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.