Familial and Cultural Expectations in Renaissance Life and Henry IV

Veronica O’Neil 2011

The word Renaissance elicits images of well-rounded, intelligent men taking charge of their society, of the arts expanding over borders unchartered, and of a renewed appreciation for learning.  However, family life of the Renaissance is not an area of profound interest or of a great deal scholastic attention.  William Shakespeare examines family dynamics and the variety of family structures in interpersonal relationships through the medium of his plays.  One such play is Henry IV part 1, where King Henry IV has no queen, leading the readers to explore a single father trying to balance raising what seems to be an unmanageable son, as well as maintaining his authority within his kingdom.  Henry IV reflects the relationship between parent and child through the expectation from father to son and son to father, in part due to Renaissance cultural ideals.

England during the Renaissance was a time of rebirth and appreciation for all things in the realm of art and of intellectual freedom.  Continuing on under the radar was family life, riddled with parental expectations of their sons and daughters.  As with any parent relationship with their child, the parent maintained a level of ambivalence.  “Children brought joy and company certainly but also irritation and anxiety” to their parents at this time(Pollock 98).Though children were considered to be enjoyable creatures, there was the expectation that they were to absolutely obey their fathers without question.  If children were not obedient, they “were subject to strict discipline and that obedience was often enforced with brutality”(Pollock 14).  Society expected a parent to punish a child, if they were disobedient and did something against their parents’ will.  Because there was the societal expectation that a child would marry, a parent was to deem who could possibly be a good match for their child(Singh 42).  England was a patriarchal society during the Renaissance, which resulted in the “analogy between the head of the family and the head of the state”(6).  This implies that if a citizen of England is punished for a misdeed, so too should a wrongdoing child of a father in order to fulfill his role in the patriarchal paradigm.  Fathers at this time, much like the king, expected their child to take their punishment and learn from it, so that they would not disobey again(33).

In Henry IV part 1, this patriarchal society is maintained since not only does King Henry rule over his son, Prince Henry or Hal, but he also rules over his country.  However, it is clear that while Henry does reprimand Hal initially, in his mind his son would be Hotspur.  Henry does not have any set expectations of Hotspur, but rather measures Hal against Hotspur as a counterpart.  King Henry goes as far as to say to Westmoreland in Act I, scene i, that “in envy my lord Northumberland/Should be the father to so blest a son--/A son who is the theme of honor’s tongue,” illustrating his wish to have fathered a son like Hotspur(I.i. 78-79).  Ultimately, his only concern about Hotspur is his pride and his undesirable disposition, which he believes results from Northumberland’s upbringing.  Henry “admires Hotspur all the more for standing up to him” in Act I, scene iii(Bevington 372).

In the grand scheme of things, Henry is an authoritarian parent, as most Renaissance parents were implied to have been.  As an authoritarian, there are many rules to abide by, but little in reward or affection for following the rules and great consequences for breaking them.  It is precisely this strong expectation to only follow the rules that pushes Hal away from his father.  Because Hal is a rebellious prince, Henry can only “see riot and dishonor stain the brow/Of [his] young Harry”(I.i. 85-86).  Henry lectures Hal on his bad behavior and tells him openly that “the hope and expectation of thy time/Is ruined, and the soul of every man/Prophetically do forethink thy fall,” showing how Henry believes his son incapable of doing well for himself(III.ii. 36-38).   In the case of Northumberland and Hotspur, Northumberland merely watches out for his quick-tempered son, as if expecting him to do something.  Hotspur endures King Henry’s scolding for not returning his captured prisoners, to which Hotspur responds behind Henry’s back that he would not send them just to spite him.  “What, drunk with choler? Stay and pause a while” says Northumberland in regard to Hotspur’s heated, stubborn refusal to obey his king(I.iii. 129).  There is a clear understanding that Northumberland has of his son, his expectations of him and his confidence that Hotspur will eventually concede, unlike King Henry and Hal.  While Henry does not understand Hal, Falstaff acts as a parental figure that could be perceived as a nurturing substitute(Bevington 371).  During Act II, scene iv, he “imagines himself in the role of surrogate father to the next king”(Becker 48).  Falstaff encourages Hal’s bad behavior, egging him into acting for himself by stating “there is neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee, nor thou cam’st not of the blood royal, if thou darest not stand for ten shillings”(I.ii. 136-138), showing that he expects him simply react because of the idea he has constructed of Hal.  Though the way Falstaff shows his expectations of Hal is much different from Henry, he acts in a much more benevolent and affectionate manner toward and with him.

Children in the Renaissance are aware of their role to appease their parents through quiet obedience.  Under patriarchy, children did not have a choice whether to obey their fathers or not, because his expectation was the only one which mattered.  “The assertion of individuality by children tended not to cement but disrupt family solidarity” simply meaning that a disobedient child caused family discord, which would have gone against society’s teachings(Singh 60).  Though perhaps underappreciated, family was crucial at this time.  It is clear that not all fathers were tyrannical, that they could still maintain understanding, affection and benevolence for their children(40).  Society asserts that patriarchy is the most important ideal in a household and that children should only expect their parents to want what is perceived as best for them, in life and in marriage.  If a child was not obedient, there was not only a possibility of parental punishment, but furthermore, punishment through the state since society expects a certain level of behavior out of an English Renaissance child as well(38).  The child expectation of a parent or father figure is that they continue to want the best for them, even if they have high expectations.

This child expectation of parental figure is present in Hal; he knows that his father has expectations and that there is a part of him that desires to fulfill these expectations.  Even though Hal can feel the pressures of society weighing on him to be the ideal prince, he rebels against his father.  Because “Hal’s rebellious ways are feared and despised,” he feels disconnected from King Henry(Bevington 372).  The opposite is true as well, since “[Hal’s rebellious ways] seem to reject the values of duty and leadership on which King Henry bases his self-respect,” leading to a conflict of interests(372).   Hal knows very well that Henry wished his son could be Hotspur.   While being scolded for his bad behavior, Hal states “Percy is but my factor, good my lord,/To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” illustrating that he believes he has the capability to outperform Hotspur and become an obedient son(III.ii. 147-148).  It is clear that Hal must “fulfill what is expected of him as his father’s son in a world of political and military conflict” in order to appease his father, rise to his expectations, and make Hal a child that was worth King Henry’s time and effort.  When Hal defends his father in the battle against Douglas, he is outraged that anyone would ever tell his father he would desire his death, since this would not be acting as an obedient child.   It is this scene that fully cements his relationship with his father, showing him that Hal is willing to fulfill his societal requirement to be the son they expect.  However, Hal wants a father figure with who he can be foolish with, who believes in him.

Conversely, Hotspur already has an idea of his father and the king.  Hotspur does not seem to fulfill any expectations that he is put up against and merely continues to respond rebelliously to prove his manliness.  Though King Henry views him as what could have possibly been his son, Hotspur believes that Henry’s seat on the throne is one that was determined by him, his father and his uncle.  He regards his father as a kind figure and this constructs his expectation, that his father will always be a man of morality.  “My father, in kind heart and pity moved,/Swore him assistance, and performed it too,” says Hotspur regarding King Henry, showing that Henry fell short of his expectations, leading to his doubt of him as a leader and father of his country(IV.iii. 66-67).

The attitudes of family directly affect the expectations of Renaissance families.  Because of the patriarchal society, fathers were expected to carry out punishments and teach their children how to function under the king as members of society.  Children were expected to obey their father, to learn from their punishments, and to become what their fathers wanted of them.  In Henry IV part 1, Hal was perceived as a disobedient child by his father, but became the leader and prince figure that was expected of him in the end.  Because Hotspur was a rebellious man who viewed himself as brave and manly, there were no set expectations for him to follow, resulting in his death.  He had nothing to aspire to be, since he was the foil to which King Henry put Hal.  After fulfilling his purpose as the expectation to which Hal should aspire to be, he was destroyed.  Hal expected his father to believe in him, which did not come until the close of the play.  It is clear that Shakespeare has the opportunity to explore family dynamics and expectations, particularly in Henry IV part 1.

Works Consulted

Becker, George J. Shakespeare’s Histories. New York: Frederick Ungar
Publishing Co., 1977.

Bevington, David ed. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. The Necessary
Shakespeare. 2nd edition. New York: Pearson, 2005. 370-373.

Classen, Albrecht, ed. Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: The
Results of a Paradigm Shift in the History of Mentality. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005.

Eisenbichler, Konrad, ed. The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society 1150-1650.
Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2002.

Pollock, Linda A. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV Part 1. The Necessary Shakespeare.  2nd edition. New
York: Pearson, 2005. 374-411.

Singh, Sarup. Family Relationships in Shakespeare and the Restoration Comedy of
Manners. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.