Henry IV, Part 1 Overview

Having completed our survey of the comedies, now we turn to more serious matters in Shakespeare's history plays, dramatized accounts of the great political turmoil in England during the fifteenth century, mainly. Charming and delightful as the comedies are, in moving forward into The First Part of King Henry the Fourth, commonly designated as 1 Henry IV, I suspect that you will recognize right away that we are now entering regions in Shakespeare that demonstrate more fully his uncommon greatness in portraying and exploring the human condition in some of its most fundamental aspects.

In 1 Henry IV, we will see more pointed and extended concentration on enduring and weighty themes beyond the circumscribed realm of relations between the sexes, the primary thematic business of the comedies. And we will encounter far more intensely-drawn and genuinely living, breathing human being/characters than has been the case with most characters we've encountered in the comedies: the care-worn King Henry, the still-maturing Prince Hal, the irrepressible rogue Falstaff, and the impetuous Hotspur—here we find the sort of efficiently and finely-drawn portraits of humanity that are one of the most impressive facets of Shakespeare's genius.

The greatness of Shakespeare, The Ultimate Master
Shakespeare is revered by so many as the greatest of all writers partly for his exceptionally masterful use of language—his genius for creative and above all economical, efficient use of language to convey personalities, thoughts, and emotions with brilliant clarity. Shakespeare's greatness lies also in what John Keats called his "negative capability," a writer's ability to get so inside the heads of his or characters that they seem to live and breathe as truly unique people, fully realized to the extent that the writer's own personality is effectively "negated." It is a testament to his artistry that so many of Shakespeare's greatest characters are vividly "real" to readers four centuries after their creation—characters such as Falstaff, Iago, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet, to name but a few—and yet we can glean only precious little about Shakespeare, the man himself, through his writings. This is not to downplay the significance or the brilliance of any characters in the plays we've read thus far—such as Petruchio and Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, or Rosalind in As You Like It—but in the entirely more realistic world of the history plays and the tragedies, we encounter Shakespeare's living, breathing masterpieces of characterization in far greater abundance in virtually every play.

Beyond his genius for characterization, probably the most essential aspect of Shakespeare's greatness resides in his wide-ranging grasp of human nature in its most fundamental terms. In the comedies, history plays, tragedies, and romances throughout his career, Shakespeare deals in themes that strike resonating chords in the very souls of readers and playgoers throughout all time: Shakespeare's characters and themes are compellingly, intensely relevant to audiences in every era. Ben Jonson's famous remark that Shakespeare was "not of an age, but for all time!" was uncannily prophetic. We have encountered a number of timeless thematic concerns in the comedies, but in terms of their themes or "statements about humanity," the histories and tragedies invariably deal with these in greater abundance and with greater complexity, too, than is the case with the comedies.

The history plays
1 Henry IV is our first sample of a "history play," the most popular dramatic genre in Shakespeare's time, one which Christopher Marlowe helped to make popular and which Shakespeare largely perfected. As Bevington explains in the 1 Henry IV headnote, Shakespeare took his plots from written prose histories (Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of the history of England, Scotland, and Ireland especially), so in some respects the major characters and plots were already determined in outline, at least, and indeed, they were well-known by Shakespeare's contemporary audiences. What Shakespeare did to immortalize the histories he converted into dramatic form, however, was to take bare-bones outlines of historical personages and breathe depth and genuine life into them: here is where his "negative capability" becomes readily apparent. Further, Shakespeare altered his sources as he saw fit to heighten the impact of his work or to underscore particular themes. For instance, the original Harry Percy, or Hotspur, was in truth older than King Henry IV, but Shakespeare made Hotspur and the king's son, Prince Hal, approximately the same age to highlight the contrast between these two characters, with Hotspur as the valiant and hot-headed counterpart to Hal, who seems at least early on to be something of a scoundrel, but one who clearly operates with a cool and even calculating mind. As we will see in the next play on our syllabus, Henry V, Prince Hal will develop from his seemingly inauspicious beginnings in 1 Henry IV into perhaps the greatest of all English kings, certainly the greatest of English warrior-kings.

Shakespeare wrote ten history plays in all, each named for and focusing on a particular English king: King John, of the Plantagenet family (he reigned 1199-1216), Henry VIII, from the Tudor line of rulers (reigned 1509-1547), and two sets of four plays—called tetralogies—focusing on the later Plantagenet kings who ruled throughout most of the 1400s. Curiously, Shakespeare composed these two tetralogies out of sequence chronologically, starting early in the 1590s with the period of 1422-1485 in the three-part Henry VI and concluding with Richard III; then later in the 1590s he wrote of the 1398-1422 period in Richard II, the two parts (i.e. separate plays) of Henry IV, and concluding with Henry V. Thus the two history plays we are reading, 1 Henry IV and Henry V are the second and fourth installments in the tetralogy covering the earlier time period, but they were composed when Shakespeare was in his thirties and was just coming into his full might as a literary artist. (Some scholars believe the Henry VI plays were the first Shakespeare wrote, and although Richard III has some power, the latter-composed tetralogy is clearly superior in quality to the first one.)

The Comedic
1 Henry IV was a smash hit in Shakespeare's time, and it has remained probably the most popular of the history plays from Shakespeare's day to the present (1 Henry IV is often the sole representative history play in anthologies of British or World Literature which include Shakespeare). Much of the charm so many have found in this play lies in the character of Falstaff, universally perceived as a comedic masterpiece, often as the greatest of Shakespeare's many exceptional comedic creations. The ever-outspoken Harold Bloom goes so far as to say that Falstaff is the most fully vital (or "living") of all of Shakespeare's hundreds of characters, and in Bloom's opinion, Falstaff is rivaled only by Hamlet as the most thoroughly intelligent character in the Shakespeare canon. Falstaff's immense popularity when the play was first produced led to his extensive reprise in The Second Part of King Henry IV and also in the farcical comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which, tradition has it, was written at Queen Elizabeth's specific request for "more of Falstaff" (he is "killed off" in quick fashion in Henry V).

Much of the humor with Falstaff involves witty wordplay between him and Prince Hal, and for most modern readers, appreciating this verbal humor requires careful attention to footnotes: frequently, the punning, or humorous double-meanings of words, involves colloquial or slang usage current in Elizabethan time but very far removed from today's English. So as I hope you are doing with every play, read those footnotes carefully! But the humor in Falstaff is apparent in other ways as well: his tendency to exaggeration, as in the ever-growing number of attackers in his account of being robbed in Act 2, Scene 4, for instance, or in his nimble quick wit going beyond simple wordplay, as in his explanation that he didn't overpower these attackers because he recognized the prince beneath his disguise all along (2.4.264-72). Clearly Falstaff is a rogue, a thieving, whore-mongering glutton and drunkard, seemingly a great coward to bootbut part of his enduring charm lies in his ability to laugh at himself and in his unabashed, boldly stated self-interest. It is indeed a testament to Shakespeare's skill that at least early on in this play Falstaff is such a lovable rogue: as we read further we'll consider just how much he remains so "lovable" and whether his "roguery" is more troubling than it seems at first.

In this play, our first not a "comedy proper," comedic scenes do still abound, and they often serve more important purposes than mere comic relief from the tension of the more dramatic scenes in the "main" plot of a play. As you read 1 Henry IV, look for ways the comedic scenes mirror, reinforce, or comment upon the alternating scenes of more clearly dramatic content. Consider, for instance, how the scenes centering on Falstaff and Hal provide a sharp contrast with Prince Hal's foil, Hotspur. Also consider how Falstaff may be a kind of father-figure to Hal, in contrast to his actual father, the king.

Themes of civil strife
I believe you'll find Bevington's headnote to this play even more crucial or valuable than with the comedies. Shakespeare's original audience was already quite familiar with the historical events described in all of the history plays, but we, of course, may find all the history a bit obscure. It is an interesting side-note that while modern historians have unearthed much more factual detail about the various major players in the two Plantagenet tetralogies, Shakespeare's history plays are "most responsible for whatever notions most of us possess about the period and its political leaders" (Saccio 31). You will find Bevington especially helpful in explaining who the different factions are, how and why they are at odds, and what the play's most essential themes are regarding the civil conflict that the plot portrays. Understanding that the historical matters may be somewhat confusing, I'm giving you a bit of summary directly below.

This play and its continuation in 2 Henry IV depict England in a time of great turmoil which won't be resolved until the present king is dead and Prince Hal becomes Henry V, England's greatest warrior-king. In Richard II, the play describing the historical events preceding those depicted in 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare portrays the present king, Henry IV, then a noble called Bolingbroke, being exiled and having his lands confiscated by the weak King Richard II. Bolingbroke returns to England, raises a civil war with the help of the Percy clan, which includes Hotspur and his father, Northumberland, and his uncle, Worcester. At the urging of his supporters, Bolingbroke usurps the throne and then executes Richard II to strengthen his hold on the monarchy as the newly crowned Henry IV.

In Act 1, Scene 1 of 1 Henry IV, the king expresses hopes of resting from civil strife and increasing solidarity among his subjects by sending nobles on a Crusade in Palestine, the Holy Land (where they can hardly cause trouble at home in England. . . .). However, as we learn in the first scene, new troubles have arisen to thwart this plan: the Scots have attacked in the north and been defeated by Hotspur, and the Welsh have attacked also, taking Hotspur's brother-in-law, Mortimer, prisoner and holding him for ransom. As we learn in Act 1, Scene 3, Hotspur refuses to turn his noble Scottish prisoners over to the crown so that the king might get ransom for them until the king himself ransoms Mortimer—which the king doesn't want to do at least partly because the previous king, Richard II, had named Mortimer as his legal successor to the throne. Thus King Henry can head off a rival claim to the crown by keeping Mortimer out of the picture. In Act 1, Scene 3, Act 2, Scene 3, and on into Act 3 we learn that the Percy clan and their allies turn treasonous, plotting now to raise armies and support from the church against Henry, to overthrow the king they helped put on the throne in the first place (in Richard II). On the historical front, this scenario of civil unrest provides the play's central themes.

Prince Hal, the main character
At the same time, despite the play's title, the true protagonist of the play—the real central character—is Prince Hal, and the major conflict centers on his relationship with his father. Hal undergoes a dramatic change over the course of this play, beginning with his audience with his father in Act 3, Scene 2. What we get in the first three acts more or less sets the stage for his later transformation: in these opening acts, most importantly we see the contrast between Hotspur, whom the king says he wishes were his own son instead of Northumberland's (1.1.77-89), and the prince, who is a disgrace to his father, carousing in taverns with such unsavory companions as Falstaff, Poins, and a veritable gang of hard-drinking scoundrels and thieves—hardly the behavior one would expect of a royal prince! As we'll see in Act 3, the exchanges in Act 2, Scene 4 where Falstaff and Hal take turns playing the roles of king and prince in the meeting they'll have on the following morning establish with great accuracy how the king feels about his son's rather questionable lifestyle.

This balancing of major themes and concerns between public conflicts of state (civil strife) and more personal conflicts (fathers and rebellious sons), all while entertaining the audience with lusty good humor (Falstaff et al) is standard for Shakespeare in the history plays: he presents the audience with multiple conflicts in different intertwining plots and subplots, each of great significance. The "public" matters are important in portraying English history, but it's largely in the "personal" matters, the father-son conflict, e.g., where Shakespeare presents universal themes that apply with great relevance to people "of all time."

Specifically on Acts 4-5:

The further development of Hotspur's character (as foil to Prince Hal): his bold "hot-headedness" and his warrior's temperament, particularly as we have seen in a variety of such places as his conversation with the "magician" Glendower in Act 3, Scene 1 and his "pshawing" attitude towards poetry, music, and "cultural things" in Act 2, Scene 3 and Act 3, Scene 1. Also note Hotspur's perhaps overly hasty eagerness for battle in 4.1.75-83 and 4.1.129-34, for instance—i.e. his disregard for prudence or caution when two major branches of the rebel forces (Glendower's and Northumberland's) cannot join his troops in time to engage the king's larger and better-supplied forces.

Looking ahead, if we consider Prince Hal as the play's protagonist or central character, much of what happens in this play sheds light on important matters about Hal in the two next plays in the tetralogy, 2 Henry IV and Henry V. In 2 Henry IV Hal builds upon the promise he shows in the final acts of this play, and in Henry V he is fully mature as a thoroughly noble and effective king, most of all as a leader of men on the battlefield. Be on the lookout for possible shortcomings in Hotspur, the man King Henry has said earlier in the play he wished were his own son instead of Hal: look for qualities that may be at odds with genuine greatness in a leader. For one instance, Hotspur acknowledges that he has no power of words to rally his troops before battle: "Arm, arm with speed: and, fellows, soldiers, friends," says Hotspur, "Better consider what you have to do / Than I, that have not well the gift of tongue, / Can lift your blood up with persuasion" (5.2.75-78). Although Hotspur does then give some brief remarks to inspire his troops, his lack of rhetorical skill is in sharp contrast with the extraordinarily rousing powers of speech Hal will demonstrate repeatedly once he is king in Henry V. Again, be on the lookout for any qualities that might suggest Hotspur might not be such a good prince and royal heir (and later, king) after all.

The further development of Falstaff's character. Whereas Falstaff's roguery may seem charming and entertaining in the first two or three acts of the play, consider how his behavior becomes less "cute" and more deeply troubling in the final three acts: read carefully his description of how he goes about raising troops to fight for the king in Act 4, Scene 2, where he says that he impresses into service men who are both highly motivated to get out of military duty (they are about to marry, e.g.) and who are able to pay him bribes to get out of serving, which leaves the 150 men he ends up with the dregs of society (men released from jail, e.g.) (see 4.2.11-47). Even more, attend carefully to his behavior on the battlefield, especially his discourse on honor at the conclusion of Act 5, Scene 1 (5.1.127-41).

Change in Hal's character, and his evolving relationship with his father. As we saw in Act 3, Scene 2, the king's dressing down of Hal is brutal. Recall that the king tells Hal he thinks God is punishing him for his sins through such an embarrassing and disappointing son (3.2.4-17), and that he goes so far as to wonder if Hal might even fight against him in the impending civil war (3.2.121-28). Falstaff proves to be not too far from the mark when he, playing the king in Act 2, Scene 4, helps Hal rehearse for this interview with his father: Falstaff-as-King Henry tells Hal that his behavior makes him doubt whether Hal is truly his son, noting that only a resemblance in their facial features makes him believe Hal is genuinely his own flesh and blood (2.4.399-402). The actual interview between father and son ends up being a major turning point in Hal's maturation: from here to the end of the play his behavior is radically more "princely" than in the opening two acts, as he promises it will be in 3.2.129-59.

Be attentive to the changes in how others perceive Hal as events unfold, his father most of all. Also note Hal's interactions with Falstaff. In the next play in the cycle, 2 Henry IV, Hal will go so far as to tell Falstaff, "I know thee not, old man," and to banish him from coming within ten miles of his royal person, "on pain of death." And then in Henry V Hal will indeed sentence one of Falstaff's cronies (Bardolph) to hang for stealing from a French church after he has ordered that death be the penalty for looting. Hal goes nowhere near so far in rejecting Falstaff and his own disreputable past in this play, but do look for signs that he is well on his way to turning his back on "all the world," which Falstaff thinks he represents for Hal in 2.4.468-75.

On the political/historical front: be attentive to Shakespeare's portrayal of the civil conflict as well. Recall from 3.1.187ff, for instance, such matters as Mortimer's inability to understand his wife because she speaks Welsh and not English. This political marriage, sealing an alliance between the rebel forces (it is Mortimer, Richard II's formally announced heir, whom they hope to establish on the throne in place of Henry) and a foreign nation (the Welsh, warring against the English as we learned in Act 1, Scene 1) signals a clearly unnatural state of affairs: Englishmen allying themselves with foreigners in their struggle against their own countrymen. Also note rebel concerns regarding the appearance of their maintaining a united front when Northumberland and Glendower fail to join the battle against the king in 4.1.60-75, as well as the different "spins" the rebels and royals put on the causes of the civil war in Act 4, Scene 3 and Act 5, Scene 1. Ponder carefully, too, Worcester's rationale in not telling Hotspur of the king's offer of forgiveness and amnesty in 5.2.1-25.

A note on prose vs. verse: As you read the first three acts of 1 Henry IV you may have noticed that the scenes with Falstaff are almost exclusively in prose, and those centering on the higher-status characters of both camps, royalists and rebels, are predominantly in blank verse (i.e. unrhymed verse). As you finish this play and read the remaining plays after the midterm, you may note that Shakespeare's mastery of verse has progressed substantially from the earliest samples we had of it in The Taming of the Shrew. The rhyming lines tend to be very unobtrusive, so that often you might not even notice the rhyme (see especially couplets closing scenes and acts), and the verse may not read exactly like prose, but it does seem to take on the air of more natural speaking, only the rhythm and balance of the lines often give them much greater power than prose typically offers. More on this front when we get to Henry V, but in the meantime look especially at the speeches in blank verse at climactic moments as the tension mounts before and throughout the Shrewsbury battle.

Works Cited

David, Alfred et al. Teaching with The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. New York: Norton, 2000.

Saccio, Peter. "The Historical Background of the History Plays." Readings on the Histories of William Shakespeare. Literary Companion to British Literature Series. Clarice Swisher, ed. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. 30-39

The passages below are by no means the only ones of especial importance in the play. They are but a selected few of many that help convey the play's central themes, motifs, or other key features.

Discussion questions:
matters to consider as you read:

purple bullet
Consider the personal characteristics of Hotspur: in what different ways is his name especially appropriate for his personality? How does Hotspur provide a "foil" or contrast to Prince Hal?

purple bullet Examine Prince Hal's relationship with Falstaff. Focus on how they interact with one another, but also explore possible reasons why someone like Hal, a royal prince, might choose to associate with such an out-and-out scoundrel.

purple bullet Explore Falstaff's fundamental humanity: what makes him seem so much more fully human or truly "alive" than most of the characters we've encountered in the comedies? Point to brief specific passages to illustrate your claims.

purple bullet Look for places where Hal seems fully aware of conflict between his dual roles as "individual private person" and prince, or "public heir to the throne." You might particularly focus on instances of irony, where Hal may be speaking on two different levels of meaning at the same time.

purple bullet Consider Shakespeare's portrayal of father-son relationships: how does this play have enduring relevance for many fathers and sons in every generation?

purple bullet Evaluate the king's comments on the importance of leaders not being too "familiar" with those they lead in Act 3, Scene 2. Is there truth in what he says?

purple bullet Point out and discuss particular passages or exchanges between Hal, Falstaff, and/or other of the "common" characters that strike you as humorous. What makes them so funny?

purple bullet As the play proceeds, Prince Hal's fortunes rise and Hotspur's fall. Consider what leadership qualities Hotspur does and does not possess.

purple bullet Discuss the exchanges between the emissaries of each army visiting the other's camp to discuss a reconciliation that would prevent the battle (Act 4, Scene 3 and Act 5, Scene 1): in what ways do the rebels' claims against the king seem valid, and what do you make of the king's response to them?

purple bullet Discuss the unfolding of Falstaff's character in the final two acts of the play. Point out specific passages that reveal his "true colors." Also consider how if Hal is to become truly more "princely," as he promises, he must indeed turn his back on his old friend regardless of his personal feelings.

purple bullet Discuss the change in Hal's character: point out passages that indicate significant apparent maturation. Focus particularly on matters that demonstrate his potential for becoming a great leader of his nation. Look not just for passages of Hal's own speech: also look at what others say about him.

purple bullet Discuss different views of honor: focus especially on Falstaff, Hotspur, and Hal, and point to specific passages to substantiate your claims.

purple bullet Also regarding honor: given that Hal seems intent on taking Hotspur's "honors" as his own by killing him, what do you make of his allowing Falstaff to get the credit for killing Hotspur? And what do you make of Hal's letting Douglas go free in the end? Does Hal really care as much about personal honor as Hotspur does?

Critical response options below: Address one of the options below (not both):
a) Give a close explication, a line-by-line analytical explanation, of the prince's speech in Act 1, Scene 2, lines 189-211. In effect, translate what Prince Hal says here into your own language and comment on the significance of the passage. How does this passage shade or impact your perception of Hal's character?

b) Defend Falstaff's view of honor, with particular attention to his comments on the battlefield in Act 5, focusing not exclusively on 5.1.127-40, but definitely including this soliloquy. Another place to consider is Falstaff's soliloquy in 5.4.111-28, where he delivers the famous line, "The better part of valor is discretion" (5.4.119-20). How are Falstaff's views on death and honor truly viable or worthy of consideration despite his apparent cowardice?