Historical Background

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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.”

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....

(This entire section contains 610 words.)

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M. Stewart, and as a moral necessity by Dover Wilson.

Places Discussed

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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 expense. The text distinguishes this palace from Windsor Castle, where the king, Northumberland, Worcester, and Hotspur meet before the rupture between Henry and the Percys. Productions of the play usually generalize the setting, and in most productions, the palace exudes a mood of solemnity with its somber soldiers, counselors, and courtiers.

Boar’s Head Tavern

Boar’s Head Tavern. Public house in London’s Eastcheap district that is the scene of Falstaff’s dishonest retelling of the Gad’s Hill escapade and of the interview-game he plays with Hal. The tavern is also the place where Mistress Quickly (hostess of the tavern) and Bardolph appear as examples of Shakespearean bawdiness. The location is usually depicted onstage as a place with battered walls, barrels of sack, and a shingle to indicate its name. Taken as a place of common people, seedy characters, and reprobate behavior, the tavern represents the sort of social and moral disgrace into which Hal has fallen and out from which he must rise and redeem himself.

*Warkworth Castle

*Warkworth Castle. Stronghold in Northumberland—the principal seat of the Percy family—where Hotspur exasperates his wife with his intense preoccupation with military honor. It is here that Hotspur scoffs at a popinjay lord’s affectation, just as his own courtly life is scoffed at by Falstaff and Hal in Eastcheap. Beneath the superficial charm of Lady Percy’s hospitality and Welsh song, lies Hotspur’s reckless restlessness, his extravagant sense of military honor.


*Shrewsbury. Climactic battlefield on which Hotspur is slain, and Hal distinguishes himself in hand-to-hand combat, that was earlier a stronghold of both Saxons and Normans.

Modern Connections

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Much of Henry IV, Part One has to do with the king's power struggle against the Percys, a noble family who once supported him but who now accuses him of arrogance and ingratitude. Yet that aspect of the play which is perhaps most interesting to modern audiences is the conflict that occurs between a father (King Henry) and his oldest son (Prince Hal).

Henry IV repeatedly expresses his disappointment with his first-born son, who spends his time in "rude society," frequenting taverns and brothels when he should be at court or on the battlefield preparing himself to succeed his father as king (III.ii. 14). So dissatisfied is the king with Hal that in I.i.86-90 he openly wishes it might somehow turn out that Hotspur and Hal had been switched at birth, and that the brave and clean-living Hotspur were in fact his son and heir.

It is true that the king needs a reliable successor to help legitimize his own claim to the throne (Henry IV usurped King Richard II), but his impatience with his son appears to be personal as well as political. On the eve of his battle with the Percys, Henry delivers a stern lecture to Hal which—although it occurs between a king and a prince and thus concerns affairs of state—is similar in tone to one that might be given today by a father to a rebellious teenager, for the advice is mixed with anger and hurt feelings (III.ii.4-161). Henry begins his lecture by wondering whether God had sent him a bad child as punishment for his own misdeeds. Next, he complains that Hal does not measure up to his ancestors or even to his younger brother, John. He warns his son that everyone believes he's headed for disaster. He advises Hal to stop cheapening his royal worth by consorting with lowlifes and behaving as though he were a commoner. While his final, grim warning is purely political (mend your ways or your rival Hotspur will someday usurp you as I replaced King Richard), his closing comment in which he suggests that his son is capable of committing treason against his own father is bitterly mixed with hurt feelings:

Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes, Which art my nearest and dearest enemy? Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear, Base inclination, and, the start of spleen, To fight against me under Percy's pay .. . (III.ii. 122-26)

Two remarks in particular show the extent to which Henry's emotions as a parent are involved. In one instance he angrily accuses Hal of being his "nearest and dearest enemy," and one quite possibly capable of joining the rebels' cause against his own father (Ill.ii. 123-26). In another instance, he reproaches Hal for spending too much time away from court and, close to tears, he observes that:

Not an eye But is a-weary of thy common sight, Save mine, which hath desir'd to see thee more, Which now doth that I would not have it do, Make blind itself with foolish tenderness. (III.ii.87-91)

Hal's response to this lecture from his father is to admit his "intemperance" or dissolute behavior, to apologize for the ''wounds" it has caused to King Henry's feelings, and to swear that he will prove himself to be more honorable than his rival, Hotspur (Ill.ii. 129-59).

Another aspect of Henry IV, Part One which appeals to modern audiences is the natural, conversational tone of many of its scenes. Critics have called this play a milestone in Shakespeare's development as a dramatist, noting his skillfulness in bringing together in the same play the formal, weighty concerns of the monarchy and the comic, frequently raunchy goings-on of tavern and street life, using Hal as the link between these two worlds. The resulting connection means that the serious and comic scenes rub of on each other, and we get a more varied, realistic portrayal of life—one that today's audiences can still appreciate. This realism affects the play's language. While modern audiences frequently think of Shakespeare's words as alien and incomprehensible, some of the conversations in Henry IV, Part One reveal similarities to the ways in which our own conversations work today. The verbal exchanges which most often come to mind are those which occur at the Boar's Head Tavern as Hal and Falstaff trade good-natured insults, but there are also moments in the play's more serious scenes where the conversations sound— in tone if not in content—as though they could occur today.

One such conversation occurs in I.iii. 130-302 between Hotspur, his father (the earl of Northumberland), and his uncle (the earl of Worcester). Here, Hotspur is reacting to the king's absolute refusal to ransom his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer. So enraged is Hotspur with the king that he can hardly contain himself: his words rush out as he imagines all sorts of insults that he will use against Henry IV. In response, for example, to the king's injunction against speaking Mortimer's name in his presence, Hotspur decides that he will teach a bird ''to speak / Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it [to Henry IV] / To keep his anger still in motion" (I.iii.224-26). He is so completely beside himself that he ignores or misinterprets the comments of his listeners, provoking his uncle at last to exclaim, ''Farewell, kinsman! I'll talk to you / When you are better temper'd to attend" (I.iii.234-35).

Even after Worcester's rebuke, Hotspur needs more time to cool off before he can hear what his father and his uncle have to say. He is so enraged that his memory is affected, and he interrupts himself and swears in frustration as he tries to remember the name of a place (Berkeley castle), as well as of a person (the duke of York), until his father finally remembers for him:

Hotspur: In Richard's time—what do you call the place?— A plague upon it, it is in Gloucestershire— 'Twas where the madcap duke his uncle kept— His uncle York—where first I bow'd my knee Unto this king of smiles, this Bullingbrook— 'Sblood! When you and he came back from Ravenspurgh—Northumberland: At Berkeley castle.Hotspur. You say true. (I.iii.242-50)

This sort of sputtering, head-on language is not unusual today from people who are very angry, and Shakespeare accomplishes this natural reaction even while writing in verse, as he has done in the above passage.


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Baker, Herschel. Introduction to Henry IV, Part I, by William Shakespeare. In The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1974. Brief introduction to the play, with explanation of Shakespeare’s use of his sources, his different levels of plotting, and use of humor.

Bevington, David. Introduction to Henry IV, Part I, by William Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. General introduction to the play. Discusses its performance history, its sources, its major characters, its structural unity, and its politics.

Cohen, Derek. “The Rite of Violence in I Henry IV.” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 77-84. A detailed analysis of Hotspur as structural center of the play, explaining his evolution from comic to heroic and then to tragic figure.

Fehrenbach, Robert J. “The Characterization of the King in I Henry IV.” Shakespeare Quarterly 30 no. 1 (Winter, 1979): 42-50. Contends that a focus upon King Henry is crucial to comprehension of Shakespeare’s use of indirect characterization.

Levin, Lawrence. “Hotspur, Falstaff and the Emblem of Wrath in I Henry IV.” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977): 43-65. Analyzes the relationship between Hotspur and Falstaff, contending Falstaff is a visual representation of the wrath that controls Hotspur.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Quotations from Henry IV, Part I are taken from the following edition:

Wright, Louis B. and Virginia A. Lamar, eds. Henry IV, Part I. The Folger Library. New York: Washington Square Press, 1960.

Other Sources Adams, Joseph Quincy. A Life of William Shakespeare. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1951.

Bradley, A. C. “The Rejection of Falstaff.” Oxford Lectures on Poetry. London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd., 1959.

Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays & Lectures on the English Poets. London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd., 1903.

Scott, Mark, ed. Shakespearean Criticism. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company Book Tower, 1987.

Shakespeare, The Critical Heritage: 1733-1752. Eds. Brian Vickers, Routledge & Kegan Paul. Vol 3. 1975.

Sherbo, Arthur, ed. Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson: Johnson on Shakespeare, Vols. VII, VIII. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

Smith, D. Nichol, ed. Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare. Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Speaight, Robert. Shakespeare on the Stage. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.

Wilson, J. Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. Cambridge: University Press, 1943.




Critical Essays