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:

  1. Hotspur is one of the play's most attractive and irritating characters, and unlike Hal, Harry Percy is given a love relationship with Kate, his wife, which deeply affects our sense of his character.
    • Why does Shakespeare introduce Kate, and what dramatic tasks does he give her?
    Especially observe her ability to call the warrior, Hotspur, "you mad-headed ape," "you paraquito," and to compare him unfavorably with a mad weasel (II.iii.68 ff.).

  2. This play contains several instances of metadrama, plays staged by characters who are themselves acting in a play.   The Gadshill robbery is more properly a meta-metadrama, once Hal and Poins become "poetic rivals" of Falstaff.  The famous mock trial, in which Falstaff plays both Henry IV to Hal's impersonation of himself, and Hal plays Henry IV to Falstaff's "Hal" (II.iv.299 ff.).  But there also are other, briefer moments when characters take on others' "personas" and utter lines in others voices.  See, for instance, Hal imitating the speech of "Douglas" (II.iv.276-7), Falstaff doing "Glendower" (II.iv.264 ff.), and Hotspur doing "Henry,"  and "Glendower" (I.iii.250 ff., III.i.144 ff.).
    • What does this intricate dramatic counterploting and vocal masking mean in the context of the play's larger issues?
    • Does it tell us anything about the nature of character, itself?

  3. An outgrowth of the "fathers and sons" theme, mentioned above, is the play's interest in a young man's yearning for the play of his youth while mature concerns call him to adopt a new role in society.
    • How and where does Shakespeare show us Hal's dual awareness of himself as both "Hal" and "Prince"?
    Whatever the plays outcomes, some of its cumulative effects depend upon the sheer number of lines and minutes of stage time given to its various themes.
    • Does "Hal" or "the Prince" get more time on stage?
    • How might this affect the play's relationship to Henry V, the successor play to the two Henry IV plays, which tracks Hal's career as a warrior king fighting the French at Agincourt?

  4. If one were to seek another great work of literature in this tradition that depended so much upon the "fathers and sons" motif, one might go back to Virgil's Aeneid.  There, Aeneas must bring his son, Ascanius, from fallen Troy to Italy where Ascanius' descendents will found Rome.  Aeneas also is asked to be the foster father in warfare to Lausus, the young son of the ruler of Arcadia, Aeneas' ally.  In the climax of a sequence of "substitute victims," in which the innocent are sacrificed to the more powerful opponent, Lausus is killed by Turnus who is nearly Aeneas' equal and has been seeking him through the battlefield.  This sets up the turning point of the play's conclusion.
    • Does Shakespeare make use of any sorts of substitutions in working out the plot of this play, and do they take on any of the aspects of sacrifices?
    If one were to seek a model for the firey Harry Percy, one would not go far wrong in looking to Turnus, whom Virgil routinely describes using fire metaphors and whose short temper several times motivates a dramatic change in the plot.
    • Given that Turnus' defeat makes possible the fulfillment of Aeneas' descendents' prophesied destiny, the foundation of Rome, can you speculate about what destiny Shakespeare may be implying for the slayer of Hotspur?

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