The Economics of Redemption

In his play Henry IV Part I, Shakespeare juxtaposes a sample of Henry IV’s time as king against the economic and social tensions during his reign. These tensions, for Henry, run particularly high given his questionable rise to power. Because Henry claimed the throne by waging war against Richard III, his rule could in many ways be viewed as illegitimate. As such, he finds himself racing against time to unite the people whom he divided when stealing the country from Richard. Henry plans to achieve this end by shifting attention away from his questionable ascent and onto a Crusade. It seems as though his expectation is that waging a Holy War will redeem himself to his people and so secure his rule. His idea introduces redemption as having religious roots. However, when tracking the word redeem, this sacred concept is revealed to have a far more secular meaning than initially implied.

Redeem, via the Oxford English Dictionary, has a variety of definitions. As a noun, it was once a synonym for the act of redemption. As a verb, some other archaic definitions include avenging/repaying a wrong and rescuing someone from an unfavorable situation. Definitions still relevant of to redeem  are to deliver someone from sin, to make amends, to make good, to free/recover something via payment, or to restore to a former positive state. At the play’s start, it would seem as though redeem is employed in the sense of delivering Henry from sin or making good with his people. The term’s more economic definitions become increasingly more relevant than its altruistic and religious ones as Henry IV Part I progresses.

Although redemption is established as one of Henry IV Part I’s major themes from the very start of the play, it is not until Act I.2, that redeem is actually used. In this scene, Harry reveals what appears to be the true nature of redemption within the play when musing to himself about his lowly company. He claims that he purposely associates with such poor characters as Poins and Falstaff so as to generate a popular perception of himself as a degenerate. He hopes that this facade will be sufficiently misleading so that “when this loose behavior [he] throw[s] off/And pay the debt [he] never promisèd” (1.2.201-202) he will appear even more impressive than if he were to maintain a more consistently respectable image. Interestingly, in his word choice, Harry suggests that redeem in this social context can be equated to a monetary context one, as well. He goes on to say, “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,/Redeeming time when men think least I will” (1.2.209-210). Here it becomes clear that redemption takes on a double meaning via OED: redeem could mean to recover something by payment or restore his status to popular favor. As such, Harry’s wording suggests he could redeem himself through some kind of financial transaction. Harry’s conflating redeem with debt reveals that reputation is a kind of commodity in the play. Certainly Harry treats it as something that can be pawned when mortgaging it in the short run to leverage it in the future. So, although redeem is consistently used in the sense of a social definition (that of restoring a person’s status), it takes on a distinctly economic focus.

By manipulating his own reputation, Harry undermines the initial suggestion that redemption is achieved through religion for pious purposes. His actions suggest, instead, that redemption serves the exclusively secular purpose of impressing his people. When considering religion as a mask Henry may use to disguise his own ulterior motives, it appears as though Henry ultimately wants to redeem himself simply to win public favor, as well. The nature of redemption within Henry IV Part I, then, yields three main questions: why might religion be a second priority to characters of the upper echelon? why might Shakespeare portray reputation as a kind of commodity? and what might make this depiction particularly impactful to a Shakespearian audience?