Shakespeare Foils Essay

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The Use of Foils for the Characterisation of Hal in Henry IV Part I

Common practice in the sixteenth century was to place a leaf of foil under a gemstone to make it shine more brightly. From this practice arose the current use of the word, whereby a literary character’s qualities are enhanced by a ‘foil’- another character who seems to be the polar opposite. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, Prince Harry (nicknamed Hal) has a number of foils, and in contrast to all of them he certainly is a gem. While his foils share with him some similarities, they are also largely different, and this serves to accentuate Hal’s better qualities. The similarities and differences between Hal and both Falstaff, a lowlife friend, and Hotspur, a young enemy warrior, are worthy of examination. Throughout the play, it is Hal’s noble qualities which become increasingly evident due to the characteristics of Falstaff and Hotspur.

Hal is similar to Falstaff in the sense that both are comical, and both embrace the more ‘common’ lifestyle. First, Falstaff and Hal are good-humoured, and together they are the characters at the core of many comedy scenes. This similarity allows them to engage in role play, for example pretending to be the king and saying, “this chair shall be my state, this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown” (II.iv.336-7), which emphasizes Hal’s playfulness. Second, while both Falstaff and Hal are frowned upon for living a ‘lower’ sort of life, involving drinking and frivolity, Hal proves that his intentions are more honourable. Falstaff’s life revolves around food, drink, and brothels, and he is considered a “fat-witted with drinking of old sack” (I.i.2). Hal spends time in these venues too, engaging in similar activities, but unlike Falstaff he demonstrates that he cares about more than just gratification. He tells Falstaff, “Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers and can call them all by their christen names” (II.iv.6-7), indicating that...
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