Forensic Friday (016): 1 Henry IV, I.ii

Never mind the students – today’s the year’s climax for the TEACHERS!

By the time you read this I will be gone.  Long gone.  And I won’t be back for, ooh, six weeks.  School’s out for summer!

Well, we got no class
And we got no principals
We ain’t got no intelligence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes [a]

I can almost hear Falstaff singing this, not Alice Cooper

Don’t knock teacher holidays until you have tried the profession for a few years.  You’ll soon realise that half-term weeks are misnomers, and should be labelled ‘admin / sleep’ weeks, and large chunks of the longer holidays are eaten up by marking or planning.  We’re not actually that much better off than other professions when it comes to quality time pretending your job doesn’t exist.

And yet, despite my heading for the hills as if I was being pursued by Mark Antony’s dogs of war, here we are with another (hopefully) helpful Forensic Friday for my students.  You know why?

Because close reading is fun!  Not work at all!  Not least when you do it with a text you don’t teach.

There’s the challenge of the self-imposed rules, sure.  But close reading is as satisfying as working out yourself how a complex magic trick was done.  And today’s short extract is magic of a kind, I think.  Let me set the scene for those unfamiliar with the play …

Our first view of Prince Hal (later Henry V) is pretty much as his father has feared.  He’s a dissolute wastrel, gadding about in the company of some very dubious individuals.  A few minutes of pretty low-brow banter sees an adjournment of the fun until the following day.  Left alone on stage, Hal shrugs off the bonhomie as if it were a loose-fitting shirt.

Here’s the extract from his soliloquy that I chose.

FF 016 1HIV I ii.001

I’ve got into the habit of formatting these to help students: underlining subject terminologyemboldened the author’s name; and italicising quotations.  The question, as ever, is the same:

How does Shakespeare use language for dramatic effect in this extract?

– – –

In our first proper view of the character, Shakespeare uses Hal’s soliloquy to display a chilling, Machiavellian ruthlessness. 

The complex sentence’s length implies the topic’s importance, yet the Prince’s almost-clockwork employment of perfectly end-stopped blank verse is curiously devoid of emotion, creating a coolness to the delivery – perhaps betraying how long Hal’s strategy has been planned. 

The extract has a clear juxtaposition between Hal’s egotistical self-regard and his opinion of his current associates.  In the extended metaphor, Shakespeare conventionally associates the prince with the ‘sun‘, with its connotations of royalty, height, warmth, light, and the Great Chain of Being – the adjectivebeauty’ creates an added, perhaps narcissistic dimension.  Hal appears to be craving attention and affection, as suggested by ‘wanted’ and ‘wondered’.  A machiavellian element arises from Hal’s egotistical belief in his own agency: the verbspermit’, ‘please’, ‘breaking’, and ‘seem’ all imply his power to move on easily (supported by ‘herein’), and perhaps without remorse.

His description of his companions accentuates this remorseless attitude. In the privacy of the soliloquy, verb choices are again interesting: ‘smother’ and ‘strangle’ are restrictive, claustrophobic, dangerous, even.  This sense accumulates into a semantic field of disease, as we consider the adjectivescontagious’ and ‘foul’, and the contextually medical associations of ‘vapours’.

Contrasting this cool, contemptuous attitude with the convivial and affectionate exchanges earlier in the scene shocks us.  Any empathic response becomes sympathy for Hal’s companions; all that’s left for the prince is a grudging, distant, admiration of his ruthlessness. [250 words]


[a] Alice Cooper, School’s Out (1972)

[b] play text taken from

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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