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It is no surprise that, near the beginning of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare and others in England were much concerned about the problems of royal succession. The aging Queen Elizabeth I had no direct heirs. Some feared a bloody war among potential claimants to the throne. As a means of illustrating what might happen should usurpation occur, the playwright drafted four plays centered on the deposition of an earlier monarch, Richard II, and the eventual rise to power of one of England’s greatest monarchs, Henry V.

The two parts of Henry IV dramatize the rebellion that plagued the reign of Henry IV, who had replaced his weak cousin, Richard II, as England’s ruler. At the play’s opening, the king’s forces are assembled to battle those of the rebels, led by Henry Percy, called Hotspur. While political machinations go on at court, Henry IV’s eldest son, Prince Hal, spends his time consorting with a group of dissolute brigands headed by the fat, life-loving Sir John Falstaff. Not until battle is imminent does Hal join his father; yet on the field at Shrewsbury he acquits himself well, felling Hotspur and leading the king’s forces to victory.

In the second play, which continues the story after the Battle of Shrewsbury, Hal seems to slip back into his old habits. Falstaff appears to be leading the prince into a life of crime, and the Lord Chief Justice enters the fray to arrest the criminals Hal calls friends. At the end of the second play, however, when Henry IV dies, Hal assumes the throne and immediately banishes his friends, including Falstaff, directing that they be tried and punished for their crimes.

One of the enduring critical questions about these plays is why the prince turns on his friend almost immediately after ascending the throne. The answer lies in a clear understanding of the dramatist’s thematic interests. In both plays, Shakespeare is concerned with the issue of regal succession. Even more important, however, he is interested in displaying the development of Prince Hal as a monarch. The young prince deals throughout with two “fathers”: his real father, Henry IV, whose whole life is consumed with politics, and Jack Falstaff, who recognizes no laws but those that satisfy his own interests. That Hal must eventually choose between the two is made apparent in a long scene early in Part I, when the prince and Falstaff engage in role-playing. Speaking in his father’s voice, Hal tells his friends that, when the time comes, he will indeed banish Falstaff. Such is the way, he suggests, that kings must act. Even before this point, however, he acknowledges he is merely humoring himself by associating with Falstaff and his band of robbers, learning from them how the commoners view their ruler. In his first soliloquy, he says, in reference to them, “I know you all, and will awhile uphold/ the unyok’d humor of your idleness.” Hal may enjoy cavorting with Falstaff and his crew, but he recognizes he will one day be required to assume his rightful position as England’s ruler.

Hal’s progress throughout the two plays dramatizes the proper education for kingship. He is intent on mastering the qualities that mark a good monarch: majesty, grace, and courage. In Part I, Hotspur and Falstaff serve as foils for the prince; the former’s rash behavior leads to the downfall of the rebels, while the latter’s cowardice almost costs the king’s forces a victory. Similarly, in Part II Falstaff stands in opposition to the Lord Chief Justice, as Hal is able to see how important adherence to the law is for...

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a man who would rule well.


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After the battle of Shrewsbury, portrayed in Henry IV, Part I (pr. c. 1597-1598, pb. 1598), many false reports circulate among the peasants. The earl of Northumberland believes for a time that the rebel forces have been victorious, but his retainers, fleeing from the stricken field, bring a true account of the battle. Hotspur, Northumberland’s valiant son, has been killed by Prince Henry, and King Henry has vowed to put down rebellion by crushing those forces still opposing him.

Northumberland, sorely grieved by news of his son’s death, prepares to avenge his loss. Hope for his side lies in the fact that the archbishop of York has mustered an army, because soldiers so organized, being responsible to the church rather than to a military leader, should prove better fighters than those who fled from Shrewsbury field. News that the king’s forces of twenty-five thousand men have been divided into three units encourages his enemies. In spite of Northumberland’s grief for his slain son and his impassioned threat against the king and Prince Henry, he is easily persuaded by his wife and Hotspur’s widow to flee to Scotland. There, he will await the success of his confederates before he consents to join them with his army.

Meanwhile, Falstaff delays in carrying out his orders to proceed north and recruit troops for the king. Deeply involved with Mistress Quickly, he uses his royal commission to avoid being imprisoned for debt. With Prince Henry, who has paid little heed to the conduct of the war, he continues his riotous feasting and jesting until both are summoned to join the army marching against the rebels. King Henry, aging and weary, has been ill for two weeks. Sleepless nights have taken their toll on him, and in his restlessness he reviews his ascent to the throne and denies, to his lords, the accusation of unscrupulousness brought against him by the rebels. He is somewhat heartened by the news of Glendower’s death.

In Gloucestershire, recruiting troops at the house of Justice Shallow, Falstaff flagrantly accepts bribes and lets able-bodied men buy themselves out of service. The soldiers he takes to the war form a raggle-taggle lot. Prince John of Lancaster, taking the field against the rebels, sends word by Westmoreland to the archbishop that the king’s forces are willing to make peace, and he asks that the rebel leaders make known their grievances so that they might be corrected.

When John and the archbishop meet for a conference, John questions and criticizes the archbishop’s dual role as churchman and warrior. The rebels announce their intention to fight until their wrongs are righted, so John promises redress for all. Then he suggests that the archbishop’s troops be disbanded after a formal review; he wishes to see the stalwart soldiers that his army would have fought if a truce had not been declared.

His request is granted, but the men, excited by the prospect of their release, scatter so rapidly that inspection is impossible. Westmoreland, sent to disband John’s army, returns to report that the soldiers will take orders only from the prince. With his troops assembled and the enemy’s disbanded, John orders some of the opposing leaders arrested for high treason and others, including the archbishop, for capital treason. John explains that his action is in keeping with his promise to improve conditions: Removing rebellious factions is the first step in this campaign. The enemy leaders are sentenced to death.

News of John’s success is brought to King Henry as he lies dying, but the victory cannot gladden the sad old king. His chief concern lies in providing advice and admonition to his younger sons, Gloucester and Clarence, regarding their future conduct, and he asks for unity among his sons. Spent by his long discourse, the king lapses into unconsciousness.

Prince Henry, summoned to his dying father’s bedside, finds the king in a stupor, with the crown beside him. The prince, remorseful and compassionate, expresses regret that the king has lived such a tempestuous existence because of the crown and promises, in his turn, to wear the crown graciously. As he speaks, he places the crown on his head and leaves the room. Awaking and learning that the prince has donned the crown, King Henry immediately assumes that his son wishes him dead in order to inherit the kingdom. Consoled by the returning prince’s strong denial of such wishful thinking, the king confesses his own unprincipled behavior in gaining the crown. Asking God’s forgiveness, he repeats his plan to journey to the Holy Land to divert his subjects from revolt, and he advises the prince, when he should become king, to involve his powerful lords in wars with foreign powers, thereby relieving the country of internal strife.

The king dies, causing great sorrow among those who loved him and to those who fear the prince, now King Henry V. A short time before, the chief justice, acting on the command of Henry IV, had alienated the prince by banishing Falstaff and his band. The newly crowned king accepts the chief justice’s explanation for his treatment of Falstaff and restores his judicial powers.

The king rebukes Falstaff for his behavior and tells the old man he, Henry, is no longer the person Falstaff has known. Until the old knight learns to correct his ways, the king declares, he shall be banished, on pain of death, to a distance ten miles away from Henry’s person. Henry promises, however, that if Falstaff can make amends, he will return by degrees to the king’s good graces. Claiming to be undaunted by the reproof, Falstaff tells his cronies that he will yet make them great, that the king’s reprimand is only a front, and that the king will send for him and in the secrecy of the court chambers they will indulge in their old foolishness and plan the advancement of Falstaff’s followers. Prince John, expressing his admiration for Henry’s public display of his changed attitude, prophesies that England will be at war with France before a year has passed.


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