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Henry IV, Part 1 | Symbols

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While some of Shakespeare's plays contain physical objects that function as symbols, most of the symbols in Henry IV, Part 1 are communicated through language. The action of the play then reveals these symbols' meaning and importance.

The Lion

Traditionally, the lion represents nobility in general and a king in particular. There are no real lions in this play, but the figure of the lion is used as a reference throughout. When discussing the proposed rebellion, Hotspur shows his eagerness for it by saying, "O, the blood more stirs / To rouse a lion than to start a hare!" By fighting the king, Hotspur suggests, they would be rousing a lion. Elsewhere, Falstaff refers to himself as a lion, claiming that he refused to attack Prince Hal just as a lion will not attack a prince, implying that the lion, as king of the jungle, will instinctively recognize a fellow king. Falstaff also says he fears Prince Hal as he fears a lion's whelp (cub).

The Sun

The sun is associated with light, and because it is in the heavens, it is also traditionally associated with God and kingship. To foreshadow his ultimate ascension to the throne, Prince Hal is compared to the sun numerous times throughout the play. Early in the play, he shares with the audience his plans to be like the sun—to hide his light (or character) now so that it is better appreciated when it is finally seen. Falstaff uses the sun metaphor when role-playing the king as a way of discussing how badly Prince Hal has been acting: "Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher [truant] and eat blackberries?" Falstaff also refers to himself and his thieving friends as followers of the moon, implying through contrast that Prince Hal is the sun. The rebels bring the symbol full circle. When Hotspur sneers at the idea of Prince Hal in battle, his fellow rebel Vernon corrects him, saying that Hal shines as brightly as the midsummer sun. This shows Prince Hal has returned to his rightful place.

The Moon

Unlike the sun, the moon is associated with night and darkness. It is linked with highwaymen, or thieves, who generally commit their crimes in the dark, both because it is easier to sneak up on their victims and because darkness helps hide their identities. Inconstancy is another important attribute of the moon; its appearance shifts from waxing to full to waning. Thus, it is a symbol of those whose changeable nature makes them untrustworthy.

Plants

While no literal plants play any major part in the work, plants are referred to symbolically throughout. Plant growth aligns with the theme of order, specifically natural order. One of the most vivid references to plants is at the start of Act 2, Scene 3, when Hotspur, reading a letter from a noble who rejects his invitation to join the rebellion, speaks of plucking the flower of safety from the nettle of danger. In addition, when Falstaff and his companions pretend to have been robbed by a large company, it is speargrass, not swords, that makes them bleed. When Falstaff is role-playing the king, he tells Prince Hal he can tell what the tree is like by the fruit, meaning that Hal shows his father's true nature.

Edged Weapons

References to edged weapons such as knives and swords recur throughout this play. In his opening speech explaining the state of the country, King Henry refers to the "edge of war" (civil war, specifically) as being "like an ill-sheathéd knife" (Act 1, Scene 1). After the disguised Prince Hal and Poins rob Falstaff, Falstaff hacks his own sword to make it appear that he was in a big fight, when in fact he ran away from his apparent attackers. After using his sword to kill Sir Walter Blunt (who was dressed as the king), Douglas swears by his weapon.

Wine

In the Christian tradition, wine represents the blood of Christ. In this play, wine plays almost as essential a role, though it is a much more profane one. Falstaff continually calls for "sack," a kind of strong, fortified wine. He is so associated with it that Poins calls him "Sir John Sack-and-Sugar" in Act 1, Scene 2. When Prince Hal asks Falstaff for his pistol late in the play, it turns out Falstaff is carrying a bottle of sack in his pistol holster. When Hal picks Falstaff's pockets, just about all he finds are tavern receipts, and except for the robbery and the march to war, the two characters always meet in a tavern. Just as the noble classes subsist on honor, the lower classes live on wine.

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