Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two, framed within the Lancastrian tetralogy by Richard II and Henry V, form the heart of Shakespeare's second history sequence. While the two parts of Henry IV treat the time period spanned by the reign of King Henry IV, the significance of the king himself tends to be overshadowed by the other characters in the play, notably the king's son, Prince Hal, the prince's dissolute friend, Sir John Falstaff, and the headstrong rebel, Hotspur. In fact, many critics past and present have held that the "education" of the prince is the primary focus of the two plays. Hal's relationship with and subsequent rejection of Falstaff has also been an issue treated unrelentingly by critics over the years.
Some modern critics have used such commonly studied issues as a means of exploring other aspects of the plays. James Black (1990) has examined the comedic discourse in the plays—that of Hal and Falstaff—to illuminate such themes as time and deferment in the plays. Similarly, critics such as Joan Webber (1963) and Wayne Rebhorn (1995) have examined the rhetoric of King Henry and Prince Hal in order to further investigate the nature of kingship and the relationship between father and son. Additionally, many twentieth-century scholars have focussed their studies on the concept and treatment of history in the plays. David Bergeron (1991) has analyzed the way in which the character of Falstaff is used by Shakespeare to discusses the problem of establishing accurate history. Catherine Belsey (1991) has maintained that the plays may indeed be understood as history, despite the prevalent notion that they should only be regarded as art. Additionally David Scott Kastan (1991) has interpreted the historical content of the plays as reflective of the political scene in Elizabethan England.
One of the most salient issues pervading modern criticism of the plays is the nature of kingship and Shakespeare's views on the subject. As Sherman Hawkins (1975) summarizes, criticism of the history plays has "been dominated by what E. M. W. Tillyard called the 'Tudor myth'." (Essentially, the Tudor myth is a view of history designed to legitimate the rule of Tudor monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth, who feared political instability following the Wars of the Roses—the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York. Tenets of this view include the ideas that rebellion against a legitimate ruler is never justified and that usurpers and their heirs will be punished.) Hawkins argues that while Tillyard appears to favor lineal descent and the Yorkists, other critics, such as Irving Ribner point out that even though Shakespeare offers no approval of the usurpation of Richard II, the playwright does celebrate the Lancastrian kings that rule England following Richard's deposition. Hawkins views this debate as a struggle among critics to prove that either virtue or lineal descent was considered by Shakespeare to be the determining factor of kingship in the history plays.
Although critics such as James Calderwood (1979) and Barbara Baines (1980) discuss aspects of kingship other than the issue of whether virtue or lineage determines the right to rule, it appears as if they nevertheless take a stand on one side of the issue or the other. Calderwood examines Shakespeare's use of metaphor to discuss kingship, and in his conclusion on the matter, states that Shakespeare emphasizes the significance of lineal descent through the words and actions of Prince Hal. Baines, on the other hand, in her study of Shakespeare's portrayal of Bolingbroke, maintains that the playwright's depiction of the king is a sympathetic one, and that Henry teaches his son that kingship must be earned, not simply inherited.
While not every critical discussion of kingship can be distilled down to a battle between virtue and lineage (John Bromley , for example, analyzes the changing nature of Henry as a public and political man without discussing the right to rule), the issue remains a vital one to students and scholars of Shakespeare's history plays. Hawkins cautions, however, that an examination of Shakespeare's histories underscores that while the playwright appears to stress virtue over lineal succession in the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare nevertheless seems to value both "blood and virtue" in a ruler.