Study Guide

Henry IV, Part I

by William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part I Essay - Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 69)

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 69)


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, 14, 39, 49, and 57.

Likely written between 1596 and 1598, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 form the central portion of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, covering the period from the end of Richard II's reign to the beginning of Henry V's. While the title of these dramas makes reference to the historical English monarch King Henry IV, scholars generally acknowledge that the other major characters in the plays, most notably the king's son Prince Hal, Sir John Falstaff, and the headstrong rebel Hotspur, overshadow the importance of the title figure. Indeed, the education of Prince Hal as the future sovereign of England, rather than an examination of his father's reign, is typically viewed as the focus of the dramas. Demonstrating this view, Gareth Lloyd Evans (see Further Reading) sees Prince Hal as the center of the works, and comments on the interplay of comic, tragic, and historical elements in both parts of the plays. While the two parts of Henry IV are thought to have been composed consecutively, and are frequently performed as such or studied in tandem by critics, several scholars have hastened to observe sharp differences in the works. Fredson Bowers (1970) has called Henry IV, Part 1 “Shakespeare's most perfect English history play,” while its sequel is typically considered a less successful example of dramatic artistry. Continuing his focus on Henry IV, Part 1, Bowers identifies the fundamental thematic and structural conflict in the drama as one between central monarchical authority, dramatically personified by Prince Hal, and a waning English aristocratic and feudal order, as embodied in Hotspur. Highlighting the second drama, Cambridge editor Giorgio Melchiori (1989) observes the less structured quality of Henry IV, Part 2 in comparison with the former work, noting that it loosely combines the generic elements of a medieval morality play, a classical comedy of humors, a satirical city versus country drama, and other disparate elements.

Discussion of the major characters of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 during the latter half of the twentieth century has typically concentrated on the central figures of Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff. To Walter E. Meyers (1980), Shakespeare's Hal is a dynamic and complex individual, who asserts a consistent and evolving personality through both parts of Henry IV and in their sequel, Henry V. Jonas A. Barish (see Further Reading) highlights Hal's process of stripping away a portion of his human sympathy in order to prepare himself for the throne of England. Barish notes that this course is dramatically realized in Hal's rejection of his former mentor and friend Falstaff, a comic personification of folly and intemperance. A popular favorite among audiences, the obese tavern knight Falstaff also appeals to critics, including Arthur Colby Sprague (see Further Reading), who defends Sir John against accusations of cowardice. Studying Falstaff from a different perspective, Heather Findlay (1989) suggests that Shakespeare drew the character from numerous classical types that feature homoerotic overtones, including the pederast, the classical pedagogue, and the mythical figure of Ganymede. In addition to Hal and Falstaff, the two remaining principal figures in the dramas, King Henry IV and Hotspur, continue to elicit critical interest. In regard to the former, Jo Ann Davis (1976) sees Henry as a generally unsympathetic figure. A voice of satire in Richard II, Davis argues, Henry's role is inverted in the Henry IV plays as he becomes the object of derision. Presenting a psychoanalytic estimation of Hal's rival, Marvin B. Krims (1994) discusses Hotspur's extreme intolerance for so-called “feminine” principles and traits—including inconstancy, submissiveness, and compassion—in others as well as in himself.

By the end of the twentieth century, the standard practice among Shakespearean directors has been to stage or film the two parts of Henry IV in consecutive performance, usually with an emphasis on Hal and his development from a self-indulgent prince to an emergent king. Such is the case in David Giles's 1993 BBC television production of the Henriad—which includes the final play of Shakespeare's tetralogy, Henry V. In his review of the series, Ace G. Pilkington observes that Giles's sustained focus on Hal as he undergoes the transformation into King Henry V helps lend a substantial unity to the production. In contrast, critic Ben Brantley found a lack of cohesion in Ron Daniels's 1993 staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Brantley contends that by choosing to set his play anachronistically amid something resembling the American Civil War, Daniels created a greater disjunction between two potentially disparate works and added a flawed didactic strain. Joel Henning's assessment of Barbara Gaines's 1999 staging of the dramas at the Shakespeare Repertory Theater in Chicago suggests an entirely different result in which excellent acting, design, and direction combined to produce a satisfying whole. Russell Jackson (2001) records another successful production, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2000. Acknowledging its “somber” tone, Jackson nevertheless praises the principal individual performances—notably Desmond Barrit's thoughtful, yet witty Falstaff and William Houston's deep and “unnerving” Prince Hal—as well the effectiveness of the ensemble cast.

Recent thematic appraisals of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 have tended to reflect an unsettled view of these dramas and their uneasy relationship to one another. John W. Blanpied (1983) contrasts the two parts of Henry IV, finding an “organic unity” in Part 1 that does not exist in Part 2. Blanpied observes that Henry IV, Part 2 “is a play about thwarted effort,” contending that it consistently mocks and parodies Part 1. Using evidence of classical allusion, particularly references to the Roman god of war, Clayton G. Mackenzie (1995) maintains that Henry IV, Part 1 fails to produce a glorious and heroic protagonist in either Hal or Hotspur, but rather elicits a sense of pessimism in regard to the bloody conflict between Englishmen. Kiernan Ryan (1995) presents an ideological assessment of Henry IV as a work that subverts social hierarchy. Finally, Robert L. Reid elucidates his understanding of Shakespeare's Henriad in terms of the psychodynamics of “humors”—an antique theory in which a preponderance of certain naturally occurring substances in the body was thought to influence one's psychological temperament. According to this scheme, Reid interprets King Henry IV as melancholic, Hotspur as choleric, Falstaff as phlegmatic, and Prince Hal—later Henry V—as sanguine.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Fredson Bowers (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Bowers, Fredson. “Theme and Structure in King Henry IV, Part I.” In The Drama of the Renaissance: Essays for Leicester Bradner, edited by Elmer M. Blistein, pp. 42-68. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Bowers details the thematic structure of Henry IV, Part 1, noting that a central concern of the play is the triumph of the centralized royal power over the feudal system—concepts dramatically personified in the figures of Hal and Hotspur, respectively.]

The popular history play of Elizabeth's reign was likely to be a chronicle history. The name is applied not just because the history in the play was taken...

(The entire section is 11432 words.)

Giorgio Melchiori (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Melchiori, Giorgio. Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry IV, edited by Giorgio Melchiori, pp. 1-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Melchiori identifies a number of structural components in Henry IV, Part 2, including qualities of the morality play, comedy of humors, city/country play, and psychodrama, as well as the thematic intermingling of time and disease.]


The opening of a play with an Induction is a rare occurrence in Shakespeare's work. We must assume that the first stage direction of the quarto, Enter Rumour painted full of tongues, is directly...

(The entire section is 6907 words.)