characteristics that prove his worthiness to eventually accede to his father's throne. In so doing, Shakespeare has provided us as well with a wealth of information regarding the diversities between - and within - the human race, giving us both food for thought and entertainment for all time.