When we talk about Shakespeare's history plays, we often think serious subject matter = serious tone, right? After all, the history plays dramatize important matters of state. Henry IV Part 1, for example, opens with King Henry's looong speech about civil war and the main action of the plot is driven by a rebel uprising. Time to plug in the old iPod and tune out, right? Wrong. So, so, wrong.
Henry IV Part 1 breaks the rules and delivers something unlike any other history play that's gone before it by weaving together serious political matters with raucous comedic moments that seem to come straight out of Shakespeare's "Spring Break 1595" scrapbook. Wild tavern scenes, mocking impromptu skits, bawdy word play, and brilliant strings of trash talking, not to mention a botched highway robbery, all introduce a boisterous spirit that offsets the play's more serious subject matter. The play is basically a theatrical roller-coaster ride, but without the motion sickness and cotton-candy.
But, don't go dismissing these comedic moments as a cheap attempt to pander to the masses who sat in the cheap seats (a.k.a. the "groundlings"). Many of the play's comedic moments parody the play's serious content. Like, say, the hilarious double robbery at Gads Hill (where Falstaff's crew robs the king's treasury before Hal and Poins come along and rob Falstaff), which acts as a comedic double of the Percy family's rebellion against the king. What's the effect of this? Well, it seems to blur the distinction between serious rebellion and comic anarchy, which, after all, is what Shakespeare's theater was all about.