Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
Shakespearean scholars speculate that Henry IV, Part 1 was written in late 1596 or early 1597, and first performed shortly thereafter; Henry IV, Part 2 was perhaps written in late 1597 or early 1598 and sometimes staged in tandem with Part 1. Shakespeare drew upon a number of English history texts while composing these dramas. Two of the most notable sources are Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) and Samuel Daniel's epic poem The Civile Wars between the two houses of Lancaster and York (1595). In addition, some critics maintain that the anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V (c. 1594), inspired the low-comedy scenes between Prince Hal and Falstaff. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholars have often focused on the historical and cultural resonances of Falstaff's character; the dynamics of Prince Hal's ambiguous moral values and his Machiavellian political ambition; and Shakespeare's shrewd commentary on prevailing ethical, religious, and sociopolitical attitudes in Elizabethan England.
Many modern critics have asserted that the character of Falstaff can be interpreted as Shakespeare's derisive satire of ambiguous moral and ethical values current in late fifteenth-century England. Beyond endorsing the opinion that the fat knight is a caricature of the medieval Protestant martyr, Sir John Oldcastle, who was revered by contemporary Puritans, Grace Tiffany (1998) maintains that Shakespeare intended to dramatize Falstaff as a “carnivalesque” Puritan who is a sophist, who agitates from the fringes of society, and who has a subversive, anti-establishment attitude toward religious and political hierarchies. For Tiffany, while Falstaff is theatrically amusing, the Henry IV plays conclude “with the clear suggestion that Falstaffian influence, whatever its attractions, is politically and morally dangerous, and will be rejected by a sane commonwealth.” Similarly, David Scott Kastan (1998) examines the circumstances surrounding Oldcastle's martyrdom and recounts the controversy during Shakespeare's time that led to the removal of Oldcastle's name from Henry IV, Part 1. But Kastan takes exception to the editorial decision to restore Oldcastle's name to the modern Oxford text of the play, arguing that while second-hand Elizabethan and Jacobean reports of theatrical performances substantiate the name change, the fact that Shakespeare made the change should be considered a valid textual revision of the play. Tom McAlindon (2001) affirms his support for literary scholars who maintain that Falstaff is a clever parody of both Oldcastle and contemporary Puritans. Further, McAlindon contends that rather than merely settling for a one-dimensional lampoon of Puritan behavior, Shakespeare invented a new satirical model that transformed “a Puritan butt into an exceptionally appealing character with a quicksilver mind and tongue.” Surveying Falstaff's disingenuous recitation of biblical scripture in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Matthew Fike (see Further Reading) assesses the fat knight in relation to Jesus's parable of Dives and Lazarus. According to Fike, Falstaff is a dynamic character who possesses the negative, gluttonous characteristics of Dives and his brothers, but who also becomes a contrite Lazarus-figure when he is banished by Hal.
From the perspective of many modern theatrical reviewers, Henry IV, Parts 1and 2 have achieved an iconic status. For example, Michael Billington (2001) hails the dramas as “the twin summits of Shakespeare's genius.” Refusing to be intimidated by lofty expectations, modern directors have endeavored to leave their own mark on these plays. In 2000 David Attenborough staged both Henry IV plays as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's ambitious program to present the entire cycle of Shakespeare's eight history plays in chronological order from Richard II to Richard III. Critics praised Attenborough's productions for their intelligent and skillful treatment of the political, social, and familial themes in the two history plays. While acknowledging that the entire cast was generally superb, reviewers particularly extolled Desmond Barrit's portrayal of Falstaff. Ultimately, commentators were gratified at the thought-provoking theatrical experience orchestrated by Attenborough. Billington concluded that “the overwhelming feeling at the end of the day is of Shakespeare's genius in encompassing all of England in two plays and of Attenborough's success in probing his restless moral intelligence.” Reviewers were markedly less satisfied with Richard Maxwell's 2003 staging of Henry IV, Part 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, as part of the Next Wave Festival. Generally regarded as a gifted experimental director, Maxwell endeavored to apply his avant-garde theatrical techniques to the play. His chief innovation was to minimize theatrical affectation on the part of the actors and to emphasize instead a clear, uninflected delivery of the text. Critics asserted that while the director's unorthodox technique had illuminated several modern plays in the past, this was wholly unsuccessful when applied to Shakespeare. Indeed, Ben Brantley concluded that despite the high concept, Maxwell's production was “relentlessly, numbingly flat.”
Analyzing the late Elizabethan age as a period of intense cultural turmoil, Tiffany maintains that Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 represent Shakespeare's ironic commentary on the religious and sociopolitical rhetoric propagated by contemporary Puritans. According to Tiffany, Elizabethan playgoers would have detected in Falstaff many of the destabilizing aspects of Puritanism and in Prince Hal an ambivalent Puritan attitude toward monarchic authority as a role the king must play. Considering the plays from a socioeconomic perspective, Nina Levine (2000) demonstrates that Shakespeare adroitly employed the concept of credit and mercantile exchange in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 as a metaphor for the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty's claim to the English throne. For Levine, Shakespeare's commercial perspective of royal political discourse—a mode of speech that involves “promises and payments” to maintain power—parallels the everyday financial dealings of Elizabethan playgoers who relied on credit and mercantile exchange to maintain a complex community of shared fiscal obligation. Some modern commentators have focused on the structural design of the Henry IV plays in an effort to shed new light on Shakespeare's view of the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty in general and Prince Hal's moral and political values in particular. In his 2002 study, Mark Taylor considers Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 within the context of the second tetralogy (which includes Richard II and Henry V in addition to these two plays), detailing how key scenes thematically imitate, echo, and foreshadow other scenes within the epic drama cycle. Defining these scenes as instances of “proleptic imitation,” Taylor demonstrates how each sequence reinforces the inevitability of Prince Hal's reformation and the tragedy of Falstaff's rejection. David Ruiter (2003) traces the structural and thematic implications of the cyclical tradition of feasting and fasting in the Henry IV plays. In his analysis of Part 2 in particular, Ruiter demonstrates that Prince Hal shrewdly manipulates the progression from disorderly festivity—which the critic characterizes as “the Feast of Falstaff”—to hierarchical order in an effort to maximize his political capital as the prodigal son who reforms himself to become king.