Widely recognized as the greatest English playwright, William Shakespeare created plays that have provided the measure of dramatic excellence for centuries. Henry IV, Part I in particular contributed considerably to Shakespeare’s fame. It has been successful in production from the date of its first performance until the present. The play is widely regarded as among the best of Shakespeare’s history plays.
Shakespeare created a new type of drama by his use of historical materials (such as Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, c. 1577). He used them to depict patriotically events of English history. Shakespeare helped authenticate English historical and cultural tradition while at the same time altering and enhancing historical materials to create works of art. Shakespeare’s histories are not factually precise; they are dramas.
Shakespeare’s artistic embellishment is evident in Henry IV, Part I in a number of ways. One of the most important is his creation of a structural symmetry lacking in the original, factual material that leaves a spectator with a clear impression of the opposing forces involved in Henry’s struggle to keep his crown. Shakespeare was also one of the first dramatists to integrate comic subplots into otherwise serious plays as a way to entertain his heterogeneous audience and to unify his plays’ themes. In Henry IV, Part I, the comic subplot of Falstaff and his cohorts (not really a part of English history) achieves all of these purposes.
As humor, Falstaff’s comments and actions enliven the play. He hacks and damages his sword in order to support his preposterous story of valiant resistance to attack, when in fact he ran away at the very first sign of danger, as the audience is well aware. The Falstaff subplot serves to unify the play and elucidate its themes. Falstaff is the embodiment of misrule, cowardice, and fun. Shakespeare juxtaposes him with others who are his opposite, such as the valiant Hotspur and the serious, worried Henry IV. Falstaff is also parallel to Hotspur, however, in their efforts forcibly...
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