The throne is weak. The king is in disarray. England is on the brink of collapse. So, of course the only action left to take is to usurp the throne and make yourself king. That always solves the problems, right? Since being king was such a desirable occupation back in 14th century England there was always contention surrounding the crown so much so that Richard the Second signed the Treason Act of 1397 in which four kinds of treason were laid out and made illegal. The first involves the purposeful death of the king. The second is described as any act to dispose the king. The third form of treason was described as attacking the kings honor. Finally, the fourth act of treason was detailed raising the people up to wage war against the king (21 Ric.2 c.3). The Treason Act of 1397 worked very well for him clearly as all of these laws were broken in disposing of King Richard the Second two years later. The English monarchy declared their kings to have divine right to rule. With King Richard numerous acts against treason were enacted it was not only a crime against the state to commit treason it was also a crime against God. In The History of King Henry the Fourth, Part One by William Shakespeare he depicts theft and treason on many different levels from the lowly highwayman to the rebellion to the very court of King Henry the Fourth. The juxtaposition, though, between the lowly highwayman and those in position of power is that there is a clear contrast that is drawn especially between the characters of Sir John Falstaff, King Henry the Fourth, and Harry “Hotspur” Percy.
The Fat Knight, Sir John Falstaff, is a thief. He does claim, many times, that he will turn over a new leaf and repent for his sins of villainy and gluttony. This is the type of person who makes a new year’s resolution almost every day and, of course, never follows through with it. When his dear friend, Prince Hal, calls him out on his hypocrisy and history of ‘purse-taking’ the fat knight replies with the statement, “Why tis my vocation Hal, tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation” (1.2.75). This frank honesty from a small-time thief, or ‘purse taker’, is the kind of person Falstaff appears to reveal himself as. He doesn’t look for justification for his criminal acts. He doesn’t seek redemption or spiritual guidance for his criminal undertaking. He merely says that being a thief is his job. He at least claims to value honor and honesty within his vocation, “A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true to one another” (2.2.264). Granted in this scene Falstaff is fuming about Ned Poines, another friend of Prince Hal’s, hiding the fat knight’s horse. This language though implies, while he himself is a liar in almost every respect, does in fact value honor or at least plays on the honor of others to get what he wants. Falstaff knows no honor on the battlefield, dying for another man’s house, as he describes in a monologue in Act Five, Scene Two but does seem to at least call upon honor of the thieves when he is frustrated. Falstaff is a criminal of the state and, in his opinion, also in the eyes of God just as the rebellious Hotspur is as well.
King Richard the Second made it illegal to usurp the throne. King Richard the Second hade the divine right to rule as per English custom at the time. Nevertheless, he was usurped by the namesake of Shakespeare’s historical play, King Henry the Fourth. King Henry the Fourth is a criminal in the eyes of the state and God as per English custom and law. He has been putting down rebellion after rebellion and trying to keep England unified (with considering many outlandish ideas) while his disappointment of a son, Prince Hal, hangs out with and colludes with thieves at a dive bar. In Act One Scene One King Henry also wished that fairies had replaced his son with the valiant Percy and King Henry takes this comparison between Prince Hal and Harry Percy a huge step forward in Act Three. King Henry grills his son with both a history lesson and severe disapproval when equating his own criminal act with that of the current criminal rebellion, “As that art to the houre was Richard then, / and even as I was than, is Percy now” (3.2.689-690). King Henry is telling his son that he is acting like the former King Richard the Second (who was a terrible king in almost every respect) and that the rebellious Percy is acting like he was back when Henry took the crown from King Richard. Henry, who understands his right to rule is tainted though a criminal act, in this scene convinces his son to take up arms with him against the rebellion and end the cycle of violence surrounding the throne. Unlike Falstaff, who is unapologetic in his criminal act, King Henry feels guilt over how he came to the throne but is seeking redemption, through peace in England and his son, Prince Hal, whereas Falstaff completely avoids the idea of redemption for his crimes. This is all so wonderfully set against the actions and crimes of Harry “Hotspur” Percy who is actively seeking throughout the play to overthrow the reigning king.
Hotspur, his father, and their cohorts, do not believe they are criminals in the eyes of the state or God. They believe they are completely justified in their actions to overthrow the king as they attest King Henry has no claim to the throne. Hotspur puts this very eloquently and forcefully, “But shall it be that you that set the crown / upon the head of this forgetful man, / and for his sake wear the detested blot / of murderous subornation?” (1.3.189-192). Hotspur blatantly calls King Henry a murderer here for how he acquired the crown. It’s talk like this throughout the play which makes Hotspur believe his actions against the crown to be justified by the laws of the land. In Act Two Scene Three Hotspur reads a letter in which he rattles off all the support his proposed rebellion has (albeit he addresses this to a letter in his hand) and uses this to justify his preparing leaving for a battle against King Henry.
Falstaff, King Henry, and Harry “Hotspur” Percy are all criminals in one way or another. The laws against usurping the throne put into place by King Richard the Second were in part meant to protect King Richard himself. He was a pretty awful king after all. That aside, there three characters from one play are all criminals and thieves and they all handle this crisis extremely differently. Unenforceable laws from a dead king don’t stop people from committing crimes but these characters, having such a varied reaction to their position as a criminal, offer the audience an insight into the conscious of the characters that alone mean nothing but juxtaposed to one another unearths the question of morality and ethics within this play.
England. Treason Act of 1397. Chapter 3. Richard II. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and Glenn Schudel. The History of King Henry IV, Part 1. Print