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  • Title: Henry IV, Part 1: Introduction
  • Author: Rosemary Gaby
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-371-7

    Copyright Rosemary Gaby. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Rosemary Gaby
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    1The history play

    Historical fiction is so pervasive today on stage, television, film, and in the novel that it is easy to overlook how much our appetite for the genre owes to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan history play. Shakespeare has played a key role in building an audience for stories about English history and through the centuries his fictionalized versions of historical figures and events have, rightly or wrongly, helped to shape the way we imagine the past.

    In 1623, when Shakespeare's actor-friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, gathered together thirty-six of his plays for publication in what we now call the First Folio, the plays were grouped as comedies, histories and tragedies. The ten plays described as "Histories" were based on the reigns of English kings from King John (1199-1216) to Henry VIII (1509-47). Although some of these plays were also known as tragedies, Shakespeare's contemporaries clearly thought they were significantly different from plays about more remote political figures like Julius Caesar, or legendary English kings like Cymbeline or Lear.

    Nearly all of Shakespeare's history plays were written in the 1590s, and it seems that the vogue for staged histories, established by Shakespeare, was largely limited to this decade. The history play's popularity at this time has been associated with numerous factors. These include an increased sense of nationhood and patriotism after the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), anxieties about the nation's political future during the final decade of Elizabeth's reign, and rapidly evolving ideas about historiography, but Shakespeare's personal interests and influence are also obviously important. Shakespeare was not the only Tudor writer of history plays, but he certainly dominated the field. His histories are experimental works, drawing upon chronicle-history materials and morality-play traditions to present a new dramatic form.

    An ongoing saga

    Henry IV, Part One was written sometime around 1596-7. It was part of a sequence of four plays, written between 1595 and 1599, covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. Richard II focuses on the deposition of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke's rise to power; the two parts of Henry IV chart both the dissension that accompanied Henry's reign and the preparations of Prince Hal for a more effective style of kingship; and Henry V shows what happened when Hal became king and made war against the French. Shakespeare's earlier history plays--the three Henry VI plays and Richard III--actually follow events after the reign of Henry V. Together, the two groups of plays (now often called "tetralogies") dramatize the fortunes of the English monarchy from, roughly, 1398 to 1485.

    5The success of his first group of histories probably influenced Shakespeare's decision to embark upon a second sequence. It was a particularly sound move: Shakespeare's histories were good box office material. Henry IV, Part One became Shakespeare's most published play, appearing in seven solo "quarto" editions before the publication of his complete works in the First Folio. Perhaps the success of Henry IV, Part One led to the writing of its sequel: we simply do not know how Shakespeare planned the sequence, or even whether Henry IV was intended as one play or two from the start. It was never called Part One during Shakespeare's lifetime. In its first edition the title-page announces: The History of Henrie the Fourth; With the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstalffe. This title gives no indication that this is the first of three plays about Prince Hal; instead, attention is drawn to the more popular characters, Hotspur and Falstaff, and to the battle which forms the climax of the play.

    The history plays inevitably have many characters in common and it is interesting to trace the fortunes of various figures from one play to another. Often the dialogue refers back to the material of earlier plays (in Henry IV the rebels are constantly harking back to the fact that Henry "put down" Richard II) and sometimes situations that develop in later plays are anticipated earlier. Towards the end of Richard II, the newly crowned Henry IV asks, "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?" (R2 TLN 2497) and Harry Percy ("Hotspur" in Henry IV) tells him about a recent meeting he had with the wayward Prince. Throughout Henry IV, Part One the audience is made aware of the impending rejection of Falstaff that concludes Part Two, and at certain moments Henry IV, Part Two looks ahead to the war with France that is dramatized in Henry V.

    Henry IV, Part Two continues the story begun in Part One. It begins with the delivery of conflicting reports about the battle of Shrewsbury, delivered to Hotspur's "crafty-sick" father, Northumberland, and goes on to chart the quelling of further rebellion, the death of Henry IV, and Prince Hal's assumption of the crown. In many ways Part Two seems to repeat the material of Part One, but in a minor key. Hal spends less time on stage with Falstaff in Part Two, but his dying father still sees him as a rebellious prince until their climactic reconciliation scene towards the end of the play. Falstaff rushes to London from the Gloucestershire home of his friend, Justice Shallow, to greet the newly-crowned Henry V, but Hal publicly affirms his reformation by denying Falstaff and leaving him in the charge of the Lord Chief Justice. At the end of Part Two the epilogue promises to continue the story "with Sir John in it"; instead Henry V simply reports Falstaff's death, then moves on to dramatize Hal's victories in France.

    Obviously the Henry plays are closely linked in terms of characters, tone and the story told. Nevertheless Part One can be happily read and performed on its own. Like many modern films with sequels that expand and develop the plot, the play works well as an individual entertainment and as a part of a larger story.

    An unpredictable genre

    In the histories, the tone of the drama--whether comic or tragic--depends largely upon the events being staged. Henry IV, Part One encompasses the tragic pathos of Hotspur's death, the thrill of Hal's battlefield valor, the intrigue of power politics, and the broad humor of the tavern scenes, not to mention a few, more lyrical moments. Some history plays--including Richard II which immediately preceded Henry IV, Part One--adhered largely to the conventions of tragedy, telling "sad stories of the death of kings" (R2 TLN 1516). The stories of kings like Henry IV and Henry V did not suit tragedy, however, so instead Shakespeare moved in a fresh direction. Henry IV, Part One shifts from verse to prose and from scenes based on serious historical events to scenes of anarchic comic fiction. For Shakespeare and his audience the history play was new dramatic territory where anything might happen.

    10The openness of the genre in comparison with other forms is particularly evident with regard to the Gargantuan figure of Falstaff. His irreverent roguish spirit spilled over into another two histories and one comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor (supposedly written so that Queen Elizabeth could see Falstaff in love). In the history plays, Falstaff is a powerful and unpredictable force. Irrepressible in Henry IV, Part One, a potentially tragic figure at the end of Henry IV, Part Two, and recalled with pathos in Henry V, he can re-direct our responses to the historical story in many interesting ways. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, Falstaff's role is limited by the conventions of its comic genre. His roguish activities are contained within a smaller context and, although he retains some of his history-play incorrigibility, he is made to suffer gross indignities to meet the demands of comic justice. In Henry IV, Part One Falstaff has more room to move; the history play provided an environment that could accommodate his sprawl.

    The English history plays defied some of the limitations of other genres, but they were based upon a relatively limited pool of stories. When the genre was revisited in later years, in plays like Shakespeare's Henry VIII (1613) and John Ford's Perkin Warbeck (1634), it was to dramatize events of the Tudor period which might not have been safely staged while Elizabeth I (the last Tudor monarch) was still on the throne. The genre enjoyed a relatively brief heyday, but Shakespeare's history plays have retained enormous popularity from the 1590s to the present day. Richard III andHenry V have been frequently filmed and all the histories have fared well in the theatre.

    With their overt political focus, the history plays have attracted contrasting readings and met diverse cultural expectations for different times and places. Laurence Olivier's Henry V, filmed at the end of World War II and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, filmed 45 years later, convey very different perspectives on war. Outside England the histories are much less likely to engender the kind of nationalistic pride with which they are often associated, but French, German and Japanese directors have found occasion to produce them nevertheless. The openness of the history play genre seems to have had a lot to do with the plays' durability. History plays raise questions about the construction of identity, about how social groups are formed and organized, about image making and ideological control, and about how power is exerted, contested, and manipulated at personal, local, and national levels. Approaches to these issues constantly change, but they remain of enduring and urgent concern.

    The 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.

    The 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, Queen's Men EditionsThe 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.

    Many 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

    Although 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.

    The 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.

    Behind 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 IIIʼs 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.

    The 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

    In 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.

    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.

    Hotspur, 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.

    Characters and contrasts

    Fathers, sons and subjects

    It has been frequently noted that the basic outlines of character in Henry IV, Part One are etched by a clever and intricate series of parallels and contrasts. The comparisons begin in 1.1 when King Henry complains that he envies Northumberland's being father to "so blest a son" as Hotspur, and wishes that "some night-tripping fairy" had exchanged their children: "Then would I have his Harry, and he mine" (TLN 93). Here a minor parallel--two fathers who, as time proves, both undervalue their sons--is linked with one of the play's most important structural pairings of Henry Percy (Hotspur) and Prince Hal, the future Henry V. As the play progresses we are drawn into the game of comparing these two "Henrys." They are acutely conscious of the game themselves, frequently mocking each other's predilections and debating each other's worth. On its simplest level Henry IV, Part One is a competitive quest between Hal and Hotspur to become "the theme of honor's tongue" (TLN 84).

    Another important parallel is set up between Hal's father-substitute, Falstaff, and King Henry. Henry is a stern parent, prone to giving long-winded lectures and making unfair public comparisons between his own son and other people's children. It is little wonder that Hal has more fun with "that father Ruffian," Falstaff. A yawning generation gap is evident between Hal and his real father. Henry has no idea of what Hal is really like. He shows in his interview with Hal that his feelings towards his eldest son are all tangled up with his guilt over the murder of Richard II. Henry cannot help equating Hal's wild behavior with Richard's and it is all too easy to view his heir's debauchery as punishment for the murder of his cousin-king. Falstaff provides Hal with a very different kind of parenting. He is indulgent, affectionate, and body-focused. It is sometimes suggested that he takes on a maternal, nurturing role in the very masculine world Hal inhabits, and some recent productions have added a homoerotic dimension to their relationship. Certainly Falstaff and Hal share a different kind of language to the court: their battles are battles of wit conducted in prose. By exchanging insults with Falstaff, Hal can relieve some of his filial angst.

    Both Hal and Hotspur rebel against Henry IV: the father-son relationship mirrors that of king and subject. In fact Henry sarcastically expresses his surprise that Hal has not joined the rebels under Percy's pay. By such means, personal family relationships are linked to the wider political situation throughout Henry IV, Part One. The struggles depicted in the history plays are dynastic and the marriages, quarrels, habits and obsessions of the country's most powerful families are of national significance. Like Hal, Hotspur is subjected to successive lectures from the senior members of his extended family, Northumberland, Worcester, and Glendower. Although he thinks he is his own man, these father-figures easily manipulate him into an action which will involve thousands of lives. The private play of power within these families has an enormous public cost. Old certainties about the structure of society under a king whose right to rule was absolute have been shattered by the deposition of Richard II. In the new fractured world under Henry IV, the younger generation has to make its way against an older group of cynical and experienced intriguers.

    Who is Prince Hal?

    One of the most puzzling aspects of Henry IV, Part One for today's critics, directors and actors is the figure of Prince Hal. Is he a cold-hearted schemer, a misunderstood adolescent, or a genuine hero-in-the-making? Hal is presented as an enigma. His own father completely misreads him, and so do most of the other characters in the play. His mission, he tells us, is to create, by means of a dramatic reformation, a dazzling public image. In the meantime it is difficult to judge just who the real prince is.

    30From Hal's point of view the world offers a range of possibilities. In one direction is the world of Falstaff and Eastcheap, a world offering sensuality, self-indulgence, freedom, comedy and an escape from responsibility. Here Hal can feel the warmth of friendship, good humor and instant acceptance, although he can also be lied to, exploited, and drawn into crime. Opposed to Eastcheap is the court, an altogether less appealing environment. Its mood is established by Henry's opening line "So shaken as we are, so wan with care." It seems a harsh, unforgiving, somber place, where onerous duties beckon, but it too has its other side, offering the support of a real family and a solid base for purposeful action. A third alternative is Hotspur's life of martial action and honor. His perspective also has its attractions, offering the glory of a single-minded commitment to chivalric values without the bother of difficult questions about motives or outcomes.

    It is easy to feel sympathetic towards Hal if we view him as a figure trying to make his way through these disparate worlds: a young man with the destiny of the country on his shoulders who has to make difficult choices about the right way to act. But it is possible to see him as having already made those choices. His first soliloquy, beginning "I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness" (TLN 296), is the problem here. Hal announces a plan to transform himself in the public eye through a dramatic change in behavior. From this speech it appears that he knows where he is going from the very start and that his "loose behavior" is simply part of a stunning bit of image-manipulation. If this is so, it could be argued that Hal is cynically manipulating his friends and family as well. Some critics suggest that this soliloquy is simply a theatrical convention; an announcement about the plot of the play which has nothing to do with personality. Actors still have to deal with the speech, however. Sometimes it is presented thoughtfully as if the ideas are only just coming to mind, and sometimes it is delivered with defiance--directed at either Eastcheap or the court.

    It is worth noting the similarities between Hal's language in the "I know you all" speech and King Henry's at the beginning of the very next scene. Henry says: "I will from henceforth rather be myself, / Mighty and to be feared" (TLN 326-327). Hal, comparing himself to the sun breaking through the clouds, says: "That, when he please again to be himself, / Being wanted he may be more wondered at" (TLN 301-302), and later in 3.2 he promises his father, "I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord, / Be more myself" (TLN 1911-1912). Who is the self that Hal proposes to be? When King Henry talks about being "myself," he seems to mean "myself-as-king," as opposed to his natural disposition or "condition." Perhaps Hal sees himself the same way. Henry and Hal both seem to perceive kingship as involving the assumption of a different but real personality.

    Both Falstaff and Hotspur win regard and affection for being themselves, but those selves are obviously flawed. Hotspur is idealistic, forthright and completely trustworthy, but he is also a traitor who rashly leads his followers into disaster. Falstaff is infinitely wiser than Hotspur--he is inventive, flexible, and witty--but his absolute self-indulgence makes him wholly unreliable and ineffective in the workaday world. Towards the end of the play in 5.4, Hal has a moment alone on stage with the corpse of Hotspur and the supposed corpse of Falstaff. For both he delivers an affectionate, but clear-sighted epitaph. His farewell to Hotspur begins, "Fare thee well, great heart! Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!" (TLN 3052-3053) and to Falstaff he says, "Poor Jack, Farewell! / I could have better spared a better man" (TLN 3069). This is one of Hal's most likable moments; it shows generosity of spirit, compassion, and honesty. It can also be seen as an emblematic moment of selfhood for Hal. The apparent deaths of his old rival and friend leave space for him to assert his own claims for attention and respect.

    Falstaff: the subversive subject

    Hal's finest moment is typically subverted by the figure of Falstaff. When Hal sadly leaves Falstaff's huge corpse on stage the corpse pops up and announces that he had only counterfeited death. It is a breathtaking comic reversal of expectations and a neat counterpoise to the heroics of Hotspur's dying moment. The revival of a character thought to be dead is an old stage tradition, used very frequently by Shakespeare, most spectacularly in one of his last plays, The Winter's Tale. It is a device which lifts the mood of the audience beyond the fiction of the play, drawing attention to the playwright's sheer audacity.

    35Falstaff is an audacious creation all round, a figure of comedy and carnival, thrust into the middle of a history play. In the play-scene of 2.4 Hal casts Falstaff in the role of the Vice. He is "that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father Ruffian, that Vanity in years" (TLN 1411) and a "villainous, abominable misleader of youth" (TLN 1420). Hal is referring here to the emblematic figures who would tempt the protagonist of the medieval "morality" play into a life of sin and degradation. The Vice quickly developed into an ambiguous figure who would provide comic relief through energetic clowning, disguise and wit, enjoying a complex rapport with the audience. Shakespeare draws on these traditions for his portrayal of Falstaff and echoes the morality play in the broad structure of Henry IV, Part One. The play can be viewed in terms of antithetical character types and the moral choices placed before Hal, the figure of youth. It is important to remember, however, that the morality play casting is partly Hal's construct. In the play-scene he jokingly creates a public image for Falstaff which complements the rebellious image he has created for himself. This self-conscious acknowledgment of theatrical antecedents invites a closer consideration of the role-playing that is so much a part of Hal's story.

    Falstaff is reminiscent of many other archetypal comic figures including the braggart soldier, the buffoon, the fool, the trickster and the rogue. He has also been persuasively linked with the Lord of Misrule: the figure who presides over all the playful pranks and role-reversals of traditional festive holidays (see Critical Reception, Section 3, "Accounting for Falstaff in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries").

    Yet Falstaff is much more interesting and certainly much more fun than any erudite list of dramatic archetypes. Like all rogues, he is an inherently ambiguous figure: a character composed of apparently contradictory elements who always inspires a mixed response. Falstaff runs away roaring at Gad's Hill, yet falls asleep behind the arras while the sheriff is looking for him; he leads his ragged soldiers to their deaths without compunction, yet delivers compelling speeches about the physical cost of war; he violates Hotspur's corpse and steals the glory of his death, but he makes us laugh and for that we would forgive almost anything.

    Did Falstaff become too large a character for the plays he inhabits? Are the subversions Falstaff represents--his dismissal of honor, his romancing of gluttony, sloth, theft, and anarchy--contained by the wider perspective of the play, or is his perspective too appealing? Whatever we decide, it is important to note that in Henry IV, Part One Falstaff is not killed off. Despite a few rehearsals for the rejection which occurs at the end of Part Two, in Part One Falstaff is a comic survivor.

    In his "I know you all" soliloquy Hal muses:

    If all the year were playing holidays,
    To sport would be as tedious as to work (TLN 305-306).

    40It is just such seemingly indisputable assumptions that Falstaff turns upside down. Falstaff is too witty and too changeable for the holiday he represents to ever become as tedious as work. Others in Henry IV, Part One consciously play roles, but Falstaff is addicted to theatre. He adopts the voice of piety one minute, blasphemy the next; he can contradict himself within the space of a sentence: "I ... swore little, diced not above seven times--a week" (TLN 2018). Honor is just a word which should be ignored when necessary and time is something for others to believe in. For Falstaff, identity and language are never fixed or absolute. It is a liberating perspective and, for the length of Henry IV, Part One at least, an exhilarating possibility.

    Different 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.

    There 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 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.

    Shakespeare'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.

    Diverse 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:

    . . . thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow-catch . . . . 'Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! . . . (TLN 1184-1203)

    Shakespeare 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

    45The 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.

    The 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.

    In 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.

    For 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.

    At 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.