13The historical background

Shakespeare's sources

Shakespeare's history plays are not a good place to go for an accurate rendering of historical events. The details of place, time, and personality are all subject to a great deal of artistic license (much like most modern Hollywood versions of the past). Shakespeare did, however, research his materials in some depth. Close studies have shown that Henry IV, Part One draws upon a surprising range of disparate sources.

14The most obvious source for Henry IV, Part One is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587 edition). Holinshed's style of history focuses on the personalities and motivations of significant historical figures and much of the detail of Henry IV's struggle with the Percys comes from here. Another important source is the third book of Samuel Daniel's The Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York (1595). Daniel's poem differs significantly from Holinshed in the emphasis it places upon the Prince of Wales and his rivalry with Hotspur. Shakespeare followed Daniel in making Hotspur a much younger man at the time of the rebellion (historically he was older than King Henry) and in both Daniel and Shakespeare the battle of Shrewsbury becomes an occasion for the prince to prove his valor and martial prowess.

15Other probable sources include John Stow's Chronicles of England (1580) and Annales of England (1592) and an earlier anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. The Famous Victories survives in an edition of 1598 which may not accurately reflect the play that Shakespeare knew, but it does provide an example of the "wild prince" legend. The prince in this play is much more reckless and irresponsible than Shakespeare's relatively level-headed Prince Hal, and despite sharing some details of plot and characterization, The Famous Victories and Henry IV are strikingly different. Shakespeare exploited the comic potential of the Eastcheap tradition, but was concerned to tell other stories as well. Invented scenes of revelry in Henry IV, Part One are offset by more serious scenes, closely based on historical writings. The skillful balancing of one kind of scene against another creates the impression of a rich and complex historical world.

16Many other possible literary source-materials for Henry IV have been recognized, including chronicles, ballads, and morality plays, but what is notable about all these sites of inspiration is their huge distance from Shakespeare's play. In Shakespeare's hands, history becomes the product of a complex chain of interwoven events, dynamic personality clashes and complex personal motives.

The historical narrative

17Although characters like Falstaff, Poins, and Bardolph are fictive creations, most of the figures in this play are based on real people. The broad outlines of character and destiny were already familiar to Shakespeare's audience and so, too, were many details of the political context, if only through other history plays like Richard II. An understanding of the historical background can make the play more intelligible to modern audiences and readers too.

18The first character we hear from in the play is King Henry IV. He launches into a long speech about the end of England's civil strife and his plan to organize a crusade against the Turks. His words are addressed to his closest advisers, and are charged with the weight of weary emotion. At the end of his speech Henry abruptly announces that the proposed crusade is not the purpose of the present meeting and instead we hear various accounts about battles against the Welsh and the Scots. We hear that "the noble Mortimer" has been taken by the Welshman, Glendower, and that the young Harry Percy, or "Hotspur," whilst victorious against the Scots, is refusing to give up his prisoners to the king, probably at his uncle Worcester's suggestion. It appears that internal strife is continuing to thwart Henry's plans.

19Behind this scene lies a complicated chain of events. Henry IV came to power in 1399 by forcing his cousin, Richard II, to abdicate. Five months later Richard died in prison, probably murdered. Richard had become king by direct line of succession after the deaths of his father, Edward the "Black Prince," in 1376 and his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377. Henry was the son of Edward III’s fourth son, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. In taking the crown from Richard, Henry violated the normal laws of succession. Henry, in effect, was a usurper, depending for his power on his personal popularity and the support of his nobles. Foremost amongst the nobles who helped Henry to power were the Percys: the Earl of Northumberland, his brother, the Earl of Worcester, and Northumberland's son, Hotspur. The Percys were soon dissatisfied with the king they had helped to make.

20Henry's problems were aggravated by the fact that Richard had nominated Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, as his heir in 1398. The real Earl of March was kept under lock and key during Henry's reign. Shakespeare, however, follows Holinshed in confusing the Earl with his uncle, Sir Edmund Mortimer, who married Glendower's daughter and joined the rebels in 1403. Holinshed claims that Mortimer was taken prisoner by Glendower after leading an English power against him, and that Henry was "not hastie" to ransom the earl "bicause his title to the crowne was well inough knowen." Mortimer, meanwhile, decided "to take part" with Glendower.

21The issue of Mortimer's ransom is what ignites the rebellion in Shakespeare's play. Hotspur is married to Mortimer's sister (Kate in the play). He wants Henry to ransom his brother-in-law in return for the Scottish prisoners captured at Holmedon. Henry responds by labeling the Earl a traitor, citing the Welsh marriage as evidence that Mortimer never did attempt to confront Glendower. Hotspur is incensed at this insult to his family, and at Henry's apparent ingratitude to those who helped him gain the throne. When he learns that Richard had proclaimed Mortimer heir to the throne, he leaps at the idea of rebellion and readily falls in with the plan put forward by his uncle and his father to join forces with the Scots, the Archbishop of York, Glendower, and Mortimer against the king.

Interpreting history

22In recent years Shakespearean critics have paid increasing attention to the difficulties associated with interpreting the past. The need to contextualize Shakespeare's plays--to see how they feed from and into the culture that produced them--has been emphasized by many scholars, and there has been a great deal of debate about how this should be done (see Critical Reception, Section 4, "History and Providence"). One thing that the debate has consistently illustrated is the extent to which our interpretations of the past are subject to the preoccupations, beliefs and assumptions of our own time and place. Whenever we attempt to enter the minds of an earlier time we inevitably do so through the distorting lens of our own cultural contexts.

23 Henry IV, Part One frequently draws attention to the existence of multiple versions of past events. Characters inevitably recreate the past in the context of present desires. The deposition of Richard II is reworked by an angry Hotspur into a shameful and unjust act so that Richard becomes "that sweet and lovely rose" as opposed to "this thorn, this canker Bolingbroke." Henry tells a different story when he describes the "skipping king" Richard, and compares himself at Ravenspurgh to Hotspur now. The most obvious re-telling, of course, is Falstaff's marvelously embroidered account of the Gadshill robbery. Much like a game of Chinese whispers, the details rapidly fly further and further from the truth.

24Hotspur, disgusted at Glendower's fantastic account of his "nativity" advises: "Tell truth, and shame the devil" (TLN 1584), but truth is a rare commodity in the world of this play. The Shrewsbury battlefield is filled with counterfeit kings, suggesting the masking which has become habitual for Henry IV. The rebels, too, are prone to deceit, most obviously in Worcester and Vernon's failure to deliver the king's offers before battle. Prince Hal's first soliloquy presents a plan which involves misrepresenting himself to everyone, and on more than one occasion he finds himself compelled to "gild" a lie for Falstaff's sake. Falstaff, of course, makes an art of lying, so much so that he can be seen as the most honest character in the play--he, at least, finds any pretence at virtue an intolerable burden.

25This emphasis upon the elusive nature of truth is one of the ways in which the play engages its audience in the business of interpreting historical events. There are many sides to the struggles that take place within Henry IV, Part One, and many possible explanations of events and actions are made available to us. The play itself is a kind of counterfeit history: the actors are not real kings or corpses after all. This knowledge seems to haunt the edges of the play, reminding us that this "history" is far from real and that from this distance the puzzles it presents can never be fully resolved.