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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010 ©
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Type of Work
IV Part I is a history play with episodes of both comedy and tragedy. Although the play is based on the facts of history, it presents fictional characters, such as Sir John Falstaff and his plebeian friends, as well as fictionalized episodes involving them. Shakespeare is believed to have written the play in 1597 or earlier. It was first performed between 1597 and
.......Shakespeare based Henry IV Part I primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was
published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also used the following sources: The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547); The Civil Wars (about the Wars of the Roses), by Samuel Daniel (1563-1619); and a play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Shakespeare may have based the character Falstaff, in part, on a boastful but
cowardly soldier named Pyrgopolynices in Miles Gloriosus, a play by the Roman dramatist Plautus (254?-184 BC).
The action takes place in England between 1401 and 1403 at the following sites: London, Rochester
(east of London), Warkworth Castle (in northern England), Bangor (a military camp near Shrewsbury on the English-Welsh border), a public road near Coventry (in the English midlands northwest of London), and York (about halfway between London and Edinburgh, Scotland). The London locales present striking opposites—for example, the palace of the king in one scene and a
slummy byway or tavern in the next.
Protagonist: King Henry IV (It can be argued, however, that Prince Hal is the Protagonist)
Antagonists: The Enemies of the King and His Son
Comic Figure: Falstaff
Tragic Figure: Hotspur
King Henry IV: Skilled politician who, as Henry Bolingbroke, forced Richard II's abdication and usurped the throne. The oldest son of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), Henry was the first English king in the House of Lancaster, reigning from 1399 to 1413. During this play, he battles uprisings by British
Henry (Hal), Prince of Wales: Older son of the king. Known as Prince Hal (or simply Hal) to his friends, he keeps company with a band of drinkers and robbers in the slums of London. But when the time comes to fight the rebel forces, he
distinguishes himself in battle and wins the respect of all. It cannot be determined whether the historical Prince Henry was a carousing mischief-maker, although unverifiable stories characterize him as such.
Sir John Falstaff: Bosom pal of Prince Henry and one of the great comic characters in
English literature. He is a fat, good-for-nothing knight who spends his time bragging, wenching, sleeping, robbing, drinking sack (a dry white wine), and sparring verbally with anyone. He pronounces one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: "The better part of valour is discretion" (often misquoted as "Discretion is the better part of valour").
John of Lancaster: Younger son of the king.
Henry Percy (the Younger): Son of the Earl of Northumberland (the elder Henry Percy). Young Henry, a fierce warrior,
fights first on the side of the king but changes his allegiance to become a rebel leader. He is often called Hotspur, a name that symbolizes his pluck and temperament as a warrior and opponent of Prince Henry.
Henry Percy (the Elder): Earl of
Northumberland. He opposes the king after first supporting him and forms an alliance with a Welsh leader, Owen Glendower.
Thomas Percy: Earl of Worcester and Hotspur's uncle.
Lady Percy: Wife of Hotspur.
Edmund Mortimer: Earl of March. He believes he has a claim on the throne.
Owen Glendower: Welsh
Lady Mortimer: Wife of Edmund Mortimer and daughter of Glendower.
Archibald: Earl of Douglas. He leads the Scottish army as an ally of the Earl of
Richard Scroop: Archbishop of York and ally of Northumberland.
Earl of Westmoreland: Nobleman in the king's army.
Sir Walter Blunt: Nobleman in the king's army.
Sir Michael: Supporter of the archbishop.
Sir Richard Vernon: rebel.
Poins: Drinking companion of Prince Henry.
Gadshill, Peto, Bardolph: Drinking companions of
Mistress Quickly: Hostess of the Boar's-Head Tavern in London's Eastcheap section. Prince Henry, Falstaff, and their drinking friends are among the tavern's best customers.
Minor Characters: Lords, officers, sheriff, vintner (wine merchant), chamberlain, drawers (tapsters or bartenders), carriers, travelers, attendants, ostler (hostler, a person at an inn or a stable who keeps charge of horses).
Plot Summary ..........It is the autumn of 1401, about two years after Henry Bolingbroke became King Henry IV. Henry did not inherit the throne; he seized it. Through political machination, he forced the previous king, Richard II, to abdicate on September 30, 1399. Henry claimed the throne as a descendant of Henry
III, who ruled England from 1216 to 1272. About five months after Richard abdicated, one of the Bolingbroke’s supporters murdered Richard. (The murder of Richard is Shakespeare’s interpretation of history. There is no conclusive evidence demonstrating that foul play caused his death.)
By Michael J. Cummings...©
.......As the play opens, Henry is at his palace in London. Now consumed by guilt for causing Richard’s death (even though Richard was a weak and vindictive king), Henry prepares for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his sins. However, news of another uprising against him forces him to postpone the trip.
(Eight months before, Henry had suppressed a conspiracy organized by supporters of the late Richard.)
.......According to the Earl of Westmoreland, rebel armies are on the march to overthrow Henry. Owen Glendower, a Welsh rebel,
poses a threat in the west. Archibald, the Earl of Douglas, poses a threat in the north. Reports from the battlefield say that Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, led an English army against Glendower but that Glendower defeated him and took him prisoner. However, another English army, led by Henry Percy (known as Hotspur), defeated Archibald and took several important earls as prisoner,
including Mordake, the eldest son of Archibald. The king extols Hotspur’s deeds and wishes that his own son and heir to the throne, Prince Henry (known formally as the Prince of Wales and informally, to his friends, simply as Hal), were more like Hotspur.
.......At that very moment, Prince Hal is busy pursuing merriment in London with his old pal and surrogate father—a fat wine-swilling, food-stuffing, good-for-nothing braggart, robber, and loafer, Sir John Falstaff, a knight of the realm. How he attained knighthood is a mystery, for he would rather run than
fight—or storm a tavern than a castle. In Hal’s London apartment the two men are regaling themselves with tales of past misdeeds and making plans for another, a robbery. Poins, a drinking companion, enters just as Falstaff is leaving for Eastcheap, a seedy section of London. Poins accuses Falstaff of selling his soul to the devil on Good Friday for a cup of wine and a
cold capon leg. Hal says Falstaff “will give the devil his due” (1. 2. 39).
.......After Falstaff leaves, Poins suggests a mischief to Hal: They will agree to take part in the next robbery with Falstaff, but at the scene of the
crime—when Falstaff is in the act of robbing—they will keep their distance. Later, when Falstaff comes away with the booty, they will wear disguises and steal it from him.
.......Such are the reprehensible ways of Prince Henry: He is a carouser, a robber, a rascal, a rogue. And his father is not at all pleased. However, what King Henry IV does not realize is that young Hal is educating himself in the ways of the common people. He is also masking his true worth and talent by participating in base activities. In so doing, he will build a reputation as a wastrel
and ne’er-do-well, then shock and confound everyone when, as king, he turns out to be a savvy, highly skilled leader of a men. In one of the most important passages in the play, Prince Henry reveals these thoughts after Poins leaves and Hal is alone:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun, .......When Hotspur arrives fresh from battle at the king’s palace, he promotes a plan to return his captives to the enemy (Glendower) in exchange for an English prisoner, Edmund Mortimer, Hotspur’s brother-in-law. However, King Henry condemns Hotspur’s plan, for he has heard that Mortimer has found
time to woo and wed Glendower’s daughter in the enemy camp. Therefore, the king says, Mortimer “hath willfully betray’d / The lives of those that he did lead to fight.” (1. 3. 84-85). Infuriated, Hotspur refuses to yield his prisoners to the king. “An if the devil come and roar for them,” Hotspur says, “I will not send them” (1. 3. 128-129). In fact, so angry is Hotspur that he decides to
join the rebellion against King Henry.
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 wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare
So, when this loose behavior 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. (1. 2. 67-87)
.......While Hotspur returns home to Warkworth Castle to make his traitorous plans, Hal and Poins play their trick on Falstaff, wearing disguises as they rob Falstaff of the money he robbed
from travelers. Falstaff runs off without putting up a fight. Later, at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, Falstaff bemoans his loss to Hal and Poins, unaware that they were the ones who
robbed him of his booty. He claims he fought with a dozen robbers for two hours before yielding his prize and escaping miraculously. “I am eight times thrust through the doublet,” he says, “four through the hose; my buckler cut through and through; my sword hacked like a hand-saw” (2. 4. 66).When Hal reveals himself and Poins as the trick-playing villains who robbed Falstaff, the fat knight says
he knew all along that it was Hal who had set upon him. But, he says, he did not resist because he did not wish to injure the future king.
.......One of the king’s nobles arrives at the tavern to deliver a message reporting the
latest news of the rebellion and commanding Hal to return to court in the morning to see his father, the king. Falstaff, realizing that Hal must go to war, says, “Are thou not horribly afeard?” (2. 4. 147). Hal replies, “Not a whit, i’ faith; I lack some of thy instinct” (148). The next day, King Henry scolds his son for his “inordinate and low desires” (3. 2. 14) and reprimands him for the “rude
society” (3. 2. 16) he keeps. Hal then promises, “I shall hereafter . . .be more myself” (3. 2. 94-95).
.......After King Henry learns that some of the rebels, including Hotspur, are marshaling their forces in the west, at the
town of Shrewsbury, he commissions Hal to command part of the army. The king himself will ride at the head of the army. In turn, Prince Hal commissions Falstaff to raise and lead a regiment of foot soldiers against the rebels. However, Falstaff drafts only cowards who have money, knowing full well they will offer to buy their way out of military service. When they hand over three hundred pounds
each to win their right to return home, Falstaff pockets all of the money except a small portion with which to hire riffraff as stand-ins. Later, as Prince Hal inspects Falstaff’s recruits, he says, “I never did see such pitiful rascals” (4. 2. 17). Falstaff says they’ll do just fine because “They’ll fit a pit as well as better” (18).
.......Meanwhile, in an eleventh-hour effort to prevent hostilities, King Henry offers the rebels a general pardon, but Hotspur and his forces come out fighting. The year is now 1403; the site of the fighting is near Shrewsbury on the Welsh-English border.
As the battle rages, Hal and Hotspur seek each other out. When they find each other, Hal kills Hotspur. But Hal does not rejoice, for he recognizes that there was greatness in Hotspur. Hal salutes his fallen foe, saying “Fare thee well, great heart!” (5. 4. 94). All of Falstaff’s men die in the battle. Not wishing to meet their fate, Falstaff lies down and pretends to be dead. When he
arises later, he says, “The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part, I have saved my life” (5. 4. 118). Coming upon the corpse of Hotspur, Falstaff eyes it suspiciously, wondering whether Hotspur may still be alive. In a fit of bravery he stabs the corpse and decides to take credit for having slain the warrior. He then picks up the corpse and heaves it onto his shoulder, as
a hunter would a dead stag, and carries it off.
.......When Prince Hal happens by, Falstaff throws the corpse down and says, “There is Percy: if your father will do me any honour, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself.
I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you” (5. 4. 130). Hal then announces that it was he who slew Hotspur while the fat old knight was lying in a ditch. Falstaff replies, “I grant you I was down and out of breath; and so was he: but we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so; if not, let them that should reward valour bear the sin
upon their own heads” (5. 4. 132). In the distance, a trumpet blares a retreat, and Hal declares the Battle of Shrewsbury over and the victory won. As Hal leaves for another part of the battlefield, Falstaff follows, saying, “He that rewards me, God reward him! If I do grow great, I’ll grow less; for I’ll purge, and leave sack, and live cleanly as a nobleman should do” (5. 4.
.......The two rebel leaders, Worcester and Vernon, are taken prisoner and summarily executed. However, a third prisoner—the valorous Archibald, Earl of Douglas—is
released by the generous Prince Hal. King Henry and Hal then leave for Wales to confront rebels under the command of Owen Glendower and the Earl of March. At the same time, Prince John of Lancaster, Hal’s younger brother, heads toward York to battle rebel forces led by the Earl of Northumberland (Hotspur’s father). The play ends when King Henry declares, “Rebellion in this land shall lose his
sway, meeting the check of such another day: And since this business so fair is done, let us not leave till all our own be won” (5. 5. 44-47).
Turning a Sow's Ear Into a Silk Purse
.......While befriending Falstaff and his rowdies, Prince Hal is a carouser, robber, womanizer, and practical joker. And his father is not at all pleased. However, what King Henry IV does not realize is that young Hal is deliberately masking his true worth and talent by participating in these base
activities. His goal is to educate himself in the ways of the common people. After building a reputation as a wastrel and ne’er-do-well, he will shock and confound everyone when he turns out to be a savvy, highly skilled leader of men. The sow's ear will have become a silk purse.
Battlefield Valor as a Shaper of Leaders
.......Prince Hal’s courageous deeds in war help mold him into a leader esteemed ny those who previously thought he was a ne'er-do-well. This motif recurs throughout literature and history, as demonstrated in ancient times by Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and in modern times by Dwight
Eisenhower and John Kennedy.
Carpe Diem, or Eat, Drink, and Be merry
.......Falstaff lives for the moment—for wine, women, song, and making mischief. “I live out of all order, out of all compass” (3. 3. 5), Falstaff says of his carpe diem philosophy. Although he appears to have ensnared Prince Hal in his happy-go-lucky lifestyle, the
young prince knows well his responsibilities as heir to the throne and, when the time comes, he doffs his veneer of devil-may-care merrymaker to reveal himself as a brave and wily king-to-be.
Guilt From Ill-Gotten Gain
.......Henry IV experiences deep guilt for the manner in which he came to power: overthrowing the previous king, Richard II. (Shakespeare says he did not merely overthrow him; he murdered him. This guilt consumes him and remains with him (as the reader learns in Henry IV Part II) until he draw his
.......Henry IV uses his army to fight citizens of his own country. In modern times, governments have often done the same, rightly or wrongly, in Russia, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, and other countries.
.......The climax of a play or a narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in Henry IV occurs, according to the first definition, when Prince Hal renounces his
wastrel lifestyle and takes up the sword to fight for England. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Prince Hal fights to the death with Hotspur. Prose vs Verse in Henry IV Part I
.......Shakespeare wrote Henry IV partly in prose and partly in verse.
.......Verse is a collection of lines that follow a
regular, rhythmic pattern—in Shakespeare, usually iambic pentameter, a metric scheme in which each line has ten syllables consisting of five unaccented and accented syllable pairs. In its highest form—when the language is lyrical and the content sublime—verse can become poetry, either rhymed or unrhymed. Prose,
on the other hand, is the everyday language of conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or metric scheme.
......Why did Shakespeare mix verse (including
poetry) and prose in his plays? That is a question that inevitably occupies anyone studying Shakespeare’s writing techniques. Before considering that question, the Shakespeare analyst first needs to learn how to identify the verse and prose passages in a play. That task is easy. Here’s why:
......In most modern editions of the plays, each line in multi-line verse passages begins with a capital letter, and each line in multi-line prose passages begins with a small letter except the first line or a line beginning with the opening word of a sentence. In addition, verse passages have a shortened right
margin, but prose passages have a full right margin. Following are examples of these visual cues in verse and prose passages from Henry IV Part I:
......Now, then, what about single lines—those spoken in conversation as questions, replies, or ripostes? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming line or is too abrupt to contain a metric scheme. Following is example of such a prose passage with single
CHAMBERLAIN. Good morrow, Master Gadshill. It holds current that I told you yesternight: there’s a franklin in the wild of Kent hath brought three hundred marks with him in gold: I heard him tell it to one of his company last night at supper; a kind of auditor; one that hath abundance of charge too, God knows what. They are up already and call
for eggs and butter: they will away presently.
GADSHILL. Sirrah, if they meet not with Saint Nicholas’ clerks, I’ll give thee this neck.
CHAMBERLAIN. No, I’ll none
of it: I prithee, keep that for the hangman; for I know thou worship’st Saint Nicholas as truly as a man of falsehood may. (2.1-28-31)
LADY PERCY. O, my good lord! why are you thus alone?
For what offence have I this fortnight been
A banish’d woman from my
Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sitt’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks,
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy? (2.3.10-20)
HOTSPUR. We’ll fight with him to-night. ......But what of the multi-line passages? Why are some in verse and others in prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn
characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and plebeians—or wine-swilling hooligans, like Falstaff (Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II)—often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters, like Hamlet and Volumnia
(Coriolanus), sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters, like the witches in Macbeth, often speak in verse. Even the lowest of the low—the beast-man Caliban in The Tempest—speaks often in verse. In The Merchant of Venice, the characters associated with the dirty world of money speak frequently in
verse, and the characters associated with the rarefied world of nobility and refinement speak often in prose. Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing is almost entirely in prose, with highborn characters only occasionally speaking in verse.
WORCESTER. It may not be.
DOUGLAS. You give him then advantage.
VERNON. Not a whit.
HOTSPUR. Why say you so? looks he not for supply?
VERNON. So do we.
HOTSPUR. His is certain, ours is doubtful. (4.3.1-7)
......Why, then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose? Shakespeare used verse to do the following:
One: Express deep emotion requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their emotions in verse from time to time. ......Shakespeare used prose to do the following:
Two: Make wise, penetrating, and reflective observations that require lofty language. Such a passage is a famous one recited by the outlaw Jaques in Act II, Scene VII, of As You Like It. The passage—which begins with the often-quoted line “All the world’s a stage”—philosophizes about the “seven
ages” of man, from infancy to senility.
Three: Present a lyrical poem as a separate entity, like the famous song in Act V, Scene III, of As You Like It. The first stanza of that poem follows:
............It was a lover and his lass,
............With a hey, and a ho, and a hey
............That o’er the green corn-field did pass
............In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
............When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
............Sweet lovers love the spring.
Four: Inject irony. When the highborn speak humble prose and the hoi polloi speak elegant verse, as is sometimes the case in The Merchant of Venice,
Shakespeare may be saying up can be down, and down can be up. In The Merchant, the noble characters are just as reprehensible as—or perhaps even more reprehensible than—the workaday, unsophisticated characters. Portia is often depicted in critical analyses of the play as its noblest character. But a close reading of the play reveals
her as a racist and a self-seeking conniver. Thus, Shakespeare makes her tongue wag in prose and verse, revealing her Janus personality.
Five: Suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy
brain that plans ahead and executes actions on schedule.
One: Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior. Imagery: Similes
Two: Make quick, one-line replies such
as “Ay, my lord” that are the stuff of day-to-day conversations.
Three: Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from the intellectual and connotative density of the verse passages.
Four: Suggest madness or senility. In King Lear, Lear speaks almost exclusively in verse in the first half of the play. Then suddenly, he lurches back and forth between verse and prose, perhaps to suggest the frenzied state of his aging mind. Hamlet sometimes shifts to
prose in front of observers, perhaps in hopes of presenting his feigned madness as real.
Five: Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened by alcohol, as in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part
Six: Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.
Seven: Demonstrate that prose has
merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare’s day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the sine qua non of successful writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to tout the merits of prose. Thus, on occasion, he infused his plays with prose passages so graceful and thought-provoking that they equalled, and sometimes even surpassed, the majesty of verse or poetry
.......To vivify his writing, Shakespeare frequently uses similes in Henry VI Part I, as in the following passages:
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife, Imagery: Other Figures of Speech
No more shall cut his master. (King Henry, 1.1.19-20)
Comparison of the edge of war to the cutting edge of a knife
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and
trimly dress’d, 36
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin, new reap’d,
Show’d like a stubble-land at harvest-home:
He was perfumed like a milliner. (Hotspur, 1.3.34-39)
Comparison of the lord to a bridegroom and his child to a harvested field
At my nativity 16
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shak’d like a coward. (Glendower, 3.1.16-20)
Comparison of the movement of the earth to the shaking of a coward
All [are] furnish’d, all in arms,
All plum’d like estridges that wing the wind, 108
Baited like eagles having lately
Glittering in golden coats, like images,
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer, 112
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls. (Vernon, 4.1.107-113)
soldiers to ostriches, eagles, the spirit of May, the midsummer sun, goats, and bulls
.......Examples of other figures of speech in the play are the following
Repetition of a consonant sound
Methinks my moiety, north from Burton here, Anaphora
In quantity equals not one of yours (Hotspur, 3.1.99-100)
In his behalf I’ll empty all these veins,
And shed my dear blood drop by drop i’ the dust (Hotspur, 1.3.138-139
Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause in successive groups of words
And thou hast talk’d Hyperbole
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom, and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight. (Lady Percy,
By heaven methinks it were an easy leap Metaphor
To pluck bright honour from the pale-fac’d moon,
Or dive into the bottom of
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks; (Hotspur 1.3.208-212)
Comparison a thing to an unlike thing without using like, as, or than
And for whose death we in the world’s wide mouth Personification
Live scandaliz’d and foully spoken of. (Worcester, 1.3.158-159)
Comparison of gossip (implied) to the world's wide mouth
The hour before the heavenly-harness’d team
Begins his golden progress in the east. (Glendower, 3.1.225-226)
allusion that compares the sun to the team of horses that draws the chariot of Apollo, the Greek sun god
Will you again unknit
This churlish knot of all-abhorred war. . . ? (King Henry, 5.1.19-20)
Comparison of war to a knot
A metaphor that compares a thing to a person
The southern wind
Doth play the trumpet to his purposes,
And by his hollow whistling in the leaves
Foretells a tempest and a blustering day. (Prince Hal, 5.1.6-9)
Prince Hal: Crafty Dissembler
.......Early in Henry IV, Shakespeare depicts Prince Hal as a fun-loving, hard-drinking, womanizing rascal who enjoys the company of commoners, a characterization that gives him a certain romantic appeal. However, in a soliloquy in Act I, Scene II (a soliloquy reproduced
in the plot summary above), Hal discloses that he is leading a life of dissipation in order to learn about the ways of commoners, including vulgar lowlifes, and thereby prepare himself to become a king who knows the minds of his subjects. In other words, Hal is spying on the common people; he is going to school on them, as it were, pretending to be friends with them when, in reality, he
regards them as objects in an experiment designed to serve his aims.
Falstaff: the 'Supreme Comic Character'
.......Renowned Shakespeare critic G.B. Harrison, impressed with Shakespeare's handling of Falstaff, wrote the falling appraisal of the character:
The most notable person in [King Henry IV] is the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, the supreme comic character in all drama. In creating Falstaff, Shakespeare used principally his own eyes and ears. Falstaff is the gross incarnation of a type of soldier found in any army, and there were many
such—though on a lower level of greatness—swarming in London when the play was first written, spending the profits of the last campaign in taverns, brothels, and playhouses, while they intrigued for a new command in the next season's campaign.... Many of them were rogues who cheated the government and their own men on all occasions....
Though he [Falstaff] can quote Scripture on occasion, he is a liar, a drunkard, and a cheat; he robs the poor and flouts every civic virtue; but on the stage at least he redeems his vices by his incomparable wit and his skill escaping from every tight corner."—G.B. Harrison, ed. Major British Writers. New York: Harcourt, 1967 (Page
.......In the dialogue of Henry IV Part I and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings, or epigrams, couched in memorable language. Among the more memorable sayings in Henry IV Part I are the following:
The better part of valour is discretion. (5. 4. 118) Great Play—or Mediocre?
Falstaff’s observation expresses a paradox: that prudence and caution are, or should be, components of courage and fearlessness.
Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety. (2. 3. 6)
Hotspur here uses metaphors, comparing danger to a nettle (a plant with sharp hairs that can sting the flesh) and safety to a flower.
He was but as the cuckoo is in June, heard, not regarded. (3. 2. 77-78)
King Henry tells his son, Prince Hal, that it is unwise for a monarch to be seen often in public to curry the favor of the people. When a previous king overexposed himself, the
people eventually tired of seeing him—and he became like the familiar June cuckoo. It makes its noise, but nobody hears it. This simile, which compares the king to the cuckoo, seems particularly apt for the context.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere. (5. 4. 71)
Prince Henry speaks this line when he meets Hotspur on the battlefield. It is a climactic moment; for here are the two lions of the opposing armies set to wield swords against each other. Hal
uses a metaphor to compare himself and Hotspur to stars and the battlefield to the sky, noting that the sky is not big enough for two great stars. In other words, one of the men must die. Henry then kills Hotspur.
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,
But not remember’d in thy epitaph! (5. 4. 107-108)
Prince Henry pronounces these words, which
personify ignominy, over the dead Hotspur. They express a noble sentiment: that the memory of Hotspur’s opposition to the king’s forces should not stain his reputation but instead should sleep with him in his grave.
Shakespeare's Best: Mark Van Doren
Poet, writer, and teacher Mark
Van Doren (1894-1972) held that Henry IV was among Shakespeare's best plays. He wrote:
No play of Shakespeare is better than Henry IV. Certain subsequent ones may show him more settled in the maturity which he here attains almost at a single bound, but nothing that he wrote is more crowded with life or happier in its imitation of human talk. The pen that moves across these pages
is perfectly free of itself. The host of persons assembled for our pleasure can say anything for their author he wants to say. The poetry of Hotspur and the prose of Falstaff have never been surpassed in their respective categories; the History as a dramatic form ripens here to a point past which no further growth is possible; and in Falstaff alone there is sufficient evidence of Shakespeare's
mastery in the art of understanding style, and through style of creating men.—Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1939 (Page 97).Shakespeare's Worst: George Bernard Shaw
Playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) held an opposing view:
Everything that charm of style, rich humor, and vivid natural characterization can do for a play are badly wanted by Henry IV, which has neither the romantic beauty of Shakespeare's earlier plays nor the tragic greatness of the later ones. . . . The combination of conventional propriety and brute masterfulness
in his [Prince Hal's] public capacity with a low-lived blackguardsman in his private tastes is not a pleasant one. No doubt he is rue to nature as a picture of what is by no means uncommon in English society, an able young Philistine inheriting high position and authority, which he holds on to and goes through with by keeping a tight grip on his conventional and legal advantages, but who would
have been quite in his place if he had been born a gamekeeper or a farmer."—Shaw, George Bernard. Quoted in Eastman, A.M., and G.B. Harrison, eds. Shakespeare's Critics: From Jonson to Auden. Ann Arbor, Mich.: U of Michigan, 1964 (Page 208).Lineage of the Houses of Lancaster and York
House of Lancaster: Henry IV ("Bolingbroke," son of the Duke of Lancaster), 1399-1413. Age at death: 47. Henry V (son of Henry IV), 1413-1422. Age at death: 34. Henry VI (son of Henry V, deposed), 1422-1471. Age at death: 49.
House of York: Edward IV (son of duke of York), 1461-1483. Age at death: 41. Edward V (son of Edward IV), 1483. Age at death: 13. Richard III ("Crookback," brother of Edward IV) 1483-1485. Age at death: 35.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
2. On this page, under “Great Play—or Mediocre,” Mark Van Doren and George
Bernard Shaw present opposing opinions about the literary quality of Henry IV Part I. Do you agree with Van Doren or Shaw? Explain your answer.
3. Write an essay focusing on a theme expressed in the following epigrams: Two stars keep not their motion in
one sphere (5. 4. 71).
4. Write an essay that examines the motivations of Prince Hal.
5. Write an essay comparing and
contrasting Prince Hal and Hotspur.
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