Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. the Duke of Hereford and later the Duke of Lancaster) kicks butt and takes names throughout this entire play. That's why we're calling him King Henry IV by the time we get to the end of Act 5. (By the way, if you want to know more about why Henry has so many names, go read "Symbolism," but then come right back... or else.)
Henry's actions in the play tell us more about him than just about anything else, so let's start at the beginning. When we first meet Henry Bolingbroke, we know right away that this guy means business. In the opening scene, he shows up at Richard's castle, accuses Mowbray of treason, and challenges him to a trial by combat, which is the medieval gentleman's equivalent of a shootout at the O.K. Corral. This is pretty gutsy, especially since Henry's challenge to Mowbray is actually a passive-aggressive attack on the king. (Remember, Henry accuses Mowbray of killing Gloucester, even though he knows that Richard ordered the murder.)
Later, when King Richard boots Henry out of the country and steals his inheritance, Henry doesn't sit around moping – he does something about it. First, Henry slaps together a giant army and invades England. Then, when he corners King Richard at Flint Castle, he sends the king a message that goes something like this: "Thanks for keeping the throne warm for me, but I do believe that's my crown you're wearing." (We told you the guy doesn't mess around.)
If Henry Bolingbroke had a personal motto, it would probably be, "Why talk when you can fight?" Seriously, when this guy's got a beef with someone, his first instinct is to throw down. Don't get us wrong, Henry can trash talk with the best of them, but he's always telling us that actions speak louder than words. At one point, he even declares, "for what I speak, / My body shall make good upon this earth" (1.1.2). Translation: Henry's not afraid to put his money where his mouth is. He's ready and willing to rumble – any time, any place.
Why does this matter? First of all, Henry's aggressive style makes him the exact opposite of Richard, who spends a lot of time talking about his feelings but never actually doing anything. (Remember what happens when Richard finds out that Henry and his army have invaded England? Richard literally sits down on the ground and says he wants to tell some sad stories about old kings.) Second, Henry's kick-butt style of leadership suggests that if you want to be an effective leader, you need to wield a lot of physical power.
We can't help but appreciate this guy's "take the bull by the horns" style, but let's face it: even though King Henry IV looks like he'll be a much more effective ruler than Richard II, he comes into power in a pretty shady way.
Still, the play doesn't necessarily make Henry a villain for helping himself to the English throne. As Shakespeare was writing Richard II, ideas about power and monarchy were beginning to shift, and the play reflects this change in attitude in a very dramatic way. At the time, a lot of people thought that monarchs were supposed to inherit the throne (not just snatch it up because they felt like it) and that kings were God's chosen representatives on earth. (Sometimes this theory is referred to as the "divine right of kings.")
When Henry Bolingbroke takes the crown from Richard II, though, it gestures at a new way of thinking about royal power, one that says a king's right to rule depends on whether the guy is capable and whether his subjects actually want him in power. This is a no-brainer for modern audiences, especially those of us lucky enough to live in democracies, where leaders can be voted in and out of office. But back in Shakespeare's day it was a new idea and still a little controversial.
We just have one question, Shmoopsters, and it's the same question literary critics are always asking about this play: When exactly does Henry decide he wants to be the king of England? Think about it – after Henry is exiled from England and gathers an army in northern France, he tells everyone that he's invading England because he just wants to get his land back from Richard. (This is why so many people back him up – because it's illegal for Richard to steal land from the nobility.) But then, when Henry invades England and confronts Richard at Flint Castle, he's all "Hand over the crown, cuz."
Was Henry already thinking about trying to bump Richard off the throne when he was back in France gathering his army? If so, why didn't he just say so? Is Henry a manipulative liar? Or did Henry decide he wanted to be king only after he cornered Richard at Flint Castle and realized that, hey, Richard is totally defenseless right now – why not just go ahead and strip him of his crown too?
The fact that Henry doesn't say a lot makes it pretty hard for us to figure out his motives. We might never know when Henry decides to take the throne, but we do know this: the guy is really good at seizing golden opportunities.
This is why a lot of literary critics (like Irving Ribner) see Henry IV as the ultimate "Machiavellian" ruler – a leader who acquires power and stays on top by being inventive and opportunistic, charismatic, willful, and energetic. (By the way, this style of leadership is named after Niccolò Machiavelli, the guy who wrote The Prince, a 14th-century "how to" guide for rulers. It was super popular in Shakespeare's day, even though it encourages kings to be ruthless and manipulative.) But don't just take our word for it. Let's go down the list of "Machiavellian" characteristics and see if Henry fits the bill or not:
Inventive and Opportunistic? Absolutely. Like we said, when Richard is away in Ireland, Bolingbroke sees the perfect opportunity to come back to England and reclaim his birthright (the land Richard stole from him). When Henry corners Richard (who doesn't have much protection), he sees a chance to snatch the crown, and he takes it.
Charismatic? You bet. Henry is really good at getting people to join his side. He gets a bunch of important noblemen to join his forces, and most of the commoners think he's the greatest guy in the universe. Even Richard notices that Henry seems to have a love affair with the people: "How he did seem to dive into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy, / What reverence he did throw away on slaves, / Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles" (1.4.4).
Willful? Have you been paying attention? When Henry wants something done, he makes it happen, even if he has to use force to get his way. (This makes him the exact opposite of Richard, who literally sits on the ground and does nothing when he finds out Henry's coming for him with a giant army.)
Energetic? Yep, Henry's got lots of energy all right. Instead of sitting around and moping like Richard does when he's banished from his country, Henry goes to France and slaps together a giant army. Then he sails back and marches all the way across England until he corners Richard at Flint Castle and snags the crown. (We're exhausted just thinking about all this running around.)
Ruthless? Without a doubt. But Henry is an odd mix of ruthlessness and mercy. He has Richard murdered (even though he never really fesses up about it) and orders the executions of a bunch of Richard's allies. Then he decides to spare the lives of Aumerle and Carlisle. Plus, Henry actually feels pretty guilty about Richard's death, which may be a good sign. Sometimes Henry is really hard to figure out.
Manipulative? Sure, sometimes. In the beginning Henry seems like a pretty straight shooter. He says what he means and he means what he says. (Like the time he accuses Mowbray of treason in Act 1, Scene 1.) However, Henry is also good at manipulating people. For example, after he hints to Exton that he wants Richard murdered, he acts all surprised and disgusted when Exton shows up with Richard's corpse.
What do you think? Is Henry a Machiavellian king or not?