A Shakespearean Source for the Four-Point Character Conflict in “Harry Potter”?

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

Recently, I read a blog arguing for the way in which John Truby’s “four-point opposition” – a technique for “turbo-charging conflict” between characters – plays out in Harry Potter¹. The idea behind “four-point opposition” is that the simple dichotomy of good versus evil (expressed, in this case, between Harry and Voldemort) can be made more interesting and dynamic by modulating it within a web of conflict between four central characters. Michael Finberg argues that the Hogwarts saga is a perfect example of this technique since each of these central characters (Harry, Voldemort, Snape, and Dumbledore) have deep-seated ideological differences that bring them into conflict with each of the others. Harry fights Voldemort and loathes Snape while his hero worship of Dumbledore takes a few knocks along the way. Dumbledore has a quasi-paternal relationship with each of Harry, Snape, and Voldemort – the three “abandoned boys” (DH, ch. 34) – conflicted by different problems and emotions in each case. Snape, meanwhile, is at once Harry’s savior and nemesis, Voldemort’s henchman and betrayer, and Dumbledore’s reluctant disciple (in sympathy with his aims but antagonistic to some of his methods).

A reader of Finberg’s blog asked if any of Shakespeare’s plays used “four-point opposition,” but while he responded in the negative, I think that reader is on to something. If this story-writing structure successfully generates dynamic conflict, is it not likely that we should find it in the world’s greatest playwright? This article argues not only that there is a Shakespeare play that perfectly encapsulates “four-point opposition” but also that this play may (at least subconsciously) have inspired J.K. Rowling’s own understanding of the potential of this storytelling device.


Step Forward, Henry IV, Part 1

Many great early modern works – such as Paradise Lost, The Winter’s Tale, The Faerie Queene – have titles that glitter with potential. Henry IV, Part 1 is not one of those works. (Indeed, it is a contender for the work with the greatest imbalance between the promise of its title and the greatness of its text.) Perhaps its unprepossessing name is one reason Rowling has never mentioned it in an interview, but I’m not the first to wonder if she might have been influenced by it. Alison Lurie, in her superb early assessment of the series, noted how Harry’s name conjures up “both English literature and English history: Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Harry Hotspur.”² Tere Stouffer, likewise, has pointed out that the Boar’s Head Tavern, the setting for much of the comic action of Henry IV, Part 1, not only links with Rowling’s surprising fondness for tavern scenes (four inns are used as settings in Harry Potter) but also strongly recalls its most plot-important pub: the Hog’s Head.³ And indeed, when Harry finally enters the Hog’s Head in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we find out that it is even closer to Shakespeare’s Boar’s Head than we might have suspected, for it has a “severed boar’s head sign creaking in the wintry wind” (ch. 24). (There is also a plot connection here; a reader familiar with Shakespeare’s Boar’s Head would have an additional reason for suspecting that the barman at the Hog’s Head is not quite what he seems.)

The four-point opposition in Henry IV, Part 1 is between Hal, Hotspur, Henry IV, and Falstaff. The hero, Hal, has to beat his martial adversary, Hotspur; he has to overcome Henry IV’s paternal mistrust, and his relationship with Falstaff (so profoundly complex that, four centuries later, it is still interpreted in deeply opposing ways) will end in the prince rejecting his former friend. Henry IV, Part 1 also plays out the central idea of Truby’s four-point opposition: that conflict must also occur between the subsidiary characters, not purely between them and the hero. Hotspur and Henry IV are literally at war (while Henry IV nurtures the conflicting regret that such a chivalric young man should not be his son). Henry IV and Falstaff, meanwhile, are Hal’s competing father figures, and while they are on the same side militarily, they are ideologically opposed. Falstaff even performs the role of Henry IV in an impromptu play at the Boar’s Head – a literal parody that highlights the way in which Falstaff’s dissipation often creates uncanny echoes for the king’s words and actions. Falstaff and Hotspur, meanwhile, are perhaps the most deeply divided characters of the play, and their names encode this antagonism: “Hot spur” is all prowess, honor, and passion, while “fall/false staff” inverts all Hotspur’s heady, masculine ideals. Falstaff’s brilliant parodic speech about honor prior to the climactic battle (in 5.1) expresses his opposition to all that Hotspur stands for as surely as his desecration of Hotspur’s corpse at that battle’s conclusion.

In addition to sharing this central four-point opposition, Henry IV, Part 1 and Harry Potter also explore the importance of shadow selves, or reciprocity, to nuance their core narrative conflict. In both the Hal–Hotspur/Harry–Voldemort pairings, the protagonist’s enemy is his opposite and yet also his doppelgänger. Hotspur is marked as Hal’s shadow self by the fact he shares his nickname (between them, they are called “Harry” 38 times in the play). Historically, Hotspur was 20 years older than Hal, but Shakespeare has tampered with historical fact to make them identical in age because he wants his hero to find an echo in his foil. Likewise, while the first intimations of connections between Harry and his nemesis come in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (in the satisfyingly creepy moment when Ollivander explains the twin cores), it is only in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – when Harry meets a Voldemort much closer to his own age – that the parallels between hero and villain become clear:

There are strange likenesses between us, Harry Potter. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike…” (ch. 17)

The central quartets of both these texts also share characteristics. The heroes’ enemies, for example, are both dark-haired, handsome, and single-minded young men. Both are fixated by life beyond death: Voldemort seeks eternal life while Hotspur is hungry for a name that will never die, confident he can “pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon/ Or dive into the bottom of the deep…/ And pluck up drowned honor by the locks” (1.3.200-203). Voldemort and Hotspur both face the hero in a single combat that shares striking links with the Harrowing of Hell.⁴ Both, conscious of their martial superiority, are justified in their confidence that this will be an easy victory; both turn out to be wrong.

Likewise, for all their clear differences, there are also some parallels between Dumbledore and Falstaff – the white-haired, surrogate fathers of the hero who carry a beguiling aura of “old England” about them. Both indulge in a playfulness that is at odds with their white hair and manage the difficult feat of making a high opinion of themselves (Falstaff’s claim, for example, that to banish plump Jack would be to “banish all the world” [2.4.474]) appear charming: “It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me, that’s saying something” (SS, ch. 17). Both are fully rounded creations whose attraction and importance (for both the hero and the reader) are offset by some fairly serious moral failings.

Perhaps the most striking link, however, is with Snape. While Rowling relegates her most psychologically complex – and divisive – character to the edges of the story, Shakespeare puts him center stage. For (surprisingly) it is Shakespeare’s hero – Hal – who is the Snape-like double agent of Henry IV, Part 1. Hal, like Snape, falsely presents himself as morally corrupt – enslaved by a youthful lapse into bad company – in order to further the cause of the right. But while many find him a successful hero (because his duplicity eventually allows good to win out), others find him too cold, too calculating, and too unkind. Snape, likewise, plays a double game that runs the risk of alienating the reader’s sympathy. Initially, we believe that he has become morally corrupt, mired (as Hal pretends to be) by his youthful lapse into bad company. But while this turns out to be merely an act, many readers, as with Hal, find him difficult to warm to. Hal’s rejection of Falstaff forms a structural parallel to Snape’s killing of Dumbledore, and while both actions are presented as morally correct within the text, both are perceived as morally problematic by many readers.

The way in which Hal parallels both Harry (Rowling’s hero) and Snape (her hidden double agent) is a sign of the brilliance with which Shakespeare’s play embodies four-point opposition. For Henry IV, Part 1 simultaneously encapsulates this opposition between its four main characters and within the psychology of its protagonist. Hal is an astonishingly complex character who encompasses Harry’s heroism, Voldemort’s ruthless skill, Dumbledore’s omniscient game playing, and Snape’s projection of a false identity. Hal embodies the disparate natures of all those with whom he is in conflict and synthesizes their strengths – Hotspur’s martial prowess, Falstaff’s linguistic facility, and his father’s Realpolitik – even as he masters them.

Henry IV, Part 1 is, in short, a masterclass in four-point opposition, and it seems possible that its recognized links with Harry Potter (in the Boar’s/Hog’s Head connection and the comfortingly familiar yet heroic undertones of Harry’s name) might alert us to a more fundamental connection. In Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare has written the rule book for four-point opposition, and Rowling may have learned something from this play as she explored the way in which ideological and moral conflict can simultaneously round character and drive plot. The conflicts between Hal, Hotspur, Henry IV, and Falstaff, like those between Harry, Voldemort, Snape, and Dumbledore, spring from their deepest selves and complicate, to an astonishingly subtle degree, the simple good versus evil binary of traditional narrative.

¹With thanks to John Granger (of HogwartsProfessor.com), who pointed me toward this blog post.

²Alison Lurie, “Not for Muggles,” New York Review of Books (Dec 16, 1999): 6.

³Tere Stouffer, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World of Harry Potter (New York:
Penguin, 2007), 121.

⁴For more detail on these Harrowing of Hell parallels, see my Literary Allusion in Harry Potter (London: Routledge, 2017), chapter 4; and “Hal as Self-Styled Redeemer: The Harrowing of Hell and Henry IV, Part I,” Shakespeare Survey 57 (2004): 236-48.

Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Shakespeare at Oxford University and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet, in which she discusses Harry Potter and Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, and more!


Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.
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