Book Chapter

'A Trim Reckoning': Accountability and Authority in 1 and 2 Henry IV



Vine A (2018) 'A Trim Reckoning': Accountability and Authority in 1 and 2 Henry IV. In: Halsey K & Vine A (eds.) Shakespeare and Authority: Citations, Conceptions, and Constructions. Palgrave Shakespeare Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 157-178.;

1 and 2 Henry IV are plays all about the construction, questioning and acceptance of authority—paternal authority, monarchical authority, divine authority. This chapter argues that central to their engagement with the idea of authority is a persistent rhetoric of financial reckoning and fiscal responsibility. From the bantering exchanges between Hal and Falstaff and the tavern scenes, in which debts slip from financial ones to spiritual ones and back again, and bar bills and accounts (correctly reckoned up and otherwise) are discovered and brought on stage, to Hal’s promise of vengeance on Hotspur in Act 3 Scene 2 of 1 Henry IV (‘I will call him to so strict account’) and the Lord Chief Justice’s order to Falstaff simultaneously to repent of his sins and repay his debts in 2 Henry IV, both plays are suffused with the language of business, payment, and accountability. Connecting this language with a broader discourse of reckoning, financial, but also metaphorical, that was emerging in early modern England, and was especially important to Protestant ideas of moral responsibility, this chapter reveals that authority in the two plays is ultimately constituted in being (or, at least, appearing to be) of good account: a notion that culminates and is crystallized in the playful discourse of credit and debit that runs through the epilogue to the second play. Furthermore, the chapter shows that just as Hal’s authority as a prince and ultimately as a king depends on him being able to call both himself and others to account, so Falstaff’s threat to authority is signalled by his repeated refusal to be called to account—in the Eastcheap tavern, in the eyes of the law, and even before God. For this reason, when in Act 3 Scene 2 of 2 Henry IV the newly mustered Feeble gamely asserts, ‘By my troth I care not, a man can die but once, we owe God a death’, and later that ‘he that dies this year is quit for the next’, he may be rehearsing familiar proverbs, but they are tags that in the world of the two plays are invested with considerable exemplary potential. In summary, the chapter shows that in 1 and 2 Henry IV Shakespeare invokes an emerging discourse of accountability, which is both spiritual and financial, metaphorical and actual, first to examine notions of personal and public responsibility, and then to explore what those notions mean for the constitution of political, and more particularly, monarchical authority.

Shakespeare; 1 H IV; 2 H IV; Bills; Accounts; Authority; Credit; Debit; Metaphor; Financial reckoning; Religion; Finance; Monarchical authority

Title of seriesPalgrave Shakespeare Studies
Publication date31/12/2018
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Publisher URL
Place of publicationLondon

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Dr Angus Vine
Dr Angus Vine

Associate Professor, English Studies