Prince Harry’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV

King Henry IV Statue
King Henry IV Statue

In the intricate world of Shakespeare’s play, I King Henry IV, almost every character exhibits unique attributes of its own, which distinguish it from the others distinctively. While the viewer/reader of the play observes how those unique characters affect the progress of the plot, one might wonder how and why a particular character’s personality develops in the specific way that the author chose.

In this essay, I will discuss how Prince Harry’s character is deeply influenced by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the criteria and symptoms provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Before the diagnosis of Prince Harry’s character with PTSD, it is important to note that the criteria and symptoms mainly recur until Prince Harry’s highly tense conversation with his father, King Henry (3.2). Subsequently, Prince Harry is determined to change his demeanor entirely and act in a completely different manner as befitting a prince. Therefore, the emergence of the symptoms diminishes after this event significantly.

The first criterion of PTSD is a stressor, i.e. exposure to an extremely stressful event such as death or severe injury. When Prince Harry was a child, his father, King Henry, dethroned the prior monarch in a rebellion and thereafter had to stave off a failed uprising against his own reign. Hence, it is more than possible that Prince Harry was exposed directly or indirectly to some traumatic event in which death or injury had threatened his father’s life or even his own. This sort of probable trauma certainly applies as the criterion of a stressor.

The second criterion is the manifestation of intrusion symptoms, which means the person re-experiences the traumatic events via dreams, flashbacks or memories. Even though there are no indications in the play that Prince Harry suffers from nightmares or intrusive memories, these symptoms might be embodied in his desire for role-playing, in accordance with sub-criterion B.3. In the tavern with his friends, Prince Harry engages or wishes to engage in such acts on several occasions (2.4). The first is his practical joke alongside Poins against Francis, indicating that Prince Harry himself had struggled with similar abuse in his past. The second is his wish to role-play Percy and his wife. The third is the role-play with Falstaff as King Henry, whereas thereafter, Prince Harry plays the role of the King as well.

Prince Harry on a Horse

The third criterion is a constant avoidance of trauma-related stimuli. Prince Harry’s symptoms for this criterion are evident: He shuns himself from the princely life he is expected to hold while he surrounds himself with thieves and crooks. Although Prince Harry admits that his profligate lifestyle is only an act (1.2.193-215), this may be just a false rationalization that he attempts to explain to himself.

The fourth criterion is negative alterations in cognitions and mood. The first noticeable symptom of this criterion is Prince Harry’s preference to spend his days idly in taverns rather than participating in the demanding regal activities of a prince. King Henry himself acknowledges his son’s ongoing indolent behavior and even wishes that he had Hotspur as a son instead of him (1.1.85-88). Prince Harry also demonstrates another, more obscure, symptom for this criterion – a sort of hidden blame and hatred towards Hotspur, who might remind him of the inflictor of the past trauma. This inexplicable grudge emerges when Prince Harry abuses Francis, whom Prince Harry admits is similar to Hotspur (2.4.97-109). Additionally, when Prince Harry attempts to regain his father’s grace, he promises that he “will redeem all this on Percy’s head” (3.2.132).

The fifth criterion is alterations in arousal and reactivity. Prince Harry clearly exhibits the symptoms of self-destructive and reckless behavior- he excessively drinks ale, hangs around dubious figures and even partakes in dangerous illegal activities such as robbery (2.2). There is not any other indication for another related symptom. However, symptoms for this criterion might emerge in forms that do not receive almost any focus at all in the play, such as sleeping disorders.

The following three criteria are quite conspicuous. The duration of Prince Harry’s behavior is at least a year old – King Henry states that he already ruled for over 12 months (1.1.28) in which Prince Harry behaved in a dishonorable manner (1.1.83-85). Prince Harry obviously has a functional impairment when he needs to fulfill his dignified princely duties, as even King Henry tells him, “For thou has lost thy princely privilege / With vile participation.” (3.2.86-87). Prince Harry’s disturbance does not derive from any medication, substance use or illness; although he likes to drink, it does not seem to be the driving cause of his behavior.

As demonstrated, Prince Harry adequately fits into the modern criteria of PTSD, in spite of the fact that this contemporary diagnosis was not developed yet during the time the play was written. It is possible that when Shakespeare created this deeply complex character, as expected from a protagonist with such complicated life circumstances, based on real-life people who had struggled with similar childhood traumas. Thus, even without the modernized diagnostic knowledge we have today, Shakespeare managed to build a character that exhibits quite accurately the PTSD symptoms according to the current diagnosis.

The acknowledgment that Prince Harry likely struggles with PTSD assists with the understanding of his behavior and actions. Prince Harry’s decision to regularly revel in taverns and hang around debauched kinds of friends is not due to a pure desire for merriment and debauchery but because he wishes to disassociate himself as much as possible from the regal lifestyle, which may rekindle in his mind the traumatic event. Consequently, Prince Harry’s conduct does not evoke feelings of aversion or detestation but rather feelings associated with sympathy and even compassion. For instance, when Prince Harry enters the tavern slightly drunk and grotesquely befriends the commoners (2.4.4-20), it could simply be interpreted as a rakish demeanor without the diagnosis. However, when reckoning the PTSD, this conduct is understood completely different – Prince Harry attempts to forgo his traumatic past by drinking and by associating with people who would not conjure painful memories.

If, indeed, Prince Harry suffers from PTSD, it does not seem that he is aware of that. In a soliloquy when he is all by himself (1.2.193-215), Prince Harry justifies his unprincipled lifestyle by explaining that it would enable him to redeem himself in a future point better “(t)han that which hath no foil to set it off.” This possibly is a weak effort of Prince Harry to self-rationalize why he is behaving in this inexplicable manner. It also does not appear that Prince Harry’s close circle of friends acknowledges that the Prince struggles with a mental disorder, which might affect his duties as king in the future. Falstaff repeatedly says to Prince Harry, “when thou art king” throughout the play, whereas there are no hints that any other friend suspects his condition.

Although Prince Harry’s close friends might not reckon his self-destructive mental state, other characters in the play certainly recognize it. As stated, King Henry bemoans his son’s behavior at the beginning of the play and when the two have a private conversation together, the King harshly chides the Prince for his current way of life (3.2). Hotspur also refers to Prince Harry in derogatory terms. He cynically calls him a “sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales” while suggesting that if he would poison him with a pot of ale, King Henry “would be glad” (1.3.227-30); additionally, he mockingly relates to him as “(t)he nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (4.1.95). The poor reputation of Prince Harry is also conveyed by the level of surprise of the messenger Vernon when he reports to Hotspur about Prince Harry: “England did never owe so sweet a hope / So much misconstrued in his wantonness” (5.2.67-68).

Overall, it appears that Shakespeare wished to portray a complex and realistic characterization of Prince Harry, which takes into account profound childhood experiences. This comprehensive portrayal of Prince Harry’s character produces a relatable and colorful protagonist who is capable of understanding citizens from both upper and lower social classes. In addition, the transformation Prince Harry goes through after his emotional dialogue with his father (3.2) shows that he is able to transcend beyond his inner difficulties while facing his past and accepting his future.

Thus, Prince Harry’s attributes and decisions make him a very desirable future king who can comprehend, appreciate and judge various types of people “(e)ven in the bosom of (his) adversaries” (5.5.31).