The Overnight Hero

March 14, 2011

We just finished our Shakespeare unit in my reading program, and I am a little sadder than I expected to be. I am actually going to miss chugging through three plays a week—a pace that first seemed intimidating but eventually turned into a nice rhythm. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the histories; they were my favorites by far. We only read four (Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2 and Henry V), and I think one reason I loved them so much was that then endings weren’t ruined for me. I was already familiar with the basic plots of the tragedies and comedies we read (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest, etc.), so the histories were suspenseful in comparison. The only thing that bums me out a little is that I wasn’t able to appreciate Shakespeare’s writing even close to sufficiently. Our tutors would say things like, “This play was written much later in his career, and you can tell because his prose has improved so much”… well, let’s just say I couldn’t tell. But all hope is not lost, because I am still required to take a Shakespeare course in the English department; hopefully I can actually spend more than one afternoon with each play next time around.

But in the meantime, I would like to take this opportunity to gush about my new literary crush: Prince Hal (later King Henry V). I loved Prince Hal from the moment I was introduced to him. I fought for him in our very first session, when others were convinced he was a conniving fake. And when he finally inherited the throne two plays later, no one could argue my love was unjustified.

We followed the story of Prince Hal from Henry IV part 1, through Henry IV part 2, to Henry V (in which Hal, now King Henry, stars). In the opening scene of Henry IV, We learn that Hal spends much of his time at bars with lowly commoners, getting drunk and playing pranks. Hal’s father, King Henry IV, expresses how ashamed he is of his own son, and wishes Prince Hal could be replaced.

But when Hal makes an appearance in the next scene, he offers an intriguing explanation for his behavior:

“So when this loose behavior I throw off,

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”

Henry IV, Part 1 (I.ii.206-213

Hal claims that when the time is right, he’ll surprise everyone by instantly throwing off his old habits and reforming. Right. (Okay, I wasn’t exactly on Hal’s side since the very beginning, but it only took a few more pages for him to win me over).

The thing is, Hal pulls it off. Not right after he makes this soliloquy (he goes on to play another prank, get drunk with his friends, and mock his father), but after King Henry IV rebukes him a few acts later and he decides the time is right. He tells his father, “I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord, Be more myself” (III.ii. 92-93). And from that moment on, Hal is the best prince a king could ask for (at least, that is, in Henry IV part 1).

He rebukes his wayward friends and gives up his drunken pranks. He goes on to challenge Hotspur, England’s enemy, to a one-on-one combat so the armies to do not have to fight (Hotspur refuses). He saves his father’s life in combat. And in the end, he kills Hotspur and wins victory for England.

But really? It’s that easy? All it takes is a simple decision to change overnight from a rebellious drunk to a courageous warrior? Several of Shakespeare’s characters have the same question, but it doesn’t get addressed until 2 plays later, in Henry V. Here, the Bishop of Ely and the Archbishop of Canterbury openly discuss Prince Hal’s transformation:

“Never was such a sudden scholar made;

Never came reformation in a flood

With such a heady currance scouring faults;

Not never Hydra-headed wilfulness

So soon did lose his seat, and all at once,

As in this King.”

Henry V (I.i.33-37)

They conclude that Prince Hal must have been “obscure[ing] his contemplation under the veil of wildness” all along, just as he claimed in his soliloquy at the beginning of Henry IV part 1. There is simply no other explanation for such a dramatic shift in character:

“It must be so, for miracles are ceased;

And therefore we must needs admit the means

How things are perfected.”

-Henry V (I.i. 67-69)

So what are “the means how things are perfected”? Time, for one. Ely and Canterbury recognize that one cannot simply decide to be a great man in a day.

But don’t we sometimes tell ourselves that? Tim O’Brien talks about this strange phenomenon—that is, our telling ourselves that one day, when we decide we’re done being lazy and living for ourselves, we will be instantly transformed into great men and women—in his book The Things They Carried:

“If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in infinite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away, and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future.”

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

I remember one quiet morning at my Bible school in England, when our well-respected principle told us students rather loudly that we must stop praying for God to use us to fight injustice on remote islands if we cannot be trusted to do our daily chores. (That week, there had been a larger-than-usual number of us on the “Go See Greih The Housekeeper To Talk About Why You’re Not Doing Your Chore” list). Students had different reactions to our principle’s speech, but interestingly, the majority of those upset by it were American (over 30 different nationalities were represented at the school). I heard a lot of “take a chill pill”-esque comments, and wondered myself if our principle wasn’t being too hard on us. But after thinking awhile about it, I realized he identified a pretty common problem in our culture. Not just laziness or irresponsibility, but that coupled with the strange idea that even though we skimp on the everyday tasks, we are still on our way to making a difference in the world. That when it really counts, we will be able to get it right.

But then what about Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 16:10?

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”

What does this mean for me when hit the snooze button 17 times instead of studying for a test, when I tell a white lie to get out of something, when I talk behind my friend’s back, when I don’t do my homework? (Who I am kidding, I love homework! But you get the idea). It’s not that perfection is necessary (or possible), but rather that my choosing to go to class instead of watching 48 Hours Murder Mystery is important not just to my future “success,” but to who I am becoming as a person. And unless I’m an amateur Prince Hal—that is, really good at faking laziness—I know I’ve got some adjusting to do.

(I think maybe one of the combatants to our culture’s “no big deal” mindset might be a little idea called DISCIPLINE, but I’m still trying to figure that one out.)