Drama, History Play
Literary critics refer to Henry IV Part 1 as a "history play." We know what you're thinking. What the heck does that mean? Can we use the play to study for our quiz on Elizabethan history? Does "history play" mean it's not funny? Can we get a definition please? Sure thing. Critics are always bickering about the exact definition of a history play but here's one that everyone seems to agree on: Shakespearean history plays portray English historical events (history according to Shakespeare, we should point out) that resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion. In the case of Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare also blends the comedic antics of fictional characters with historical figures. That's kind of a mouthful and we know you've got several burning questions that need answering so let's break down this definition and get specific.
Portraying English historical events: This seems easy enough. Henry IV Part 1 portrays events from the early part of King Henry IV's reign. More specifically, the play dramatizes stuff that happened between 1492 and 1493 – England's border skirmishes with Wales and Scotland, the Percy family's rebellion, and the Battle at Shrewsbury between the king's forces and the rebel army.
But, we should also point out that Big Willy portrays history according to Big Willy, which means the play sometimes strays from the "facts" and tweaks little bits of information that Shakespeare gathered from sources like Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. Some names, ages, dates, etc. are modified or just flat out wrong, and some events (like the 1592 dust-up with the Welsh and the 1593 showdown with Scottish invaders) get shmooshed together. Hey, what do you want? The guy's working with a five act play here. Besides, this is really no big whoop since the play doesn't pretend to be a history textbook. It's really interested in how English history shapes the present, which brings us to our next point.
Historical events resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion: When we say "current" political issues, we mean around the 1590s, when Henry IV Part 1 was written. You want an example? Of course you do. In the play, King Henry worries that his seemingly good-for-nothin' son, who also happens to be heir to the throne, will get his hands on the crown and be a terrible and incompetent king. Now, Elizabethans knew darn well that "wild prince Hal" turned out to be a terrific and beloved king (Henry V). But, all the drama surrounding kingly succession would have resonated with Shakespeare's audience members, who were super-anxious (like, nail-biting, hair-pulling-out, can't finish your breakfast worried) about what would happen when Queen Elizabeth I died. Elizabeth was in her 60s when the play was written and had no children to inherit the crown. (It went to King James VI of Scotland, who became "King James I" of England.) This same concept applies to current historical drama and film. When we watch, say, Frost/Nixon, we know exactly how things are going to turn out. But, part of the fun is making connections between the U.S. political climate in the 1970s and current events.
Spicing up "History" with a little fiction: Henry IV Part 1 is super-famous for the way Shakespeare spices up English history with a healthy dose of his saucy fictional characters, Falstaff, Mistress Quickly, and the rest of the Eastcheap gang. Though Falstaff may or may not be modeled on a real person (check out our "Trivia"), the character is Shakespeare's invention, as are the zany and highly comedic antics that go down in the infamous tavern scenes. We love this blending technique because, just when we settle in for a nice, serious political piece, Shakespeare plunks down a raucous scene that seems to have come straight out of a wild comedy sketch. But, we also know that this kind of thing miffed a few Elizabethan critics, like Sir Philip Sidney (an awesome, but slightly uptight poet) who famously objected to the kind of "mongrel" productions that portrayed the "mingling of kings and clowns" on stage. Our take on this? We like Sidney, but we also like some good, old fashioned, "mongrel" fun too.
A final note:We also want to say that the play registers some elements of "tragedy," which we talk about in "Booker's Seven Basic Plots." Now would be a good time to check it out. Go on. Go.