Sunday, February 6, 2011

Required Work: Henry IV Part I

I am pretty excited about beginning the series of posts on the three required William Shakespeare plays, as well as the additional three I have chosen for my personal list. I think I will alternate between the required plays and the optional ones…plus it makes more sense for me to follow Henry IV Part I with Henry IV Part II, as I will do next week. Then I will continue with The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus (one of my personal favorites). There will be an interruption in a few weeks with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Pearl. But aside from that, the next few weeks will be focused mostly on Shakespeare.

Pictured at right is the The Norton Shakespeare, second edition. This is the edition we used in my Shakespeare class and I found it very useful. I do have to say though that I haven’t actually read any of the plays using this edition. Because this book is so big, I refused to carry it around on days I didn’t have class. Instead, I read the plays using an app I downloaded to my iPhone that includes the complete works of Shakespeare (and it is free!). I am not one who will probably ever get a Kindle, or Nook, or iPad, as I don’t enjoy reading off of a screen. I just felt that this situation called for another solution.


Henry IV Part I is a history play and is the second play in the tetralogy that deals with the successive reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V (with Henry IV getting two plays). The play qualifies as a history as it deals with an English ruler that actually existed and a civil war that actually happened (I think…history is not my strong suit). However, issues always when it comes to placing Shakespeare’s plays in certain categories, even with the ones that seem obvious. For instance, Julius Caesar was also a real person; however, Shakespeare’s play of the same name is most often placed in the category of tragedy. And there are several of Shakespeare’s plays that end up being labeled as “problem plays” because they cannot effectively be placed in any single genre. For me, The Tempest, on of the plays I will explore later, is one of those plays.

History is one of the three main genres of Western theater (the other two being tragedy and comedy). It is takes place in the past, and once again, involves real events and real people in history.

Since Henry IV Part I is one of the less troublesome plays when it comes to genre, and it is categorized as a history play, I will save the rest of my comments on the actual history for the history section of this post.


What has always interested me about this play, and also Henry IV Part II, is the King Henry IV doesn’t seem to be the main character. Our focus, well at least mine away, seems to be drawn to Prince Henry, or Hal. His antics with his band of misfits, including the hilariously ridiculous Sir John Falstaff, are what always kept my attention while reading this play. Because of this focus on the prince, the play has been seen as a coming of age story for Hal, as by the end of Henry IV Part II, he does a complete 180 and becomes a different person, actively rejecting his old life and old friends. However, can this be called a coming of age when at the very beginning of Henry IV Part I, Hal actually alludes to the change he will reveal at the end of the next play? Is it really a change if admits that he is faking the life he is currently leading?

These questions raise the issue of Hal being an admirable figure and a good friend. He reasons that him acting like a rogue and then faking a significant change once he receives the crown will cause his people to admire him even more than if he was a good person all along. For me this is issue #1, as he is pretending to be something he is not in order to further gain loyalty from the people of his future kingdom. To me, he is justifying having fun while he is young instead of acting like the prince he should. My issue #2 is that he really isn’t that great a friend to the people he is currently hanging out with, at least not to Falstaff. He rarely says anything nice about the guy, and enjoys playing cruel jokes on him.

To be completely fair, Falstaff is not that great a guy. Sure he is funny, but so are Bart Simpson and Ferris Bueller (warning: the following statements will be made with a soapbox under my feet). Bart Simpson is the guy that every 10 year-old boy wants to be and wants to be around. However, to be his little sister or even his closest “friend” is absolute hell. He is selfish, egotistical, and thoroughly enjoys making other people suffer for his own amusement. He is also the last guy you want to ever have to depend on for anything (I am stepping of the soapbox now). Falstaff is much the same. He takes the money from the King that he is supposed to use to get soldiers for the ensuing civil war and instead keeps it for himself, and then accepts bribes from potential soldiers so that they do not have to fight, and gets together the most pathetic bunch of troops ever amassed (all of which end up dead, by the way, because they were not fit for fighting). He also takes credit for killing Hotspur, something he witnessed Hal do himself. But even with all of these very serious character flaws, Shakespeare allows us to feel as if even he does not deserve the deception and trickery that Hal is subjecting him to. But, if I want to have anything left to say for Henry IV Part II, then I must stop here.


It is generally believed that this play was written no later than 1597. As mentioned, it is part of a tetralogy with three other plays, including its own sequel. Shakespeare wrote another tetralogy that deals with the reigns of Henry VI (three plays) and Richard III. What is interesting about these tetralogies is that while Henry VI and Richard III obviously come after Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V in history, he wrote that set of plays first and wrote the histories that include King Henry and Prince Hal later. This second tetralogy was also more popular than the first, and Henry IV Part I was Shakespeare’s most popular printed text.

Next week we will conclude the story of King Henry IV with part II of Shakespeare’s story. I am sure some of you are wondering why I did not pick Henry V as my other history as opposed to Henry IV Part II, as the former is much more widely read. The answer is simple: I don’t like Henry V. I think it goes on for way too long and the actual character of Henry gets on my nerves exceedingly. I just don’t want to spend any more time with that play than I have to. There, I feel better now…

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