William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV
Genre: tragic drama.
Form: blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) mixed with prose, mainly in the comic subplot.
Characters and Summary: Henry Bolingbroke, heir to John of Gaunt (duke of Lancaster), has defeated, imprisoned, and assassinated Richard II with the help of his allies, the earl of Northumberland, the earl of Westmoreland and other barons. Though England is largely under royal control, the Welsh and Scots threaten to attack from the West and North, and the Percies, the family who rules the North of England are therefore extremely important to Henry's reign. This has left him (now Henry IV) dependent upon a coalition of nobles for his political stability since, as a usurper, he cannot exactly claim to rule England purely by right of succession even though his father was the third son of Edward III. In particular, Edmund Mortimer has a strong claim (being son to the second son of Edward III), but Mortimer was taken prisoner while fighting the Welsh and Henry is not at all eager to see him ransomed. He hopes to expiate his bad deeds and to distract the nobility by planning a crusade, but the Percies, Westmoreland, Mortimer, and others are not so easily taken in by the plan and begin to form an alliance with the Welsh (Owen Glendower) and the Scots (Lord Douglas) to take the throne. In particular, should anything happen to Henry, the descent of the throne is by no means certain.
Prince Hal (heir to the throne) begins the play in the subplot because he has taken to carousing in the streets and taverns of London with a gang of petty thieves and wits led by Sir John Falstaff, a character closely modeled on the "Vice" figures of the Moralities. Poins, Peto, and Bardolph are rather like the "Three Stooges" of London's Underworld, although the crimes they commit are considered serious by English law (theft being punished by hanging until the nineteenth century, even for children and women). Hal's behavior is puzzling to the audience, and deeply disturbing to his father. Is he "sowing his wild oats," or is he really somehow morally defective, and how will he react to the rebellion growing in the main plot?
If Falstaff and Henry are Hal's two "fathers," Hal has a foil as Henry son in young Harry Percy, called "Hotspur" because of his temperment. Henry even wishes Hotspur were his son rather than Hal (I.i.86 ff.). This "fathers and sons" theme creates important thematic parallels in the play as characters reveal their contrasting weaknesses and strengths in a sort of essay on the hazards of character formation. Falstaff and Hotspur also are opposed in a sort of dramatic debate over the notion of honor's value. The play's conclusion is read, by some, as Shakespeare's verdict on Hotspur's exalted appeal to enduring fame gained from warfare at the expense of other social refinements. See especially Hotspur's outrage at the appearance and behavior of the courtier who bears Henry's demand for the hostages (I.iii.29 ff.) and Falstaff's soliloquy on "Honor" (V.i.127). The latter might usefully be compared with Erasmus' "Praise of Folly" for its mixture of common sense and nonsense, and contrasted with the battle speeches of Byrtnoth's vassals in "The Battle of Maldon" for its sophistical rejection of the socially binding power of sworn oaths.
Issues and Research Sources:
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