Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Critical Reception


31Late twentieth and early twenty-first century responses

Over the closing decades of the twentieth century approaches to Henry IV, Part One and its fellow history plays proliferated, taking many different directions. The decision taken by the editors of the 1986 Oxford Complete Works to restore the name of Oldcastle to the character of Falstaff led to much subsequent writing about the editorial decision and prompted ongoing research into the historical context of the Oldcastle controversy. Meanwhile, theoretically-informed readings have approached the history plays from feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, post-colonial, queer-theory and performance-oriented perspectives to name a few. Critics influenced by New Historicism and cultural materialism have found the history plays particularly useful for exploring questions about the representation of power on the early modern stage. Stephen Greenblatt's essay, "Invisible Bullets," first published in Shakespearean Negotiations in 1988, inspired much further work focussing on questions about subversion and containment in the histories. For Greenblatt, the Henry plays "confirm the Machiavellian hypothesis that princely power originates in force and fraud even as they draw their audience toward an acceptance of that power" (65). Pointing to the fact that Prince Hal's characteristic activity in Henry IV, Part One is theatrical improvisation, Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare tantalizes us with the possibility of escape from theatricality and improvisational power but in the end denies it, with the play "'redeeming' itself in the end by betraying our hopes, and earning with this betrayal our slightly anxious admiration" (47).

32Critics have developed some stimulating--albeit sometimes knotty--arguments to contest Greenblatt's vision of containment in the history plays. Kiernan Ryan, for example, points to the persistent confusions of identity in the Henry plays, such as when Hal identifies with Francis, or Falstaff impersonates the king, and argues that they achieve a "razing of hierarchy" and a recognition of "majesty as a rehearsed production" (108-110). For Ryan, "far from enclosing the spectator in an Elizabethan perception of late medieval England, the Henry IV plays create a prospective climate of understanding, which invalidates the hierarchical terms in which the problems of the protagonist are posed and solved, even as it concedes the factual force and historical triumph of subjugation" (121). David Scott Kastan highlights the contradictions, diversity and liminality of the Elizabethan theatre as factors which preclude it from becoming a vehicle for the reproduction of royal authority (135). For Kastan, "Falstaff's lack of decency and discretion is the sign of the play's resistance to the totalizations of power, massive evidence of the heterogeneity that will not be made one" (136).

33Female characters in Henry IV, Part One have fewer lines than in any of Shakespeare's English history plays (Howard and Rackin 23), so it is not surprising that the play has received relatively scant attention from feminist criticism. Even so, feminist and gender-based readings of the play have revealed interesting dimensions of the text. Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin's study, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories, is a pioneering work in this regard, exploring some of the ways in which masculine authority is set against the subversive feminized spaces of Wales and the tavern. According to Howard and Rackin, Westmorland's reference to the atrocities committed by Welsh women on English corpses in 1.1 introduces an unspeakable threat of castration which "returns and proliferates throughout the play" (169). Lady Mortimer, Kate, and the effeminacy of Falstaff are all figured as emasculating threats to masculine action.

34The representation of the Welsh in Henry IV, Part One has been an ongoing theme in recent accounts of the play (notably Highley 1990, Lloyd 2002, and Hopkins 2004 and 2005), so, too, the play's many references to Protestant and Catholic beliefs and practices (including Hunt 1998, Tiffany 1998, and Caldwell 2007). These approaches reflect a general interest in Shakespeare's representation of various categories of difference--including regional, religious, and gendered--and in the way the history plays engage with notions of nationhood and patriotism.

35Performance histories have added an extra dimension to our understanding of the potential political resonance of the play. Scott McMillan's study of twentieth-century history cycles demonstrates the extent to which twentieth-century British theatre institutions had become "accustomed to taking the Henrys as curtain-raisers for occasions of wealth and power" (86), and Robert Shaughnessy's Representing Shakespeare: England, History and the RSC explores the ideological contexts of key RSC productions. It is now also common for critics to use performance history materials to illuminate specific moments in the text, as in Barbara Hodgdon's analysis of the ending of Henry IV, Part One in The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History, and, more recently, in Robert Shaughnessy's consideration of the implications of Hal's "I do, I will" with reference to J. L. Austin's theory of the performative in language (2008).

36Over recent decades critics have continued to build on our appreciation of the formal properties of Henry IV, Part One: its balancing and contrasting of characters from different social worlds, its exploration of father-son relationships, its biblical references, its complex melding of images related to time, economic contracts, feasting and fasting, coins and counterfeiting and references to swearing and forswearing, and to verbal and physical combat. The sheer volume of critical work on the play testifies to its complexity and enduring popularity as a literary text, and helps to explain its resilience and mutability on stage.