Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Critical Reception


22Questions of history and providence

While several Falstaff-focussed discussions meld the two parts of Henry IV into one, critics seeking to elucidate Shakespeare's broader interpretation of historical events often discuss Part One in the context of the whole sweep of Shakespeare's history plays. This kind of approach can be traced back to Herman Ulrici's Shakespeare's Dramatic Art published in its English translation in 1846. Ulrici relates Henry IV, Part One to Richard II as well as the plays that followed it, claiming that "'Richard the Second' is the first part of the grand five-act historical drama which closes with 'Richard the Third'" (368). Ulrici's discussion of Henry IV, Part One begins with a comparison of the way Shakespeare represents the reigns of Richard and Henry, and suggests that in telling the story of Henry's reign Shakespeare's interest is in what happened when a King with "inward capacity to rule," but no outward right, took control (369). Ulrici acknowledges previous critical debates about the character of Falstaff, but argues that the main point of the comic scenes is "to parody the hollow pathos of political history, and to tear from it its state robes and parade, in order to exhibit it in its true shape" (374). In Ulrici's account, what matters is the way Falstaff parodies the declining chivalry of the day and travesties characters like Hotspur, Northumberland, and Glendower. In fact Ulrici anticipated much twentieth century criticism by pointing to the Gadshill episode as comparable to the folly and worthlessness of the civil war and noting the way Falstaff's character parallels Henry IV: "his inexhaustible talent of misrepresentation, and the appearance of virtue which he so skilfully assumes, are a fine satire on the king" (376).

23This focus on contrasting political portraits within the wider context of Shakespeare's history-play tetralogies also informed what was arguably the most influential twentieth-century study of Shakespearean histories, E.M.W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays (1944). Writing in the wake of World War II, Tillyard noted that the "sense of security created in nineteenth century England by the predominance of the British navy induced men to rate that very security too cheaply and to exalt the instinct of rebellion above its legitimate station" (291). He saw his own age as more in tune with the Elizabethans, and hence able to appreciate Shakespeare's underlying support for order in the Henry IV plays. Whereas Ulrici stresses Falstaff's parodical functions, Tillyard agrees with John Dover Wilson that we should take Falstaff, as the Elizabethans did, as a figure who must inevitably be cast out.

24In subsequent decades Tillyard's work was frequently criticized for its insistence on Shakespeare's adherence to "the thought-idiom of his age," and the idea that the history tetralogies enact the working out of the "Tudor myth": that by deposing Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke established a long period of political instability which would only be resolved by the divinely-sanctioned intervention of Henry Tudor. Tillyard does, however, stress the great variety of the Henry IV plays, and his study contains many valuable local insights into Henry IV, Part One. The main thrust of Tillyard's interpretation is that through Prince Hal Shakespeare defines the perfect ruler, but that behind this the Henry IV plays still illustrate the working out of the curse that began with the usurpation of Richard and will continue "beyond the partial insurrections of the present to the Wars of the Roses" (295).

25Tillyard's work alerted Shakespeare scholars to the political dimension of Shakespeare's history plays and contributed to a critical tendency to treat them as a distinctive genre, more vitally concerned with Elizabethan politics and the fate of the nation than the tragedies. Indeed Lily B. Campbell took this kind of approach quite literally in 1947 by arguing for specific striking parallels between events in the Henry IV plays and rebellion during Elizabeth's own reign (231). The idea that Shakespeare uncritically replicated an orthodox version of the Tudor myth was soon challenged, however, by critics who saw Shakespeare as a more creative and independent thinker than Tillyard's view implied. Derek Traversi followed Tillyard's project of tracing a historical pattern through Shakespeare's histories, but noted "a very real risk that erudition, in relating these plays to their period, may end by obscuring their true individuality" (1). According to Traversi Shakespeare's true originality appears "when the political is reinforced by a personal interest" (52). His 1957 study focuses on the particular characteristics of the Lancastrian family developed in Henry IV, Part One and the way these inform their style of kingship. Traversi argues that "behind Shakespeare's acceptance of a traditional story lies the sense, which grows as the action develops, that success in politics implies a moral loss, the sacrifice of more attractive qualities in the distinctively personal order" (58). Similarly, in another key study of the English history play first published in 1957, Irving Ribner claims that while there could be no doubt that Shakespeare accepted the Tudor myth, "too great a concentration upon these traditional ideas . . . and too great an attempt to see Shakespeare's History plays entirely in the light of them, has tended to obscure other elements in the plays" (154). In Ribner's view Shakespeare's main concern in the second tetralogy was with "the type of man who should succeed Elizabeth. His chief political purpose in these plays was to delineate various royal types and to indicate the qualities of the perfect English king" (157).

26Various critics writing in the 1960s and 1970s debated Tillyard's view that the Tudor myth and a providential view of English history were widely accepted in Shakespeare's England. Henry Kelly put forward the argument that Shakespeare dramatizes opposing viewpoints through the voices of his characters:

27Shakespeare has once again distributed the moral and providential judgments of the sources according to their political components; in this play, the Lancastrians speak from the viewpoint of the Lancaster myth, and their opponents voice the anti-Lancastrian objections assimilated into the York myth (306).

28Robert Ornstein pointed to the dangers of generalizing about shared beliefs and attitudes in Elizabethan England--a time, after all, of religious and political turmoil--and John Wilders sought to shift attention to Shakespeare's characterisation as the key to understanding his depiction of historical causation:

29The causes of national unity or division, of prosperity or decline are, in Shakespeare's view, to be found not, as some of the fifteenth-century chroniclers had believed, in the providential power of God, nor, as we are now included to think, in social and economic conditions, but in the temperaments of national leaders and their reactions towards one another (2).

30Most recent critics have accepted the idea that Elizabethan thinking about the past encompassed many diverse viewpoints and political agendas and it has been frequently asserted that Shakespeare's plays reflect readings of history no less complex and contradictory than our own (see, for example, Holderness, Potter and Turner 1988). Phyllis Rackin describes Renaissance ideas about history as developing in two main directions: one explained historical events in terms of providence, the other in the more pragmatic terms of Machiavellian power politics (6-7). The providential view of historical causation would explain Henry IV's troubles as divine retribution for the act of usurping the throne from the rightful king, Richard II (Henry, himself, worries that this might be the case). The pragmatic view would explain events as the result of human rather than divine will, with an emphasis upon the personal conflicts and tactical errors that create political instability (43-6). Rackin argues that the conflict between these two early modern interpretations of history is an integral part of Shakespeare's staged history. Both interpretations are made available to us, as they were to their first audiences, provoking ongoing debate and dramatic tension.