Shakespeare is infamous for creating adversity within his plays. His tragedies examine the extreme side of adversity and his comedies tackle the lighter side of adversity. These two extremes culminate in his historical plays, blending both the humorous and the severe effortlessly; Henry IV Part 1 is no exception. The humorous adversity encountered by Falstaff juxtaposes perfectly with a conflicting Prince Hal. The light,trivial matters at the Boar’s Head Tavern contradict the high tension atmosphere of a nation on the brink of civil war. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, some characters triumph in the face of adversity because they adapt to their surroundings, while others fail because of their lack thereof.
The characters in Henry IV Part 1 possess the amazing ability to adapt to their surroundings in order to overcome adversity. Despite the fact that the play is titled Henry IV, the protagonist of the play is the King’s son, Hal. Hal’s transformation throughout the play is one of the most interesting sub-plots to follow. As the story unfolds, Hal changes for the better in order to survive the challenges of the impending civil war. One of the rebels describes him on the battlefield, “His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly armed rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,” (Shakespeare 4.1 105-106). In the face of adversity, Hal adapted. In the great pressure cooker of the civil war, Hal emerges as a gleaming diamond. The first part of the quote “His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly armed,” punctuates this change. The use of word “gallantly” emphasizes that he has emerged as a new man and has risen to the challenges that now face him. Prior to this point in the play, Hal is viewed as a drunkard who prefers the company indigents. However, when he encounters adversity, he adapts and overcomes. Hal goes on to defeat the rebels and win the utmost respect of his peers. This conversion in the face of adversity is a key aspect of Hal’s development as a character. Contrary to Hal’s change in personality to defeat adversity, Falstaff finds himself hiding to escape adversity. Locked in battle with the feared Douglas, Falstaff’s reaction is to escape a strenuous battle, “Enter Douglas. He fighteth with Falstaff, who falls down as if he were dead,” (5.5). The stage directions call for Falstaff to feign his own death in order to avoid the battle with Douglas. The use of the word “as if” within the directions leads the reader to believe that Falstaff isn’t really dead. This adaptation, however cowardly it seems, proves to be effective in escaping adversity; and ultimately allows Falstaff to prevail in his own way in the face of adversity. The contrasting methods employed by Falstaff and Hal allow the two to prevail in the face of adversity albeit on different moral levels. Yet, clearly one method yields more benefits. The definition of emerging victorious over adversity is subjective on many levels. From the cowardly to courageous, prevailing in the face of adversity is personal and emotional; it is not an exact science. Shakespeare emphasizes that idea with the contrasting reactions to the challenges by Hal and Falstaff.
Finally, some of Shakespeare’s characters fail in the face of adversity because they fail to adapt to their surroundings. These characters are inflexible and hold fast to their long held beliefs. They are Shakespeare’s foils to their ever-changing counterparts. Hotspur, the leader of the rebels, is a fiery character bent on war, destruction, and glory. However, Hotspur, over the course of the play, never changes. Despite being outnumbered and without support Hotspur is determined to go to war, “My father and Glendower being both away...Come, let us take a muster speedily doomsday is near. Die all, die merrily,” (Shakespeare 4.1 132, 134-135). The beginning of the quote “My father and Glendower being both away,” paints a picture of a rebel force lacking ⅔ of their leadership; and by default the leadership role falls on the young, inexperienced Hotspur. It is obvious that there is now no chance for the rebel forces to win the battle. Yet despite this, Hotspur forges on. His fervor is captured in the second part of the quote, “Let us take a muster speedily.” The use of the word “speedily” captures his fervor. Hotspur, knowing he is outnumbered, continues on to fight the King’s forces. He sees the writing on the wall, yet chooses not to read it alter his plan. His fervor for the battle and inability to change course contribute to his demise. He is blinded by his own desire. Hotspur is rigid and fiery and in turn his assets become his weaknesses. Worcester, when offered a pardon by the King, declines because he thinks that it will save his life, “It cannot be the King should keep his word in loving us,” (5.2 4-5). Worcester’s unbending mindset drives him right to his death. Much like his counterpart, Hotspur, Worcester lacks the vision to react differently to a new situation. He fails to think and negotiate with the King because he firmly believes that he will perish if he accepts the pardon. The irony of the situation is that he dies because he doesn't’ accept the pardon. Once again, rigidness plagues the characters. The character’s inability to adapt drives them towards their demise. In the face of adversity, Hotspur and Worcester crumble because they fail to adjust to their respective surroundings. Faced with untoward circumstances, Hotspur and Worcester are their own worst enemies.
Adverse situations require that the characters adapt to succeed. Those who fail to rethink their usual reactions, crumble in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. Shakespeare spins an interesting commentary to the reader about adversity and flexibility. He put forth the premise that those who can change are the one’s who prevail in the face of adversity. The argument for adaptability can be summed up with the famous quote from the Oscar nominated Moneyball, “Adapt or die!”