The opening lines of Henry IV: Part I are given to the play's title character, as the king and founder of the Bolingbrook dynasty says, "So shaken as we are, wan with care" (I.i.1). The play begins in the midst of tumultuous historical events, the overthrow of the "sad poet" king Richard II, civil war and rebellion arising in its wake. In this first speech of the play, Henry IV expresses heartfelt relief that civil butchery is over and turns to his anointed role as a defender of Christendom and Christian England.
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,
Whose arms were moulded in their mothers' womb,
To chase these pagans in those holy fields,
Over whose acres walk'd the blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail'd
For our advantage on the bitter cross.
Immediately we realize that England's and Henry's troubles are not over. There is a gap in the monarchy that must be filled. Henry IV cannot fill it since he is a usurper and, therefore, not a regent by blood. It is his son, Hal, born the first Bolingbrook prince, who can bring the nation together into peace and Christian harmony. But here, too, there is a problem to be resolved in the character of Hal.
Even before we encounter Hal and his tavern cronies, King Henry indicates the depth of his dissatisfaction with his son, and he does so in contrast to Hal's arch-rival, the young Henry "Harry" Percy or Hotspur.
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honor's tongue
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride,
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be prov'd
That some night-tripping fairy had exchang'd
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call'd mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
Henry's own "young Harry," as we see for ourselves in the next scene, is associated with the riot and license of the lower class inhabitants, with Falstaff embodying all of its characteristic faults and vices. At the play's midpoint, Henry elaborates on Hal's deficiencies as a blood successor to the English throne, scolding his heir-apparent:
I know not whether God will have it so
For some displeasing service I have done,
That in his secret doom, out of my blood
He'll breed revengement and a scourge for me;
But thou dost in thy passages of life
Make me believe that thou art only mark'd
For the hot vengeance, and the rod of heaven,
To punish my mistreadings. Tell me else,
(The entire section is 1194 words.)
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