Henry IV, Part 1
Fathers and sons are always a difficult relationship to handle even under the best of circumstances. The elder trying to impart lessons learned to spare, instruct and guide through life hurdles and the younger testing limits and trying to figure out the world on his own. Often the pair that don't see eye to eye look outside their relationship for advice, example of others and in the case of the Henry IV plays, wanting a surrogate to replace a defective father and son. This competitive struggle between a real father and son and those who they substitute is the center piece of the second play in Shakespeare's second history play cycle or major tetraology (4 story series).
Starting in 1595 with Richard II, the cycle began with the deposition of the disconnected Richard with his duty bound cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. Through much soul searching, Henry felt that the rebellion was justified to cleanse England from what he and his followers saw as a disease on the throne. Henry's more radical followers kill Richard thinking their new king would have wanted this, but instead never wanted Richard's death. An act that would haunt his reign and that of his son, the future Henry V. Henry sets about to pacify his fractured kingdom, atone for Richard's death and at the same time controlling his rebellious son, Prince Hal, who is more interested in drinking, carousing and making his father look like a laughing stock. Hal rejects his father religiously oriented rule and finds a more ameanable father in the guise of the fat knight Sir John Falstaff. Towering wit and fat stomach accompany this hard drinking, womanizing, robbing rogue who is drunk on life and the fatherly relationship he has struck up with Hal. Conversely, the king finds a surrogate son with Henry Percy, who is more commonly known as Hotspur for his quick temper. The ideal warring son, who Henry wishes was his, follows him a little too closely as Hotspur goes weary of the king and is persuaded to lead a rebellion against him
The First part of Henry IV as it appeared in the 1623 First Folio.
The play opens as King Henry plans a trip to the holy land another of his practices looking to make up for Richard's death. The king is brought word that a Welsh rebellion led by his chief enemy Glendower, but an ally Mortimer has been captured. Hotspur was proven himself valiant in the fight capturing several prisoners and the king wishes he could be his son instead of Hal. In order to sort things out, the king calls for Hotspur, his father and uncle to meet with him and declares that the prisoners Hotspur captured are his. A major break with protocol since armies were financed by the noble who commanded them (Hotspur and his family) and they usually reaped any spoils. This act forces the family to plot against the king and they meet with Glendower
Meanwhile, hanging out in Prince Hal's apartment in London, he, Falstaff and Hal's friend Poins plan another robbery of some rich religious pilgrims. Hal plots with Poins that he will rob Falstaff and his other cronies after they have robbed the pilgrims and mentions to the audience that while he has lived a wild life, he secretly does not criminal leanings and will make amends when the time comes. The robbery botched, Falstaff rails against Poins and Hal for not coming to his aid and then fabricates an ever wilder story of how he fought off an army of thieves. When the truth is revealed, Falstaff though angry takes it in stride as the one ups man ship that he and Hal engage in. Word comes of Hotspur's rebellion and Hal loathes having to meet with his father. Falstaff and Hal play out an intended encounter, each jabbing at the other's foibles. However, the real meeting is anything but merry as the king denounces his son thinking he cannot count on him in this desperate time. Hal instead of leaving claims his devotion and the two reconcile to meet the challenge of Hotspur's rebellion. Through a series of perversly comic scenes, the troops are gathered on both sides and climax at the battle of Shrewsbury and the final encounter between the "sons" of Henry, Hal and Hotspur. Though Hal is victorious, Falstaff takes credit for the killing, while faking his own death. The rebellion put down, Hal and the king reconciled, all seems well as Falstaff ruminates on his life, honor, and other deep themes that come across as silly ravings but are deeply thoughtful and sets the stage for part 2 which features the ending of one dynasty and the beginning of another and the fallout from that change.
A quarto version of the play issued in 1639
The second wave of history plays become popular again as England's international exploits became more a topical. Though spotty, playwrights as well as other writers of the day put their best foot forward touting the patriotic spirit of mother England and their physical mother Queen Elizabeth. Continuing in his practice of mixing comic and tragic elements, Shakespeare sought to counter balance the often stuffy historical scenes with scenes from the life of common folk. This was an innovation for this type of genre as most of his contemporaries usually stuck with the high historical points. Henry IV is also set apart the apparently personal familial tone it takes as opposed to Richard II and King John, two histories written a year earlier. It's perhaps no coincindence that a central father and son theme crops up in the same time when Shakespeare's own son Hamnet dies on May 11, 1596. In the wake of Hamnet's death, Shakespeare begins to buy property and get a coat of arms for his family. Prior to his son's death, living day to day seem to be more of a concern. Playwise, certain lines in King John thought to have been added later figure with the death of a child and the Henry IV plays postdate Hamnet's death. What was first intended as a sequel to a popular history play, took on a more personal tone.
Another interesting item surrounding the Henry IV plays was Falstaff himself. Originally the character was called Oldcastle after his historical counterpart. The new Lord Chamberlain, head of the government entertainment industry, Lord Cobham was a descendant of Oldcastle who was seen as a serious man who died for his faith, not a foulmouthed drunk. To save the livelihood, the company quickly changed the name to Falstaff. A popular theory has been put forward that the name is not accidental and is actually a play on Shake - speare (Fall - Staff). Also the father/son relationship between him and Hal may reflect a real life relationship between Shakespeare and a younger aristocrat, Earl of Southhampton, Henry Wriothesley who is also main candidate as the Fair Youth of the Sonnets. Many of the sonnets take on a fatherly or older brother tone and in later groupings seem to permeate with the loss of a real son. In trying to bring in more of an everyday life feel to this new history cycle, could Shakespeare have portrayed his own sense of loss and surrogate son relationship? This if further strenghthened as Shakespeare was believed to have played king's parts but not major ones and Henry IV, certainly fits the bill.
Whatever the true genesis of the Henry IV plays, they have been extremely popular with audiences since their premiere. Based on Raphael Holinshed's historical opus Chronicles of England, Ireland and Scotland and perhaps on his own experiences or insights, the plays, aside form Richard III, are the only only history plays that are widely produced in theaters today.
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