King or Madman? The Art of the drama in Shakespeare's drama of Henry IV, Part I Henry IV and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Shakespeare is of course a dramatist, that is, he was an author of plays with fictional characters in them, portrayed by real people known as actors. Yet quite often Shakespeare's fictional characters are themselves 'actors' in their own life stories, creating personas that they play in addition to acting out their true, 'real life' struggles of the plot as defined by the author. For instance, Prince Hal, of Henry IV, Part I and Hamlet are two such individuals -- the first pretends to be a rouge, even though he is really a skillful prince and politician destined to be a king, the second is an avenging son who assumes madness as a truth-telling device, and also as protection for his eccentric actions and behavior in a fraught Danish court. But when Henry IV's son pretends to be an ungrateful, good-for-nothing lad about town, playing tricks upon Falstaff with his thuggish mate Poins, he does so in a highly calculated manner, with a clear political and self-oriented objective. In contrast, Prince Hamlet pretends to be mad in a much more haphazard fashion in an attempt to revenge his father 'correctly,' although he initially says he puts on a seeming image of madness in an effort of determining if his father's ghost is true or not in its tales. This justification of the mad Hamlet persona seems specious, however, by the end of the play. Thus, the persona or part that Hal assumes is primarily to fulfill a political and pragmatic function, to enhance his position at court from the distance of the countryside as a future king, while Hamlet's assumed role is primarily a protective, psychological function -- he pretends to be mad, to avoid going mad in truth.
This means Hamlet's madness has an added psychological capacity for the hero that Hal's does not. While Hal pretends to be a rogue with little leadership ability, he does so not under duress, but even before the audience is formerly introduced to him. In contrast, Hamlet's madness is put on before the audience after a scene of excruciating horror for the young man, namely his conflict with his father's ghost upon the balustrades of the castle.
This contrast can be clearly seen in a close reading of the scenes where Hal and Hamlet first assume their personas. In Henry IV, Part I, Hal is first seen in company with his bad friends, then alone. He turns to the audience, and coolly, candidly states to the groundlings of the Elizabethan audience, whom would be of Poins' class, regarding his friends: "I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyok'd humor of your idleness: / 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 wonder'd at, / By breaking through the foul and ugly mists / Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. / If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work; (I.2.68-72)
Like many a politician, Hal knows that there is no better story than that of a drunken and dissolute young man who pulls himself up from his own bootstraps and emulates a more worthy, but duller father in the end. What could be more politically profitable from a public relations standpoint? As a result of his simulation, Hal suggests, he will seem more exciting than his father, and enjoy himself mightily until then, as part of political pretensions and power gathering. He will also rally support from the common people, and unlike Hotspur, seem like a better warrior because he seemed so base before.
In Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, Hamlet warns his friend Horatio, not the audience, to be surprised at any assumption of madness Horatio witnesses. But the first reaction to the ghost and speech the audience is privy to, as said by Hamlet after the exit of his father, is "O all you host of heaven! O. earth! What else? / And shall I couple…