My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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While it may be Henry the IV’s reign that is threatened during the course of this play, it’s the King’s son, Prince Hal, who plays the lead role. “Hal” goes by that name because the cast features an abundance of Henrys. Besides the King and Hal, Hal’s principal rival is also a Henry (though that one, Henry Percy, goes by “Hotspur” in the interest of avoiding Henry-based confusion. [Additionally, Hotspur’s dad is a Henry, as well.])
While one might expect that the play’s principal conflict derives from intense competition for use of the name “Henry,” readers of Richard II will note that King Richard II handed over the crown to Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. Henry IV) under contentious conditions. The fact that Henry Bolingbroke wasn’t the next in line of succession and that he forced his predecessor out doesn’t bode well for an undisputed claim to the throne, and Henry IV’s rule is faced with everything from passive aggressive opposition to outright armed rebellion. At the start of the play, we see an indication of this conflict in Hotspur’s unwillingness to hand over a number of prisoners that his forces had taken in battle. Hotspur’s family were allies to Henry against Richard II, and the King’s unwillingness either to meet some of the Percy family demands or to recognize their role in his current kingship has made them hostile towards Henry IV.
In the first half of the play, Prince Hal is shown to be a rascal who enjoys hanging out in the pub with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. (You may know the pudgy, cowardly, and fib-prone Falstaff from his role in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”) While Hal tends to be the voice of reason among his pub-crawling friends, Falstaff provides a low bar against which to compare one’s virtue. One event offers us great insight into Hal’s character early in the play – not to mention great amusement. When Falstaff convinces a few friends to engage in a bit of banditry, robbing a courier to get some money for mead (or ale, or whatever they drank) Hal says he has a conflict. However, Hal and his friend Poins don their own highwaymen attire and rob Falstaff’s robbers. Later, Hal and Poins are greatly amused by hearing Falstaff tell the tale of how he and his three compatriots barely got out alive against fifty enemy bandits — the Prince knowing full well that it was just two men (Poins and he) who robbed the four, and with no violence, whatsoever. Hal gives the money back, showing he is not of the same ilk as Falstaff, but it’s telling that the Prince goes to all the trouble (and risk) of a counter-robbery just as a prank.
The second half of the play centers on a rebellion that is being carried out against the King, led by Hotspur and his father. As this is going on, Hal realizes he needs to step up his game and give up his mischievous ways. When a reconciled King Henry IV and Prince Hal approach for the Battle of Shrewsbury, both the King and the Prince make offers to the enemy that are intended to prevent the carnage of all-out war. Prince Hal’s offer is that he and Hotspur (who is not present at the time) engage in single combat (a duel) to avoid the tragedy of a battle of armies. In this offer, he speaks of Hotspur very graciously, while acknowledging his own faults. Neither offer is passed on to Hotspur by his elder, though he does learn of Hal’s proposition before the two come into combat in the melee of war (a fight that Hal wins – an important victory, given that Hal is a major character in the next two Shakespearean Histories, i.e. Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V [Prince Hal will become Henry V.]) Hotspur’s father (i.e. the Earl of Northumberland and the one who met with Henry IV and Hal) didn’t pass on the offers because he was concerned that Hotspur might take the Prince up on his offer, and that the outcome would be devastating for the Percy family. This is an informative bit of duplicity that highlights Hotspur’s apparent virtue and the duplicity of his elders (i.e. the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester.)
Because Shakespeare’s Histories follow the flow of real-world events, some are more evocative as stories than others (because some of the Kings’ stories were more engaging than others.) There’s a general consensus that Henry IV, Part 1 is among the better historical plays. The arc of the story demonstrates clear character growth in Hal. In its comedic moments, the play is quite funny, but that doesn’t diminish the tension and tragedy of the story overall. It’s definitely worth a read. Even if you only plan to read a few of the historical plays, this should probably be among them.
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