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

William Shakespeare

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


Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

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...

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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...

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Criticism: Character Studies

Jo Ann Davis (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Davis, Jo Ann. “Henry IV: From Satirist to Satiric Butt.” In Aeolian Harps: Essays in Literature in Honor of Maurice Browning Cramer, edited by Donna G. Fricke and Douglas C. Fricke, pp. 81-93. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Davis studies Henry Bolingbroke as an unsympathetic object of satire in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.]

“For now a time is come to mock at form”

2 Henry IV, IV.v.118

The changing role of Henry Bolingbroke provides a vehicle for describing the logical development of form in the second tetralogy. The play sequence moves from the tragedy of...

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Walter E. Meyers (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Meyers, Walter E. “Hal: The Mirror of All Christian Kings.” In A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr., edited by Jack D. Durant and M. Thomas Hester, pp. 67-77. Raleigh, N.C.: The Winston Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Meyers contends that Shakespeare's Hal is a developing, subtle, and complex character who assumes many roles in the Henriad.]

The first problem is what to call him—Hal, Harry, Henry? And the question of his names echoes about the reality of this somehow puzzling character. No critic denies that in discussing Hamlet, say, we face a mystery, but with Hal, the debate continues whether this...

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Heather Findlay (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Findlay, Heather. “Renaissance Pederasty and Pedagogy: The ‘Case’ of Shakespeare's Falstaff.” Yale Journal of Criticism 3, no. 1 (fall 1989): 229-38.

[In the following essay, Findlay evaluates the figure of Falstaff with reference to classical models and contemporary theory regarding economic exchange, pedagogy, and homoeroticism.]

Although I hope to inspire a little healthy suspicion about the nature of Sir John Falstaff's tastes when it comes to pleasures of the flesh, this paper will not argue that if one reads between enough lines in Shakespeare's Henriad, or beyond enough layers of heterosexist commentary on his character, the jolly old...

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Marvin B. Krims (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Krims, Marvin B. “Hotspur's Antifeminine Prejudice in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV.Literature and Psychology 4, nos. 1-2 (1994): 118-32.

[In the following essay, Krims offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Hotspur, examining his extreme intolerance for so-called feminine principles and traits—including inconstancy, submissiveness, and compassion—in others and in himself.]

In creating the Hotspur of 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare retained the impetuous and courageous quality of the historic Sir Henry Percy.1 However, the “phallocentric” attitudes the fictive Hotspur displays are entirely of the author's creation.2...

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Criticism: Production Reviews

Ace G. Pilkington (review date 1993)

SOURCE: Pilkington, Ace G. “The BBC's Henriad.Literature/Film Quarterly 21, no. 1 (1993): 25-32.

[In the following review of David Giles's production of the Henriad for BBC television, Pilkington notes the strong focus on Hal in the series, which served as a unifying force in the plays and featured Hal's development from prince to king.]

David Giles did not know when he directed the BBC Richard II that he would also be the director for all of the Second Tetralogy and what might readily be styled the Henriad.1 However, by the time Giles started into 1 Henry IV, Cedric Messina, producer for the first two years of the series,...

(The entire section is 5957 words.)

Ben Brantley (review date 1993)

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Civil War Henry IV with a Punk for a Prince.” New York Times Current Events Edition (23 December 1993): C7, C10.

[In the following review of Ron Daniels's 1993 back-to-back staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Brantley examines the director's anachronistic American Civil War setting and comments on the overall lack of cohesion in the dramas.]

Talk about generation gaps. In Ron Daniels's lively but erratic staging of both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV at the American Repertory Theater, the King and his wayward heir, Hal, appear to be separated by about 130 years.

The rebellious Prince is here portrayed...

(The entire section is 1121 words.)

Joel Henning (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Henning, Joel. Review of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.Wall Street Journal (11 March 1999): A20.

[In the following review of Barbara Gaines's 1999 staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 at the Chicago's Shakespeare Repertory Theater, Henning praises the outstanding performances of nearly all the cast members, and applauds the dramaturgical effects employed by Gaines and her lighting, music, and costume designers.]

Part 1 of Shakespeare's Henry IV is arguably his best and most theatrical play, which makes it one of the very best plays we have in our language. Part 2, when it must stand alone, isn't as good; it's darker and less heroic, but it's...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Russell Jackson (review date 2001)

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Henry IV, Part 2.Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-23.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2000 Shakespeare season at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jackson describes the relatively “somber” mood of Michael Attenborough's Henry IV, the production's thematic emphasis on fathers and sons, and several strong performances, especially Desmond Barrit's witty but reticent Falstaff and William Houston's enigmatic Prince Henry.]

The two parts of Henry IV were presented with sparing use of symbolism. The overall effect was somber. The first play began with a tolling bell and chanting, as Bolingbroke...

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Criticism: Themes

John W. Blanpied (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Blanpied, John W. “Henry IV, Part 2: ‘Unfathered Heirs and Loathly Births of Nature.’” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 85-103. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Blanpied contrasts the two parts of Henry IV, finding an “organic unity” in Part I that doesn't exist in Part II.]

Open your ears, for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumor speaks?

So Rumor opens 2 Henry IV, implying that the audience (“my household”), even in consenting to hear the play,...

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Clayton G. Mackenzie (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Mackenzie, Clayton G. “The Third Face of the Elizabethan Mars: The Fallacy of Heroism in 1 Henry IV.Neohelicon 22, no. 2 (1995): 185-203.

[In the following essay, Mackenzie examines the mythological allusions in Henry IV, Part 1, and finds that the play lacks a truly heroic protagonist and presents a vision of England as both “tragic and unheroic.”]

The apparent paucity of significant mythological allusion in 1 Henry IV is puzzling. There is, as James Hoyle has shown, a profusion of emblematic imagery, but such imagery is dominantly proverbial in character.1 Danse macabre, Paradise and Fall, and Neptune themes, which...

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Kiernan Ryan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Ryan, Kiernan. “The Future of History in Henry IV.” In Henry IV, Parts One and Two, edited by Nigel Wood, pp. 92-125. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan analyzes Henry IV in terms of Frederic Jameson's Marxist theory of literature, finding that Shakespeare's plays demystify the hierarchical assumptions and teleological confusions associated with historical drama even as they portray standard ideologies.]


As history plays engaged in dramatizing the fate of Crown and nation across a period two centuries before the time of Shakespeare and his audience, 1 and 2 Henry IV...

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Robert L. Reid (essay date 1996-97)

SOURCE: Reid, Robert L. “Humoral Psychology in Shakespeare's Henriad.Comparative Drama 4, no. 4 (winter 1996-97): 471-502.

[In the following essay, Reid maintains that the four principal characters of Henry IV, Part 1 depict the varied and relational psychological temperaments associated with the classical, Galenic system of “humors.” Based on this system, Reid interprets King Henry IV as melancholic, Hotspur as choleric, Falstaff as phlegmatic, and Hal as sanguine.]

A literary survey of Galenic usages between 1350 and 1700 confirms Shakespeare's and Jonson's dominion as deliberate humoralists, especially in the plays of 1597-1606: Chaucer uses...

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Further Reading


Barish, Jonas A. “The Turning Away of Prince Hal.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Henry IV, Part One: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by R. J. Dorius, pp. 83-88. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970.

Maintains that Hal prepares himself to be a ruler in Henry IV “by scrapping part of his humanity,” which is represented by his uncompassionate rejection of the comic folly and excess of Falstaff.

Bevington, David. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part I, edited by David Bevington, pp. 1-110. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Surveys the historical sources,...

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