Widely recognized as the greatest English playwright, William Shakespeare created plays that have provided the measure of dramatic excellence for centuries. Henry IV, Part I in particular contributed considerably to Shakespeare’s fame. It has been successful in production from the date of its first performance until the present. The play is widely regarded as among the best of Shakespeare’s history plays.
Shakespeare created a new type of drama by his use of historical materials (such as Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, c. 1577). He used them to depict patriotically events of English history. Shakespeare helped authenticate English historical and cultural tradition while at the same time altering and enhancing historical materials to create works of art. Shakespeare’s histories are not factually precise; they are dramas.
Shakespeare’s artistic embellishment is evident in Henry IV, Part I in a number of ways. One of the most important is his creation of a structural symmetry lacking in the original, factual material that leaves a spectator with a clear impression of the opposing forces involved in Henry’s struggle to keep his crown. Shakespeare was also one of the first dramatists to integrate comic subplots into otherwise serious plays as a way to entertain his heterogeneous audience and to unify his plays’ themes. In Henry IV, Part I, the comic subplot of Falstaff and his cohorts (not really a part of English history) achieves all of these purposes.
As humor, Falstaff’s comments and actions enliven the play. He hacks and damages his sword in order to support his preposterous story of valiant resistance to attack, when in fact he ran away at the very first sign of danger, as the audience is well aware. The Falstaff subplot serves to unify the play and elucidate its themes. Falstaff is the embodiment of misrule, cowardice, and fun. Shakespeare juxtaposes him with others who are his opposite, such as the valiant Hotspur and the serious, worried Henry IV. Falstaff is also parallel to Hotspur, however, in their efforts forcibly to take the possessions of others—in Falstaff’s case, the money of travelers on the highway, and in Hotspur’s case, the kingship of Henry IV.
On another level, Hotspur and Falstaff contrast; Falstaff is notoriously cowardly and is convinced that honor is only a word. Hotspur is the opposite, prone to anger and violence and so honor-crazed that he bemoans Prince Hal’s lack of military reputation because he sees killing Hal as unlikely sufficiently to enhance his own status. This juxtaposition is astutely symbolized in act 5 of the play, when Hotspur lies dead on stage because of his excessive desire for honor, while Falstaff lies beside him, alive but exposed as equally excessive in cowardice. That juxtaposition of extremes also enables Shakespeare to convey a central theme of the play, the nature of true honor, represented by Hal, who embodies the happy medium between Falstaff and Hotspur. Hal, unlike Hotspur, enjoys diversions and humor, but not to the drunken, cowardly excess of his friend Falstaff. Hal is admirably courageous in defending his father and his kingdom from Hotspur, but, unlike Hotspur, he is not in constant conflict with even allies as a result of excessive pride and militancy.
Shakespeare also creates structural parallels and contrasts in the plot as a way to delineate the qualities of his characters and as a way to integrate symbolism into the play. For example, important parallels are constructed between King Henry IV and Prince Hal. Alike in their ultimate devotion to defense of their rule from rebellious nobles, they are opposites too. King Henry is reserved, in contact only with a chosen few in his aristocratic, military circle. Thus, he is not a well-loved king and must constantly fight to retain power. Hal, however, is regularly in enjoyable, intimate contact with all levels of English society, ranging from barmaids such as Mistress Quickly to the aristocratic, military group of his father. Thus, it seems clear, Hal will eventually be a popular king.
King Henry decides to postpone his trip to the Holy Land in favor of military defense of his kingship, an indication that he is not a particularly peaceful ruler but rather one prone to respond violently to violent challenge, regardless of religious commitments. In contrast, Prince Hal engineers the release of Douglas, the Scottish leader who fought vigorously against the king and Hal, preferring leniency to the fate his father imposes at the play’s end upon Worcester and Vernon: death. In fact, one could say that Hal is forgiving of Douglas’s transgressions, indicating a subtle level of biblical symbolism in the play. Like the Old Testament God, Henry IV is wrathful and violent, leading by brute force, but like Christ in the New Testament, Hal is devoted to the commoners of the realm and is forgiving of those who oppose him (with the exception of Hotspur, who had to be dealt with by violence).
Thus, Shakespeare creates an artistic and structural symmetry in Henry IV, Part I via subplots, parallels, and contrasts that achieves interrelated purposes of audience entertainment, character clarification, symbolic integration, and thematic expression. Such complex compression gives the play a multiplicity in unity that has helped generate its enduring appeal.