The Art of Heroic Failure

“I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyoked humour of your idleness: yet herein will I imitate the sun.”

“So, when this loose behaviour 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.”

“I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill; redeeming time when men think least I will.”

Prince Hal in Henry IV, Act 1, Scene 2

The man who, as King Henry V, was later to lead his country to an unexpected victory at Agincourt was (according to Shakespeare) the kind of kid that puts parents to shame. Young prince Hal is ridiculed as a maverick and a layabout, the “sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales,” who would be better to be “poison’d with a pot of ale” than become King of all England. In truth and by his own admittance, Hal wined, dined and womanised, he fraternised with vagabonds and cavorted with thieves.

Ultimately, it is the latter group that suffered. Hal knew that, when the time came for him to adopt the kingly mantle, he would indeed throw off his loose behaviour “and pay the debt I never promised,” namely to lead his country in peacetime and in war. All this, Hal conducted with barely a backward glance at the life he left behind him, much to the chagrin and eventual doom of his erstwhile compatriots. Sir John Falstaff, it is said, was never the same following the public disgrace he received at the hands of the newly crowned king. “I banish thee,” said King Henry, “as I have done the rest of my misleaders.” The comfort he found in the bottle was ill designed to prevent the morosity which eventually, it is said, lead to his death of a broken heart. “Falstaff he is dead,” said his mourners, for “the fuel is gone that maintained that fire.”

Hal showed himself to be smarter than either his friends, or his enemies, gave him credit for. “Herein I will imitate the sun,” he announced. He played while playtime was an option, but once his calling came he put such frivolity behind him. One day he was a boy, the next he was king. Would not all parents allow some flexibility in their dealings with adolescent offspring, could they only be sure that, when the time came, all trappings of youth would be firmly placed in the past! Come on, it is only a play, after all.

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