Henry IV, Part I Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 49)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Traditionally, critical discussion of 1 and 2 Henry IV has centered primarily on Prince Henry, or Hal. In this vein, scholars have examined Hal's fitness as the future ruler of England and have compared him favorably or unfavorably to the serious-minded rebel, Hotspur. Closely connected to this focus is critical speculation over whether Hal's transformation from fun-loving ne'er-do-well to responsible heir is a sincere and natural result of his maturation or part of a calculated, cynical plan. Similarly, critics have debated the nature of the Prince's relationship with his father and with Falstaff. Many have argued that Falstaff acts as a surrogate father to Hal and that the Prince's subsequent rejection of the fat knight in 2 Henry IV is cruelly Machiavellian; others have seen it as a necessary gesture of maturity. More recently, scholars have dispensed with efforts to pinpoint Hal's motives. Instead, critical discussion has concentrated on the tragic elements of the two history plays and how the characters and actions in 1 and 2 Henry IV reflect Elizabethan mores as well as the shifting perspectives of both Elizabethan and modern society—particularly with regard to the issues of law and justice.

Of importance to several critics is the degree to which tragedy as a genre informs both 1 and 2 Henry IV. Catherine M. Shaw (1985), for example, argues that for all their dependence on history, a tragic thread runs throughout both plays in the form of Henry IV's guilt-racked conscience for his part in the overthrow and assassination of his predecessor, Richard II. By contrast, Harry Levin (1981) asserts that the tragic focus is Falstaff, whose comic "vitality" and tragic "mortality" are in precarious balance—particularly in the more somber play, 2 Henry IV.

These differing viewpoints regarding genre mirror what has been described as the two plays' ambiguous and, at times, contradictory perspectives: the raucous tavern scenes versus the politically charged Court scenes, Hal's unclear motives (Machiavellian or simply prudent), and Henry's role as usurper versus Hotspur's role as rebel. Increasingly, critics have been less apt to blame one character more than another for the moral ambiguity of the two plays and have instead looked to the audience, the playwright, and the times. For instance Marc Grossman (1995) suggests that Shakespeare created conflict between Falstaff's appealing roguery and Hal's royal responsibilities so that his audience would recognize and accept the gray areas that exist in Hal's predicament as well as in the audience's "everyday" life. F. Nick Clary (1988) also refers to Shakespeare's contemporary audiences in his discussion of Hal's dubious behavior toward Falstaff. He concludes that an interpretation of Hal's behavior depends on the social experiences of the viewer and that "during the Elizabethan Age, when the amorality of Machiavellian politics was practiced as much as it was criticized, a belief in Hal's moral recovery may, in fact, be a testimony to the possibility of regaining an ideal which had been lost." Stephen Greenblatt (1985) asserts that the source of the ambiguity in 1 and 2 Henry IV resides not in the audience but more specifically in the politics of Elizabethan England and the fact that the theater of the time reflected a playwright's continual conflict between being faithful to his own ideas and submitting to royal censorship.

Ultimately, discussions of ambiguity of genre and perspective in 1 and 2 Henry IV revolve around the issues of law and justice. Dain A. Trafton (1981) and E. A. Rauchut (1994) address the question of Henry's legitimacy as king. Trafton contends that since Henry fails to create "an entirely new order" consisting of his own rule of law and neglects to "obliterate even the memory" of Richard IPs reign, he dooms himself to the continuing cycle of rebellion. Rauchut suggests that this rebellion is in part justified after Henry "ignor[es] the law of arms" and demands that Hotspur...

(The entire section is 87,680 words.)