Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 39)
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
For further information on the critical and stage history of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, see SC, Volumes 1 and 14.
Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two, framed within the Lancastrian tetralogy by Richard II and Henry V, form the heart of Shakespeare's second history sequence. While the two parts of Henry IV treat the time period spanned by the reign of King Henry IV, the significance of the king himself tends to be overshadowed by the other characters in the play, notably the king's son, Prince Hal, the prince's dissolute friend, Sir John Falstaff, and the headstrong rebel, Hotspur. In fact, many critics past and present have held that the "education" of the prince is the primary focus of the two plays. Hal's relationship with and subsequent rejection of Falstaff has also been an issue treated unrelentingly by critics over the years.
Some modern critics have used such commonly studied issues as a means of exploring other aspects of the plays. James Black (1990) has examined the comedic discourse in the plays—that of Hal and Falstaff—to illuminate such themes as time and deferment in the plays. Similarly, critics such as Joan Webber (1963) and Wayne Rebhorn (1995) have examined the rhetoric of King Henry and Prince Hal in order to further investigate the nature of kingship and the relationship between father and son. Additionally, many twentieth-century scholars have focussed their studies on the concept and treatment of history in the plays. David Bergeron (1991) has analyzed the way in which the character of Falstaff is used by Shakespeare to discusses the problem of establishing accurate history. Catherine Belsey (1991) has maintained that the plays may indeed be understood as history, despite the prevalent notion that they should only be regarded as art. Additionally David Scott Kastan (1991) has interpreted the historical content of the plays as reflective of the political scene in Elizabethan England.
One of the most salient issues pervading modern criticism of the plays is the nature of kingship and Shakespeare's views on the subject. As Sherman Hawkins (1975) summarizes, criticism of the history plays has "been dominated by what E. M. W. Tillyard called the 'Tudor myth'." (Essentially, the Tudor myth is a view of history designed to legitimate the rule of Tudor monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth, who feared political instability following the Wars of the Roses—the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York. Tenets of this view include the ideas that rebellion against a legitimate ruler is never justified and that usurpers and their heirs will be punished.) Hawkins argues that while Tillyard appears to favor lineal descent and the Yorkists, other critics, such as Irving Ribner point out that even though Shakespeare offers no approval of the usurpation of Richard II, the playwright does celebrate the Lancastrian kings that rule England following Richard's deposition. Hawkins views this debate as a struggle among critics to prove that either virtue or lineal descent was considered by Shakespeare to be the determining factor of kingship in the history plays.
Although critics such as James Calderwood (1979) and Barbara Baines (1980) discuss aspects of kingship other than the issue of whether virtue or lineage determines the right to rule, it appears as if they nevertheless take a stand on one side of the issue or the other. Calderwood examines Shakespeare's use of metaphor to discuss kingship, and in his conclusion on the matter, states that Shakespeare emphasizes the significance of lineal descent through the words and actions of Prince Hal. Baines, on the other hand, in her study of Shakespeare's portrayal of Bolingbroke, maintains that the playwright's depiction of the king is a sympathetic one, and that Henry teaches his son that kingship must be earned, not simply inherited.
While not every critical discussion of kingship can be distilled down to a battle between virtue and lineage (John Bromley , for example, analyzes the changing nature of Henry as a public and political man without discussing the right to rule), the issue remains a vital one to students and scholars of Shakespeare's history plays. Hawkins cautions, however, that an examination of Shakespeare's histories underscores that while the playwright appears to stress virtue over lineal succession in the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare nevertheless seems to value both "blood and virtue" in a ruler.
Theodore Weiss (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "Now of All Humours: Henry VI, Parts I and II," in The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories, Atheneum, 1971, pp. 260-97.
[In the following essay, Weiss offers an overview of the major characters and themes of the two parts of Henry IV, maintaining that through the character of Prince Hal, Shakespeare constructs a play that is as accomplished as a comedy as it is a history.]
Richard II, my reading of it has proposed, is Shakespeare's most thoroughgoing study of the absorption in words and of the perils such absorption invites. On the other hand, Henry IV, written probably some years after Richard II but directly following it in historical time, constitutes the triumph of words properly understood, of words immediately, felicitously conjoined with—a very part of—action. From Richard II by way of Bolingbroke to Hal this circle is completed. Richard II is, through Richard's doting on words, a forced unity and simplicity. Eschewing subplot and the aeration of comic comment, it establishes a community of expression that, out of rigorous insularity and growing remoteness from reality, must collapse. Henry IV, to the contrary, is as free a play, as expansive, complex, and buoyantly inclusive, as any Shakespeare ever wrote. Here he gives his time, now of all...
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Sherman H. Hawkins (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Virtue and Kingship in Shakespeare's Henry IV," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 5, No. 3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 313-43.
[In the following essay, an expanded version of a lecture given at the Shakespeare Association America in 1973, Hawkins examines the competing claims of virtue and lineage over the right to rule in Henry IV, maintaining that Shakespeare appears to stress virtue over lineage in these two plays.]
For a quarter of a century, criticism of Shakespeare's histories has been dominated by what E. M. W. Tillyard called the "Tudor myth." With its emphasis on the sin of deposing a lineal king in Richard II, Tillyard's "Tudor" myth—so Robert Ornstein argues—might better be renamed the "Yorkist" myth.1 But it is possible (as both Essex and Elizabeth were well aware) to interpret Richard II in a way more sympathetic to the usurper. Thus Irving Ribner maintains that though Shakespeare never condones Richard's deposition, he glorifies the Lancastrian kings who replace him. The public virtues of Henry IV make up for his illegal title, while his son combines public and private virtues to become the greatest of English kings.2 A stress on virtue here replaces the emphasis on lineal descent: if Tillyard is Yorkist, Ribner is Lancastrian. Thus the Wars of the Roses continue on the...
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Language And Rhetoric
Wayne A. Rebhorn (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: "Bound to Rule," in The Emperor of Men's Minds: Literature and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric, Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. 23-79.
[In the following essay, Rebhorn compares the "rhetorical kingship" of King Henry IV, which relies more heavily on visual effects than on words to persuade, with Prince Hal's skillful use of rhetoric to reconcile with his father and, later as King Henry V, to rule his kingdom.]
. . . Shakespeare['s] . . . enlarged view of rhetoric .. . goes beyond that of the rhetoricians to stress the enormously persuasive force of visual displays, for his Machiavellian kings and princes also know that silent spectacles can often accomplish as much as a torrent of words. Richard III, for instance, works on the lord mayor and citizens of London by appearing before them silently reading a prayerbook between two bishops (Richard III, 3.7). Even more striking is Henry IV's decision to parade his army back and forth in front of Flint castle: "Let's march without the noise of threat'ning drum, / That from this castle's tottered battlements / Our fair appointments may be well perus'd" (Richard II, 3.3.51-53).45 As Henry goes on to say, his ostensible purpose is to avoid appearing to threaten King Richard, although that, in fact, is just what such a show of force is designed to do. A show...
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M. M. Reese (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "Henry IV," in The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays, Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1961, pp. 286-316.
[In the excerpt that follows, Reese offers a brief discussion on the character of Hotspur, maintaining that, despite Hotspur's admirable qualities and charm, the young knight dies having learned nothing.]
.. . For a prince of chivalry, as Hal was determined to be, Hotspur offered a different kind of seduction. This was the man whom the King wanted his own son to resemble, calling him the theme of honour's tongue, in a grove the very straightest plant, Mars in swathling clothes, and much else in eulogistic vein. He even wished it could be proved that 'some night-tripping fairy' had exchanged the infants in their cradles: which only shows how little he understood either Hotspur or his son.
Hotspur is a conspicuous example of the non-political man; and although there may always be some disposition to sneer at politicians and the necessary disciplines of political life, this means that he is a rather inadequate person altogether. His attractive qualities are all visible on the surface, and apart from physical courage they are not of a kind to enthuse over, even in an individual. Shakespeare has favoured him with a richly idiosyncratic way of speaking that perfectly matches his restless, passionate...
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Belsey, Catherine. "Making Histories Then and Now: Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V." In Uses of History: Marxism, Postmodernism, and the Renaissance, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen, pp. 24-46. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Contests the idea that Shakespeare's history plays, specifically the Lancastrian tetralogy, are to be read and understood within the "postmodern condition" as fiction, not as history, and offers a historical interpretation of the plays.
Berry, Ralph. "The Scenic Language of Henry IV" In The Elizabethan Theatre XII, edited by A. L. Magnusson and C. E. McGee, pp. 181-91. Toronto: P. D. Meany, 1993.
Argues that Shakespeare purposely constructed the Falstaff scenes in Henry IV to be more appealing to audiences than the court scenes in order to emphasize key themes in the play.
Bromley, John C. "The Gardener's King: / and 2 Henry IV." In The Shakespearean Kings, pp. 61-74. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1971.
Charges that by examining the changing nature of this wholly public and political king, one may better comprehend the character of Henry and the Henry IV plays.
Dickinson, Hugh. "The Reformation of Prince Hal." Shakespeare Quarterly XII, No. 1 (Winter 1961): 33-46.
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