Henry IV Part I was probably written and performed for the first time in 1597.
It is the second play of the Henriad, : Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry Vth, all of which have a major theme of authority. In Richard II, Richard tries to impose his regal authority without considering the practical realities of power, and is first overthrown, and then murdered, by Henry Bolingbrook (later Henry IV) with the help of Northumberland and other nobles. In Henry IV Part I, Henry, now king (Henry IV), is having trouble with Northumberland and his son Harry Hotspur, and his own son, Prince Hal, who seems to prefer spending time with Falstaff, than helping his father the king.
From the very start, the play was very popular, not least for the character Falstaff.
The major impact that Elizabethan current affairs appear to have had on Henry IV Part I was the re-naming of the key comic character from Oldcastle to Falstaff. There was an historic ‘Oldcastle’, a Puritan martyr, with powerful living relatives including Lord Cobham. This Lord Cobham, in the last year of his life became Lord Chamberlain, and patron of the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s men’ of whom Shakespeare was one. He, and other Puritans, put pressure on Shakespeare to rename Oldcastle.
Why should Shakespeare pick on Oldcastle? The Puritans were opposed to theatres, where people dressed up in inappropriate clothes and pretended to be people they weren’t and where immoral goings-on went on. So theatres and players weren’t very popular with Puritans. And so they weren’t particularly popular with Shakespeare and his players.
For Falstaff to have this Puritanical background has helped to create the comic masterpiece that he is. The old reprobate is continually mis-using biblical quotations to justify his behaviour, and this provides one of the many sources of his wit and humour. And the moral stance of Puritans – and perhaps Henry IV – is something Falstaff loves to attack.
So if Shakespeare wasn’t strongly influenced by contemporaneous interests to write the play, why did he choose this subject?
Throughout the Henriad, Shakespeare seems to be exploring two related subjects: from where does a king’s authority come? and the change in English culture from the medieval, aristocratic, religious culture, where the authority of the anointed king comes directly from God, and the emerging capitalist, democratic, and scientific culture of Elizabethan England, perhaps epitomised in the political sphere, by the work of Machiavelli.
Richard II (the first play in the Henriad) resonated particularly with Elizabeth, perhaps for two main reasons:
First, it showed the overthrow of a monarch – a sensitive subject in the turbulent times of Elizabeth with many Catholic (and other) plots against the Queen’s life. Shakespeare and his players nearly got into serious trouble when they played Richard II the night before Essex’s rebellion.
Second, Henry’s role can be played as rather Machiavellian – to begin with, after his return to the UK from banishment, in his gradual accretion of power until he forces Richard to abdicate in his favour; and then by asking a follower to kill Richard, and when the deed is done, to deny that he had wanted that to happen. This has rather uncomfortable parallels in Elizabeth’s time with the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, where Elizabeth signed the death warrant, but denied that she had allowed it to be released for execution, after Mary was executed. In fact she was in a serious sulk for some time.
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So how does the theme of authority show itself in Henry IV Part 1?
There are two main themes to the play. First, the struggle for Henry IVth to establish his authority against the rebellion of Northumberland, Hotspur, Worcester and others. These are the very people who helped Henry IV to the throne by overthrowing Richard II. But now that he is king, Henry has to establish his authority over his one-time fellow conspirators.
Secondly a struggle to establish his authority as the father of Prince Hal (the later Henry Vth) where the competition comes from Falstaff. Prince Hal, like many a young man, has rebelled against his father and has gone off to sow his wild oats in the company of Falstaff and the others in Eastcheap. For the Prince, the attraction of Eastcheap is not only the girls and the drinking and the robberies, but the extraordinary charm and wit of Falstaff. For the audience, the scenes with Hal and Falstaff are what make the play one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.
These two themes are brought together at the end of the play at the Battle of Shrewsbury, which Henry IVth must win to defeat the rebels. His son, Prince Hal is there, as is Falstaff. The battle could go either way until Prince Hal and Hotspur meet in single combat, which ends with the death of Hotspur. So Hal secures his father’s victory over the rebels, and is reconciled with his father.
It is worth noting that Henry IV (in Henry IVth Part 2) acknowledges that there was something murky in his acquistion of the crown:
“How I came by the Crown, O heaven forgive:”
and all three plays demonstrate again and again how he adopts Machiavellian approaches to meeting the demands of power.
Prince Hal, too has this Machiavellian element to his character. It comes to the fore as early as A1S2 in Henry IV Part 1:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the Sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his Beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better Than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright Metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Falstaff has a different view of life. He has no sense of (political?) moral responsibility and mocks it again and again. But he loves Prince Hal, and dies when the new king rejects him.
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