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 overthrown 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.
You can see an extract from a Globe production of the play (AII SIV – the play within the play) with Roger Allam as Falstaff at Henry IV Part I
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. This wasn’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 reprobrate 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.
So how does the theme of authority show itself in Henry IV?
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.
Falstaff is often played as a fat amusing rascal, and Hal is a young man doing what young men like to do, but they can be seen in deeper and darker ways.
Falstaff is not only an amusing, witty, and charming rascal. He can be seen as someone who proposes a different philosophy of life to that of Henry IVth. He challenges many of the virtues of the king. And perhaps most importantly of all, he loves Prince Hal.
The Prince can also be seen as much darker than the wild irresponsible youth he appears. Perhaps he has the same Machiavellian attitudes as his father, and so needs to escape from him to avoid Machiavellian family conflict. Certainly with Falstaff and his crew, Hal is clear from the start that he intends to reject them when he comes to the throne.
C21 Performance considerations:
A modern audience responds to these two themes very differently. We still delight to the scenes between Falstaff and Prince Hal, and the competition between Henry IV and Falstaff for the love of Prince Hal resonates to this day.
But it is hard to be so interested in the conflict between the rebels and the King. It is all a long time ago, and the rights and wrongs of Mortimer in the Welsh marches, and even Douglas the Scot or Percy of Northumberland vis-a-vis Henry IV are difficult for a modern audience. Perhaps the only exception is Hotspur, the son of Northumberland, who Henry IV prefers to his own son, and so is involved in the conflict between Henry IV and his son, Prince Hal.
It is also the most male play of the canon, with only three female roles, none of them huge. This is not wonderful for Community Theatre Groups who usually have more women than men.
The Modern First Folio edition is around 25,000 words so needs a reasonable amount of cutting to reach a 2-hour play time (20,000 words).
Henry IV Part I (and II) and Falstaff are far too much fun to consign to the dustbin of history, but at the same time, are getting harder to make into a successful production for a C21 audience. Our response has been to extract the story of Prince Hal, his father the king, and Falstaff, to focus on the conflict between the two fathers and their two very different philosophies. We plan to publish (shortly) the resulting 1 hour play – ‘Gentlemen of the Shade’ in our C21 edition. This was originally shown at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003.