[Mack provides basic information about the play, discussing the dates it was written, performed, and published. In identifying the historical sources Shakespeare used to write Henry IV, Part One, Mack points out some of the historical facts that Shakespeare alters. The critic explains why topics covered in the play, such as the succession of English monarchs, were of interest to Elizabethan audiences.]
The First Part of Henry IV was published in 1598; it was probably written and acted in 1596-97. There are some topical allusions in the play to these years, notably the Second Carrier's reference to the high cost of oats that killed Robin Ostler (II.i.12). Topical in a more important sense, during the whole of the 1590's, was the play's general subject matter. Though contemporary concern about succession to the throne need not (though it may) have influenced Shakespeare's choice of materials for his English histories, it inevitably gave them an extra dimension. Elizabeth was now in her sixties, and there was no assured heir, only a multiplicity of candidates, including her sometimes favorite, the Earl of Essex. Many recalled anxiously the chaos in times past when the center of power in the monarchical system had ceased to be sharply defined and clearly visible. This had occurred to an extent after Henry VII's death, and earlier after Henry V's, and still earlier after the murder of Richard II.
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The study of the language of Henry IV, Part One has included an examination of the puns used in the play as well as analyses of unfamiliar words and phrases. Criticism has largely focused on the use of prose and verse within the play. Milton Crane, Brian Vickers, and others have studied this issue. Crane shows how the use of prose and verse by the main characters in the play differentiates between the worlds of the court and the tavern and helps flesh out each character's role within the play. Vickers maintains that Falstaff's "very existence depends on prose" but that Hal easily uses prose and verse. Other critics, including Ronald R. MacDonald, have examined the frequency of the use of oaths in the play and how the use of oaths can be used to evaluate character. MacDonald also offers an analysis of the means by which language is manipulated by various characters and how the exploitation of language is an integral part of Hal's education.
[Crane examines the use of prose and verse in the play and shows how the two modes of speech differentiate between the two worlds of the play—the world of the court and Falstaff's world. Crane demonstrates how Falstaff mimics the play's serious action through his use of prose. Falstaff's world, argues Crane, is in complete opposition to the world of the court; therefore it is appropriate that he never speaks in verse, the language of the court. Crane also shows how Hal...
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The theme of honor in Henry IV, Part One is most often examined by critics as it relates to Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. Critics such as Moody E. Prior argue that Falstaff represents a rejection of honor. Gordon Zeeveld maintains that Falstaff does not cynically respond to honor, he simply and realistically recognizes that warfare (pursued by Hotspur in the name of honor) is inhumane. Similarly, Carmen Rogers points out that Falstaff observes and comments on "false honor" as represented by Hotspur. Most critics, including Paul Siegel, G. M. Pinciss, and Prior, generally agree that the honor so enthusiastically pursued by Hotspur is related primarily to chivalry and warfare. Zeeveld comments that this pursuit demonstrates Hotspur's blatant disregard for human life. Siegel and Pinciss also demonstrate how this sense of honor is, in the world of Henry IV, Part One, an outdated one. Hal is most often associated with what critics like Rogers refer to as "true honor." Zeeveld shows how this sense of honor is entirely humane, unlike Hotspur's view of honor. Siegel discusses Hal's honor as a striving for "Christian humanism" which is demonstrated by Hal's virtuous and loyal service to his countrymen. Pinciss states that Hal is actually a representative of a more modern (in Elizabethan terms) version of honor: courtesy. While many critics speculate on how Shakespeare's portrayal of these different views on honor may indicate what the playwright's...
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Fathers and Sons
The conflict between father and son, an issue examined by many critics, is outlined by Ernst Kris. Kris points to the relationships analyzed in most discussions of this issue: the relationships between Henry and Hal; Henry and Hotspur; and Falstaff and Hal. Falstaff, many critics agree, is a father-figure to Hal in the sense that he teaches the Prince the ways of the world, or at least the ways of his (Falstaff's) world. Kris argues that Hal rejects this guidance, just as Hal rejects his own father as a paternal image. Critics such as Barabara Baines, however, attempt to show that Hal takes his father's advice at significant moments in the play and that Henry's teachings contribute substantially to Hal's success. Other critics, including M. M. Reese, highlight Henry's failure to relate to his son. George Ian Duthie and John Lawlor continue the analysis of the father/son conflict with an examination of Hotspur's role as a surrogate son to Henry. Duthie argues that Henry wishes Hotspur were his son, seeing him as a more worthy heir than Hal, and as a person very much like himself. Critics such as Robert B. Pierce view the relationship between Henry and Hal as central to an understanding of the play. Pierce argues that familial order, as demonstrated by Henry and Hal, is presented as a means of grasping the political structure and issues conveyed in the play.
[Kris observes that the conflict between fathers and...
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King Henry IV
Henry IV is perhaps the play's most mysterious character. A few critics, including Anne Marie McNamara, maintain that Henry is the protagonist and a hero. Most other critics view the King's claim to being the central character as weak, with most critics seeing Hal as the protagonist, and some arguing in favor of Falstaff or Hotspur. Robert J. Fehrenbach sides with the scholars who believe Henry is a secondary character in the play. He argues that Shakespeare's indirect characterization of Henry offers some insight into the King's thinking and motivation, but also inhibits the reader's gaining a real understanding of Henry. Most critics agree that Henry is a Machiavel, that is, that Henry uses whatever means necessary, including deceit and manipulation, to achieve his political goals. Critics such as John Dover Wilson and A. R. Humphrey's agree with this assessment to a degree, but also believe that Henry is not truly a villain. For further analysis of Henry's character, see the essays by Ernst Kris and Robert B. Pierce in the FATHERS AND SONS section.
Anne Marie McNamara
[McNamara examines Henry IV, Part One as a history play and argues that if the work is seen as such, there can be no debate over who the protagonist is; it must be Henry IV. McNamara outlines the differences between history plays and tragedies, and reasons that other critics overlook Henry as the main character because they are viewing...
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The primary debate regarding the character of Hal concerns his reformation, or transformation, as it has been called by various critics. Some critics, including Gareth Lloyd Evans and Herbert Weisinger maintain that Hal's reformation is an act. The "act" involves Hal's friendship with Falstaff, his immersion in the world of England's commoners, his seeming irresponsibility and the carelessness he seems to demonstrate where his reputation as Prince is concerned. Evans argues that Hal's purpose is to gather information about the common people, the people he will one day rule. Weisinger contends that the purpose of the act is the dramatic and political impact resulting when Hal gives up this life in Falstaff's world. Weisinger also argues that Hal is an ideal hero, and other critics, including G. I. Duthie, agree with this assessment. Some critics take a harsher view of Hal, accusing him of manipulating Falstaff, of insincerity, of being cold and calculating. He has, like his father, been labeled a Machiavel, a politician who will do whatever it takes to achieve his political goals.
Other critics, including Charles Mitchell, believe that Hal learns a great deal through his journey in Falstaff's world, and that his transformation from an irresponsible youth into a responsible prince is legitimate and sincere. Elisa Sjoberg argues that Hal struggles to evolve and in succeeding, secures his right to be king. Similarly, Hugh Dickinson shows...
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Falstaff has inspired an abundance of criticism, to say the least. Critics tend to agree that Shakespeare's characterization of Falstaff is one of the playwright's greatest achievements. Probably the most debated aspect of Falstaff's character is his cowardice. Eighteenth-century commentary, beginning with Maurice Morgann's study of Falstaff, focussed heavily on this subject. Morgann argued that the "real" Falstaff was a courageous figure, not the drunken coward he appeared to be. A. C. Bradley continued this line of argument in the nineteenth century. Bradley maintains that while Falstaff may act in a cowardly manner at times, he is actually not a coward. Other critics, including Robert Willson, conclude that in naming Falstaff, Shakespeare intended to indicate that cowardice, as well as gluttony, are aspects of Falstaff's character.
Taking a wider approach to the analysis of Falstaff are critics such as Axel Clark, who examines Falstaff's role and power as a comic figure throughout the play. Clark concludes that, by the end of the play, Falstaff's influence over other characters is diminished, as is his comic view of life. Other commentators, including Lois Bueler, have analyzed the responses of critics and audiences to the character of Falstaff. Bueler points out that the majority of criticism on Falstaff has been written from the point of view of middle-aged or elderly males. She argues that women and younger readers may respond...
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Hotspur has been described by critics as passionate, hot-tempered, and self-centered, among other things. But his sense of honor is the trait that has fueled much of the commentary on his character. While many critics, including Colin Gardner, respect Hotspur's commitment to honor, others believe that he is foolishly obsessed with it. For example, E. M. W. Tillyard argues that from the beginning of the play, Hotspur is almost "ridiculous" because he is unable to control his passions, including his passion for honor. Many critics such as Raymond H. Reno and Derek Cohen are quick to point out Hotspur's flaws. Reno observes that Hotspur's obsession with chivalry is instrumental in causing disorder. Cohen, while pointing out the tragic nature of Hotspur's character, asserts that Hotspur never shows any signs of growth or change throughout the play and that his death is necessary if healing is to occur. Overall, it is to Hotspur's extremely obsessive nature that many critics object. Yet the passion—characteristic of this trait—and the object of the obsession—honor—are aspects of Hotspur's character that appeal to other critics and to many readers as well. For further analysis of Hotspur's character, see the essay by Robert B. Pierce in the FATHERS AND SONS section; and the essays by G. M. Pinciss and Moody E. Prior in the HONOR section.
E. M. W. Tillyard
[Tillyard argues that while some may consider...
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