Study Guide

Henry IV, Part I

by William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part I Essay - Criticism

Criticism

Overviews

Maynard Mack
[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.

If Shakespeare was at all influenced by these anxieties, his rendering of them is on the whole buoyant and optimistic in his second English tetralogy and especially so in 1 Henry IV. True, the England seen in this play and its immediate successor is far from reassuring. It has even been described as

… an England, on the one side, of bawdy house and thieves'-kitchen, of waylaid merchants, badgered and bewildered Justices, and a peasantry wretched, betrayed, and recruited for the wars, an England, on the other side, of the chivalrous wolf pack of Hotspur and Douglas, and of state-sponsored treachery in the person of Prince John—the whole presided over by a sick King, hagridden by conscience, dreaming of a Crusade to the Holy Land as M. Remorse [i.e., Falstaff] thinks of slimming and repentance [Danby, J. F., Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, 1949].

But this is only half the picture. Beside it, for the first Henry IV play, we must place the warmth, wit, and high spirits of the tavern scenes, the impetuous charm of Hotspur, the amusing domesticities of Kate and Glendower's daughter, the touching loyalty of Francis, the affections that (along with sponging) bind Falstaff to Hal, and Hal's own magnanimity and self-command. For both the first and second plays, we must weigh heavily into the account the character of the story told. This, the greatest of monarchical success stories in English popular history, traces the evolution of an engaging scapegrace [rascal] into one of the most admired of English kings. Chicanery [trickery] and appetite in the first play, apathy and corruption in the second, form an effective theatrical background against which the oncoming sunbright majesty of the future Henry V may shine more brightly—as we are assured precisely that it will do on our first meeting with him (I.ii).

When Shakespeare turned to this subject in 1596-97, he found in his historical sources, mainly Holinshed's Chronicles, two dominant motifs. One was the moral and theological interpretation of the troubles attending Henry IV's reign in consequence of his usurpation.…

The other was the legend of the madcap youth of Henry's son and heir—a legend already exploited in an anonymous play of which we have today only a debased and possibly abbreviated text: The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. The Famous Victories contributes to 1 Henry IV the germ of the robbery incident (though the Prince's involvement in a thieving episode is found in the chronicles as well); the germ of the tavern high jinks and parodying of authority; the germ of the expectation of Hal's reign as a golden age of rascals; and the germ of the reconciliation scene between the Prince and his father. The extent to which these hints are fleshed out and transfigured by Shakespeare's imagination may be seen in the character of Mistress Quickly. Her entire original in the Famous Victories is a sentence spoken by the Prince, favoring a rendezvous at "the old tavern in Eastcheap" because "there is a pretty wench that can talk well."

From the Famous Victories come also the names Gad's Hill (for the arranger of the robbery), Ned (our Ned Poins), and Jockey Oldcastle. The last was Shakespeare's name for Falstaff when the play was first performed, as references throughout the early seventeenth century show; Hal's addressing him as "my old lad of the castle" in the play as we have it (I.ii.43-44) is a survival from this. By the time the play was printed, the name had been altered to Falstaff for reasons that can now only be guessed at. Possibly there had been a protest by Oldcastle's descendants, one of whom was Lord Chamberlain during part of 1596-97. How the historical Oldcastle (d.1417), a man of character who was made High Sheriff of Herefordshire and eventually Lord Cobham, came to be metamorphosed into the roisterer of the Famous Victories is also an unsolved mystery, though no more mysterious than the dramatic imagination that exalted this dull stage roisterer, lacking eloquence, wit, mendacity, thirst, and fat, into the Falstaff we know.

On...

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Language

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.

Milton Crane
[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 moves easily from one world to the other, speaking prose in the tavern and verse in court. Crane analyzes Hotspur's speech as well, arguing that he speaks the best verse in the play.]

Nowhere in Shakespeare are the boundaries of two worlds so clearly delimited by the use of prose and verse as in the Henry IV-plays (1597, 1598). The scenes relating to the historical matter are in verse, the scenes of Falstaff and his followers in prose. There are trifling exceptions: the conventional usages, as in Hotspur's letter (II, iii); Hotspur's short comic dialogue with his lady (III, i), with its startling shifts between prose and verse; and the mock verse of Pistol. [All references to Shakespeare's text are to George Lyman Kittredge's The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1936.] One can hardly say of plays which fall so neatly into two actions and two spheres of influence that the form of either action is basic and the form of the other is the exception. Between the two worlds lies a huge and fundamental opposition, but each is autonomous within itself; Pistol's verse in the Boar's Head tavern is burlesque, not a sadly distorted recollection that the "serious business" of the play is going on elsewhere in verse.

Falstaff is Shakespeare's most brilliant speaker of comic prose, as Hamlet is his most gifted speaker of a prose which defies categories. But why does Falstaff speak prose? This may seem an idle question: Falstaff is a clown, although a nobleman, and must therefore speak prose; he must, furthermore, represent "the whole world" that Hal has to banish before he can become England's Harry, and Falstaff must therefore be opposed in every conceivable way to the world of high action and noble verse in which Hal is destined to move. But beyond all this, Falstaff speaks prose because it is inconceivable that he should speak anything else.…

Burlesque [a form of comedy, typically mockery or ridiculous exaggeration] lies near the heart of Shakespearean comedy, from The Comedy of Errors to As You Like It. In the two Henry IV plays, the Falstaff-plot offers the broadest conceivable burlesque on the serious action. Falstaff derides the chivalric ideal, the forms of noble behavior, the law itself; he robs the travelers, suffers himself to be robbed in turn without fighting, and at last lies grossly and complacently about the whole affair and is totally unabashed at being found out. He is an unrepentant sinner, and, notwithstanding, is handsomely rewarded for his evil life until the moment of his banishment. He is a particularly noisome stench in the nostrils of the godly. His burlesque of their world is conducted on every plane: he robs them, flouts their ideals, and corrupts their prince. And, because he is in such constant opposition to their world, it is only fitting that he should never really speak its language. The powerful contrast is expressed on the level of speech as on every other, and thus Falstaff speaks prose because of what he represents as well as what he is.

Most of the characters can be assigned easily enough to one group or the other—Hal's position remaining always ambiguous—but Hotspur's case is somewhat odd. He accepts the code completely; he is honor's fool, and is killed for it. But he is a very downright man, whose hard and realistic common sense makes him impatient with both poetry and milk-and-water oaths; language must speak clearly, directly, and forcefully, or he will have none of it. It is therefore inevitable that he should speak the very best of language, and that especially in verse. His verse is so hard, colloquial, and simple that he really has no need for prose. George Rylands [in Words and Poetry, 1928] says that Hotspur's speech marks an important stage in the development of Shakespeare's verse style, a stage at which Shakespeare incorporated into his verse many of the qualities of his prose. And yet one feels that Shakespeare must have known what he was about when he made Hotspur speak much more verse than prose. Hotspur belongs, after all, to the world of the knights, and he must speak their idiom even if only to mock them in it. Occasionally he uses prose, and very well, as in the prose letter in II, iii—a furious stream of prose: letter, comment, and vituperation, all well jumbled together. But as soon as Lady Percy enters, we have verse dialogue. The prose of this first long monologue should perhaps be put down to a combination of conventional epistolary prose and the dramatic necessity for continuing the letter scene in prose, even after the reading of the letter is finished.

In III, i, where Hotspur taunts and enrages the fiery Glendower, he begins in broken verse:

Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower,
Will you sit down?
And uncle Worcester. A plague upon it!
I have forgot the map.
(III, i, 3-5)

Glendower's reply has been rearranged as most irregular verse by Pope from the prose of the Quartos. Hotspur's next speech is in prose, whereas Glendower at once breaks into the pompous, inflated verse so characteristic of him. Hotspur then varies between prose and verse; the length of the individual speech appears to be the only determinant. Thus he says at first:

Why, so it would have done at the same season, if your mother's cat
had but kitten'd, though yourself had never been born.
(18-20)

But, a moment later, he goes on:

And I say the earth, was not of my mind,
If you suppose as fearing you it shook.
………
O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire,
And not in fear of your nativity.
Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinch'd and vex'd
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb, which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldame earth and topples down
Steeples and mossgrown towers. At your birth
Our grandam earth, having this distemp'rature,
In passion shook.
(22-23, 25-34)

After Glendower's reply, Hotspur returns to prose for a two-line retort, and, a little later, speaks verse again. Hotspur's prose in this scene appears to be restricted to short gibes, whereas he speaks verse when he becomes aroused.

He uses prose again, briefly, toward the end of the scene, when he jokes with his wife and reproaches her for her genteel swearing. It is difficult to assign any specific reason for this prose, largely because of the general uncertainty of media in this passage (227-265). Hotspur speaks prose, then verse, then prose again; after the Welsh lady's song, Hotspur's protest against his lady's "in good sooth" begins in prose and drops suddenly into verse. His last speech is again in prose.…

The Prince, in general, takes his cue from his company, speaking prose in the tavern and verse in the court with equal facility. His one violation of this division is, consequently, all the more striking. He enters in V, iii, to find Falstaff moralizing over the corpse of Sir Walter Blunt. Hal is now no longer the boon companion, but the valiant knight, and reproves Falstaff in straightforward verse. Falstaff replies with a jest in prose, and the rest of the scene—a matter of a half-dozen speeches—is wound up in prose. But Falstaff himself has brought his prose into a verse scene, one of noble words and deeds, and he has used Sir Walter's "grinning honour" as a telling proof of his conclusions in his own catechism of honor. The scene thus contains a double contrast between prose and verse, and the old use of prose and verse characters within a single scene is here given a new and effective turn.

In V, i, Falstaff is for the first time brought into the world of the court, and at once sets about his favorite task of deriding it. Worcester pleads his innocence, and to the King's ironic...

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Honor

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...

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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....

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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,...

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Prince Hal

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....

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Falstaff

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...

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Hotspur

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...

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