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...
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