Given that the play is called Henry IV, a surprising amount of the play centres around Prince Hal, later to be ‘The Star of England’ that is Henry V. We’re also introduced to a beloved Shakespeare character in Sir John Falstaff and we also deal with some of the aftermath of the events in Richard II.
Let’s focus on the King first. True to history, Henry is having not the smoothest of reigns at the end of his life. He’s troubled by his actions towards his predecessor and is increasingly having problems with both the Percy family and Richard II’s heir Edward Mortimer (Henry V famously welcomed Mortimer during his reign). This comes a head during the Battle of Shrewsbury, a famous battle between Henry IV’s forces and Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy’s forces.
Another plot in the play features the suppose riotous and irresponsible youth of Prince Hal. His actions are paralleled against that of Hotspur. The two are portrayed as the same age (though this is incorrect) and they managed to find each other on the battlefield where they take each other on in tense single combat. Even Hal’s father compares them vocally in the play:
Yea, there thou mak’st me sad and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry.
Hal meanwhile has been frequenting taverns with his friends, most notably Sir John Falstaff. He’s a charismatic presence with a carefree and animated personality that contrasts much with the Prince’s actual father. It’s notable however that whilst Hal is intrigued with Falstaff’s exuberance he makes no concerted effort to really be like him. He enjoys the camaraderie and hilarity of pranking Sir John with his friend Poins, he makes fun of Falstaff but is under no illusion to his real purpose in life.
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.
When all alone in Act 1 we see Hal as more shrewd than his father believes him to be. He intends to appear more noble in the future having risen so far from such a place of disapproval given his current lifestyle. This makes the progression of Hal through the play all the more interesting, for it sets him up as a complex young man, capable of more than may be initially conveyed.
It is the setting of battle which begins to uncover the true nature of the characters more. Hal is shown to be more valiant and kingly than his court critiques may suggest. He manages to slay Hotspur in battle whilst through deception Falstaff takes credit for the kill despite having had very little to do in the battle at all. Though Hal is aware of this he allows Falstaff credit.
I won’t deny watching Hal becoming the Henry in one of Shakespeare’s best histories is one of my favourite character progressions of all time – perhaps my favourite. But Shakespeare also places my emphasis on Hal in Henry IV, Part 1. Hal’s riotous fun is just a captivating as watching the real political machinations of Bolingbroke, now Henry IV. His serious problems with the Welsh rebellion and dealing discontent with nobles was very real and made up a huge part of his reign. It’s a contrast of both scope and humour that Hal’s plotline is laid against his fathers, but when the two come together the result is captivating, setting the stage for the next two chronological history plays, beginning with Henry IV, Part 2.
If you’re as yet unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s history plays, I would indeed recommend this one, as it set itself for a much longer storyline than just within the play. I would even suggest to start with Richard II which would also have you chart the movements of Henry Bolingbroke aka Henry IV as he makes his play for the crown. However it’ll be another three weeks until I return to the histories with Henry IV, Part 2, as next week is comedy week. I’ll touch on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies (though still featuring Falstaff!), The Merry Wives of Windsor.
(photo credit: BBC)