Henry IV, Part I Essay - Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 80)

William Shakespeare

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...

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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.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Ricardo J. Quinones (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Quinones, Ricardo J. “The Growth of Hal.” In William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 71-95. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Quinones traces the development of Hal's character.]

The shadow of Richard II hangs over the waywardness of Hal in 1 Henry IV. The young prince is threatened with the same historical isolation and discontinuity. In their critical confrontation, his father the King accuses him of straying “quite from the light of all thy ancestors.” His place on the council has been “rudely lost” to his younger brother. “The hope and expectation...

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Elliot Krieger (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Krieger, Elliot. “‘To Demand the Time of Day’: Prince Hal.” In William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 101-08. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Krieger analyzes Hal's political instincts and moral ambivalence in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, particularly as these qualities are demonstrated in his relationship to Falstaff.]

From his first moment on stage Hal disputes Falstaff's need, even his right, to know the time:

Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
What a devil hast thou to do...

(The entire section is 2938 words.)

Edith Kern (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Kern, Edith. “Falstaff—A Trickster Figure.” Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 135-42.

[In the following essay, Kern compares Falstaff with the archetypal trickster figure.]

Carl Jung defined the trickster figure as a “‘psychologem’, an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity …, a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that hardly left the animal level.”1 He did so in a commentary, made upon request, to a study of the North-American Trickster by the anthropologist, Paul Radin. Radin had discovered this figure “in clearly recognizable form among the simplest aboriginal...

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Marshall Grossman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Grossman, Marshall. “Recovering the Terror of Trifles.” Shakespeare Studies 27 (1999): 51-64.

[In the following essay, Grossman points to Hal's ambivalent search for his own identity as the wayward prince's primary characteristic.]

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.

Whatever it is Hal is doing in his doings with Falstaff, Peto, Bardolph, and Poins in the early scenes of 1 Henry IV, his first soliloquy reassures the audience or himself that he will do it only for “a while.” Harry Berger reminds us that this “a while”—the lapse of time between the “now” of act 1 scene 2 of 1 Henry...

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Criticism: Production Reviews

Patrick Carnegy (review date 29 April 2000)

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Henry IV, Part 1. Spectator 284, no. 8960 (29 April 2000): 43-4.

[In the following review of Michael Attenborough's 2000 production of Henry IV, Part 1 at The Swan Theatre in Stratford, Carnegy comments on the shift from a modern-dress Richard II to this more traditional staging and highlights the roles of Hotspur, Bolingbroke, Prince Hal, and Falstaff.]

Getting the RSC's history-plays marathon off to such a compelling start with a modernist Richard II was never going to make life easy for the seven productions that are to follow. The overall strategy, as Adrian Noble half-jokingly declares, is...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Stephen Wall (review date 5 May 2000)

SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. Review of Henry IV, Part 1. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5068 (5 May 2000): 19.

[In the following review of a 2000 staging of Henry IV, Part 1 at The Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Wall notes that this intimate venue lent itself more to the subtleties of Desmond Barrit's Falstaff than to the volubility of David Troughton's Henry IV or Adam Levy's energetic Hotspur.]

What sort of stage do Shakespeare's Histories need? When the RSC moved into the Barbican in 1982, Trevor Nunn directed Henry IV as an elaborate demonstration of the new theatre's physical possibilities, with three-storey structures like Dickensian warrens...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Patrick Carnegy (review date 15 July 2000)

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Henry IV, Part 2. Spectator 285, no. 8971 (15 July 2000): 42-3.

[In the following review of a 2000 production of Henry IV, Part 2 directed by Michael Attenborough, Carnegy praises Desmond Barrit's immensely comic Falstaff and David Troughton's emotional King Henry.]

The themes of a coldly-strong king blighted by guilt and rebellion, and of a dissolute prince growing into his destiny, are of course a recapitulation of those in Part 1, but their development sounds a deeper, darker note [in Michael Attenborough's production of Henry IV Part 2]. Attenborough and his strong cast have the perfect measure of the...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Heather Neill (review date 16 March 2001)

SOURCE: Neill, Heather. Review of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Times Educational Supplement, no. 4420 (16 March 2001): 24.

[In the following review of Michael Attenborough's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 with the Royal Shakespeare Company at London's Barbican Theatre, Neill lauds the balanced, believable performances rendered by actors in the roles of Falstaff, Hal, and Henry IV.]

How nastily manipulative should Falstaff be and how much a forgivable—even lovable—old reprobate? Is Hal cynically calculating or a king-in-waiting whose loyalties are divided between his usurping father, King Henry IV, and his surrogate father, the dissolute Falstaff?


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Derek Peat (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Peat, Derek. “Falstaff Gets the Sack.” Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 3 (2002): 379-83.

[In the following essay, Peat considers contemporary stage interpretations of Act V, scene iii of Henry IV, Part 1 in which Hal is to throw a bottle of sack at Falstaff, arguing that postwar productions have tended to dispose of this action and in so doing have diminished Falstaff's overall comic potential.]

Toward the end of 1 Henry IV, the actor playing Hal is required to throw a bottle in anger at Falstaff. The stage direction “[He throws the bottle at him.] Exit” (5.3.56 s.d.) looks benign enough on the page, but throwing any object...

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Criticism: Themes

Charles R. Forker (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “The Idea of Time in Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy.” Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 20-34.

[In the following essay, Forker examines how Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and the remaining plays of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy promote a cyclical, providential, ironic, and tragicomic view of time's progress.]

For the Methode of a Poet historical is not such, as of an Historiographer. For an Historiographer discourseth of affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the times as the actions, but a Poet thrusteth into the middest, euen where it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the...

(The entire section is 6548 words.)

Derek Cohen (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “History and the Nation in Richard II and Henry IV.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (spring 2002): 293-315.

[In the following essay, Cohen assesses the perception of history in the Henry IV plays, emphasizing a turbulent process of nation-building that survives both the murder and usurpation of Richard II and the pervasive moral uncertainty of Henry IV, Part 2.]


The past, in the figure of the murdered King Richard, haunts the protagonists of the Henry IV plays. The relation between the Richard they remember or merely imagine and the Richard of Richard II is fraught with...

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Jesse M. Lander (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Lander, Jesse M. “‘Crack'd Crowns’ and Counterfeit Sovereigns: The Crisis of Value in 1 Henry IV.Shakespeare Studies 30 (2002): 137-61.

[In the following essay, Lander presents an economic reading of Henry IV, Part 1 as the dramatic representation of a crisis of value in which monetary concerns exert their influence on monarchical authority and legitimacy.]

Money has the advantage of presenting me immediately the lurid face of the social relation of value; it shows me value right away as exchange, commanded and organized for exploitation … money has only one face, that of the boss.


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Further Reading


Berger, Jr., Harry. “The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 1 (spring 1998): 40-73.

Close analysis of Falstaff's language, motivation, and behavior in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 that explains his subversive status and complicity in his rejection by Hal.

Bevington, David, ed. Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986, 457 p.

Collection of major critical essays on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 from the mid-eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries.

Bloom, Harold. William...

(The entire section is 633 words.)