Henry IV, Part I Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Historical Background

Henry IV, Part I was most probably written in late 1596 or early 1597, and it is agreed by scholars of Shakespeare that the play was first performed not long after it was written. On February 25, 1598, it was entered in the Stationers’ Register without the designation “Part I,” and a quarto text of the play surfaced in 1598. In the Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury by Francis Meres, Henry IV appears in the list of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and it is presumed that this reference is to “Part I.”

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The earliest known quarto text of the play survives only as a four-leaf fragment, and five later editions dated 1598, 1604, 1608, 1613, and 1622 have survived intact. Altogether, six quarto editions, which is an unusually large number for an Elizabethan play, are known to exist. The 1613 quarto appears to have served as a source for the Folio version of 1623. The earliest complete quarto of 1598, together with the earlier fragment, remains the most authoritative text for Henry IV, Part I.

Shakespeare drew the historical plot of Henry IV, Parts I and II from several accounts of English history that were written during the Elizabethan period. These histories provided many details from which he could carefully select what he needed for his plays. The primary source is Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (2nd ed. 1586-1587). In addition, Shakespeare used Samuel Daniel’s narrative poem The Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York (1595) and Edward Hall’s Chronicle of the Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancaster and Yorke (1540).

Scholars agree that for the Hal/Falstaff subplot, which serves as a parallel to the major historical plot, Shakespeare may have used The Famous Victories of Henry V, an anonymous chronicle play surviving in manuscript which may or may not have been changed or condensed.

It has been suggested that the character of Falstaff, who dominates the subplot, was derived from several sources. One such source is probably the stock characters of Vice and the Devil from Medieval Morality plays. It is also possible that Shakespeare drew Falstaff from Sir John Old Castle, a character in The Famous Victories. Hal’s address to Falstaff as “my old lad of the castle” in Act I, Scene ii, suggests that Falstaff may have originally been called Oldcastle, but was later renamed after the descendants of the real Sir John protested that his good name had been besmirched.

Since the seventeenth century, the question of Falstaff’s relation to the main plot and the other characters has been the subject of much criticism. During that time Falstaff was believed to represent the baser qualities of man, and Hal’s rejection was believed to be proper and necessary in establishing the moral intent of the author in the play. However, in the eighteenth century, the rejection of Falstaff and Hal’s subsequent reformation was seen as more complex. Nicholas Rowe criticized Hal’s rejection of Falstaff as inhumane and contrary to the sympathetic portrayal of the fat knight. Corbyn Morris denied the presence of a moral dilemma and considered Hal’s rejection of Falstaff as Shakespeare’s accommod¬ation to the “Austerity of the Times.” Samuel Johnson, however, concluded that the rejection of Falstaff was proper and necessary to establishing moral order. In the nineteenth century, William Hazlitt described Hal’s rejection as emotionally disconcerting and intellectually unjustified. During the twentieth century, Hal’s rejection of Falstaff has been criticized as a grievous error on Shakespeare’s part by A. C. Bradley, a Shakespearean dramatization of the “scapegoat ritual” practiced in primitive cultures by J. I. M. Stewart, and as a moral necessity by Dover Wilson.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Royal palace

Royal palace. King Henry IV’s principal seat of rule, where he plans political strategy and shows concern about his seemingly dissolute son, Prince Hal, who swears to redeem himself at Hotspur’s...

(The entire section is 2,347 words.)