Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Introduction


41Different worlds

Many voices contribute to the history of Henry IV, Part One. It is a play which emphasizes regional difference and the fractured nature of the country Hal will one day rule. The court uses a contrasting language to the tavern; Mortimer speaks a completely different language from his own wife. In Henry IV, unlike earlier histories, people on the margins of society are a strong presence. People with no real power--tapsters, carriers, wives and daughters--have their own stories to tell. An impression of teeming life is conveyed through simple accumulated details like the carriers' grumbling about fleas and the lack of chamber-pots in a busy inn on the London road.

42There are no major roles for women in Henry IV, Part One. In Eastcheap, women occupy a marginal space, and despite Hal's roistering reputation, he is never seen with a female companion. Lady Percy (Kate), Lady Mortimer, and Mistress Quickly are memorable characters, but they are not essential to the action, they vanish from the play's conclusion and they are sometimes cut from the performed text altogether. Obviously this absence reflects Shakespeare's sources and the limited power available to women in the political arena of the fifteenth century, but it reflects the attitudes and assumptions of a patriarchal sixteenth-century culture as well. In Shakespearean tragedy women usually play a pivotal role, but history was constructed as a particularly masculine concern.

43Shakespeare's female characters in Henry IV can present a strong alternative point of view to the main business of the action, nevertheless. In the tavern the hostess is the target of a lot of smutty adolescent humor, in Northumberland and Wales, Kate, too, is the object of chauvinist teasing, and Lady Mortimer is a mere pawn in her father's schemes, yet these women talk back whenever they can. Kate is as fiery as her husband, but much more sensible, and Mortimer's wife speaks volumes through the Welsh magic of her song. A basic opposition is established between domestic and public allegiances, and we are made to feel that the men, and Hotspur in particular, would do well to consult their wives more fully. At the end of 3.1, when the rebels depart for war many productions close with a significant "look" between the women left behind. Their mere presence on stage can provide eloquent expression of an alternative view on the power games that obsess their men. In Henry IV, Part One women speak their own separate language.

44Diverse speech patterns are a striking feature of Henry IV, Part One. Its verse varies from Henry's carefully controlled formality, to Hotspur's impatient forgetfulness--" In Richard's time--what d'ye call the place?/ A plague upon't, it is in Gloucestershire" (TLN 570-571)--and its prose contains some of the most spectacular abuse in the language:

45. . . thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow-catch . . . .

46'Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! . . . (TLN 1184-1203)

47Shakespeare greatly extended his use of prose in this history, creating naturalistic voices for a wide range of characters. The many dialects of the play are linked, however, by common figurative threads. Resonant words like "reckoning" and "time" permeate the discourses of Eastcheap, court, and battlefield, creating subtle connections between ostensibly disparate social groups. Repeated references to the body, to parasites, sickness and disease, to fat and to famine, function as a constant reminder of the basic physical dimension of political acts.

Interweaving stories

48The play's linking of different worlds through imagery is extended by the many ironic plot parallels of the play. Henry IV, Part One is structured so that the action ranges among several contrasting locations. This maintains pace and interest, but also suggests resonant connections between the activities and attitudes of very different people. The first three scenes of the play, for example, move from the court of King Henry to the tavern at Eastcheap and back to the court again. In scene one Henry talks about both his son and Hotspur, setting up expectations which can be assessed in more depth as we meet those characters in the next two scenes. In I.2 Falstaff and Poins urge Hal to join the Gadshill plot, and at the end of I.3 Northumberland and Worcester urge Hotspur to join with them in the plot against the king. The juxtaposition of these scenes brings out significant contrasts of character (note Hal's caution as opposed to Hotspur's impetuosity) and, at the same time, makes subtle connection between the rebellion and the robbery. The Carriers' scene follows I.3, with more talk of preying on the commonwealth. Court, rebels and robbers are thus closely tied, and when Falstaff and his cronies rob the travelers at Gad's Hill, and then are robbed themselves, attentive audience members might even spot an echo of the King's own plight.

49The action switches between court, rebels and revelers through the rest of Acts 2 and 3. Some obvious contrasts emerge, like that between Hal's mock interview with his father / Falstaff in 2.4 and his real interview in 3.2, and between Falstaff's embroidered tales in 2.4 and Glendower's Welsh fantasies in 3.1. But many less obvious comparisons can also be made: Hotspur's intimate teasing of his wife, Kate, in 2.3, is immediately followed by Hal's tormenting of the hapless Francis in 2.4. These private moments can convey a lot about Hal and Hotspur and the impact they have on those around them. Both reveal a measure of arrogance in these scenes, but the degrees of affection shown between Kate and Hotspur can vary enormously, while Hal's game with his admirer might reflect tipsy high-spirits, snobbish cruelty, or a more ironic consciousness of the link between apprentice king and apprentice tapster.

50In Act 4 the various groups move towards the Shrewsbury battlefield and the pace quickens as scenes change swiftly between rival camps. In Act 5 the battle draws all the main figures of the play together for a climactic confrontation. The battle is not just about Hal and Hotspur, however. Our sense of the human lives and issues at stake is complicated by the additional stories told: stories of vividly realized characters like the compromised Vernon, earnest Blunt, and fiery Douglas. Momentarily we are reminded, too, of the fate of Falstaff's hundred-and-fifty "peppered" ragamuffins.

51For Hal the battle is a rite of passage and his chance to fulfill the promise made to his father to "redeem all this on Percy's head" (TLN 1952). Even before the fighting commences, Hal cuts an impressive figure, prompting his enemy, Vernon, to conclude, "England did never owe so sweet a hope,/ So much misconstrued in his wantonness" (TLN 2853-2854). It seems England is in desperate need of such a hope. Worcester betrays his nephew and his men, Glendower hides in Wales, Northumberland stays home in bed, and Falstaff fakes his own death, while noble lords and ragamuffins are killed on their behalf. Hal rises above all this: he acquits himself bravely on the field, he saves his father's life, and he fights and kills Hotspur. By the end of the play Hal has shown that he can redeem the time he has wasted, whereas Hotspur is proven "time's fool." Hal has become the hero of the hour. Yet that "strangest fellow," Falstaff, survives, too, to win applause for making the most of the moment. Despite Hal's heroic achievements, work-a-day and holiday values still seem evenly, though uneasily, in balance.

52At its conclusion Henry IV, Part One remains characteristically open-ended. As Henry divides his powers to march off and meet more rebels we are left to make our own judgments about what might have been lost and won so far. Shakespeare's dramatization of the reign of Henry IV shows that history is made up of many competing stories. The perspectives of Hal, Hotspur, Falstaff, King Henry and even of Francis or Kate can each be presented very persuasively. Like all dramatic texts Henry IV, Part One is ultimately a blueprint for performance: it is up to the actors and their audience to decide which history to tell.