Prince Hal, Hamlet, and Antony: parallels and contrasts

I can’t help thinking of Hamlet as a sort of neurotic cousin of Prince Hal’s. I had suggested this tentatively when I wrote about Hamlet as part of my trawl through the Shakespeare plays, but I think I am less tentative about it now. Of course there are very salient differences between Hamlet and the Prince Hal we see in the Henry IV plays: Shakespeare wasn’t interested in merely repeating himself, after all. But the parallels are so very striking that it is hard to avoid the impression that Shakespeare was exploring similar themes from a somewhat different perspective. And if so, comparing and contrasting the two characters seems a fruitful exercise.

Both princes are extraordinarily quick and intelligent. Hamlet could easily have held his own with Hal and Falstaff in terms of quickness of wit and of verbal dexterity; and while no-one in Hamlet’s play can quite keep up with him, one doubts whether Falstaff or Hal would have had such problems. These three seem to me quite indisputably the three most intelligent characters Shakespeare ever created.

More crucially, both Hal and Hamlet live under the shadow of an immense obligation of duty. Both their fathers expect filial love to be shown in the form of adherence to duty: Hal’s father, King Henry IV, laments his son’s apparent dereliction of that great weight of duty, while the ghost of Hamlet’s father commands his son to duty with the words “if ever thou didst thou dear father love”. (And this is the only point during the meeting with his father’s ghost that Hamlet appears to break down: “Oh God!”) Hal, of course, accepts his responsibilities, as he knew from the start he had to; he is reconciled to his father before his father’s death, and, in accepting his father’s values, he breaks off connection with his surrogate father, Falstaff. But in doing so, he has also to amputate away a big part of himself. What he becomes after this amputation we may see in Henry V: here, we see the great leader of men, but, inevitably, there is something missing; and that something is that part of himself he had discarded. King Henry V cannot, though he tries, forge the bonds with the common people that his former self, Prince Hal, had done with such ease. The assumption of responsibility requires a sacrifice of a big part of one’s own self.

Shortly after writing Henry V, Shakespeare went on to write about Hamlet, another intelligent prince, also under the weight of a call to duty; but this prince had not been reconciled to his father before his father’s death, and is now crushed under the weight of the responsibility that is placed upon his shoulders. Unlike Hal, he cannot steel himself to amputate away that part of himself that prevents his assuming his filial duty.

I can’t help wondering also to what extent Hamlet actually grieves for his father. He knows he should. He castigates his mother, and indeed develops a sort of hatred for her, for her refusal to grieve for her husband. And yet, while he opens to the audience some of the deepest recesses of the mind, at no point do I remember him exhibiting any real grief for his father’s death. And when he meets his father’s ghost, there is conspicuously no expression of love or even of affection on either side.

If it is indeed the case that Hamlet cannot grieve, then the awareness of this is intolerable – as intolerable, perhaps, as is the burden of duty now placed upon him. For Hamlet knows that lack of grief for the dead robs life itself of any pattern that could render it significance. Customary suits of solemn black, windy suspiration of forced breath, the fruitful river in the eye, the dejected ‘havior of the visage, together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief – these, indeed seem. Hamlet goes on to say that he has that within himself that which “passeth show”; but whether that which passes show is indeed grief, which he never expresses, or, possibly, an inability to grieve, he does not specify.

It is hard to imagine a character so self-aware as Hamlet not to be aware of this, although it may be too painful for him to acknowledge openly. Is this, I wonder, why Hamlet keeps castigating himself so mercilessly throughout the play?

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?

Of course, it will be objected that I am building an edifice on what is no more than a conjecture. Perhaps. But without this conjecture, there is too much about Hamlet that I cannot make sense of. Why, despite a facility with language that enables him to express the subtlest and most elusive of thoughts and feelings, does he never express grief for his father? Why does he express no love or affection when he meets with is father’s ghost? Why does he castigate himself so mercilessly throughout? Why does he admire Fortinbras even while recognising him as being but a warmonger?

Hamlet’s path of development is complex, and there can be no single way of interpreting it. But most readers and audiences tend to agree that while he does carry out his duty at the end, the Hamlet at the end is not the same Hamlet we had seen at the start, and that, as with King Henry V compared to his former self, there is something that is missing. Possibly the two princes had made similar journeys, albeit via different routes.

Another character who makes a similar journey is, I think, Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. At the start of the play, he is roundly dismissed, as is Prince Hal, merely as a riotous drunkard – as a person of no real consequence. But, when duty calls, he, like Prince Hal, answers it; and the duty that calls him is the same duty that calls Prince Hamlet – that of avenging a murdered father. (Caesar had been for Antony a father figure.) And this riotous drunkard, this playboy, transforms himself into a ruthless politician and soldier. Shakespeare does not, in this play, consider what Antony had to sacrifice of himself in order to achieve this transformation. But perhaps he returns to this in Antony and Cleopatra. Commentators tell us not to think of this play as a sequel to the earlier Julius Caesar, and that is probably sensible advice, but I wonder if the two plays are entirely unconnected. For here, in the later play, we see Antony no longer young: he is well past his prime, and now facing old age. Having made his decision to choose duty over his personal inclinations, he has lived a life of service to his country, as a politician, as a soldier, and as a ruler. He is renowned and respected for all this. But that part of him which he had been forced to sacrifice has not entirely gone away. And now, in his sunset years, it returns and makes its claim. All that Antony had lived his life for, all that he had sacrificed for, now come to mean nothing: kingdoms are clay. All he wants now is to befuddle that once sharp mind of his with alcohol, and fall into Cleopatra’s arms. And even from this Shakespeare creates the sublime.

10 responses to this post.

  1. I think what we can take from all this is that Shakespeare’s father wasn’t too happy with his son becoming a playwright.


  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    I love the three characters in question.

    Perceptive analysis of all three.

    When it comes to Hal in Henry V I often think of the propagandist and manipulator of emotions of the masses as opposed to good leader. Of course Shakespeare is so very complex I think that both elements are present and are perhaps somewhat dependent upon one another. In getting to this point I think that that the “amputation” that you mention was instrumental.


    • Not so much the structured thinking that constitutes “analysis” – more a few random reflections!

      I have never really warmed to the play “Henry V”. I can never quite figure out the extentto which it is a flag-waving pageant, and to what extent its own patriotic premise is undermined. There are so many dicords that the overall tonality seems to me weakened – possibly even destroyed; and as a consequence, the whole seems to me neither one thing nor the other. I love the “Henry IV” plays, but i must admit I’ve never warmed to this one.

      As you rightly say, Henry V is both manipulative, and also a great leader. And I can’t quite accommodate the two together in my mind. I suppose this is what it takes to be an effective leader of men, but it seems such a let-down after teh Prince Hal we had seen in the earlier plays!


  3. Dad was wrong, though. There was good money in the theater, at least if you were William Shakespeare.


    • This post was a mistake, wasn’t it? 🙂


    • No way. Good stuff. I especially like Antony as a version of Henry V gone dissolute, reverting to his Falstaffian ways. Very plausible.

      I will bet you could incorporate Coriolanus, too. What if Hamlet or Antony were, what is a polite way to say this, kinda dumb?

      Have you ever looked at Harold Goddard’s two-volume The Meaning of Shakespeare, one of those play-by-play books? He goes all in for an anti-war interpretation of Henry V (his study actually ends with a call for the abolition of nuclear weapons). Goddard is almost convincing, but I think he glosses over some of the discords you mention. Anyway, that version is there for the director who wants it, just as the Olivier version is also in the text.

      Hey, I thought of another “have you read.” Have you read Maurice Morgann’s Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff, in which Morgann proves, by the closest of close reading, that Falstaff is not a coward? Brilliant; landmark criticism; crackpot. It is the granddaddy of the character-based critical exercise you are doing here.


      • Sorry for the late reply – I haven’t been around much lately.

        I haven’t read any of the works you mention, I’m sorry to say (I’ll certainly search them out), but I’d certainly agree that Falstaff was no coward. He was an intelligent man who refused to risk his own life for the sake of things he didn’t think worthwhile.

        With Shakespeare, I am naturally drawn to character-based studies, since i can think of no other writer (Tolstoy excepted) who was was so fascinated by the sheer variety of human types, and the by intricacies of the workings of the human mind. This seems to me a natural way to approach this writer. I mean – I even read Bradley from time to time! 🙂

        I’ve written about Coriolanus here and here, and find him a very odd character. I often wonder what attracted Shakespeare to such a character: the play marks a curious final chapter to the great series of tragedies – especially given that the series had started with the extremely intelligent and sensitive Hamlet.

  4. I very much enjoyed this, Himadri – I really like your point about the sacrifice/ amputation of part of the self. I thought you might find interesting something I heard Peter Brook say in an interview I watched recently. Brook highlighted the ghost’s words to Hamlet:

    ‘But howsomever thou pursuest this act/ Taint not thy mind…’

    Peter Brook pointed out that in this, the ghost is commanding Hamlet to do something impossible. To decide to kill another human being *is* to taint your mind – that to kill *is* to taint your mind. Peter Brook took these words as a vital key in his production of the play – that Hamlet has listened to the exact, contradictory command of his father – and, as a sensitive and thoughtful character, the whole question of the corruption of the self – the loss of something essentially and deeply yourself – forms the core of Hamlet’s dilemma.

    So much complexity surrounds all this, of course – but I thought it seemed pertinent to some of your points here…


    • Hello Melanie,
      I’d have loved to have seen Peter Brook’s “Hamlet”. Or any of his productions.

      “Corruption of the self” does certainly seem to be a running theme in the play, doesn’t it? Polonius tells Laertes “To thine own self be true”, but, being a rather shallow thinker (compared to Hamlet at least), he doesn’t even seem to realise that “one’s own self” is not something that is easily defined or understood. So it becomes hard, possibly impossible, to say which part of one’s self is corrupted, and which part of it is “true”. Indeed, is there really a “true” self that only becomes rotten once corruption sets in? What is one’s self, anyway? The play opens, after all, with the seemingly simple question “Who’s there?”

      As you say, there’s so much complexity surrounding all this!

      What I find increasingly fascinating is the way that certain themes seem to reappear in different guises in different plays. This should not surprise us: like any other author, there were themes that particularly interested Shakespeare, and it isn’t surprising that he should keep returning to them.


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