Henry IV: Part 1, by William Shakespeare
I must admit that as a reader of Shakespeare’s plays that I find a great deal less enjoyment out of his historical plays than I do out of most of his other plays. Part of that is because the plays by necessity only include parts of the reigns of the rulers in question, and many of those from biased perspectives. Part of it is because the needs of the stage and the inevitable questions of adaptational attractiveness make certain characters more appealing for the wrong reasons. The fact that these historical plays are still worthy of reading and thinking about despite their failures as historical sources and the bias and problematic nature of the historical sources of the plays suggests something of the power of literature in taking disreputable source materials and turning it into something that is psychologically if not historically true. And that psychological truth is something that this play in particular tangles with to a great extent. If I am less sanguine about Falstaff than someone like Bloom is, it is likely because he finds a great deal more inspiration in the gratification of sensual lust than I do, but for all readers, this play offers at least some things worth examining.
Like all of the plays from this RSC Shakespeare series that I have been reading and reviewing, this play has the same sort of structure. We begin with an introduction that examines various questions of importance such as the nature of identity and genre, the connection between the Prince’s behavior and Machiavelli, and themes of reformation and rejection. After this there are some notes about the text and key facts before the five-act drama itself takes up a bit more than 100 pages. After the text, which itself ends with the aftermath of the Battle of Shrewsbury in which the rebels under Hotspur were defeated and dispersed, there are some textual notes, a lot of oaths that were removed from the folio, and a scene-by-scene analysis. There is a brief synopsis of part 2 as well as a discussion of how Henry IV has been performed in the RSC and beyond along with the series’ usually components looking at Shakespeare’s theater career, a chronology of his works, and a list of kings and queens of England from the history plays to Shakespeare’s own lifetime. The end result is a book that comes in at just over 200 pages of material.
In many ways, this play is an interesting one. We see an implicit contrast between Harry the heir of the throne of England and Harry Hotspur, the dashing if somewhat quixotic rebel against Lancastrian rule. We see the playacting that Harry undertakes in order to satisfy his desire to know and spend time with the commoners even as he knows he is going to inherit the throne and will have to put those childish interests behind him one of these days. We see Henry IV be a relative nonentity even in his own play–what did Shakespeare mean by this? Having obtained the throne seemingly did not improve Henry IV’s life at all and only made him subject over and over again to problems of guilt and repercussions of rebellion by more legitimate rulers who were above Henry on the Plantagenet succession. Shakespeare seems to be creating a complex play here, one that is both entertaining enough to appeal to the masses as thoughtful enough, as always, to fascinate readers with deep concerns about the legitimacy of authority and the way that having power sometimes makes life less pleasant rather than more pleasant, something that surely resonates with our own time.