In Henry IV, Part 1, Hal prophetically muses “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill, redeeming time when men think least I will.” Indeed, Hal engages in crime and debauchery throughout the play, most especially with “that villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff.” And then, as Hal predicts, he transforms from an irresponsible, wayward youth to a mature and disciplined King. Hal’s transformation reinforces the theme of the Prodigal Son, which Shakespeare explores in the drama.
Hal’s transformation closely parallels the biblical Parable of the Prodigal Son. According to the Gospel of Luke, a son requests from his father to receive his inheritance before the father dies. The father grants the son his wish, and the son subsequently proceeds to waste the money on extravagances. Without any funds, the son starves in a famine. Contemplating his profligate behavior, the son determines to return to the father and beg for forgiveness, willing to work as his father’s servant to atone for his reprehensible conduct. Like the Prodigal Son, Hal engages in extravagance, and then repents to his father, promising to redeem himself in the future. The parallel between the Prodigal Son and Hal elevates Hal’s transformation to the rank of divine by its association with the biblical story.
In the beginning of the play, King Henry IV, Hal’s father, laments that his son is inclined to frequent whore-houses, carouse with disreputable peasants, and commit petty crimes. He fervently wishes that he could prove a fairy had exchanged his son for Hotspur when they were both babies. Hotspur is a foil for Hal. He is gallant, brave, fearless, and has displayed military prowess in battle, while Hal is renowned as a flippant juvenile who favors sport and foolery. The sharp disparity between Hal’s frivolous nature and Hotspur’s heroic virtues enhance the final transformation of Hal when he slays Hotspur in the battle of Shrewsbury later in the play. By killing Hotspur in battle, Hal symbolically crops “all the budding honors” on Hotspur’s head and “makes a garland” for his head. Thus, he transfers Hotspur’s honor and virtues to himself, and covers the taint of his past transgressions.
In addition to Hotspur, Falstaff is also a foil for Hal. Unlike Falstaff, Hal decides to abandon dissipation and frivolity, while Falstaff never adopts any virtue during his life. Falstaff is likely older than 60 years, and is the consummate “man who never grew up.” He excessively indulges in every vice, and his corpulent appearance attests to his lack of discipline and love for alcohol. Nevertheless, he is very charming because he ardently loves life, albeit sometimes to a degree that provokes aversion in the reader because of his shameless cowardice. For example, before the battle of Shrewsbury, Falstaff gives a “catechism” on honor in which he unabashedly chooses life over honor. Accordingly, he feigns death during the battle to avoid the perils of war. Hal resolves to banish Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2. Falstaff’s literal banishment is also symbolic of Hal banishing his former life of denigration, and beginning his new life as King. The transformation from boyhood to adult is complete.