The Symbolism of 'The Concept of Blood'

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In Part 1 of Henry IV, “blood” is the defining characteristic, separating the players into two distinct groups easily designated by their relationship to blood and providing the basis for the two lifestyles that Hal leads. The nobility’s obsession with blood in all of its meanings coagulates them into the first of the two groups. This blood obsession is manifested in the minds of the leading court figures, most especially those of the King, Henry IV, and Hotspur, Henry Percy. Hal is, by virtue of his seemingly inappropriate and common companions, separated from this world of blood and is fully encapsulated by a world of folly and ineptitude. This group of common thieves and truants, although accompanied by a wayward prince, compromises the second group—a group to which the term “blood” is to be used in farce but never to be taken seriously. From the end of Hal’s first scene the audience is aware of Hal’s desire to affect a dramatic transformation and enter the world of the nobility without the stain of his former lower class associations. Hal notes the existence of key differences between the two classes from the outset, but the epiphany that blood was the main dividing factor allowed Hal to finally realize the method of his transformation. Hal comes to the realization that he must undergo a trial in bloody battle against his main rival and the champion of the noble lifestyle, Hotspur, and emerge victorious to be absolved of his former lifestyle through a baptism in blood.

For the nobility of this war torn period in English history, “blood” represented the most important values and troubles in society and as a monarch atop a usurped and far from stable throne, King Henry was the embodiment of these issues. The metaphor between monarch and state represented the foremost correlation in society and, thus, Henry IV and England could be seen to symbolize each other. Within this relationship of king and state the significance of blood in the troubles of the country and the monarchy was first seen. The play begins with the lamentation of Henry over the state of England and his weak promise that “no more the thirsty entrance of this soil shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood.” This statement illustrates both England’s desire for domestic peace and the king’s own desire to settle both national affairs and affairs within his own household. For, although Henry thinks to have achieved this overwhelming peace throughout the country at the beginning of the play he soon realizes that the countryside is still rife with fighters and domestic strife broils as the king becomes further unsatisfied with Hal’s lifestyle. For even as the “Severn’s flood, [was] then affrighted with their bloody looks…[and] the hollow bank [was] blood-stained with these valiant combatants” the king’s own son continued to ignore the state of affairs. This turbulent and bloody picture of England’s landscape speaks for the state of both the country and that of its figurehead, Henry IV, setting the scene for the series of events throughout the play.

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As a king desperate to look to the legitimacy of his own bloodline in justification for his seizure of the throne, Henry IV realizes the importance of Hal to the continuation of his dynasty. As Hal steadfastly refuses to take an active role in the government and its troubles, Henry wonders “whether God will have it so for some displeasing service I have done, that in his secret doom, out of my blood he’ll breed revengement and a scourge for me.” In despair, Henry looks to Hotspur’s galvanizing role in the political scene, especially his key involvement in the battles throughout the country, and wonders if some switch of his blood had occurred and Hotspur may be his true son. Despite Hotspur’s later rebellion against Henry, the king still hopes for some change at birth—thus the qualities of valor and honor that Henry sees in Hotspur could be a continuation of his own blood. Henry taunts Hal that while Hal is “almost an alien to the hearts of all the court and princes of my blood…and the soul of every man prophetically do forethink thy fall” that Hotspur “being no more in debt to years then thou, leads ancient lords and reverend bishops on to bloody battles”. With this statement, Hal realizes Hotspur’s role as his main rival and the holder of that position in society which he should be seen to hold as the prince and heir to the throne.

Hotspur, in his role as one of the leading treasonous rebels, looks upon a world bloodied by necessity and driven by fiery and quickened blood—his blood washed world represent the views seen by the majority of the nobility. With every appearance of Hotspur, a dramatic picture filled with images of blood is brought to mind with his words, serving to align the two within the mind.

Many mentions of Hotspur revolve around his central role in the fighting going on throughout England, and in the many “bloody” hours he has spent upon the field. Even outside the blood bath of battle, Hotspur is quick to reference his willingness to “empty all these veins, and shed my dear blood drop by drop in the dust” in the name of loyalty to his fellow nobility. From Hotspur’s viewpoint, the world is something to be taken seriously—with everything staked at the price of life for in the mind of Hotspur, “this is no world to play with mammets and to tilt with lips. We must have bloody noses and crack’d crowns.”

From Act I of the play, the audience is aware of Hal’s intention to transform his seemingly inappropriate lifestyle and to reemerge in a role as the shining prince. In juxtaposition with the nobility and Hotspur, Hal’s time is spent in jovial conversation with friends and real or whimsical highway robberies. In this reality without responsibility, blood is only seen playing a role of false gravity—as when Hal’s friends falsified themselves as victims of a major robbery. Hal, when asked by Falstaff was to whether his blood thrilled at the thought of rebellious state of the country, replied “not a whit, I’ faith, I lack some of thy instinct.” When faced with the taunting threats of both his father and the state of the country, Hal realizes that his very nature must change in order for him to step up and later be able to accept the responsibility of the country with the benevolence of the nobility. Hal realizes that this change must be an acceptance of the bloody nature of the aristocracy and an assumption of the role currently held by Hotspur. Hal, thus, tells his father “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head, and in the closing of some glorious day be bold to tell you that I am your son, when I will wear a garment all of blood, and stain my favors in a bloody mask, which wash’d away shall scour my shame with it.”

The greatest challenge Hal faces throughout the play is to effect this transformation and reenter the blood obsessed world of the nobility. Hal sees the opportunity to affect this transformation only through the bloody initiation of battle with his main rival, Hotspur, and thus usurp his place in the world of the nobility. With this objective in mind, Hal challenges an acknowledged more experienced Hotspur to single battle, realizing that the all other bloodshed is superfluous in relation to this contest in deciding the future of the country. An over-confident Hotspur, upon hearing of Hal’s involvement in the battle, foretells Hal’s sacrifice at his hands “to the fire-ey’d maid of smoky war all hot and bleeding…the mailed Mars shall on his [altar] sit up to the ears in blood.” The two contestants accept their bloody roles in deciding the future of their country and in the control of the noble class.

With Hal’s personal victory over Hotspur and bloody reentry into acceptance among the noble class, one wonders whether any fundamental changes really took place within Hal’s personal character. Through the murder of Hotspur, Hal appears to have accepted the challenge of noble blood—that of making battle and that of accepting inherited responsibilities, quite a maturing process for his former self. Upon Hal’s sighting of his old friend Falstaff’s body alongside that of Percy, Hal remarks “embowell’d will I see thee by and by, till then in blood by noble Percy lie” which signaled a unifying factor in the blood. While the nobility may have felt that their blood designated them a breed apart from all others, this heralded Hal’s acknowledgment that in death, or “blood,” there remains no such distinction and all lie together indiscernible. This concluding unity made the noble warring and contested inheritances of Hal’s time all the more laughable and an important lesson for a future king to be cognizant of. This conclusion seems to the objective set forth by Shakespeare, a result of Hal’s insightful immersion into both groups and his realization that the end remains the same for all.

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The Symbolism of ‘The Concept of Blood’. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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