Thursday, 17 March 2016

Henry IV Part I by William Shakespeare.

I'm slowly making my way through William Shakespeare's Histories (determined this year to re-read all of them): so far I've read King John (1596 - 1597), Edward III (1596; it isn't completely certain if Shakespeare wrote this), and Richard II: all kings were of the House of Plantagenet. The next play is Henry IV (Part I; there are two parts): Henry IV is the first king of the House of Lancaster (as was Henry IV's successors Henry V and Henry VI). The next king in Shakespeare's plays is Richard III of the House of York; following Richard III is Henry VII, the first king of the House of Tudor, who Shakespeare didn't write about but as it happens John Ford did in Perkin Warbeck, 1634, then Henry VIII, who he did write about (also of the House of Tudor).

So then, Henry IV. The History of Henrie the Fourth was written at some point before 1597 (by which point he'd already written the three Henry VI plays and Richard III as well as King John and Richard II). We have already met Henry IV in Richard II: he was Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster's son who came to power after Richard II was forced to abdicate. We left him as King Henry IV in the final scene feeling some guilt at hearing the death of Richard. The final speech of the play comes from him:
They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour,
But neither my good word nor princely favour:
With Cain go wander through shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow:
Come, mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent:
I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand:
March sadly after; grace my mournings here;
In weeping after this untimely bier.
Henry IV.
The beginning of his reign starts with great difficulties. As promised in Richard II, Henry plans a crusade to the Holy Land to assuage his guilt however he learns that Owain Glyndŵr, the instigator of the Welsh revolt, had defeated Henry's army. At the same time Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur (the son of Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland) refuses to send the king the soldiers captured in Scotland. It is this civil war that prevents the king from his crusade. Exacerbating Henry's problems is his son Henry, Prince of Wales (nicknamed Hal; there are quite a few Henrys in this play!), who prefers the low company of thieves and vagrants, quite unfitting for a future king (Hal will become Henry V). His close friend is highly unsuitable Sir John Falstaff (who will appear again in Henry IV Part II and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and his death is described in Henry V by Mistress Quickly, who herself appears in this play, the second part, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor). However, Hal reveals in a soliloquy this is merely an act -
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Hotspur, from the 1901 edition of Henry IV Part I.
Hotspur is summoned to the King's court to explain why he is refuses to send soldiers, and he explains his family the Percys (who incidentally are still to this day peers; the current Duke of Northumberland is Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland) are frustrated with the King as they helped him overthrow Richard II yet have still not been repaid. No conclusion is reached so the Percys plan to overthrow Henry IV; they do have considerable support from the Welsh, the Scots, and many peers and the archbishop who have grievances with the king, however they do not win support from all they seek, and it becomes a worry that Henry IV will be informed of the plot.

Hal is then summoned to the King's court (who up unto this point has been enjoying playing a prank on Falstaff); Henry IV informs him that civil war is indeed brewing and Hal must give up his low crew of friends and act responsibly. Hal does just that, and the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) commences. In this Hal saves his father's life, and Hotspur is killed. The battle is won, but the war from over; the outcome will be seen in Henry IV Part II

This was, for me, a particularly complicated play and I suffered greatly from a lack of knowledge of the time (something I hope I've now remedied). This is a fascinating period of British history when the legitimacy of the king could and was questioned, and honour and obedience was crucial. The play was at times quite humorous, and I did enjoy Hal's character and his 'prodgigal son-like' reformation and very much look forward to reading the second part, and Henry V (and The Merry Wives of Windsor, come to that!). I'll be reading and writing about the next part in a few weeks.


  1. Congratulations on producing a great review! For some reason with Shakespeare's plays, some of them I can review quite easily and with some, the words don't come. I had such trouble with this one and ended up not reviewing it. And actually, from reading your review, I realize just how much of the play didn't resonate with me in written form. I do know they are written for performance, but I usually can engage with both. I'll have to read this over again at some later date. And thanks for the chronology of the kings. Being a non-Brit, it was extremely helpful! :-)

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that! This wasn't an easy one to write about :)

      I've barely seen any Shakespeares performed. Like you I'm happy to read them, but it would be good to see a few more!


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