Henry IV, Part I Essay - Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 90)

William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 90)

Introduction

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Shakespearean scholars speculate that Henry IV, Part 1 was written in late 1596 or early 1597, and first performed shortly thereafter; Henry IV, Part 2 was perhaps written in late 1597 or early 1598 and sometimes staged in tandem with Part 1. Shakespeare drew upon a number of English history texts while composing these dramas. Two of the most notable sources are Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) and Samuel Daniel's epic poem The Civile Wars between the two houses of Lancaster and York (1595). In addition, some critics maintain that the anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V (c. 1594), inspired the low-comedy scenes between Prince Hal and Falstaff. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholars have often focused on the historical and cultural resonances of Falstaff's character; the dynamics of Prince Hal's ambiguous moral values and his Machiavellian political ambition; and Shakespeare's shrewd commentary on prevailing ethical, religious, and sociopolitical attitudes in Elizabethan England.

Many modern critics have asserted that the character of Falstaff can be interpreted as Shakespeare's derisive satire of ambiguous moral and ethical values current in late fifteenth-century England. Beyond endorsing the opinion that the fat knight is a caricature of the medieval Protestant martyr, Sir John Oldcastle, who was revered by contemporary Puritans, Grace Tiffany (1998) maintains that Shakespeare intended to dramatize Falstaff as a “carnivalesque” Puritan who is a sophist, who agitates from the fringes of society, and who has a subversive, anti-establishment attitude toward religious and political hierarchies. For Tiffany, while Falstaff is theatrically amusing, the Henry IV plays conclude “with the clear suggestion that Falstaffian influence, whatever its attractions, is politically and morally dangerous, and will be rejected by a sane commonwealth.” Similarly, David Scott Kastan (1998) examines the circumstances surrounding Oldcastle's martyrdom and recounts the controversy during Shakespeare's time that led to the removal of Oldcastle's name from Henry IV, Part 1. But Kastan takes exception to the editorial decision to restore Oldcastle's name to the modern Oxford text of the play, arguing that while second-hand Elizabethan and Jacobean reports of theatrical performances substantiate the name change, the fact that Shakespeare made the change should be considered a valid textual revision of the play. Tom McAlindon (2001) affirms his support for literary scholars who maintain that Falstaff is a clever parody of both Oldcastle and contemporary Puritans. Further, McAlindon contends that rather than merely settling for a one-dimensional lampoon of Puritan behavior, Shakespeare invented a new satirical model that transformed “a Puritan butt into an exceptionally appealing character with a quicksilver mind and tongue.” Surveying Falstaff's disingenuous recitation of biblical scripture in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Matthew Fike (see Further Reading) assesses the fat knight in relation to Jesus's parable of Dives and Lazarus. According to Fike, Falstaff is a dynamic character who possesses the negative, gluttonous characteristics of Dives and his brothers, but who also becomes a contrite Lazarus-figure when he is banished by Hal.

From the perspective of many modern theatrical reviewers, Henry IV, Parts 1and 2 have achieved an iconic status. For example, Michael Billington (2001) hails the dramas as “the twin summits of Shakespeare's genius.” Refusing to be intimidated by lofty expectations, modern directors have endeavored to leave their own mark on these plays. In 2000 David Attenborough staged both Henry IV plays as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's ambitious program to present the entire cycle of Shakespeare's eight history plays in chronological order from Richard II to Richard III. Critics praised Attenborough's productions for their intelligent and skillful treatment of the political, social, and familial themes in the two history plays. While acknowledging that the entire cast was generally superb, reviewers particularly extolled Desmond Barrit's portrayal of Falstaff. Ultimately, commentators were gratified at the thought-provoking theatrical experience orchestrated by Attenborough. Billington concluded that “the overwhelming feeling at the end of the day is of Shakespeare's genius in encompassing all of England in two plays and of Attenborough's success in probing his restless moral intelligence.” Reviewers were markedly less satisfied with Richard Maxwell's 2003 staging of Henry IV, Part 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, as part of the Next Wave Festival. Generally regarded as a gifted experimental director, Maxwell endeavored to apply his avant-garde theatrical techniques to the play. His chief innovation was to minimize theatrical affectation on the part of the actors and to emphasize instead a clear, uninflected delivery of the text. Critics asserted that while the director's unorthodox technique had illuminated several modern plays in the past, this was wholly unsuccessful when applied to Shakespeare. Indeed, Ben Brantley concluded that despite the high concept, Maxwell's production was “relentlessly, numbingly flat.”

Analyzing the late Elizabethan age as a period of intense cultural turmoil, Tiffany maintains that Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 represent Shakespeare's ironic commentary on the religious and sociopolitical rhetoric propagated by contemporary Puritans. According to Tiffany, Elizabethan playgoers would have detected in Falstaff many of the destabilizing aspects of Puritanism and in Prince Hal an ambivalent Puritan attitude toward monarchic authority as a role the king must play. Considering the plays from a socioeconomic perspective, Nina Levine (2000) demonstrates that Shakespeare adroitly employed the concept of credit and mercantile exchange in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 as a metaphor for the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty's claim to the English throne. For Levine, Shakespeare's commercial perspective of royal political discourse—a mode of speech that involves “promises and payments” to maintain power—parallels the everyday financial dealings of Elizabethan playgoers who relied on credit and mercantile exchange to maintain a complex community of shared fiscal obligation. Some modern commentators have focused on the structural design of the Henry IV plays in an effort to shed new light on Shakespeare's view of the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty in general and Prince Hal's moral and political values in particular. In his 2002 study, Mark Taylor considers Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 within the context of the second tetralogy (which includes Richard II and Henry V in addition to these two plays), detailing how key scenes thematically imitate, echo, and foreshadow other scenes within the epic drama cycle. Defining these scenes as instances of “proleptic imitation,” Taylor demonstrates how each sequence reinforces the inevitability of Prince Hal's reformation and the tragedy of Falstaff's rejection. David Ruiter (2003) traces the structural and thematic implications of the cyclical tradition of feasting and fasting in the Henry IV plays. In his analysis of Part 2 in particular, Ruiter demonstrates that Prince Hal shrewdly manipulates the progression from disorderly festivity—which the critic characterizes as “the Feast of Falstaff”—to hierarchical order in an effort to maximize his political capital as the prodigal son who reforms himself to become king.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Grace Tiffany (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Tiffany, Grace. “Puritanism in Comic History: Exposing Royalty in the Henry Plays.” Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 256-87.

[In the following essay, Tiffany maintains that Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 represent Shakespeare's ironic commentary on the religious and sociopolitical rhetoric propagated by contemporary Puritans. According to the critic, Elizabethan playgoers would have detected in Falstaff many of the egalitarian aspects of Puritanism and in Prince Hal a Puritan view of monarchic authority as a kind of theatrical performance.]

Since the publication of Jonas Barish's seminal The Anti-theatrical Prejudice in 1981, it has become a...

(The entire section is 12582 words.)

Mark Taylor (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Taylor, Mark. “Henry IV and Proleptic Mimesis.” In Shakespeare's Imitations, pp. 66-106. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Taylor considers Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 within the context of the entire second tetralogy (which includes Richard II and Henry V), detailing how key scenes thematically imitate, echo, and foreshadow other episodes within the epic drama. He also calls attention to correspondences between the second tetralogy and the epic poems of Homer and Virgil.]

The primary subject of this chapter is two scenes from the first part of Henry IV: act 2, scene 4, in the...

(The entire section is 20015 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Norman Council (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Council, Norman. “Prince Hal: Mirror of Success.” Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 125-46.

[In the following essay, Council examines how Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur each respond to the code of honor documented in various Renaissance texts. The critic asserts that while Hotspur rigidly adheres to the code and Falstaff flatly rejects it, Hal remains aloof from its requirements but manipulates and exploits it to achieve political success.]

The idea that Shakespeare arranges the three principals of 1 Henry IV in a quasi-Aristotelian paradigm of the theme of honor has been so often iterated and has so dominated the teaching of the play that it has...

(The entire section is 8820 words.)

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Kastan, David Scott. “‘Killed with Hard Opinions’: Oldcastle, Falstaff, and the Reformed Text of 1 Henry IV.” In Textual Formations and Reformations, edited by Laurie E. Maguire and Thomas L. Berger, pp. 211-27. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kastan discusses the circumstances surrounding the martyrdom of Sir John Oldcastle, the historical inspiration for Shakespeare's Falstaff, and recounts the controversy that led to the removal of Oldcastle's name from Henry IV, Part 1. The critic takes exception to the editorial decision to restore Oldcastle's name to the Oxford text of the play, arguing that while second-hand...

(The entire section is 8212 words.)

Tom McAlindon (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: McAlindon, Tom. “Perfect Answers: Religious Inquisition, Falstaffian Wit.” Shakespeare Survey 54 (2001): 100-07.

[In the following essay, McAlindon agrees with literary scholars who maintain that Falstaff is a parody of both Sir John Oldcastle and contemporary Puritans. The critic also contends that in addition to creating a humorous caricature of Puritanism in the fat knight, Shakespeare ingeniously transformed “a Puritan butt into an exceptionally appealing character with a quicksilver mind and tongue.”]

I

Few would now deny that in Henry IV the character of Falstaff constitutes a deliberate and audacious caricature of...

(The entire section is 5216 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Alastair Macaulay (review date 3 July 2000)

SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Human Life at Its Richest.” Financial Times (3 July 2000): 13.

[In the following review, Macaulay provides a generally favorable assessment of Michael Attenborough's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) rendering of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, particularly focusing on what he regards as the fine performances of the ensemble cast.]

Shakespeare's best? Any theatre-goer's opinion will keep changing on this; but I am one of those whose vote—both while in the theatre and on reflection—goes most often for the two parts of Henry IV. Here his sense of human life is at its richest, and his mastery of multiple plots most telling....

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Michael Billington (review date 24 February 2001)

SOURCE: Billington, Michael. “May the Fourth Be with You.” Guardian (24 February 2001): 4.

[In the following review, Billington praises Michael Attenborough's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 for capturing the moral ambiguity inherent in Shakespeare's English epic.]

It is widely accepted now that Henry IV Parts One and Two are the twin summits of Shakespeare's genius. Even if Michael Attenborough's production, in its move from Stratford's Swan to London's Barbican, seems visually austere—nothing much scenically except a raked, dun-coloured stage and an overhanging screen—it is tremendous where it truly...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Ben Brantley (review date 2 October 2003)

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare's Prince Hal, Told without Emotion.” New York Times (2 October 2003): E5.

[In the following review, Brantley censures Richard Maxwell's Next Wave Festival production of Henry IV, Part 1, asserting that its intentional avant-garde affectlessness rendered the play “relentlessly, numbingly flat” and exposed the amateurishness of the cast.]

Falstaff's belly is, as usual, certifiably round, though worn lower on the midriff than usual, suggesting a woman in the last weeks of pregnancy. Everything else in Richard Maxwell's interpretation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One—the opening production in this year's Next...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Nina Levine (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Levine, Nina. “Extending Credit in the Henry IV Plays.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2000): 403-31.

[In the following essay, Levine discusses how Shakespeare employed the concept of credit and mercantile exchange in the Henry IV plays as a metaphor for the Lancastrian dynasty's claim to the English throne. The critic also explores how this perspective of royal political discourse—a mode of speech that involves “promises and payments” to maintain power—parallels the everyday financial dealings of Elizabethan playgoers, who relied on credit and mercantile exchange to maintain a complex community held together by commerce.]

Credit...

(The entire section is 13843 words.)

David Ruiter (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Ruiter, David. “‘The Unquiet Time’ of 2 Henry IV: Festivity and Order in Flux.” In Shakespeare's Festive History: Feasting, Festivity, Fasting and Lent in the Second Henriad, pp. 103-41. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2003.

[In the following essay, Ruiter demonstrates how in Henry IV, Part 2 Prince Hal shrewdly manipulates the progression from feasting and festivity to the restoration of political order in an effort to maximize his political capital as the prodigal son who alters his behavior in order to become king.]

In 1 Henry IV, Hal creates a socio-political event which I have called the Feast of Falstaff. The prince is able to...

(The entire section is 14927 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Barker, Roberta. “Tragical-Comical-Historical Hotspur.” Shakespeare Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2003): 288-306.

Reevaluates the character of Hotspur, arguing that while modern productions of Henry IV, Part 1 generally portray him as either a comic foil to Prince Hal or a feudal holdover, playgoers in earlier centuries would have seen him as a more complete character, who moves “from tragic to comic to historical modes in order to accommodate shifting theatrical conditions and shifting constructions of heroism.”

Fike, Matthew. “Dives and Lazarus in The Henriad.Renascence 55, no. 4 (summer 2003): 279-91....

(The entire section is 408 words.)