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 a man who would rule well.
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...
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