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...
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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...
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