Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 80)


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 considered the primary focus of these dramas. Some critics contend that the two parts of Henry IV represent a unified whole meant to be interpreted and performed as part of a historical, dramatic, or thematic sequence, while others believe that Part 2 was not necessarily conceived of or composed as a sequential work, but is merely a spin-off that was written after the success of Part 1. David Bevington (1987) finds fault with each of these positions and claims that the most persuasive arguments “allow for separate performance of the two plays, for a degree of uncertainty about Shakespeare's overall plan as he wrote, and for the idea that the second play deliberately varies the focus of interest and the characterization.” The relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal is another area of intense scholarly interest. Nigel Wood (1995) notes that since the play's beginning critics have tried to make sense of “Falstaff's attractiveness and Hal's obduracy in rejecting him.”

Critical discussion of the major characters in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 has largely concentrated on the figures of Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff, especially on their unique dramatic relationship. Ricardo J. Quinones (1972) argues that time is a central element in Hal's conversion from wayward prince to king of England, and notes that his character is the center of the multiple plot structure that exists in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. For Quinones, the prince represents a stable time continuum in the dramas—a vision of endurance and peaceful succession. Elliot Krieger (1979) presents a moral reading of Hal, emphasizing fundamental differences between the cunning Prince Hal and the loutish Falstaff. Whereas Falstaff is circumscribed within the boundaries of his own ego, Krieger contends, Hal's expansive consciousness allows him to master his environment and use all available resources—including Falstaff—for his own political benefit. Marshall Grossman (1999) questions precisely what Hal is doing with Falstaff and the rest of the petty criminals at the Boar's Head Tavern in the Henry IV plays, and finds an answer by examining Hal's ambivalent search for his own identity. Turning solely to Falstaff, Edith Kern (1984) traces the origins of this character to the archetypal trickster figure in its theatrical incarnation as a lovable scoundrel. With roots in myth and the Italian commedia dell'arte, this roguish character seems to derive limitless pleasure from hatching plots and playing practical jokes. Kern contends that Falstaff's lengthy career of mischief and amusing transgression abruptly ceases at the point when he discovers a need to ask his companions for compassion and forgiveness, a point which signals his rapidly approaching demise.

The standard practice among modern Shakespearean directors has been to stage the two parts of Henry IV in consecutive performance with a stable central cast and an emphasis on Hal and his development from a self-indulgent prince to an emergent king. Only rarely are the two dramas staged out of “context,” unlike Richard II and Henry V—the first and last plays of the historical sequence—which are sometimes allowed to stand alone. In 2000, reviewer Patrick Carnegy attended the plays as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. Separated by a period of three months, the first and second parts of this staging of the Henry IV sequence were directed by Michael Attenborough, who highlighted the encroaching gloom of Part 2 in the first installment. Carnegy contends that both performances were well-acted, particularly so by Desmond Barrit as Falstaff. According to the reviewer's assessment, the masterfully realized and very real figure of Barrit's Falstaff provided a needed humorous commentary on the doings of William Houston's less sympathetic Prince Hal. Carnegy likewise appreciates David Troughton's King Henry IV, and notes that rather than lurking in the background of the play that bears his name, this character stepped up to become its emotional center. Reviewing Part 1 of the same production, Stephen Wall comments on the inappropriateness of the Swan's small theatrical space to a drama filled with expansive characters. Nevertheless, Wall praises Attenborough's directorial work, as well as Barrit's refined and sincere Falstaff. In 2001, the production traveled to London's Barbican Theatre, where both plays were attended by Heather Neill. Neill admires Attenborough's careful rendering of a balance between Falstaff and Hal; like Carnegy, she also welcomes David Troughton's majestic and emotive King Henry IV. Also reviewing Attenborough's production, Derek Peat (2002) comments not on the performance overall but on a key moment of Henry IV, Part 1 in which Hal throws a bottle of sack at Falstaff. Peat observes that Attenborough's decision to let Hal simply throw the bottle to the floor was a missed opportunity and demonstrated a contemporary propensity to weaken the comic potential of Falstaff in performance.

Contemporary critics of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 have tended to analyze historical—and to a lesser degree socio-economic—concepts present in the dramas. Shakespeare's position as historiographer appeals to Charles R. Forker (1984), who views the dramatist's second historical tetralogy as a thematically cohesive sequence. According to Forker, Shakespeare's concern with historical cause and effect are imperative to a complete understanding of the Henry IV plays, and indeed to all of his historical dramas. While acknowledging Shakespeare's historical didacticism, Forker emphasizes his tendency to mold and reconstruct history, arguing that Shakespeare combined a classical view of historical cycles with a Christian conception of salvation as the ultimate end of human history. By superimposing these perspectives, Forker concludes, Shakespeare crafted a complex, tragicomic, intertextual, and vital theory of human progress through historical time that is played out in Henry IV and beyond. Derek Cohen (2002) likewise takes an inclusive, historical view of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and assesses the lingering concerns with usurpation, murder, and legitimacy that are carried over from Richard II. Cohen examines the turbulent process of nation-building that survives both the murder and usurpation of Richard II and the pervasive moral uncertainty of the Henry IV plays. Cohen notes that Part 1 is a drama of manifest destiny focused on Hal and his desire for greatness, but that by Part 2 such personal aspects of Hal's role begin to give way to a drama of ideas concerned with the moral and intellectual difficulties of reformulating national history into a cohesive whole. This process continues until Hal's personal dominance begins to reassert itself as part of a commonwealth ideology—the new basis of English national history that looks forward to the action of Henry V. Lastly, turning to the economic subtexts of Henry IV, Part 1, Jesse Lander (2002) reads the play in terms of a thematic crisis of value in which a collapse of monetary stability signals a debasement of sovereign power and an erosion of political legitimacy.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

David Bevington (essay date 1987)

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

[In the following excerpt, Bevington discusses the structural unity and major themes of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and considers the dramas' exposition of identity, honor, cowardice, father-son relations, and princely education.]


The debate over [E. M. W.] Tillyard's insistence on Elizabethan world-order as the key to Shakespeare's history plays has interesting ramifications, not only for characterization—e.g. is Falstaff a Vice tempter or a free...

(The entire section is 11161 words.)

Nigel Wood (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Wood, Nigel. Introduction to Henry IV, Parts One and Two, edited by Nigel Wood, pp. 1-34. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wood surveys critical estimations of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and examines the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff.]


The critical history of the Henry IV plays follows one consistent course: the resolution to make sense of Falstaff's attractiveness and Hal's obduracy in rejecting him. In Barbara Hodgdon's The End Crowns All it becomes clear that the most pressing problem posed for directors is that of whether Falstaff is...

(The entire section is 7054 words.)