Henry IV, Part I Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 80)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Likely written between 1596 and 1598, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 form the central portion of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, covering the period from the end of Richard II's reign to the beginning of Henry V's. While the title of these dramas makes reference to the historical English monarch King Henry IV, scholars generally acknowledge that the other major characters in the plays—most notably the king's son Prince Hal, Sir John Falstaff, and the headstrong rebel Hotspur—overshadow the importance of the title figure. Indeed, the education of Prince Hal as the future sovereign of England, rather than an examination of his father's reign, is typically considered the primary focus of these dramas. Some critics contend that the two parts of Henry IV represent a unified whole meant to be interpreted and performed as part of a historical, dramatic, or thematic sequence, while others believe that Part 2 was not necessarily conceived of or composed as a sequential work, but is merely a spin-off that was written after the success of Part 1. David Bevington (1987) finds fault with each of these positions and claims that the most persuasive arguments “allow for separate performance of the two plays, for a degree of uncertainty about Shakespeare's overall plan as he wrote, and for the idea that the second play deliberately varies the focus of interest and the characterization.” The relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal is another area of intense scholarly interest. Nigel Wood (1995) notes that since the play's beginning critics have tried to make sense of “Falstaff's attractiveness and Hal's obduracy in rejecting him.”

Critical discussion of the major characters in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 has largely concentrated on the figures of Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff, especially on their unique dramatic relationship. Ricardo J. Quinones (1972) argues that time is a central element in Hal's conversion from wayward prince to king of England, and notes that his character is the center of the multiple plot structure that exists in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. For Quinones, the prince represents a stable time continuum in the dramas—a vision of endurance and peaceful succession. Elliot Krieger (1979) presents a moral reading of Hal, emphasizing fundamental differences between the cunning Prince Hal and the loutish Falstaff. Whereas Falstaff is circumscribed within the boundaries of his own ego, Krieger contends, Hal's expansive consciousness allows him to master his environment and use all available resources—including Falstaff—for his own political benefit. Marshall Grossman (1999) questions precisely what Hal is doing with Falstaff and the rest of the petty criminals at the Boar's Head Tavern in the Henry IV plays, and finds an answer by examining Hal's ambivalent search for his own identity. Turning solely to Falstaff, Edith Kern (1984) traces the origins of this character to the archetypal trickster figure in its theatrical incarnation as a lovable scoundrel. With roots in myth and the Italian commedia dell'arte, this roguish character seems to derive limitless pleasure from hatching plots and playing practical jokes. Kern contends that Falstaff's lengthy career of mischief and amusing transgression abruptly ceases at the point when he discovers a need to ask his companions for compassion and forgiveness, a point which signals his rapidly approaching demise.

The standard practice among modern Shakespearean directors has been to stage the two parts of Henry IV in consecutive performance with a stable central cast and an emphasis on Hal and his development from a self-indulgent prince to an emergent king. Only rarely are the two dramas staged out of “context,” unlike Richard II and Henry V —the first and last plays of the historical sequence—which are sometimes allowed to stand alone. In 2000, reviewer Patrick Carnegy attended the plays as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre in Stratford....

(The entire section is 74,095 words.)