Henry IV Part 1 is the story of Prince Hal (the future King Henry V of England), a fifteenth century wild child who carouses with criminals and commoners, helps his loser chums rob his father's treasury, and spends all his time in seedy bars. This, of course, all takes place before Prince Hal's glorious "reformation," when he transforms himself from a total disgrace into a noble leader, who helps put down a rebel uprising that threatens his father's reign, and kills the guy whose been bad-mouthing him all over England. Wow. Being a young prince is busy work, and this is just Part 1 of the story.
Written by William Shakespeare around 1597, Henry IV Part 1 is the second part of a tetralogy (four plays known as the "Henriad"). The play is preceded by Richard II and is followed by Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. Henry IV Part 1 covers major historical events (history according to Shakespeare anyway) and political figures from the beginning of Henry's reign. (Check out "Genre" for more on this.) However, some of the most notable characters and comedic moments in the play are entirely Shakespeare's invention. For audiences, the most memorable moments in the play often surround Falstaff, Shakespeare's original character, and the wild tavern scenes, which are among the most beloved and written about issues in literary history.
Shakespeare wrote the play during the latter part of Queen Elizabeth I's reign and many of its themes and concerns resonate with late sixteenth century political events, particularly the Irish rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone (1595), England's ongoing war with Spain, and the Northern Rebellion (1569). Shakespeare's portrayal of the problem of kingly succession also echoes a major concern in Elizabethan England. At the time the play was written, Queen Elizabeth I was in her 60s and had no heir to inherit the throne.
Shakespeare's sources for Henry IV Part 1 include an early play of unknown authorship called The Famous Victories of Henry V, Raphael Holinshed's history Chronicles, and Samuel Daniel's poem "The Civil Wars." A popular play, Henry IV Part 1 went through nine editions between 1597 and 1622.
Why should you care about Henry IV Part 1? The real question is "Why shouldn't you care?" First, Henry IV Part 1 is the very first history play to blend rowdy comedy and historical drama. High matters of state mingled with low-brow mayhem and carousing? Nothin' wrong with that. Plus, Henry IV Part 1 introduces one of the greatest and most talked about comedic figures of all time: Falstaff, who has inspired everything from Verdi's opera to the name of a U.S. brewing company. (You know you're in for a really good time when you attend a play that's got a character with beer named after him.) The play's also the inspiration for some seriously important cult classic films, like Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight.
Still not impressed? Fine. We'll fall back on the old standard and talk about how the play's concerned with themes that are still relevant today: rebellion, power, honor, warfare, family drama, redemption, and our personal favorite, growing up. Let's focus on that last one.
When it comes down to it, Henry IV Part 1 is a coming-of-age story about Prince Hal, who's got to figure out a way to grow up in the public spotlight with a seriously judgmental father breathing down his neck. (Come on, the kid's dad has been running around saying he wishes Hal had been switched at birth by fairies and that God sent the Hal to earth just to punish the king for his past sins. That's so brutal.) While most of us have no idea what it's like to be a prince who's expected to change his wild ways and prepare to lead a country that's troubled by civil war, we all know what it's like to negotiate the pitfalls of adolescence and the pressures of outside scrutiny (whether it's under the watchful eye of hopeful parents, strict teachers, coaches, or peers).
Like Prince Hal, we've all made mistakes, and most of us also know what it's like to feel as though we've disappointed or let down those whose opinions matter the most. So, imagine all that pressure you've felt over the years and multiply it by an entire, war-torn kingdom that's pinned all its hopes and dreams for the future on you. That's a whole lot of pressure. Even if we think Prince Hal sometimes acts like a brat, we can't help but root for him. So, what do you think? Is it fair to say that Shakespeare gets this whole growing up thing? We kind of thought you'd see it our way.