top of page

King of Cups - Hal

Dramatis Personae: King Henry V, née Henry of Monmouth, a.k.a. Prince Hal.

Text & Context: As the male suits of The Tarot tend to decline as they progress, the feminine suits tend to flourish. As the male representative of the female suit Cups, King Hal's role is intrinsically disparate. A white Machiavellian of systematic pretense, Hal is a character all context and no substance; the political embodiment of ars est celare artem - art lies in concealing art. No wonder Hal's adopted father, Falstaff, is so fat - he must contain Hal's heart, his own, and the heart of all the King's subjects; be the commonwealth embodiment of the emotions Hal will not feel. 

 Under pettier or less salubrious conditions, Hal could be another Iago. The introspection of Richard II & III caused their identities to proliferate; Hal on the other hand, mantled with his father's dubious claim to Kingship, dare not ask: "Who am I?". Instead, he acts the most assiduous agent to a happy accident. The common touch he distillates from the Boar's Head's boon companions becomes mask to his costume of Ideal Monarch. With Falstaff playing Hal, he finds himself pleading for the Prince's love and, at the very moment he realizes he will never have it, Shakespeare draws special attention to Hal as all actor, from the inside out. "Banish plump Jack and banish all the world" says Jack as Hal, pleading his own case; "I do, I will." replies Hal as his father King Henry IV, revealing in cold actuality himself. The very one who will kill Jack Falstaff by breaking his heart.

 Henry V is a sensational work of patriotic propaganda. So successful that, to this day, many Englishmen can recite Hal's St. Crispin Day speech by heart. It's almost as if the play had been written by the borderline sociopath Henry V himself. And yet, as Hal's heart beat vicariously in the chest of the lovable old knight John Falstaff, so too are audiences themselves hosts for the feelings Henry V excites. For centuries Henry V has been edited, rearranged, and mangled such that only those feelings specifically desired to be aroused by Henry are shown to an audience. This is on average between 40-60% of those actions and details which Shakespeare explicitly included, despite the history books' imprecision, showing Henry in a highly unsympathetic light. As with the unchecked emotions boiling up beneath the Authorship debate, the sentimentalists and orthodox believers will intentionally attempt to tire you by obtaining formal sanction from a clergy whose impartial judgment has been jeopardized, engage in warfare based on minor personal slights such as a gift of tennis balls, ask a common man his honest opinion and then excoriate him when his opinions run counter to theirs, and both threaten you with unbridled massacre and carry it out in the unprecedented violation of the Chivalric Code. In short, like Shakespeare himself, Henry V has become something the bard never intended - Shakespeare be damned. 

 At the Boar's Head role-playing scene, Sir Jack perhaps gets the last word, albeit bifurcated. "Dost thou hear, Hal?" cries Falstaff, "Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit. Thou art essentially mad, without seeming so." Very like Hamlet, then. And Junius Brutus, who near the end of The Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare has throwing off "the shallow habit...wherein deep policy did him disgrace." But the First and Second Folios and a string of Quarto editions give "made" rather than "mad", turning Sir Jack's observation of duplicity into the mask that is Hal's face - his inalienable role of untouchable elite, both seamy and glistering, which cannot be taken away but, in final estimation, can only take away.

Subtext: The three Hal plays, 1 & 2 Henry IV and Henry V, are reworkings of the early Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. The "general of our gracious Empress...from Ireland coming, bringing rebellion broached on his sword" quote by the Chorus in the fifth act of Henry V, dates from late 1583. It refers to Sir Thomas Butler returning from his time in Ireland, having quashed the Desmond Rebellion by beheading the last of the Desmoind brothers, Gerald Fitzgerald. Thomas Butler, a long time friend of the Earl of Oxford, brought the head to London at Queen Elizabeth's behest where she had it placed on a pole on London Bridge. The Hal plays appear to have been played at Whitehall, in the theater known as the Royal Cockpit, by the newly formed Queen's Men, circa. 1584; Oxford's Men and his Children of the Chapel also performed there at this time.

 In The Famous Victories, the 11th Earl of Oxford is a main character, elevated to the position of Henry IV's principle counselor. With so many correspondences between the Hal plays and The Famous Victories, it is odd that Shakespeare completely removed this one. Perhaps it was originally the work of one of his secretaries, Lyly or Munday, or perhaps he subsequently found such blatant promotion of the house of Oxford ignoble. Or maybe he put more of himself into the character of Hal. One such clear example being the Gad's Hill robbery - some men in de Vere's hire, and possibly de Vere himself, waylaid and robbed a coach belonging to his "father" by way of wardship, Lord Burghley. It happened on May 20th, 1573, the same date The Famous Victories specifies. 


 De Vere lived directly across from the Boar's Head playhouse in Aldgate, and when the Privy Council ordered that playing troupes should each use one particular venue in 1602, Oxford petitioned the Queen and the Privy Council granted that Oxford's Men should play solely at the Boar's Head "the place they have especially used and do best like of". Not surprisingly, Oxford was also known to frequent the Boar's Head for its "Rhenish wine & sugar" in Thomas Nashe's words, where "one cup of nippitate pulls on another". Here, in his Strange News of 1593, Nashe calls Oxford "Gentle Master William", and "the most copious carminist" - most copious suggesting Oxford had written much if not literally "the most", and carminist an obscure word used by Ovid to explain his exile: carmen et error, "poem and mistake". With Nashe's own drunken allusions to Oxford as a Chaucer, a Terence, a cony-catcher, a jester, and a partaker of the quaffing-bowl, there is suggestion the hard drinking and tale-telling aspects of Falstaff may also reflect Oxford, who carried the staff as Lord Great Chamberlain.

 In Falstaff may also be reflected the queen's father, Henry VIII. This makes Elizabeth's renown delight in him, and her reputed interest in seeing him in love, more personal. As a descendant of Henry V, the Hal plays are flattering to Elizabeth Tudor, evoking deep patriotism in the years of the Spanish threat and aligning ER with her nation's hero king, Henry V. Along with this, and the personal message that a wanton reprobate can make good, Henry V is a love letter to the Queen.

Intertext: The Emperor IV Falstaff

bottom of page