Henry IV, Part 1, was a highly innovative work in 1596 for precisely the reasons that make it one of the greatest of Shakespeare's History Plays. It marks an advance both in Shakespeare's development and in the growth of English drama, for, by repeatedly shifting its focus between affairs of state and bawdy irreverence, the play presents a composite image of a whole society, something that had never been attempted before. In addition to the quarrels and alliances among the aristocracy, the principal interest of the earlier histories, here Shakespeare offers the scruffy circle of common laborers and petty criminals who frequent the Boar's Head Tavern. Both worlds are more vivid for the contrast, and a dramatic tension is established between them. Groundbreaking in its own day, Henry IV is still impressive in ours, due to the range of people, events, and language, from the most casual ribaldry to the boldest rhetoric, realistically presented on stage.
Prince Hal belongs to both worlds; surrounding him are such boldly drawn figures as the volatile Hotspur and his charming wife, the talkative Hostess, and the many personalities evoked by Falstaff’s parodies and imitations: churchmen and highwaymen, knights and knaves. The Prince's significance lies in the choice he must make between worlds, and his dilemma emphasizes, as in the other history plays, the question of order in society. Both the Falstaffian delinquents of the Boar's Head Tavern and the rebels led by Hotspur have contributed to the decay of the social fabric, and King Henry believes that both groups have been sent by heaven in revenge for his own disturbance of society the deposition of King Richard II (as enacted in Richard II). Hal's choice is indeed pivotal for the future of the realm. Of course, Shakespeare's original audiences knew that Hal went on to become the highly successful King Henry V, so there is no suspense about the Prince's choice; the tension lies instead in the presentation of the alternatives.
Although the sub-plot concerning Falstaff is highly diverting, the major concern is Hal's decision to embrace his role as Hotspur's rival, abandoning the life of a barfly for that of a military leader. This central issue is not fully resolved until the end of 2 Henry IV when Hal rejects Falstaff, but Part 1 presents an initial phase of Hal's development, his acceptance of his role as princely hero.
The play's climax is the hand-to-hand combat between Hal and Hotspur at Shrewsbury. Not only does the play build to this climax through a series of episodes depicting the progress of Hotspur's rebellion but Hal and Hotspur are repeatedly compared, both by the king-as early as 1.1.77-90-and by Hal himself The king regrets that his own son seems so feckless in comparison to the rebel leader. Hal assures his father that he is not the dissipated playboy he seems and that he will prove superior to Hotspur when the time is ripe. This motif—the potential readiness of the Prince—has already been established in Hal's famous ‘reformation' speech (1.2.190-212). Shakespeare makes it abundantly clear that the Prince will indeed prove himself in the traditional terms of chivalry, and in the combat at Shrewsbury, an episode devised by the playwright for this purpose, Hal becomes the hero whom he has promised to be.
Hotspur's defeat attests that chivalry is not an unalloyed virtue, as does his outsized personality, which consists of impatience and an exaggerated sense of honor Hotspur is a temperamental, driven man who is concerned only about his reputation for bravery in battle His fixation is as excessive in its way as is Falstaff's licentiousness. This leads to his own destruction as he cannot bring himself to postpone the battle at Shrewsbury until his side has a better chance.
Hotspur has his redeeming features as well. Hal admits that his military accomplishments are worth aspiring to, and the Prince's eulogy over Hotspur’s corpse (5.4.86-100) is genuinely admiring. Moreover, while the rebellious noblemen are certainly self-serving to various degrees. Hotspur's own motive is not personal gain or power; he is driven by an ambition for honorable action that one could admire if it were in better balance in his life. Hotspur's loving marriage to the engaging Lady Percy is presented in 2.3 and 3.1, and we recognize that he is not simply a 'wasp-stung and impatient fool', as his father calls him in 1.3.233, but also a husband who credibly inspires affection. His domestic bliss does not in any way negate the problem of his flawed values, but it makes him a multi-dimensional character.
Falstaff embodies an opposite weakness to Hotspur's, that of an anarchic refusal to accept responsibility His world of food, women, and wine has no need for 'redeeming time—as Hal vows to do in the ‘reformation' speech (1.2.190-212)-for time is of no consequence when one refuses to acknowledge any obligations. Falstaff staves off all demands and responsibilities—the stuff of history—with humor, continually devising witticisms and preposterous excuses for his behavior. We are as delighted with his inventive comedy as Hal is in 1.2, but, like the Prince, we can see that a ruler must live a more orderly life. In addition, the fat knight displays a chilling disregard for ordinary values, in an episode that Shakespeare plainly intended as a satire on a military abuse of his own times when he callously offers the soldiers he has recruited to be 'food for powder, food for powder' (4.2.65-66), meaning that they will be quickly consumed by gunpowder, i.e., combat. He later announces coolly that he has abandoned his troops under fire, where 'there’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive (5.3.37) Falstaff’s anarchy here has an unpleasant, faintly evil edge to it His crimes and misdemeanors may be forgivable in a comedy-and 1 Henry IV is somewhat comic—but they are unacceptable in the domain of history, where the hard realities of peace and war are at stake.
Just as Hotspur has an unrealistic view of the world, so does Falstaff. Falstaff lives in an immature universe where one's appetites are gratified immediately and the inevitability of age and death is denied. He has been seen as a re-creation of ancient figures of European folklore who traditionally enlivened holiday celebrations by behaving in perversely loose ways that are normally forbidden. These figures, who returned to ordinary behavior after the festival, made a great show of eating and drinking to excess, of flouting authority and, often, of sexual promiscuity. Thus illicit cravings were acknowledged and vicariously satisfied without disrupting the society. Such customs were prominent in pre-modern societies and were still well known, if not widely practiced, in Elizabethan England. Falstaff’s gluttony, his lechery, and his very tatness are easily associated with such figures.
However, Falstaff is not simply a temptation to be resisted or a negative lesson for Hal. Falstaff’s world is also in itself useful for the Prince, offering him an arena in which he can test himself and come to understand the people who will be his subjects when he is king and learn about himself as well. At the Boar’s Head Hal tries on the roles of robber, of tavern servant even of king. The other worlds of the play Hotspur's inflexible, honor-bound world or Henry’s tense world of political calculation—do not permit the temporary attitudes and stances necessary to learning. The world of comedy thus has virtues that the world of history cannot provide.
Just as Hotspur's happy marriage deepens his characterization, so Falstaff is caught in a revealing moment of uneasiness about his life in 3.3, when he worries that he is wasting away and muses on his long absence from church. When his eventual death is suggested by Bardolph, the fat knight immediately reverts to his more usual comic line, but we have seen that he, too, has a soul and is subject to universal fears.
Both Hotspur and Falstaff are strong figures, and it is not wholly possible to dismiss or accept either of them; with great force of irony, we are made to sympathize with both the impatient firebrand and the irresponsible rogue, even as we recognize the faults of each. When Prince Hal comes fully into his own, it is appropriate that we see him standing between these two extremes; Falstaff lies to one side, rejecting honor by feigning death, and Hotspur lies to the other, dead because he overvalued honor.
Hal's story does not end with this play; 2 Henry IV is a sequel. Scholars debate whether or not Shakespeare had fully evolved this relationship when he was writing 1 Henry IV, but the evidence suggests strongly that he had. First, Hal's rejection of Falstaff in 2 Henry IV hinted at several times in 1 Henry IV—e.g., in his 'reformation' speech; when he portrays his father in the tavern ('I do, I will' [2.4.475]); when he dismisses Falstaff during the battle (5.3.55)—while the play closes with the fat knight at an acme of both wrong doing and acceptance, boasting that he has killed Hotspur himself (after stabbing the corpse) and finding the Prince generous enough to let his claim stand. This situation prepares us for a continuation of Falstaff’s adventures, when his death, with Hotspur's, could have closed the play effectively. Further, Shakespeare invented an important role for John of Lancaster at Shrewsbury, establishing him as a major figure in apparent anticipation of his function in 2 Henry IV. Moreover, both the rebels and the king are preparing for further action as the play ends. Each of these points may be explained in some other way, but collectively they strongly suggest that 7 Henry IV was written with 2 Henry IV in mind. Nevertheless, 1 Henry IV is a complete drama, with its own plot line that reaches fruition independently of its sequel.
Shakespeare's great achievement in 1 Henry IV is the establishment of a sense of community between the audience and the fictional world of the play. Structurally he accomplishes this by a continual oscillation between two poles, the aristocratic and the common or the political and the hedonistic. These elements are sometimes parallel—as in 1.1 and 1.2, where preparations for war are followed by preparations for robbery—and sometimes in opposition, as in the comparison of Hal and Hotspur. Some scenes have analogues in 2 Henry IV—e.g.. Hotspur's farewell to his wife in 2.1 is comparable to Falstaff’s departure from Doll Tearsheet in 2.4 of the sequel. Such juxtapositions enforce a comprehensive sense of a complex, lifelike fictional world, quite aside from the historical actions of the political plot.
The integration of two genres, comedy and history, permits each to influence the other. The history, presenting issues that impinge on all our lives, is made graver because it affects the lives of the comic figures. The comedy, while providing an ironic slant on social themes, is given sharpness of tone and richness of texture by its proximity to the serious aspects of life. By successfully accommodating two genres, the play—and its implicit tolerance—is made more intense: although one is made aware of human failing, one may also glory in human possibility.
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