Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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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
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);
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).
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
King Henry IV (It can be argued, however, that Prince Hal is the Protagonist)
The Enemies of the King and His Son
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
(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
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.
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.
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.
Percy: Wife of Hotspur.
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 Northumberland.
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:
Poins: Drinking companion
of Prince Henry.
Gadshill, Peto, Bardolph:
Drinking companions of Falstaff.
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
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).
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.)
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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:
herein will I imitate the sun,
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.
doth permit the base contagious clouds
smother up his beauty from the world,
when he please again to be himself,
wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
breaking through the foul and ugly mists
vapours that did seem to strangle him.
all the year were playing holidays,
sport would be as tedious as to work;
when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
when this loose behavior I throw off
pay the debt I never promised,
how much better than my word I am,
so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
like bright metal on a sullen ground,
reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
show more goodly and attract more eyes
that which hath no foil to set it off.
so offend, to make offence a skill;
time when men think least I will. (1. 2. 67-87)
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.
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).
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).
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.
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. 141).
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.
a Sow's Ear Into a Silk Purse
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.
Valor as a Shaper of Leaders
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
Diem, or Eat, Drink, and Be merry
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.
From Ill-Gotten Gain
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 last breath.
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.
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.
vs Verse in Henry IV Part I
wrote Henry IV partly in prose and partly in 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.
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:
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:
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 lines.
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.
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)
We’ll fight with him to-night.
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
It may not be.
You give him then advantage.
Not a whit.
Why say you so? looks he not for supply?
So do we.
His is certain, ours is doubtful. (4.3.1-7)
then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose? Shakespeare used
verse to do the following:
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.
used prose to do the following:
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.
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:
was a lover and his lass,
a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
o’er the green corn-field did pass
the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
lovers love the spring.
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.
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.
Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface
of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior.
Make quick, one-line replies such as “Ay, my lord" that are the stuff of
Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from
the intellectual and connotative density of the verse passages.
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.
Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened
by alcohol, as in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II.
Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.
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 passages.
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,
Other Figures of Speech
No more shall cut his master.
(King Henry, 1.1.19-20)
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
He was perfumed like a milliner.
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,
of the movement of the earth to the shaking of a coward
All [are] furnish’d, all
All plum’d like estridges
that wing the wind, 108
Baited like eagles having
Glittering in golden coats,
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)
of soldiers to ostriches, eagles, the spirit of May, the midsummer sun,
goats, and bulls
of other figures of speech in the play are the following
Repetition of a consonant
north from Burton here,
equals not one of yours (Hotspur,
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
sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
prisoners’ ransom, and of soldiers
And all the currents of
a heady fight. (Lady Percy, 2.3.24-28)
By heaven methinks
it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honour from
the pale-fac’d moon,
Or dive into the bottom
of the deep,
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
Live scandaliz’d and foully
spoken of. (Worcester, 1.3.158-159)
of gossip (implied) to the world's wide mouth
The hour before the heavenly-harness’d
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)
of war to a knot
A metaphor that compares
a thing to a person
The southern wind
Doth play the trumpet to
And by his hollow whistling
in the leaves
Foretells a tempest and
a blustering day. (Prince Hal, 5.1.6-9)
Hal: Crafty Dissembler
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.
the 'Supreme Comic Character'
Shakespeare critic G.B. Harrison, impressed with Shakespeare's handling
of Falstaff, wrote the falling appraisal of the character:
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
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 better part
of valour is discretion. (5. 4. 118)
Falstaff’s observation expresses
a paradox: that prudence and caution are, or should be, components of courage
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
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.
Best: Mark Van Doren
writer, and teacher Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) held that Henry IV was among
Shakespeare's best plays. He wrote:
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).
Worst: George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) held an opposing view:
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
of the Houses of Lancaster and York
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:
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
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.
Write an essay focusing on a theme expressed in the following epigrams:
stars keep not their motion in one sphere (5. 4. 71).
Write an essay that examines the motivations of Prince Hal.
Write an essay comparing and contrasting Prince Hal and Hotspur.
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