Henry IV, Part I Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 57) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, the second and third plays in Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, cover the end of Richard II's reign through the beginning of Henry V's reign. Critics have often noted that other characters in the play, most notably the king's son Prince Hal, Sir John Falstaff, and the headstrong rebel Hotspur, overshadow the importance of King Henry IV. This has led many scholars to theorize that it is not so much the king's reign as it is the education of Prince Hal that is the focus of both the plays. In this regard, many comparisons have been drawn between Hal and Hotspur, comparing the fitness of each as the potential ruler of England. Also of interest to critics has been the nature of Hal's relationship with both his father and Falstaff, as well as the reformation of Hal and the rejection of Falstaff. In addition to the study of characters, more recent analyses of the plays have focused on the unity of the plays, and whether or not they present a balanced whole.

While both parts of Henry IV are separate and independent plays, and in Shakespeare's time were performed as such, the question of the aesthetic unity of both plays as a whole has been a topic of abiding interest among scholars studying Shakespeare's history plays. Discussing this issue in his 1972 essay, Louis I. Middleman suggests that while a notation at the beginning of the plays suggests a disunity of conception that is hard to ignore, both parts of Henry IV ultimately present a balanced whole. According to Middleman, this unity is achieved through Hal's emergence as a complete character, learning from the superabundant spirit of Hotspur and the exuberant spirit of Falstaff. In contrast, in an essay comparing both parts of Henry IV, John Berryman (1970) takes issue with critics who see the two plays as a whole. M. C. Bradbrook (1965) also examines the question of unity and continuity between the two parts of Henry IV, suggesting that Shakespeare uses Part I to create and distinguish each of the main characters, while in Part II the role taking becomes more subtle. Bradbrook suggests that this evolution of character between the two parts of Henry IV displays Shakespeare's maturity as a playwright, allowing him to explore the emergence of the concept of secular sovereignty versus traditional judgments of right and wrong.

Prince Hal’s character has also been an area of critical interest, particularly his transformation from one self to another. Many critics have debated the realism of his reformation; however, Matthew H. Wikander (1992) notes that Hal's earliest speeches prepare the audience for his reformation at the end of the play. Wikander contends that in a political context, this change is absolutely necessary in order to prove his ability to inherit the throne of England. Paul A. Gottschalk (1974) agrees when he notes that the tavern scene in Henry IV, Part I, as well as Hal's first soliloquy, predicts the impending change in his character later in the play. In addition to Hal, one of the most significant characters in these plays is Sir John Falstaff. Widely acclaimed as one of Shakespeare's most enduring and beloved characters, Falstaff provides a foil and comic relief to the seriousness embodied in Hotspur, serving as both companion and mentor to the young Prince as he prepares for the assumption of his rightful place as King of England. While much discussion of Falstaff's character has focused on his relationship with and ultimate denouncement by Prince Hal, more recent criticism has begun focusing on the character of Falstaff as a significant dramatic device. Barbara Everett (1990) explores the origin and development of Falstaff's character in Shakespeare's history plays, with an emphasis on the political significance of his appearance in Henry IV.

In addition to analyses of character and unity in Henry IV, the treatment of the reformation and redemption of Prince Hal and the rejection of Falstaff also have been featured prominently in many critical discussions of the play. Many studies have noted that in contrast to earlier critical interpretations of Hal's redemption and Falstaff's rejection, Falstaff and Hal conspire from the very beginning to build towards the rejection scene. This is so because the future king needs a public occasion, almost a ritual exorcism, to help display his reformation. Noting the sequential nature of both plays, Jonathan Crewe (1990) proposes that Hal's reformation is ultimately an ongoing process that begins in Henry IV, Part I and continues through Henry V, reflecting Shakespeare's preoccupation with issues of legitimate change and succession.

M. C. Bradbrook (essay date 1965)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “King Henry IV,” in Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, The Harvester Press, 1984, pp. 72-83.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Bradbrook offers an overview of Henry IV, Parts I and II,contending that they are political plays that address contemporary political issues.]

There was once a summer school at the other Stratford where, in two successive hours, a first speaker said that anyone who doubted the unity of the great continuous ten-act play was disqualified to understand Shakespeare; while a second said that anyone who thought 2 Henry IV more than a feeble ‘encore’ must be illiterate. The link that I would see is that...

(The entire section is 5290 words.)

Robert N. Watson (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Henry IV Plays,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 387-422.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Watson proposes that the Henry IV plays, in addition to being morality plays, also allow Shakespeare to present an analysis of ambition in the private and public arenas.]

At the end of Richard II, Shakespeare's ambitious figures become versions of primal criminals such as Oedipus and Cronus, whose myths associate father/son rivalry with political rebellion. The Henry IV plays use this association to study the evolution of filial identity, the...

(The entire section is 12845 words.)

Paul Dean (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Historical Imagination,” in Renaissance Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, March, 1997, pp. 27-40.

[In the following essay, Dean compares Shakespeare's treatment of historical fact and politics in his history plays, focusing on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.]

If there is one view about Shakespeare which can be said to be shared by most of the critics of the last ten years, it is that he is—and not just in the history plays—a political writer. But in this, it is argued, he has no choice: all literature is political, and all criticism, in consequence, ideological. A glance at the editor's introduction to the 1992 ‘New Casebook’ on...

(The entire section is 7092 words.)

Paul A. Gottschalk (essay date 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hal and the ‘Play Extempore’ in I Henry IV,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 337-48.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Gottschalk presents an analysis of Prince Hal's character by examining the tavern scene in Henry IV, Part I, noting that this scene is crucial to Hal's development as a hero.]

The great tavern scene of I Henry IV (II.iv) is the longest of the play and the most elaborate, ranging over five hundred lines from the gulling of Francis and the attempted showing-up of Falstaff to the Sheriff's sudden entry and Hal's imminent...

(The entire section is 4737 words.)

Barbara Everett (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Fatness of Falstaff: Shakespeare and Character,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 76, 1990, pp. 109-28.

[In the following essay, Everett explores the origin and development of Falstaff's character in Shakespeare's history plays, with an emphasis on the political significance of his appearance in Henry IV.]

One day early in the 1590s a clown came on to a London stage, holding a piece of string. At the end of the piece of string there was a dog. It’s hard not to think that some in this first audience, realizing what an extraordinary thing was happening, put down their oranges and concentrated.

The dog, possibly the first...

(The entire section is 16441 words.)

Criticism: Language

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Uneasy Lies: Language and History in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 359-85.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Macdonald traces the development and use of language in Shakespeare's history plays, focusing on Henry IV, Parts I and II,and examines the linguistic conventions that sustain and govern the vision of kingship as portrayed in these plays.]

There has always been uncertainty about what we call Shakespeare's “histories.” The genre (if it is a genre) seems inherently unstable under critical scrutiny, always...

(The entire section is 10135 words.)

D. J. Palmer (essay date 1970)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Casting off the Old Man: History and St. Paul in Henry IV,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 315-36.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Palmer points to several instances in the Henry IV plays that anticipate Prince Hal's reformation at the end of Part II, drawing parallels between the words of the apostle St. Paul and those of the Prince.]


Biblical quotations abound in Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays, and most of them are made by Falstaff, whose allusions, as Richmond Noble says, “are the aptest in the...

(The entire section is 7411 words.)

Robert G. Hunter (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Comic Sense as It Strikes Us Today: Falstaff and the Protestant Ethic,” in Henry the Fourth Parts I and II: Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Garland Publishing, 1986, 349-58.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Hunter theorizes that the rejection of Falstaff in the Henry IVplays dramatizes the victory of the Protestant ethic, presenting the evolution of Prince Hal as a triumph of the principles represented by this moral code.]

If there are such things as antibodies (and I am told that there are), then let there be such things as antiembodiments and let Falstaff be one. Let him also be an embodiment (there...

(The entire section is 4099 words.)

Jonathan Crewe (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reforming Prince Hal: The Sovereign Inheritor in 2 Henry IV,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 21, 1990, pp. 225-42.

[In the following essay, Crewe disputes critical thinking that denies substantive reformation in Prince Hal's character. Instead, Crewe proposes, the subject of reform is continuously revisited in both parts of Henry IV, making it difficult to define successful reformation in the political context of the plays.]

The “matter of Hal's redemption,” as A. R. Humphreys, the Arden editor of 2 Henry IV, calls it, may now seem too stale or tainted for further consideration.1 It has certainly been discussed at length,...

(The entire section is 6538 words.)

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 176-206.

[In the following essay, Hunt offers an account of the coexisting Catholic and Protestant elements characterized in Falstaff, King Henry IV, and Prince Hal, arguing that this mixture of traits does not impede any of these characters' attempts to reform themselves.]

Granted the late-medieval, early fifteenth-century settings of Shakespeare's 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, theater audiences are not surprised by the large number of references in these plays to Catholic practices and beliefs.1 What has proved...

(The entire section is 12838 words.)

John Berryman (essay date 1970)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Poor Relation: 2 Henry IV,” in Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, pp. 335-39.

[In the following unfinished essay, originally composed in 1970, Berryman presents a comparison between the two parts of Henry IV, stressing that he does not agree with those who see the two plays as a whole.]

Producers, critics, and mere readers have not been kind to Part II, Henry IV. In thirty-five years of playgoing I have seen it performed only once. The single quarto of 1600 was never reprinted, so far as we know, and one may doubt whether one in fifty readers of Part I go on to...

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Louis I. Middleman (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Henry IV, Part I: The Two Faces of Revolt,” in In Honor of Austin Wright, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1972, pp. 63-68.

[In the following essay, Middleman discusses the apparent disunity of conception in Henry IV, Part I, noting that the action focuses equally on the political rebellion confronting Henry IV and the private struggle that Prince Hal contends with throughout the play.]

Looking at the first part of Henry IV, we are struck by an apparent disunity of conception. The title in the quartos suggests a division between the history and the comedy: “The Historie of Henrie the Fourth; With the battell at Shrewsburie,...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Abrams, Richard. “Rumor's Reign in 2 Henry IV: The Scope of a Personification.” English Literary Renaissance 16, No. 3 (Autumn 1986): 467-95.

Expounds on the role of rumor and hearsay in the two Henry IV plays.

Barish, Jonas A. “The Turning Away of Prince Hal.” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): pp. 9-17.

Analyzes the rejection of Falstaff.

Bennett, Robert B. “The Golden Age in the Cycles of History: Analogous Visions of Shakespeare and Chekhov.” Comparative Literature Studies 28, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 156-77.

Compares the supper scene in...

(The entire section is 483 words.)