Henry IV, Part 1
Henry IV, Part 1, is considered by many Shakespeare scholars to be the greatest of the history plays. It has never been as popular with the general audience as Henry V, which is full of triumphant speeches and brilliant action, or as Richard III, which, though it is relatively monochromatic, is also dazzling and involving from moment to moment. This play, however, is problematic, puzzling, and full of nuances; it is also, in an important sense, two plays woven together into one. Therein lies its difficulty and its brilliance.
The play is in many ways about doubleness. There are the two main story lines. The first is the political story engaging Harry Percy, called Hotspur, and his rebellion against Henry IV, the usurper king who has wrested the crown from Richard II. The other is about the youth of Prince Hal — the future Henry V — and his wild youth, carousing in the company of a group of dissipated companions. From the very beginning, his father deplores Hal’s misbehavior, and wishes that he had Harry Hotspur for his son instead. But Hal is ultimately the pivotal character who links both stories together: the play is far more his than it is his father’s. By the end, Hal fights and kills Harry Percy in single combat, thus ending the rebellion. Hal treads as securely in one world as in the other: he sheds one identity for another as any actor might. One imagines that the similarity is not coincidental.
The chief rascal in Hal’s cluster of ne’er-do-wells is Sir John Falstaff, possibly Shakespeare’s most popular character. He reappears in Henry IV, Part 2, and he is the center of the story (and the butt of the joke) in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He does not appear, but his death offstage is reported in Henry V. Contemporary audiences could not stop clamoring for more about Falstaff. Falstaff is cowardly, lecherous, gluttonous, self-deluding, and yet oddly charming; from his failure of self-knowledge, one might argue, emerges Hal’s more acute awareness of himself.
At the middle of the play lies a critical scene in which Hal and Falstaff do a little play-acting to try out various approaches that Hal might take toward his father. They play the role one way around, and then exchange parts and do it again. The whole is a study in positioning and in what constitutes a character. That question is adumbrated by Falstaff, who teaches Hal many things, without realizing that he’s being used and will eventually be rejected.
Chiefly, however, Hal himself is the enigma. He gives the fullest expression to the question opened in Richard II: what makes a king a king? Is it something that comes from within, something that is granted by God, or it something that can be put on? There is no overall agreement, and that’s part of what makes the play so fascinating. One scholar talks about Hal’s “struggle toward moral perfection”; another (the English poet John Masefield) argues, on the other hand: “Prince Henry is not a hero, he is not a thinker, he is not even a friend; he is a common man whose incapacity for feeling enables him to change his habits whenever interest bids him...He impresses one as quite common, quite selfish, quite without feeling. ...When he learns that his behavior may have lost him his prospective crown he passes a sponge over his past, and fights like a wild cat for the right of not having to work for a living.”
This question, whether it’s ultimately a soluble one or not, is part of what keeps bringing people back to this play and its two sequels, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V. Every performance of the play, moreover, invites us to rethink the question and rebalance the equation.