Breaking Through the Foul and Ugly Mists Chiasmus in I Henry IV




"Breaking through the foul and ugly mists":
Chiasmus in I Henry IV

In Shakespeare’s historic play King Henry the Fourth, Part One, the ingenious playwright uses an interesting and powerful method of presenting the honorable by introducing that character at the rock bottom of his potential and, as Hal puts it, "breaking through the foul and ugly mists/ Of vapors that did seem to strangle him" (I.ii, 155-6). Chiasmus, in Shakespeare’s plays, is the inversion of two characters’ reputation and personality traits. In I Henry IV this technique can be seen in the shifting of the reader’s perception of Harry Percy, more vividly known as Hotspur, and Hal, the Prince of Wales. Hotspur and Hal start out on two utterly opposite ends of the spectrum of honor and nobility. As the play progresses, we can witness Hal’s transcendence, turning point, and rise to the peak of his potential. We also are shown Hotspur’s gradual dive to shame (and ultimately death) as he loses his temperance and patience, and is consumed by confidence and greed. The literary effect of chiasmus terminates with, once again, the characters on opposite ends of the spectrum, but somewhere along the shift, they cross paths and the original hierarchy is inverted.
At the beginning of the play, Prince Hal starts out on the lower half of the hierarchy. He spends the majority of his time in the tavern, drinking away the money that he "earns" by robbing travelers during the night. He is introduced to the readers as immature, irresponsible, and ignorant to his destiny and potential. But Shakespeare doesn’t let his readers see Hal this way for long: in I.ii, Hal’s intention of transcendence to princedom is evident in his revealing soliloquy:




"Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him." (150-6)

Though Hal seems ignorant of his destiny and importance in the court, Shakespeare allows us to see that he intends to rise to his full potential. From this point on, Hal begins ridiculing his friends, and realizes that they are "contagious clouds" who "smother up his beauty".
Harry Percy, a.k.a. Hotspur (Shakespeare never ceases to amuse me with his witty nicknames-- and this one is certainly derived from the Prince of Darkness himself), is introduced to us as the courtier of "Golden Mean". He is nearly everything a prince should be: he valiantly captures the prisoners King Henry desires (even though he will not give them over to the king), he is courageous, quick with words, and has a goal of honor. In I.iii, 201-8, he expresses how much importance he places on honor and how simple he thinks it is to obtain it:
"By heavens, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities;
But out upon this half-faced fellowship!"

But even within this speech one of his faults is uncovered. Towards the end of this tangent he is shaming the practice of sharing glory and honor with others. This reflects his egotistical intentions and his preoccupation with the obtaining the title of honor. In this scene we also learn of Hotspur’s other downfalls: his exponential anger, his lack of temperance, stubbornness, and ignorance. He doesn’t know his own history, he disregards letters warning him, and he is totally consumed with the idea of victory and honor; he even battles in his sleep.
Scene II, act iv reflects Hal’s midway point. He has not yet risen to his full potential, but we know he intends to show his father that he is worthy of his title of the Prince of Wales. Hal and Falstaff put on a little play-within-a-play, in which Hal plays the part of his father, King Henry, and Falstaff acts as Prince Hal. King Henry (Hal) reprimands Prince Hal (Falstaff) for passing time in the tavern with Falstaff, "that old white-bearded Satan" (368-9). Prince Hal (Falstaff)