Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “1 & 2 Henry IV”

1 & 2 Henry IV are the first plays in Matthew Franck’s “Shakespeare in a Year” reading plan by which I feel truly dwarfed. W.H. Auden said of it: “It is difficult to imagine that a historical play as good as Henry IV will ever again be written.”[1]

A brief synopsis, for the unfamiliar: in Part One, Henry IV reigns. Dogged with guilt after usurping Richard II, his atoning pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been delayed by clashes with Scotland and Wales. He is troubled too by his son, Prince Hal, who consorts in taverns with commoners and Sir John Falstaff–a gluttonous knight whose charisma and zest for life enthrall young Hal. Yet Hal plans to eventually reform his ways, believing his time among the commoners will be to his benefit as a ruler.

A rebellion breaks out over a dispute about hostages after war with Wales. Young Harry Percy (“Hotspur”), hungry for battle and honor, leads the rebellion, allying with the Welsh and the Scots. With conflict approaching, Hal reconciles with his father.

The rebellion comes to a head at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The King’s forces are victorious, and Hal kills Hotspur. Falstaff feigns death in the battle, claiming later to have slain Hotspur himself. Hal indulges this lie, and Falstaff pledges to change his ways. The King’s forces regroup, and set their minds to the remaining rebels, setting up Part Two.

In Part Two, Falstaff continues his lowlife shenanigans around Eastcheap, and is largely separate from Hal, who is at last growing into his role as Prince of Wales. In one scene, however, a disguised Hal hears Falstaff openly insult him, and is unconvinced of Falstaff’s attempt to recuse himself.

Meanwhile, Henry remains disappointed that Hal has not totally reformed himself, and another rebellion launches. Hal’s brother, John, sneakily ends the rebellion without any battles fought. Hal and Henry are fully reconciled, and the king dies. In the final scene, Falstaff, anticipating he will now be promoted and favored, presents himself to Hal. He is, however, rejected and Hal cuts him off and rounds up his various associates for arrest.

As soon as one approaches Henry IV, they are in the shadow of Falstaff–arguably Shakespeare’s greatest character, or at least his greatest comic character. That is curious in itself, since Henry IV is not a comedy (although Falstaff stars in the spin-off comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor). And yet, despite his comedic nature, Tolstoy controversially described Falstaff as “the only natural and typical character portrayed by Shakespeare.”[2]

My reflections here are largely a continuation of what I said about Richard II, and how Shakespeare explores the shifting nature of popular rule in a post-Reformation context.

The Politics of Prince Hal

Hal’s long-term plan throughout the play has invited much debate. When he slips into soliloquy at the end of 1 Henry IV, Act 1 Scene 2, after we’ve just first encountered him having a riotous time with Falstaff and co, he can seem coldly deceptive:

"I know you all, and will awhile uphold 
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men least think I will.
1 Henry IV, 1.2.193-215

His intention is, in one way or another, to make people appreciate him even more as a ruler by pulling off an unexpected “reformation” of his waywardness. This may strike us as dreadfully performative and insincere, particularly toward his lowborn friends, who feel Hal has truly made himself one of them. Indeed, Auden regards Hal quite dubiously:

“Prince Hal. Yes, he is the Machiavellian character, master of himself and the situation–except that in the last analysis Falstaff is right when he tells him “Thou art mad without seeming so” (1 Henry IV II.iv.540-541). Hal has no self…He can be a continuous success because he can understand any situation, he can control himself, and he has physical and mental charm. But he is cold as a fish.”[3]

I’m unsure, but this strikes me as too cynical. I prefer P.H. Davidson’s read:

“It is mistaken to read, or perform, this speech as if Hal were a Machiavellian schemer like Shakespeare’s Richard III. He is, as Hotspur is shown to be, young, inexperienced, but beginning to be aware of his responsibilities.”[4]

Something I do think Auden gets right is that Hal’s astute political sense–perceiving as he does the nature of popular rule–is essentially reflective of the new political thinking of the Reformation era:

“Henry thinks Hotspur is the son he’d wish to have, noble and respectable, but Hotspur has no political sense. As a father, Henry doesn’t appreciate the real political genius of Hal, and doesn’t, as Hal does, see the politics of the future, the politically new.”[5]

Henry IV explicitly continues Richard II’s exploration of the apparent tensions between the God-given authority of rulers and their need for popular consent, with the play’s events often referenced. Henry became king through an unstoppable wave of popular support–Hotspur called him “this king of smiles” (1 Henry IV, 1.3.243). And yet Henry insists that he did this by retaining an air of mystique and distance from the people:

“By being seldom seen I could not stir 
But like a comet I was wondered at,
That men would tell their children, ‘This is he!’
Others would say, ‘Where, which is Bolingbroke?’
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts”
1 Henry IV, 3.2.46-52.

Note the echoes here of Hal’s own speech, as Henry speaks of being “wondered at”.

And yet after this, Henry, the people’s king, berates Hal for being too visible to the people by swilling about in the taverns, oddly likening this to Richard’s love of being seeing about the land in his pomp:

“The skipping King [i.e. Richard], he ambled up and down, 
With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon bunny, carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools

And in that very line, Harry, standest thou,
For thou hast lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation.”
1 Henry IV, 3.2.60-64, 85-87

This is counterintuitive on one level. Shakespeare’s Richard was the epitome of the medieval, divine-right monarch, often portrayed as an ethereal, heavenly figure, very much distinct from the hoi polloi. Yet this splendour necessarily manifested in pageantry and show, and so, in Henry’s view, he squandered himself. Although Henry is enthroned by a wave of popular support, he gains and manipulates that support by rationing himself from the people.

There are competing ideas about “concealment” between Henry and Hal here. Both regard concealment as ultimately being for the people, but Henry thinks this should mean concealment from the people, and Hal thinks it means concealment among the people. Hal thinks this will make him more appreciated; Henry thinks it leads to a loss of gravitas.

There is more to Hal’s plans, however, than his eventual “big reveal” as a worthy monarch. Toward the end of 2 Henry IV, as Henry despairs over Hal’s direction, the Earl of Warwick pleads with the king to understand his son’s plan:

“My gracious lord, you look beyond him quite. 
The Prince but studies his companions
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,
‘Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which, once attained,
Your highness knows, comes to no further use,
But to be known and hated. So, like gross terms,
The Prince will, in the perfectness of time,
Cast of his followers, and their memory
Shall as a pattern or a measure live
By which his grace must mete the lives of other,
Turning past evils to advantages.”
2 Henry IV, 4.4.67-78

Harry’s consorting with the people, then, is also designed to help him learn their ways such that he may be a better ruler–even (and note this well) if that means learning to rightly hate certain things about them.

A question worth asking is who exactly Henry and Hal think the king should be concealed from, and whose appreciation they think they need. Henry evidently thinks the king should be concealed from the people in order to gain their appreciation, but it seems that Hal thinks the king should be concealed from the court in order to gain theirs. It is the courtly figures in both parts of the play who regularly comment on Hal’s absence and struggle to find him.

Henry, then, perhaps underappreciates the importance of the court. He may have gravitas with the people, but not among the men who make the decisions–perhaps because he once was on them, and maybe this is why his reign is so troubled with divisions and rebellions. Hal wishes to avoid this, and withdraws from the court so that his eventual return will grant the gravitas needed to keep his courtiers in line. Given the courtly machinations which removed Richard from the throne, including Richard’s own penchant for favourites, Hal understands the need to both cultivate the court’s respect for the king and to avoid becoming too embroiled in its politics.

Yet it’s not as simple as Henry rightly estimating the court and Hal rightly estimating the people. Although Henry is “the king of smiles”, and avoids Richard’s excessive showcasing, he does not comprehend the people as Hal does. Smiles are well and good to put a man on the throne, but will they keep him there? Hal perhaps perceives a new political reality, in which the king must truly understand his people in order to retain his throne. Indeed, in Henry V, it is this which allows him to spur his men to victory. At the siege of Harfleur, he declares there are “none of you so mean and base that hath not noble lustre in your eyes”; at Agincourt, after spending the night disguised among the men, he inspires them as his “band of brothers”.

Hal perceives that the old political order in which Henry came to the throne is passing away. This is seen in numerous ways throughout the play: Hotspur is a medieval, even Achillean throwback, driven by thumos and honour, who ultimately fails; Welsh Glendower is almost a wizard, representative of a fading Britain. The priority of the court over the people seems to also be one of the things of an older world fading into history. Hal, it seems, perceives this, and seeks out a way to manage both court and people–something perhaps more reflective of the shifting politics of Shakespeare’s day than Hal’s own.


  1. W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Kirsch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 101.

  2. Quoted in P.H. Davidson, “Introduction” in Henry IV Part One, New Penguin Shakespeare (London: Penguin, 1968), 31.

  3. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, 108.

  4. Davidson, “Introduction”, 20.

  5. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, 105.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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