Kind Henry IV, Part One
From the outset of the play, Shakespeare immediately establishes the desperation of King Henry V’s situation. England is in the midst of a civil war that has erupted as a direct result of the King’s usurpation of Richard II. The King’s power is being challenged by Edmund Mortimer, who it is later revealed is apparently the rightful heir to the throne. Mortimer is backed by the warlords Glendower and Douglas. At present, Douglas’ campaign is challenged by the Percy family (the rebels including Hotspur), but that is to change shortly. In the face of this crisis, the King contemplates organising another crusade to unite England and distract the population from his illegitimate claim to the throne; the idea is that the massive success of such a campaign would legitimise his power to the world.
But the King concedes that he must prioritise things and resolve the situation at home before he can even begin to seriously consider something like a crusade. Towards the top of his list of concerns is the behaviour of his son, Hal, who he sees as a failure in comparison to the young and promising Hotspur. Though Hotspur is an enemy, the King fantasises that Hal and Hotspur were swapped at birth, so that his lineage would not be at risk of failing due to incompetence and immaturity.
Scene Two takes place at the Boar’s-Head Tavern in Eastcheap. Here, we are introduced to Sir John Falstaff, the man who is apparently responsible for leading Hal astray. At the tavern, Hal joins with Poins and Bardolf in plotting to trick Falstaff into participating in a robbery, only for it to end with him being exposed for his cowardice. It is here that Hal reveals his true intentions, and foreshadows his character’s destiny, in the play’s key speech: he states that when he feels as though the time is right, he will reform himself and mature, and that such a process will be more impressive to others than if he had been dutiful all along.
Elsewhere, Hotspur refuses to return the prisoners to King Henry, and goes on a rant against the flamboyant and effeminate appearance of the messenger that was sent to inform him that the King wished to speak to him. Eager to see war and attain glory for himself, Hotspur urges other members of his family to support Mortimer’s claim to the throne, with Worcester (Hotspur’s uncle) leading the rebellion.
The robbery goes according to plan, and Hal and Poins rob the robbers. Hotspur’s wife, Lady Percy, demands her husband to reveal what is troubling him – he has been restless, lately, and while the horrors of war never previously weighed on his mind, it seems recently that they are beginning to; he is agitated, distant, and struggles to sleep – but Hotspur is evasive. Obviously embarrassed and humiliated by the prank played on him, Falstaff claims he knew the robbers were Hal and Poins all along.
Falstaff then reveals some troubling news: he has heard of the coming rebellion, and suggests to Hal that the pair roleplay as the King and his son to prepare Hal to face the King. Initially, Falstaff plays the King and Hal plays himself, but eventually Hal tires of this and demands that he play the role of his father. Playing Hal, Falstaff begs the King not to banish Falstaff. But playing the King, Hal says that Falstaff will indeed be banished.
Disagreement and tension erupt amongst the rebels as their excitement over the prospect of success against the King mixes with their uncertainty and doubt as to whether the rebellion is a good idea at all. Glendower especially gets on the nerves of Hotspur; while the former speaks in the language of poetry and mysticism, claiming to be able to identify omens from the natural world, the latter is far more conservative and is infuriated by what is to him absolute nonsense. Worcester demands Hotspur restrain himself. The men’s wives arrive and sing in Welsh, but Lady Percy refuses to join in. It is important to take note of the muted tension evident in this scene; it plays out very much as the moment of calm before the storm.
Hal promises his father that he will defeat Hotspur when the moment arrives for him to do so, and that this will mark the successful completion of his transformation into the prince that everyone hopes he will be. This greatly encourages the King, and he declares that Hal will one day be the commander of an army.
Hotpsur and Douglas exchange praises with one another, but their conversation is interrupted by news that Northumberland is unwell. At the same time, Henry and his forces have been spotted approaching the rebels, information that is provided by Vernon. Vernon then goes on to give an almost fantastical description of Hal in his armour – evidence that his plot to “imitate the sun” is now working on more than just his father – but this does not sway the rebel men.
More trouble arises when it is revealed that Glendower’s army is not ready for battle. But it seems as though nothing can dampen Hotspur’s spirits, who remains as keen for battle as ever.
Falstaff speaks a soliloquy in which he reflects on his less-than-honourable recruitment process, which he now realises has left him with an army seemingly compromised of everything and anyone except proper soldiers. He is confronted about this by Hal and Westmoreland, to which he points out the fact that his men can die as well as any others – a sharp indictment of the futility of war.
Blunt arrives at the rebel camp with a peace offering from the King. Hotspur reads out a list of the rebels’ demands, the last one being that the King’s claim to the throne be investigated properly. Blunt begs Hotspur to accept peace, and Hostpur reluctantly sends Worcester to find out more about the terms on which peace is being offered. Here, we see the central point of tension between the King and Hotspur come into clear focus: while the King is primarily a political actor, Hotspur is warrior-minded.
The King and Hal see omens in the sky and the wind. Worcester arrives and explains the reasons for the rebels’ rejection of Henry’s claim to the throne. Essentially, while Worcester’s family originally supported Henry’s usurpation of Richard II, the plan was always that Mortimer would rise to the throne, and not Henry.
Hal expresses praise for Hotspur, and raises the idea that the two fight one-on-one as representatives of each other’s sides to reduce casualties. The King quickly rejects this idea. Henry offers to pardon the rebels if they surrender. Worcester leaves, and Hal predicts that given how eager rebels like Hotspur are for battle, the peace offer will be rejected. Falstaff gives another soliloquy in which he rejects the notion of honour.
Back at the rebels’ camp, Worcester decides against revealing the King’s peace offering to Hotspur, because he fears the King will not honour it, and that it would be creating an unnecessary risk for older rebels such as himself. Hotspur assembles his troops, and the battle begins.
Douglas kills Blunt, who is disguised as the King. Hal is wounded but continues to fight, and in an act of heroism, defends his father from Douglas, who then runs off and appears to kill Falstaff.
In the chaos of battle, Hal and Hotspur finally meet. Hal kills Hotspur and honours him as he dies with the line “Fare thee well, great heart.” Hal then sees Falstaff, who appears dead, but sits up and stabs Hotspur’s corpse, and then claims to have killed him himself. Hal agrees to go along with this deceit.
The battle ends in victory for the King. Worcester and Vernon are sentenced to death, but Hal intervenes to have Douglas spared. With a view to the future and inspired by this victory, the King splits his army into two: one part will go North to crush the rebels there, while the other, which will be led by the King and his son, will travel to Wales to do the same thing there. Those conflicts are the subject of King Henry IV, Part 2. Although the ending is something of a cliff-hanger, the fact that the plot has been guided towards this point by war and not politics is reflective of Shakespeare’s understanding of the practical effectiveness of war as a means of achieving political change.
For ease of understanding, the most significant contextual concerns have been identified below individually. However, it is important to note that these factors did not operate individually at all; rather, they were shaped by each other, which is how they are represented in the play.
War of the Roses and the succession crisis
In the latter half of the 15th century, between 1455 and 1487, England went to war with itself over who would sit on the throne: the Lancasters or the Yorks. The series of civil wars actually resulted in the elimination of the male lines of both families, ensuring that no resolution would ever fully satisfy either the families involved or the English population in general. By 1597, the time at which King Henry was composed, the resentment that had emerged more than one hundred years before had only dissipated slightly; much disagreement remained around the question of who the rightful monarch was. Given that there was only a century between the War of the Roses and the first production of King Henry, the trauma of war was moreover still very much a sensitive issue for the English populace, and thus one that the monarch and English leadership were very much aware of. That the monarch of the day, Queen Elizabeth, had no heir apparent, and was advancing in age, ensured that it would be impossible to assuage fears of another civil war. In fact, that looming succession crisis did the opposite: it renewed and aggravated fears that war was on the horizon.
The Renaissance and Christian Humanism
The Renaissance was a time of rediscovery of Classical art and literature, which in turn prompted a reflection on the way in which individuals understood themselves as living beings capable of independent thought and action. In their art and writings, the ancient Greeks and Romans emphasised the beauty and power of the human form. Those teachings were lost however with the spread of Christianity and the collapse of the ancient civilisations. So, with the rediscovery of Classical art and literature during the Renaissance, Europeans were exposed to perspectives on the human mind and body that had essentially been hidden from them for generations. What they saw in the sculptures of Roman gods and writings of Greek philosophers went completely against everything they had been taught by Christianity. Crucially, the idea of an individual existence, independent of any ideology or pre-destination, became popularised, as people sought to understand what it truly meant to be human, rather than simply a subject of God.
Most significantly, the Renaissance led to the emergence of Humanism, and then Christian Humanism. Prior to the Renaissance, Christianity had been extremely effective in indoctrinating European populations to adopt a strict and uncompromising adherence and loyalty to the teachings of the Church. What this looked like in daily life was that almost every decision was either made for you by your local priest, or if they weren’t available, by referencing the Bible. The effect of this was that it severely narrowed the scope for independent thought and action. But when the classical texts and art forms were rediscovered, people began to question why their capacity for thought and action had been so suppressed. Accordingly, a school of thought emerged that emphasised the power and beauty of the human form, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans had. This was Humanism. At its core, Humanism espoused the idea that individual humans should think and act for themselves, and that the ultimate source of guidance should come from within, and not from external objects such as the Bible. However, given the power of Christianity in Europe during this time, Humanism was quickly modified to co-exist with Christian teachings, as proponents remained loyal to the idea that humans possess all the requisite tools to think and act for themselves, but should not lose sight of their Christian values.
For convenience, the major themes of the play have been addressed individually below, but do remember that there is a significant degree of overlap between them all.
Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, King Henry exposes the brutal political games that were at the heart of many of the conflicts of the Renaissance period. Shakespeare’s depiction of his eponymous character’s desperate struggle to cling to power in the face of resistance from the formidable Hotspur against a backdrop of broader social disillusionment gives a unique insight into the nature of political bargaining and the capital placed on effective leadership at a time when England, and indeed Europe as a whole, was grappling with what felt like a cyclical process of unrest, rebellion and oppression. Ultimately, the view of politics posited by Shakespeare is that it truly is a zero-sum game; for one to win, another must lose.
In a similar vein to his exploration of politics, Shakespeare also scrutinises war as both a uniting and divisive force. It is crucial to remember that the play was written roughly two-hundred years after the War of the Roses, and so the trauma and massive human cost of that conflict would have been fresh on the minds of his contemporary audience. Even more immediately, Shakespeare’s audience were aware that a succession crisis was looming, which had the effect of making the themes of his play all the more relevant and urgent. Accordingly, war is represented throughout the play in two distinct ways that conflict with each other: while the King and his allies view it almost as a necessary evil – one that will secure their power – Hotspur and the rebels see it as a glorious affair. It is made clear by the play’s ending that Shakespeare leans more towards viewing war as a practical tool that is wielded most effectively by those who can separate it from any emotion or sentimentality.
Arguably at the core of Shakespeare’s text is an exploration of honour. With regard to context, honour for a person living during the Renaissance would have comprised of three different values or factors: loyalty, religiosity, and sacrifice. Of course, a degree of flexibility was afforded to those who proclaimed to espouse such values, and there is something to be said about the malleability of not only those underpinning concepts but also of honour itself. And that is central to Shakespeare’s inquiry into honour: where does honour originate from, and to what extent is acting honourably sufficient to make oneself honourable?
Tied to Shakespeare’s exploration of honour is his consideration of leadership. It is clear from the outset of his text that Shakespeare is seeking to position two potential leaders, who demonstrate wildly different conceptions of leadership, against one another in order to affirm which style is more effective. Given that it is the King’s forces who are successful at the play’s end following his declaration in Act One that he must henceforth rule with terror, and that Hotspur’s devotion to the idea that leadership derives from honour is proven false, but also that it is ultimately Hal who emerges as the sort of honourable protagonist, Shakespeare is in essence putting forth an uncompromisingly realistic view of the nature of leadership – it is convoluted, and the actions taken to achieve and maintain it often betray the honourable image presented by the individual who leads.
Given the context in which it was written, the play deals extensively with the concept of morality, although that investigation is not put into such direct terms as that of leadership and honour. Indeed, it is morality that forms the basis of all other concerns Shakespeare engages with. As aforementioned, that discussion is a reflection of social, cultural and political developments that occurred during the time in which Shakespeare was writing. Most significantly, the idea of Christian Humanism, a product of the Renaissance, is explored through the various characters’ attempts to grapple with competing notions of good and evil, as well as the very notion of self-reliance. That is, turning to oneself for guidance, with a view towards maintaining Christian values.
Appearance vs reality
As with all Shakespearean plays, the plot is centred around the tension between appearance and reality. The King himself embodies this conflict best: he appears as King, but in reality, his claim to the throne is illegitimate, and so he desperately works to resolve that gulf, leading to various intended and unintended consequences. In fact, all characters represent these twin ideas, and a good lens with which to look at the play is how they navigate the space between the two as the plot develops.
Order and chaos; dissent and rebellion
Another direct product of his contemporary context, Shakespeare’s treatment of order and chaos lends itself to a clearly conservative view of rebellion and the threat it poses to order. From the outset of the play, rebellion is characterised as an existential threat to England. Though an advocate of the idea of the Divine Right of Kings and the Great Chain of Being, we see that in King Henry, Shakespeare ostensibly encourages acceptance of the current regime, with a view to avoiding another conflict such as the War of the Roses.