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Henry the Fourth, Part One.

Type of work: Drama

Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Type of plot: Historical chronicle

Time of plot: 1400-1405

Locale: England

First presented: 1596

Through the antics of Falstaff and his mates, comedy and history join in this play. Woven into scenes of court and military matters, the humorous sequences are used to reveal Prince Hal's character and to bring into sharp relief the serious affairs of honor and history.

Principal Characters

King Henry the Fourth, England's troubled ruler. Haunted by his action in the deposition and indirectly in the death of his predecessor and kinsman, Richard II, and deeply disturbed by the apparent unworthiness of his irresponsible eldest son, he also faces the external problem of rebellion. He wishes to join a crusade to clear his conscience and to carry out a prophecy that he is to die in Jerusalem; it turns out that he dies in the Jerusalem chamber in Westminster.

Henry, Prince of Wales (Prince Hal, Harry Monmouth), later King Henry V. A boisterous youth surrounded by bad companions, he matures rapidly with responsibility, saves his father's life in battle, and kills the dangerous rebel, Hotspur. When he comes to the throne, he repudiates his wild companions.

Sir John Falstaff, a comical, down-at-the-heels follower of Prince Hal. Considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's finest creations, by some to be his greatest, Falstaff is a plump fruit from the stem of the "Miles Gloriosus" of Plautus. He is the typical braggart soldier with many individualizing traits. As he says, he is not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in other men. Innumerable pages have been written on whether or not he is a coward. He is a cynical realist, a fantastic liar, a persuasive rascal. Also, he is apparently a successful combat soldier. His colossal body, which "lards the lean earth as he walks along," appropriately houses his colossal personality. In the second part of the play, there is some decline of his character, perhaps to prepare the way for Prince Hal, as King Henry V, to cast him off.

Prince John of Lancaster, another of King Henry's sons, who also bears himself well in battle at Shrewsbury. He commands part of his father's forces in Yorkshire and arranges a false peace with the Archbishop of York and other rebels. When their troops are dismissed, he has them arrested and executed.

Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, a leading rebel against King Henry IV. He conceals the king's offer of generous terms from his nephew Hotspur, thereby causing the young warrior's death. He is executed for treason.

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Worcester's brother. Having had an important share in the deposition of Richard II and the enthronement of Henry IV, he feels that he and his family are entitled to more power and wealth than they receive. He is also influenced to rebellion by his crafty brother and his fiery son. He fails his cause by falling ill or feigning illness before the Battle of Shrewsbury, and he does not appear there. Later he disconcerts Mowbray by withdrawing to Scotland, where he is defeated.

Hotspur (Henry Percy), son of Northumberland. A courageous, hot-tempered youth, he seeks to pluck glory from the moon. He is a loving, teasing husband, but his heart is more on the battlefield than in the boudoir. He rages helplessly at the absence of his father and Glendower from the Battle of Shrewsbury. In the battle he falls by Prince Henry's hand.

Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, Hotspur's brother-in-law, designated heir to the English throne by Richard II. Captured while fighting against Glendower, he marries his captor's daughter. King Henry's refusal to ransom him leads to the rebellion of the Percys. He too fails to join Hotspur at Shrewsbury.

Owen Glendower, the Welsh leader. Hotspur finds his mystical self-importance irritating and almost precipitates internal strife among King Henry's opponents. Glendower also fails Hotspur at Shrewsbury. Some time later, Warwick reports Glendower's death to the ailing king.

Sir Richard Vernon, another rebel. He is with the Earl of Worcester when King Henry offers his terms for peace, and with great reluctance he agrees to conceal the terms from Hotspur.

Archibald, Earl of Douglas, a noble Scottish rebel. After killing Sir Walter Blunt and two others whom he mistakes for King Henry at Shrewsbury, he is prevented from killing the king by Prince Hal. After the battle, Prince Hal generously releases him without ransom.

Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York, a principal rebel. He thinks to make peace with King Henry and take later advantage of his weakness, but is tricked by Prince John and executed.

Sir Walter Blunt, a heroic follower of the king. At the Battle of Shrewsbury, he pretends to Douglas that he is the King, thus bringing death on himself.

Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap. She is a silly, voluble woman with a stupendous fund of malapropisms. Easily angered, but gullible, she is a frequent victim of Falstaff's chicanery.

Bardolph, the red-nosed right-hand man of Falstaff. His fiery nose makes him the butt of many witticisms. Like Falstaff, he is capable of sudden and violent action.

Poins, Prince Hal's confidant. Masked, he and the Prince rob Falstaff and the other robbers at Gadshill and endeavor to discountenance Falstaff at the Boar's Head Tavern afterward.

Gadshill and Peto, other members of the Prince's scapegrace following.

The Sheriff, who seeks Falstaff after the robbery. Prince Hal sends him away with the promise that Sir John will answer for his behavior.

Lady Percy, Hotspur's wife, Mortimer's sister. A charming and playful girl, she is deeply in love with her fiery husband and tragically moved by his death.

Lady Mortimer, daughter of Glendower. Speaking only Welsh, she is unable to understand her husband, to whom she is married as a political pawn.

Sir Michael, a follower of the Archbishop of York, for whom he delivers secret messages to important rebels.

The Story

King Henry, conscience-stricken because of his part in the murder of King Richard II, his predecessor, planned a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He declared to his lords that war had been banished from England and that peace would reign throughout the kingdom.

But there were those of differing opinions. Powerful barons in the North remained disaffected after the accession of the new king. Antagonized by his failure to keep promises made when he claimed the throne, they recruited forces to maintain their feudal rights. In fact, as Henry announced plans for his expedition to the Holy Land, he was informed of the brutal murder of a thousand persons in a fray between Edmund Mortimer, proclaimed by Richard as heir to the crown, and Glendower, a Welsh rebel. Mortimer was taken prisoner. A messenger also brought word of Hotspur's success against the Scots at Holmedon Hill. The king expressed his commendation of the young knight and his regrets that his own son, Prince Henry, was so irresponsible and carefree.

But King Henry, piqued by Hotspur's refusal to release to him more than one prisoner, ordered a council meeting to bring the overzealous Hotspur to terms. At the meeting Henry refused to ransom Mortimer, the pretender to the throne, held by Glendower. In turn, Hotspur refused to release the prisoners taken at Holmedon Hill, and Henry threatened more strenuous action against Hotspur and his kinsmen.

In a rousing speech Hotspur appealed to the power and nobility of Northumberland and Worcester and urged that they undo the wrongs of which they were guilty in the dethronement and murder of Richard and in aiding Henry instead of Mortimer to the crown. Worcester promised to help Hotspur in his cause against Henry. Worcester's plan would involve the aid of Douglas of Scotland, to be sought after by Hotspur, of Glendower and Mortimer, to be won over through Worcester's efforts, and of the Archbishop of York, to be approached by Northumberland.

Hotspur's boldness and impatience were shown in his dealing with Glendower as they, Mortimer, and Worcester discussed the future division of the kingdom. Hotspur, annoyed by the tedium of Glendower's personal account of his own ill-fated birth and by the uneven distribution of land, was impudent and rude. Hotspur was first a soldier, then a gentleman.

In the king's opinion, Prince Henry was quite lacking in either of these attributes. In one of their foolish pranks Sir John Falstaff and his riotous band had robbed some travelers at Gadshill, only to be set upon and put to flight by the prince and one companion. Summoning the prince from the Boar's Head Tavern, the king urged his son to break with the undesirable company he kept, chiefly the ne'er-do-well Falstaff. Contrasting young Henry with Hotspur, the king pointed out the military achievements of Northumberland's heir. Congenial, high-spirited Prince Henry, remorseful because of his father's lack of confidence in him, swore his allegiance to his father and declared he would show the king that in time of crisis Hotspur's glorious deeds would prove Hotspur no better soldier than Prince Henry. To substantiate his pledge, the prince took command of a detachment that would join ranks with other units of the royal army--Blunt's, Prince John's, Westmoreland's, and the king's--in twelve days.

Prince Henry's conduct seemed to change very little. He continued his buffoonery with Falstaff, who had recruited a handful of bedraggled, nondescript foot soldiers. Falstaff's contention was that, despite their physical condition, they were food for powder and that little more could be said for any soldier.

Hotspur's forces suffered gross reverses through Northumberland's failure, because of illness, to organize an army. Also, Hotspur's ranks were reduced because Glendower believed the stars not propitious for him to march at that time. Undaunted by the news of his reduced forces, Hotspur pressed on to meet Henry's army of thirty thousand.

At Shrewsbury, the scene of the battle, Sir Walter Blunt carried to Hotspur the king's offer that the rebels' grievances would be righted and that anyone involved in the revolt would be pardoned if he chose a peaceful settlement. In answer to the king's message Hotspur reviewed the history of Henry's double-dealing and scheming in the past. Declaring that Henry's lineage should not continue on the throne, Hotspur finally promised Blunt that Worcester would wait upon the king to give him an answer to his offer.

Henry repeated his offer of amnesty to Worcester and Vernon, Hotspur's ambassadors. Because Worcester doubted the king's sincerity, because of previous betrayals, he lied to Hotspur on his return to the rebel camp and reported that the king in abusive terms had announced his determination to march at once against Hotspur. Worcester also reported Prince Henry's invitation to Hotspur that they fight a duel. Hotspur gladly accepted the challenge.

As the two armies moved into battle, Blunt, mistaken for the king, was slain by Douglas, who, learning his error, was sorely grieved that he had not killed Henry. Douglas, declaring that he would yet murder the king, accosted him after a long search over the field. He would have been successful in his threat had it not been for the intervention of Prince Henry, who engaged Douglas and allowed the king to withdraw from the fray.

In the fighting Hotspur descended upon Prince Henry, exhausted from an earlier wound and his recent skirmish with Douglas. When the two young knights fought, Hotspur was wounded. Douglas again appeared, fighting with Falstaff, and departed after Falstaff had fallen to the ground as if he were dead. Hotspur died of his wounds and Prince Henry, before going off to join Prince John, his brother, eulogized Hotspur and Falstaff. The two benedictions were quite different. But Falstaff had only pretended lifelessness to save his life. After the prince's departure, he stabbed Hotspur. He declared that he would swear before any council that he had killed the young rebel.

Worcester and Vernon were taken prisoners. Because they had not relayed to Hotspur the peace terms offered by the king, they were sentenced to death. Douglas, in flight after Hotspur's death, was taken prisoner. Given the king's permission to dispose of Douglas, Prince Henry ordered that the valiant Scottish knight be freed.

The king sent Prince John to march against the forces of Northumberland and the Archbishop of York. He and Prince Henry took the field against Glendower and Mortimer, in Wales. Falstaff had the honor of carrying off the slain Hotspur.

Critical Evaluation

Although there is no evidence that the cycle of plays including Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth, Part One and Part Two, and Henry the Fifth were intended by Shakespeare to form a unit, there is much continuity, of theme as well as of personages. There is a movement from one grand epoch to another, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The main aspects of his transition implied at the end of each play are projected into the next, where they are developed and explored.

The reader of Henry the Fourth, Part One, should be familiar with some aspects of Richard the Second, for in that play the broad lines of the entire cycle are drawn and the immediate base of Henry the Fourth, Part One, is formed. In Richard the Second, the legitimate king, Richard II, is deposed by Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV. This event, to include both historical perspectives, must be viewed as at once a usurpation and a necessary political expediency. It is a usurpation because unjustifiable, indeed unthinkable, from the strictly medieval view of what has been called "the great chain of being." This notion postulates that the universe is ordered, hierarchical, that everything is given a place by God, from angels to ants, and that station is immutable. In this world, formed by ritual, an anointed king is representative of God's Order. To depose him is to call in question all order in the world. Tradition, especially ritual, presupposed and supported fixed order. Ritual in this larger sense is broken in Richard the Second first by the excesses of Richard himself and then, in a more definitive sense, by the usurping Bolingbroke. The irony of Bolingbroke's act, and the subject of Henry the Fourth, Part One, is the consequences of what was to have been a momentary departure from ordained ritual. As with Eve, the gesture of self-initiative was irrevocable, the knowledge and correlative responsibility gained at that moment inescapable.

At the opening of Henry the Fourth, Part One, then, we see the results of rebellion already installed; the security of the old system of feudal trust is forever lost. Those who helped the king to power are men instead of God, the guarantors of the "sacredness" (the term already anachronistic) of the crown. This means political indebtedness and, at this point in history, with the anxiety of lost certainty still sharp, terrible doubt as to whence truth, power, and justice rightfully emanate. The king is no longer sovereign as he must negotiate, in the payment of his political debts, the very essence of his station. At the historical moment of the play, distrust predictably triumphs. Men are guided by the most available counsel, a personal sense of justice, or merely, perhaps, their own interests and passions.

In the void left by the fallen hierarchical order Shakespeare dramatizes the birth of modern individualism and, as a model for this, the formation of a Renaissance king (Prince Hal), an entity now of uncertain, largely self-created identity.

Prince Hal's position in the play is central. He represents a future unstigmatized by the actual usurpation. However, he inherits, to be sure, the new political and moral climate created by it. Yet while Henry's planned crusade to the Holy Land will be forever postponed in order to defend his rule from his former collaborators, Hal looks to the future.

It is characteristic of Henry's uncertain world that he knows his son only through hearsay, rumor, and slander. Even the Prince of Wales is suspect. He is widely thought a wastrel, and the king even suspects his son would like him dead. But where is the pattern of virtue for Hal? The king, the usurper, is tainted, of ambiguous virtue at best. He has betrayed, perhaps out of political necessity, even those who helped him to the throne.

In this play Hal is clearly attracted to two figures, Hotspur and Falstaff. Both of these are removed from the medieval ritualistic structures that had once tended to integrate disparate aspects of life: courtesy, valor, honest exchange, loyalty, and the like. A new synthesis of this sort is symbolically enacted in Hal's procession through the experience of, and choices between, the worlds of Hotspur and Falstaff.

For Hotspur life is a constant striving for glory in battle. As has been remarked, time for him presses implacably, considered wasted if not intensely devoted to the achievement of fame. But his is an assertion of the individual enacted outside a traditional frame such as the medieval "quest." Hotspur's character is seen to be extremely limited, however breathtaking his elan may be. For it is finally morbid, loveless, incourteous, and even sexually impotent. He has not the patience to humor the tediousness of Glendower (which costs him, perhaps, his support); his speech is full of death and death's images; he mocks the love of Mortimer and has banished his wife from his bed, too absorbed by his planned rebellion.

Falstaff, on the other hand, is as quick to lie, to steal, to waste time with a whore or drinking wine, as Hotspur is to risk his life for a point of honor. Hal spends most of his time with him, and he seems at times a sort of apprentice to the older man in the "art" of tavern living. This means, for Hal, living intimately with common people, who naively call him "boy," and whose unpretentiousness strips him of the artificial defenses he would have among people who understand protocol.

The adventure with the robbery is the image of cowardice as the reputation of Hotspur is the image of valor. Yet both stories are in their ways celebrative. Falstaff's flexible ways are more human, certainly kinder than Hotspur's, kinder even than Hal's. Hal is awkward at joking sometimes, not being sensitive enough to know what is serious, what light. Hotspur has renounced sensitivity to human love; Falstaff has abandoned honor. In schematic terms, it is a synthesis of these two perspectives that Hal must, and in a way does, achieve.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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