16. Henry IV Worries that Prince Hal Has Vices Like the “Fattest Soil” Has Weeds

In the prior post on English histories, we noted that the gardener’s comparison of commonwealth to gardens in Richard II derives from two passages of two different works of North: Plutarch’s Lives and The Dial of Princes:

The Comparison of Commonwealths to Gardens and Fruit Trees to Young Men in both North and “Richard II”

Notice that in the above exchange, North’s fatness of the soil refers to its fertility—and, as with the gardener in Richard II, the translator uses fat or fertile soil as a symbol for the commonwealth and its propensity to grow weeds (i.e., vice-ridden men). In another chapter from Plutarch’s Lives, North repeats the same fat-soil metaphor, this time to describe Coriolanus. And we also find the use of this same analogy in a similar passage in 2 Henry IV, one of the sequels from the same tetralogy as Richard II.

Specifically, Henry IV uses this Northern language when describing young Prince Henry. In both play and translation, the context is identical: both Coriolanus and the future-Henry V would mature into fearless commanders in the field, with a peculiar knack for violence and a stirring ability to motivate troops. Both would furiously conquer armies and besiege and destroy enemy cities no matter the strength and advantage of the foe. And in the analogous passages, both young Coriolanus and young Henry V are described as wild youths who need more guidance. Each has a good heart and an inherent capacity for nobility, but a lack of tutoring has allowed each to grow headstrong, rash, and quick to anger. Their natural qualities, which have filled them with potential, have also made them susceptible to ignoble traits as a fat soil bringeth forth herbs and weeds. Moreover, Henry IV, in describing his grief at his son’s uncertain future, also reproduces a uniquely striking image of grief from The Dial:

North’s Plutarch’s Lives and DialShakespeare’s 2 Henry IV
a rare and excellent wit untaught doth bring forth many good and evil things together like as a fat soil bringeth forth herbs and weeds that lieth unmanured. For this Martius natural wit and great heart did marvelously stir up his courage to do and attempt notable acts. But on the other side for lack of education, he was so choleric and impatient that he would yield to no living creature
–Plutarch’s Lives 237  

They in one day and one hour end their lives, and I each minute do feel the pangs of death … I weep daily tears of blood from my heart for that I live. This is the difference, their torments spreadeth abroad through all their body, and I keep mine together, in my heart The Dial 760      
King: For he is gracious, if he be observed.
He hath a tear for pity and a hand
Open as day for melting charity.
Yet notwithstanding, being incensed, he is flint,
As humorous as winter …
Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them. Therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death.
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary, th’unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
For when his headstrong riot hath no curb,
When rage and hot blood are his counselors
(4.4.30-34, 54-63 )
fat soil-weeds, heart, untaught, choleric-impatient,
hour of death, weep blood from my heart,
spreadeth abroad
fat(test) soil-weeds, heart, unguided, headstrong-rage hour of death, blood weeps from my heart,
overspread

As he did with the gardener exchange in Richard II, the dramatist was once again able to recall two different texts of North and conflate them in a single speech. And a search of EEBO (see pic below) confirms that the only two authors who have placed “weep” NEAR “blood” NEAR “from my heart” are North and Shakespeare.

Leave a Reply