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.
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.
You know the answer to this one. The play is so named because it's the first part of two plays about events that go down during the reign of King Henry IV.
Fun Fact: The publisher of the second 1598 quarto added a little somethin' somethin' to the title. It reads like so:
With the battell at Shrewsburie,
betweene the King and Lord
Henry Percy, surnamed
Henrie Hotspur of
With the humorous conceits of Sir
Check it out at the original title page here.
What does this tell us? First, it seems the initial publisher thought the battle at Shrewsbury, Hotspur (Henry Percy), and the antics of Falstaff were the coolest and most important parts of the play. Second, Prince Hal doesn't get any billing here (which isn't so surprising given the fact that critics and audience members really didn't sit up and pay attention to Prince Hal's "coming of age" story until the twentieth century). But don't go feeling sorry for Prince Hal, because he gets a play named after him later on. (Psst. It's called Henry V.) Next, we notice there's no mention of the play being "Part 1," which brings us to our next question. Did Shakespeare intend the play to be a Part 1 of 2 in the beginning?
Our answer: Your guess is as good as ours. Here's a list theories that literary critics are partial to:
Option 1: Big Willy only planned to write one play but it was so successful that his official fan club lobbied for the Bard to write a sequel. He happily obliged, but had to take out a restraining order against a deranged fan who followed him around London screaming things like "Bring back Falstaff!" and "Long live Plump Jack!"
Option 2: One day, Shakespeare was at his desk with his favorite ink-quill, happily scribbling about the reign of Henry IV. Then, uh oh, he ran out of room in his five act play so he had to stop at the Battle at Shrewsbury and start a new play called Henry IV Part 2.
Option 3: Please. Shakespeare planned to write 2 parts all along.
Take your pick and be sure to let us know if you come up with any better ideas.
Even though the king's victory at Shrewsbury brings a distinctive sense of closure to the play, it's also fair to say the ending of Henry IV Part 1 has a major "to be continued" vibe. (In fact, the story does continue in the sequel, Henry IV Part 2, though it's not clear that was Shakespeare's original intention. Read "What's Up With The Title?" for more about this.)
Seems like we should have a little recap, no? The showdown with Hotspur's troops is over by the end of Henry IV Part 1, but Henry's got to wrangle up the stray rebels, who still pose a threat to the king. This is why Henry's final remarks in the play are orders for Prince Hal to head to Wales (to mop the floor with Glendower and Mortimer) and for Henry's other son, Prince John, to head up to York (to lay a fifteenth century-style smack-down on Northumberland, who phoned in "sick" instead of fighting at Shrewsbury).
In this respect, it's tempting to look at the ending and say, "This totally stinks. We want more closure! And more blood!" but there are some things we can take away from the play's conclusion.
We should point out that the play opens and closes with civil strife, which seems to gesture at the seemingly endless troubles of war and conflict in England. This point would not have been lost on Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience (it's not lost on us either). Two hundred years after the reign of Henry IV (when Shakespeare wrote the play), Queen Elizabeth was still dealing with the same kinds of issues (the Northern Rebellion, war with Spain, the Irish rebellion, and so on). Sorry. We didn't means to depress you. But, the thing is, war is depressing, you know?
In the play's opening scene, King Henry remarks that his messenger's horse has been "stained with the variation of each soil" as it travelled from Northumberland to London to deliver news of a battle in northern England (1.1.64). This vivid depiction of the soil-stained horse captures perfectly the play's interest in covering a broad geographical range (on a single stage, we might add, which is very impressive). Check out this nifty map if you need a visual of Britain.
Henry IV Part 1 is set in England and Wales around 1492 and portrays diverse locales – the king's palace in London, various fields of battle, the seedy Boar's Head Tavern in London's Eastcheap neighborhood, the mysterious and sensual home of Welsh rebel, Owen Glendower, and so on. That's a lot to cover, so let's get busy.
The royal palace in London is where the king hangs out, makes decisions about important state matters, and lays into his rebellious subjects and his unruly son, Prince Hal. The vibe here is grave and serious, so much so that Hal feels the need to have a kind of dress rehearsal before his confrontation with his father.
The infamous Boar's Head Tavern, on the other hand, is a dive bar in London's Eastcheap neighborhood. (Even though the play's set around 1492, critics like Jean E. Howard note that Eastcheap looks and feels a lot like England's colorful commercial district in the 1590s. Here, notes Howard, characters drink imported sweet wine, refer to clothing worn by Elizabethans, and make fun of popular Elizabethan plays.) This is where Hal cuts loose with his buddies and hangs with the commoners.
Aside from being a really fun and colorful hangout, the Boar's Head is an important location because it's a space where matters of state are made fun of. In the famous play-acting scene, Prince Hal and Falstaff turn the tavern into a mock "palace" and take turns performing the role of "King Henry," which is a pretty rebellious thing to do. This rebellious act is also something Elizabethan actors did every time they took the stage in a performance of King Henry IV, which makes the Boar's Head Tavern seem a lot like a rowdy theater. (You can read more about this by checking out "Art and Culture.")
Gads Hill is the location (on the road to London) where Falstaff and his crew rob the king's exchequer (treasury) just before Prince Hal and Poins jump out of the bushes and rob Falstaff, who barely puts up a fight before retreating like a coward. The setting and the robbery can be seen as a comedic parody of what will later occur on the battlefield at Shrewsbury.
Battlefields are significant places where "honour" is won and lost. At Holmedon, Hotspur takes important prisoners, defeats the Scottish invaders, and gathers many "proud titles." Later, at the battle at Shrewsbury, Prince Hal kills Hotspur, taking all of young Percy's "honours" for his own. For Hal, then, the battlefield is a place for redemption and transformation. It's where his father forgives him for his wild behavior and also where Hal begins to pull away from Falstaff and his "vile" ways. Falstaff, on the other hand, treats the battlefield at Shrewsbury like any other one of his stomping grounds. This is where he plays dead like a coward and lies about killing Hotspur, all of which recalls the comedic episode at Gads Hill, where he also behaves like a coward.
While most of the action takes place in England, a few scenes occur in Wales, at the residence of Owen Glendower. In the play, Wales is associated with "wildness" and mystery, despite being right next door to England. It's also a dangerous place, where Glendower is said to participate in black magic, where the rebels convene and make plans to divide the kingdom into three parts, and where Mortimer turns traitor and lolls around in the lap of his new Welsh wife. In the play's first act, we also learn that 1,000 English soldiers have been slaughtered in Wales and their bodies mutilated by the Welshwomen. The play suggests this isn't a place where Englishmen want to get caught. The portrayal of Wales is pretty unfair and speaks volumes about Elizabethan attitudes toward the Welsh.
We know that Shakespeare can be a little rough – what with the Elizabethan language, double plot line, the dizzying geographical coverage, and the large cast of characters (who've all got, like, ten names apiece). That said, there's no need to stress out about any of this because the play is totally manageable. Here's how we see things:
Feeling a little intimidated by the plot? Just remember there are two plot lines: 1) Hal gets rowdy with his Eastcheap pals and disappoints King Henry and 2) The Percy family leads a rowdy rebellion that disappoints King Henry. (Psst. The play jumps back and forth between these two story lines for a reason. Hal's rebellious behavior isn't all that different from the Percy crew's naughty little uprising.)
Still stressed out? Think of it this way. If you can keep track of the warring factions that gossip and argue over their lunch trays in your school cafeteria, or why your uncle isn't speaking to your grandmother, who is mad at your cousin, then you can totally follow this play.
We've said it before and we'll say it again, nobody, and we mean nobody, is born fluent in Elizabethan English. Even Shakespeare had to learn it so, relax.
Never been to England? Never looked at a map of Britain? We've got you covered. Check out this map and keep it handy as you read the play.
What's up with all the characters having a gazillion names? Here's the deal: The landed nobility are often named after the land their families control. Like, say, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who is often referred to as "Northumberland" for short. Try this. Say your name's "Sam" and your family owns most of San Diego. Your new name is "Sam, Earl of San Diego" and your friends call you "San Diego" for short. Get it? If you're struggling to keep track of this stuff, jot down all the names and aliases on a handy dandy note card or, better yet, print out our list of characters. Consult the list as you read. Problem solved. Now get to work, or else.
In general, the play splices together two very different language styles.
In the play, blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) is reserved for the nobles and high matters of state. Not only do the nobles speak poetry, they also tend to use a lot of fancy schmancy metaphors and grave words that make the characters come across as authoritative. (Though, Shakespeare makes characters like Hotspur and Glendower sound really silly now and then.) Check out this example of how King Henry tells the rebels they're in deep dog doo for rising up and causing the king's troops to prepare for war:
[…] You have deceived our trust,
And made us doff our easy robes of peace
To crush our old limbs in ungentle steel.
This is not well, my lord; this is not well. (5.1.12-15)
Wow. We got so caught up in Henry's insistence that going to war's as uncomfortable as changing out of a pair of comfy pajamas and into armor (which is also what soldiers literally must do), that we almost forgot that nobody in England's been wearing "easy robes of peace" for quite some time – Henry's entire reign thus far has been plagued with civil warfare that he helped create when he deposed and murdered King Richard II. Nevertheless, his speech is pretty striking and we're totally impressed by the image of the king's army donning "ungentle steel" in preparation for limb "crush[ing]" battle. It makes the whole enterprise sound lofty and important, don't you think?
On the other side of the spectrum, Henry IV Part 1 reserves prose (how you and I talk every day) for the low-brow scenes involving commoners and degenerates like Sir John Falstaff and Prince Hal. (When Hal's being wild anyway. He's a character who slips between prose and poetry quite easily and you can read more about him in "Characters.") For now, check out how Shakespeare writes lines for one of the "Carriers" (sorry, he doesn't get a real name) as the character complains about the shoddy accommodations at a roadside inn in London:
Why, they will allow us ne'er a jordan,
and then we leak in your chimney, and your
chamber-lye breeds fleas like a loach. (2.1.21-23)
Translation: The roadside inn (sort of like a Super 8 motel) doesn't provide chamber pots, so the Carriers have to urinate in the chimney. Plus, there's a major flea problem. (This is why we love Shakespeare – he's always surprising us.)
If you're thinking that King Henry and the Carrier seem to speak two entirely different languages, you're totally right, and it's not just because one speaks in prose about the low subject matter of fleas and urine while the other speaks poetry about the elevated topic of war. Henry IV Part 1 is famous for the way Shakespeare handles the vast linguistic range that was to be found in England. His characters, like real Englishmen and women, occupy different social stations and also speak according to regional dialects. In fact, much of what the Carrier has to say in Act 2, Scene 1 is practically indecipherable (especially to modern readers) and literally sounds like a foreign language compared to the way the nobility speaks. Recall also that Lady Mortimer performs a song in Welsh (she doesn't speak English and her father, Glendower, translates everything she says). See what we mean when we say the play's got a broad linguistic range? Be sure to check out "Language and Communication" for more on this.
King Henry and Prince Hal sure do like their references to celestial bodies – what's the deal? Let's take a peek at some specific moments in the play. When Prince Hal confides in the audience that he's not actually the naughty boy he appears to be, he compares himself to the "sun" and suggests that he's intentionally allowed his bad boy behavior and his low-life friends to "cloud" or "smother up" his true nature, which just happens to be dazzling, like the sun:
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. (1.2.29)
The sun, of course, is a symbol commonly used by monarchs, and here, Hal puns on his status as the king's "son" who stands to inherit the crown. According to Hal, when he reveals his true "beauty" by "breaking through the foul and ugly mists," the kingdom will be stunned (in a good way) by his seeming transformation. The idea is that his future subjects will be amazed, awestruck and, therefore, more loyal and obedient, when Hal is king. This strategy reveals Hal to be a rather shrewd and crafty politician, no?
Hal's father, King Henry, uses a similar metaphor to describe his political strategy before he became king:
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder'd at;
That men would tell their children 'This is he;' (3.2.2)
Here, King Henry claims that, by limiting his public exposure, the people "wonder'd" at him as though he were a "comet." (Wow. This guy sure thinks highly of himself, doesn't he?) A few lines later in the play, Henry also says he could exhibit a "sun-like majesty" when he finally appeared before his needy little subjects as the king (3.2.2). Throughout the whole speech, of course, Henry scolds his son for hanging with the commoners and overexposing himself in a way that's dangerous to his public image. The thing is, Henry has no idea how much he and his son share in common. Both men are hyperaware of the necessity of political strategy and controlling their images. We see a very bright future in public relations for both these guys. (Silly pun intended.) In a world where kings are challenged by rebellious subjects like, all the time, shrewd political tactics and outright manipulation are a necessity. Check out our discussion of "Quotes" on "Power" for more on this.
There's much, much more to say about this topic. As you read the play, be on the look-out for other celestial references, like when King Henry tells the rebellious Worcester to give up the rebellion and once again "move in that obedient orb" (5.1.2), or when Prince Hal tells Hotspur that "[t]wo stars [cannot] keep not their motion in one sphere" (5.4.8). Now open your book and get crackin'.
Horticulture (plants, flowers, trees, and so on) imagery pops up all over the play, so it's worth thinking about. In the king's opening speech, he vividly describes how civil warfare threatens to crush the "tender florets" that spring from English soil, planting the English countryside instead with dead bodies (1.1.1). Yikes! Later, Hotspur describes how the Percy family helped Henry depose King Richard II when they "put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, / An plant[ed] this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke" (1.3.7). By suggesting King Henry (formerly called Henry Bolingbroke) is a "thorn" and then a "canker" (an icky plant disease), Hotspur imagines England as a kind of garden that's on the cusp of ruin and decay.
Interestingly enough, this idea originated in the play Richard II, when Henry's father, John of Gaunt, referred to the corrupt King Richard II as a lousy gardener who failed to properly tend to England (R2, 2.1.) In Richard II, the realm was portrayed as a kind of fallen Eden that had been ruined by Richard's sleazy policies. OK, fine. So what? Well, we notice that the horticulture imagery in Henry IV Part 1 gestures, simultaneously, at England's vulnerability to corruption and decay and also at its capacity for regeneration and growth. So, while the play is consumed with the destruction caused by civil warfare, it never forgets that England will ultimately survive and thrive, like a garden.
At other times, horticultural references refer more specifically to family lineage and loyalty. When King Henry says his son, Prince Hal, is disloyal to his "blood" family and behaves as though he is "grafted" to his loser companions (3.2.1), he alludes to the seeming unnaturalness of Hal's relationship with commoners and criminals. ("Grafting" is a horticultural practice where tree tissues are fused with another tree.) Later, King Henry uses similar language when he praises Hotspur for his bravery and honor, suggesting the young man is "[a]mongst a grove, the very straightest plant" (1.1.4). Henry, of course, puns on Hotspur's familial roots in the royal House of Plantagenet. He also implies that Hotspur's a distinguished young man who stands out as the "straightest," among the rest of the conniving Percy family.
King Henry's not the only one who likes his plant metaphors. When Hotspur learns that his father won't be joining the rebel forces at the battle of Shrewsbury, he says Northumberland's absence is like a "perilous gash, a very limb lopp'd off." Here, Hotspur figures his father as one "limb" or branch on the proverbial family tree. His absence, in other words, is damaging to the rebels' cause, like a wound. We later learn that Northumberland's absence will literally be a "perilous gash" – the rebels are defeated at Shrewsbury and Hotspur is fatally wounded by Hal. There's a lot to say but the point we want to make here is this: the play's many allusions to "family trees" remind us that family relationships are very much at the heart of Henry IV Part 1. Check out our discussion of "Family" if you want to know more.
Hotspur's suggestion that his father's absence is a "perilous gash" (see above) to the rebel forces isn't the only reference to maiming. The play is full of allusions to body mutilation, both literal and figurative. Let's discuss. In the play's opening speech, King Henry describes the English soil as a mother whose body has been "bruise[d]," gouged, and "trench[ed]" by civil warfare, even as the cannibal earth feeds on the bloodied bodies of her "children" (buried English soldiers). Such violent and vivid imagery gets at the unnaturalness of civil warfare, which is imagined by Shakespeare as some seriously violent family drama.
A few lines later, we hear that 1,000 English soldiers have been "butchered" by Welsh fighters and the corpses subject to "beastly shameless transformation" at the hands of the Welshwomen (1.1.1). Here, Shakespeare refers to historical accounts (including a major source for the play, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles) of how the Welshwomen mutilated the genitals of English corpses. Gross. Literary critics tend to agree that this reference in the play registers larger fears of emasculation at the hands of rebellious forces. In other words, if England is imagined as a collective body, then warfare and rebellion threaten to weaken and enfeeble the entire kingdom.
The play's preoccupation with castration is repeated again, perhaps more comically, when Lady Percy, on two separate occasions, threatens to break her husband's "little finger" or, his "head." Hotspur is certainly worried that physical contact with his wife will make him effeminate or soft, and we talk about this more in "Gender" and "Family."
Lady Percy never castrates her husband but, in one of the last scenes of the play, Falstaff mutilates Hotspur's corpse by stabbing the body in the thigh. We can't help but notice the way Falstaff's actions recall the story of the Welshwomen's mutilation of English corpses in Act 1. Literary critics Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin suggest that, in this way, Falstaff's antics are associated with what the play imagines as a very female and emasculating threat. Makes sense to us. Given that Prince Hal, the heir to the English throne, has been lured away from his princely duties by Falstaff's topsy-turvy Eastcheap world, it's not so surprising that Falstaff would be associated with other rebellious figures that overtly threaten the kingdom's collective "body."
The rebels' map of Britain in Act 3, Scene 1 seems particularly relevant. Here, we want to argue that the map points to 1) Hotspur's incompetence as a leader and 2) the general threat his rebellion poses to the kingdom. As the rebels prepare to talk strategy, Hotspur shouts "a plague upon it! / I have forgot the map" (3.1.1). Uh oh. Glendower finds it, of course, but we're immediately struck by Hotspur's disorganization and seeming ineptitude. Hello. If the guy can't even keep track of his map, how's he supposed to pull off a rebellion and lead the country if he succeeds in deposing King Henry? In this moment, the map seems to be symbolic of the kingdom as a whole and gestures toward Hotspur's inability to manage Britain.
When Hotspur unfurls his map (after Glendower finds it for him, of course) and demonstrates how the rebels plan to divide the kingdom into three parts, we're reminded that the rebel cause is bent on division and dissection, not unity. The business with the map seems to confirm that young Percy's plans are decidedly not in the best interest of a kingdom that's moving toward unification. (This is sort of the same problem in King Lear. When Lear retires and divides his kingdom into three parts, it spells disaster with a capital D.)
Check out this picture of Queen Elizabeth I, a colonial monarch, with her feet planted atop a world globe. At the time Shakespeare wrote Henry IV Part 1 (around 1597), England was very much concerned with the unification of Britain and global expansion in general. In Shakespeare's day, maps and globes were often used as symbols of England's status as a big, giant world power, not a kingdom that's been hacked up into little bits and pieces.
In Engendering a Nation, influential literary critics Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin argue that "the rebel cause is discredited, not only or even chiefly because it defies the authority of the monarch, but because it threatens to dismember the body of the land, a threat that is graphically illustrated when the rebel leaders haggle over the map of Britain and agree finally to have the river Trent turned from its natural course in the interest of their 'bargain'" (162-163). It's no surprise, we would add, that, when Mortimer complains about the rebels' division of the kingdom, he says the land has been "gelded" (a common term for castration). See our discussion of "Body Mutilation" above."
There are frequent references to black magic in Henry IV Part 1, so let's think about some specific moments where the supernatural comes into play.
King Henry refers to the Welsh leader as "that great magician, damn'd Glendower" (1.1.3) and when Westmoreland describes how 1,000 English soldiers were "butchered" and later mutilated by the Welsh, he refers to the man as "irregular and wild" (1.1.2). Such comments establish Glendower and Wales as mysterious, foreign, and dangerous. Later, Glendower goes to great lengths to assert his mysterious power by claiming he has conjured the devil to help him defeat King Henry's forces (3.1.7) and, at his birth or, "nativity / the front of heaven was full of fiery shapes / of burning cressets" (3.1.2). Sounds kind of serious…but only for a moment. Hotspur's reaction to this turns the whole episode into a joke. Check out what Hotspur says after Glendower repeats his claim that at his birth "the heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble":
oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinch'd and vex'd
By the imprisoning of unruly wind (3.1.5)
Hotspur demeans Glendower by comparing the man's birth to the release of uncomfortable gas, deflating, as it were, Glendower's serious attempts to shroud himself in mystery. This seems to also deflate the seriousness of the rebels' enterprise. In other words, it's not only impossible to take Glendower's claims about the supernatural seriously, it's also seems a bit hard (here anyway) to take the rebellion seriously. (Come on. The rebels are insulting each other with fart jokes, for Pete's sake.)
There are other references to black magic in the play, but they too are aligned with comic relief. When Falstaff convenes with his thieving crew at Gads Hill just before the double robbery, he curses Poins for hiding his horse.
[…] I have
forsworn his company hourly any time this two and
twenty years, and yet I am bewitched with the
rogue's company. If the rascal hath not given me
medicines to make me love him, I'll be hanged; it
could not be else: I have drunk medicines. Poins! (2.2.3)
Here, it seems we're not supposed to take seriously Falstaff's claims that Poins has "bewitched" or given him "medicines to make [Falstaff] love him." This is a highly comedic moment and Falstaff is making fun of himself for feeling such affection for a rascal like Poins. This also seems to make light of what might otherwise be considered a serious situation as the thieves prepare to rob the king's exchequer (treasury). The teasing and light pranking make the whole thing seem a bit harmless, wouldn't you say?
Typically, Henry IV Part 1 is seen as a play that fits into the genre of a "History Play," with Prince Hal as a protagonist at the center of the story. But, if we think of the play in terms of Christopher Booker's notion of "tragedy," we can see how Hotspur may be read as Shakespeare's tragic hero, which has some pretty cool implications for the story. (You can compare this to our discussion of the play as a Shakespearean history in "Genre." Also, be sure to check out our discussion of "Character Roles.")
For Booker, this is the stage where the tragic "hero" is "unfulfilled," so his thoughts turn to "hope of some unusual gratification." We can see that Hotspur's pursuit of "honor" and glory leads him to challenge the king's authority. When Henry demands that Hotspur turn over his war prisoners, the young Percy refuses to do so unless the king pays the Welsh to ransom his brother-in-law, Mortimer, who Hotspur believes is the true heir to the throne.
When the king brushes off Hotspur's cocky attempts to challenge his authority, Hotspur and his family plot rebellion against the king. This, Hotspur believes, will bring him and his family a great deal of "honour."
Things begin to go wrong for Hotspur, who grows frustrated in his pursuit of honor. His wife complains of being neglected, Hotspur quarrels with and alienates his comrades, and he's anxious about moving from the planning stage to the real action he craves: battle.
For Booker, this is the stage where things begin to slip out of control and the hero has a "mounting sense of threat and despair." Well, it's true that things are getting out of control for Hotspur. He learns that his father is too "sick" to join the battle at Shrewsbury and Glendower has yet to amass his troops to support the rebel cause. The thing about Hotspur, though, is the way he forges ahead impetuously, disregarding all threats of danger. This is where we see Hotspur diverge from Booker's model. Unlike most other tragic heroes, Hotspur ignores obvious signs of danger.
In the last stage, Hotspur is defeated by a "force" (the king) he has himself provoked, which leads us to agree that he has what Booker calls a "death wish." For Booker, the thing that makes a story a "tragedy" is the way it ends with the finality of death. (Think of Hamlet.) Insofar as Henry IV Part 1 is a story about Hotspur, this is true enough. Yet, the play is about much more than the young Percy. His death is climactic, sure, but it's so not the end of the story. We talk about this in "What's Up With the Ending?", so be sure to check it out.
The king's exhausted from civil war (a problem his rebellion and deposition of King Richard II helped create). Henry wants to redeem himself from his past sins by waging a Holy War. This, he hopes, will also help smooth the way for his eldest son, Prince Hal, who will inherit the throne.
The rumble in the Holy Land is put on hold because Henry's got problems at England's borders. One thousand troops have been slaughtered by the Welsh, who have also captured Mortimer. There's also been a battle at Holmedon with Scottish invaders. The English have defeated the Scots, but Young Harry Percy (Hotspur), an English nobleman, refuses to give the king his war prisoners. Meanwhile, Prince Hal is spending all his time drinking, stealing, and carousing with common criminals. No wonder Henry's so tired.
After an unproductive meeting with the king, the Percys (who feel slighted by the man they previously helped to the throne) plan a rebellion based on the claim that Mortimer is the legitimate heir, not Henry. At the same time, Prince Hal and his loser pals plan a highway robbery and hold up the king's exchequer (treasury) at Gads Hill. (Notice a parallel here? Everyone's being naughty.) But, Hal shocks the audience by claiming he's just pretending to be a bad kid so he can stage a glorious "reformation" that will amaze everyone.
Things take a major turn when Prince Hal redeems himself on the battlefield. Not only does the prince save his father's life, but he also defeats the valiant Hotspur, quashing the rebel's hopes and confirming that he, Prince Hal, is fit to one day rule the country.
After playing dead so Douglas won't kill him in battle, Falstaff heaves himself off the ground and spots Hotspur's corpse. Falstaff stabs the dead body (just in case Hotspur's faking his death too) and hauls the carcass off like a trophy. Hal lets him get away with the pathetic gesture, which seems like a sign of the prince's new maturity.
Because Douglas has demonstrated courage on the battlefield, Hal makes the executive decision to let him go free without ransom. According to Hal, it's the honorable thing to do. Vernon and Worcester, however, are not so lucky. There's a sense of poetic justice here since these are the guys who decided not to tell Hotspur about the king's offer of peace prior to the battle.
King Henry dusts his hands off and congratulates his men for a job well done. But, there's more to do. Henry decides that he and Hal will ride to Wales to duke it out with Glendower and Mortimer, while Prince John goes to York to mop the floor with Northumberland (Hotspur's lame father, who called in sick to work to avoid the battle at Shrewsbury). The story continues in Henry IV Part 2.
Monarchy can be such a drag. King Henry, who's feeling guilty about deposing and then murdering King Richard II, wants to make up with God by leading a crusade. Too bad border wars with Wales and Scotland have put the kibosh on Henry's plans. To make matters worse, an up-and-coming nobleman, young Henry Percy (Hotspur) is trying to front with the king. He refuses to give Henry his valuable Scottish war prisoners unless Henry agrees to ransom Mortimer from the Welsh leader (Glendower) who took him captive. To make matters even worse, King Henry's son, Prince Hal, is acting line a total degenerate, hanging out with common thieves and making the royal family look bad. What's going to happen when this degenerate kid gets his hands on the crown?
The Percys are fed up with the king dissing them and they organize a rebellion (with the Scottish Douglas, the Welsh Glendower, and Mortimer). They say Henry's an illegitimate king – Mortimer should be the monarch because King Richard II said so before he was murdered. Meanwhile, Prince Hal is running amok with his disreputable Eastcheap friends. Hal's wild antics, which include his participation in the robbery of the king's exchequer (treasury) on the road at Gads Hill, seem to be as big a threat to the kingdom as the Percy family uprising. There's just one thing. Prince Hal confides in the audience that he's merely pretending to be rebellious in order to stage a dramatic "reformation" that will make him seem like a glorious leader. Soon after, he tells his dad not to trip – Hal will kill Hotspur in battle, redeeming his honor and saving dad's crown in one fell swoop. Can he pull it off?
Prince Hal makes good on his promise and becomes a war hero during the battle at Shrewsbury. Not only does he save his father's life from certain death at the hands of Douglas, he also kills Hotspur in battle, taking all of Hotspur's "proud titles" and making them his own. Hal has redeemed himself in his father's eyes and the battle has been won. The prince even seems to be pulling away from his bad influence pal, Falstaff. But, there are more rebels to deal with in Northumberland and Wales, so the troops gear up for more fighting. The story continues in Henry IV Part 2.