Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Performance History


1Early performances

Controversial Beginnings

There is clear evidence of the early popularity of Henry IV, Part One, but the details of its first performances remain shrouded in mystery. It was produced at a time when the affairs of Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were particularly unsettled. By the mid-1590s Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men were becoming very successful and prosperous. Shakespeare bought his family a coat of arms in 1596 and the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1597. In the winter of 1596-7 his company trumped their rivals, the Admiral's Men, by being given all the season's command performances at court. The famous Globe theatre was as yet unbuilt, however, and the company lacked a secure base. Their lease on "The Theatre" at Shoreditch expired on April 13th 1597, and, because of disputes with the puritan owner, they had little hope of renewal. Plans to move into the newly-converted indoor theatre in the inner-city precinct of Blackfriars had been scuttled by a petition against them from local residents in November 1596. To make matters worse, between July and October 1597, all the theatres in London were closed down by order of the Privy Council in response to the uproar over an allegedly seditious play, The Isle of Dogs by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe. Shakespeare's company was permitted to tour at this time, but its future direction was uncertain (Thomson 3-18).

2 Henry IV, Part One was first staged in the midst of these difficulties. It might have been put on at "The Theatre" before the company was evicted, or nearby at "The Curtain," another venue often used at this time. It would almost certainly have been played at court during the winter of 1597-8 (possibly even earlier) and it was probably in the company's repertoire when they went on tour in 1597. Like other plays of the period, Henry IV had to adapt to many different environments and conditions.

3What we do know about the play's early history is mostly associated with the fuss created by Shakespeare's original name for Falstaff, Sir John Oldcastle. Shakespeare took up the name from The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth where Oldcastle is one of the prince's roistering companions, but a relatively undeveloped minor character. The prince of The Famous Victories is much wilder than Shakespeare's Prince Hal, wholly committed to drinking, swearing, robbing, and wenching. In Henry IV these characteristics were transferred to Sir John.

4The vivid characterization of the fat knight apparently offended the descendants of the real Sir John Oldcastle and those who thought of the historical figure as a Protestant martyr, even though the historical Oldcastle had little in common with Shakespeare's comic creation. One particularly powerful descendant was Sir William Brooke, the seventh Lord Cobham. He was Lord Chamberlain from August 1596 until his death in March 1597 and in this capacity was responsible for Shakespeare's company and for the business of licensing plays. Cobham seems to have been a relatively unsympathetic patron. Known for his puritanical leanings, he was a resident of Blackfriars, responsible for preserving order in the district at the same time that the Lord Chamberlain's Men were looking to open their Blackfriars theatre (Gildersleeve 184). Some ill-feeling may well have been in the air in 1596 over the Blackfriars issue. We do not know whether Shakespeare intended any offence or what sort of pressure was exerted in response, but we do know that the name Oldcastle was changed to Falstaff (a name previously used in Henry VI) before the play was printed in 1598. Traces of the name Oldcastle can be found in the text of Henry IV, Part One and in Part Two, and at the end of Part Two the epilogue presents a disclaimer:

5. . . if you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France; where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat--unless already he be killed with your hard opinions. For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man. (Epilogue TLN 3344-3348)

6The disclaimer may have been needed to quench an on-going scandal: letters show that the plump eighth Lord Cobham, Henry Brooke, was now nicknamed "Falstaff." The Lord Chamberlain's Men were obviously wary of causing further offence. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the name Brooke, assumed by a comically jealous character, was altered to "Broome." The names "Harvey" and "Russell" in Henry IV, Part One were also changed to "Peto" and "Bardolph" (spelt "Bardoll" in the 1598 quarto), presumably to avoid further offence to prominent families. Interestingly the Dowager Lady Russell was a leading campaigner against the proposed Blackfriars Theatre in November 1596 (Wells, Taylor, Jowett, and Montgomery 331). Despite all this controversy, however, no documents have as yet turned up to tell us exactly when, where or how Henry IV, Part One was presented to its first Elizabethan audience.

7The King's Men

In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England and the Lord Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men. Shakespeare's company now enjoyed the prestige of royal patronage and continued to build upon its success. From 1608 it was able to draw audiences to the relative comfort of an indoor theatre, the Blackfriars, during the winter, as well as to the Globe during the summer months. Consistent records of performances in these venues are not available, but requests for performances of Henry IV at court attest to its continuing popularity within the company's repertoire.

8Falstaff contributed greatly to the play's success. When the play was commissioned for performance on New Year's Night in 1625, it was entitled The First Part of Sir John Falstaff. Such references reflect a common practice of nicknaming plays after their most popular or prominent character. In the case of Henry IV the records are complicated by the fact that Falstaff appears in more than one play, and the situation is made even more difficult by the existence of a rival play belonging to the Lord Admiral's Men, called Sir John Oldcastle, which portrayed Sir John as a hero. In the 1630s the King's Men were twice requested to perform a play entitled Oldcastle. It seems likely that this was Henry IV, Part One but the title represents several possibilities.

9That Henry IV was subject to substantial alteration early in its life is illustrated by the "Dering manuscript," a copy of the play in which parts one and two are combined into a single script of 3401 lines. The abridged text belonged to the library of Sir Edward Dering, and may have been performed in his home around 1623. After 1606 the play was also subjected to the censorship of a parliamentary act which banned the use on stage of profane oaths like "zounds" (an abbreviation of "by God's wounds") or "sblood" (God's blood). Considering Hotspur's preference for a "good mouth-filling oath" and Falstaff's habitual blasphemy, the change to milder oaths must have made the play seem much less gritty to contemporary audiences.

10Parliament's puritan antipathy towards all things theatrical was to have a more devastating impact when the English civil war broke out. In 1642 Parliament banned the performance of stage plays altogether. The theatres were closed and officially Henry IV, Part One was not performed again until the monarchy was restored and the theatres reopened in 1660. Theatrical activities continued underground during this period, of course, and it is a measure of Falstaff's popularity that some of his scenes from Henry IV were part of the underground repertoire. Favorite comic scenes from popular plays were staged as "drolls" by the actor Robert Cox and these were published in a collection called The Wits in 1662 after the laws were relaxed. The Falstaff piece, "The Bouncing Knight, or the Robbers Robbed," was placed first in the volume.