Henry IV, Part I ★★★★☆

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Title: Henry IV, Part I
Author: William Shakespeare
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Genre: Play
Pages: 89
Words: 25K


From Wikipedia

Henry Bolingbroke—now King Henry IV—is having an unquiet reign. His personal disquiet at the usurpation of his predecessor Richard II would be solved by a crusade to the Holy Land, but trouble on his borders with Scotland and Wales make leaving unwise. Moreover, he is increasingly at odds with the Percy family, who helped him to his throne, and Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, Richard II’s chosen heir.

Adding to King Henry’s troubles is the behaviour of his son and heir, the Prince of Wales. Hal (the future Henry V) has forsaken the Royal Court to waste his time in taverns with low companions. This makes him an object of scorn to the nobles and calls into question his royal worthiness. Hal’s chief friend and foil in living the low life is Sir John Falstaff. Fat, old, drunk, and corrupt as he is, he has a charisma and a zest for life that captivates the Prince.

The play features three groups of characters that interact slightly at first, and then come together in the Battle of Shrewsbury, where the success of the rebellion will be decided. First there is King Henry himself and his immediate council. He is the engine of the play, but usually in the background. Next there is the group of rebels, energetically embodied in Henry Percy (“Hotspur”) and including his father, the Earl of Northumberland and led by his uncle Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester. The Scottish Earl of Douglas, Edmund Mortimer and the Welshman Owen Glendower also join. Finally, at the centre of the play are the young Prince Hal and his companions Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph, and Peto. Streetwise and pound-foolish, these rogues manage to paint over this grim history in the colours of comedy.

As the play opens, the king is angry with Hotspur for refusing him most of the prisoners taken in a recent action against the Scots at Holmedon. Hotspur, for his part, would have the king ransom Edmund Mortimer (his wife’s brother) from Owen Glendower, the Welshman who holds him. Henry refuses, berates Mortimer’s loyalty, and treats the Percys with threats and rudeness. Stung and alarmed by Henry’s dangerous and peremptory way with them, they proceed to make common cause with the Welsh and Scots, intending to depose “this ingrate and cankered Bolingbroke.”[3] By Act II, rebellion is brewing.

Meanwhile, Henry’s son Hal is joking, drinking, and thieving with Falstaff and his associates. He likes Falstaff but makes no pretense at being like him. He enjoys insulting his dissolute friend and makes sport of him by joining in Poins’ plot to disguise themselves and rob and terrify Falstaff and three friends of loot they have stolen in a highway robbery, purely for the fun of hearing Falstaff lie about it later, after which Hal returns the stolen money. Rather early in the play, in fact, Hal informs us that his riotous time will soon come to a close, and he will re-assume his rightful high place in affairs by showing himself worthy to his father and others through some (unspecified) noble exploits. Hal believes that this sudden change of manner will amount to a greater reward and acknowledgment of prince-ship, and in turn earn him respect from the members of the court.

The revolt of Mortimer and the Percys very quickly gives him his chance to do just that. The high and the low come together when the Prince makes up with his father and is given a high command. He vows to fight and kill the rebel Hotspur, and orders Falstaff (who is, after all, a knight) to take charge of a group of foot soldiers and proceed to the battle site at Shrewsbury.

The battle is crucial because if the rebels even achieve a standoff their cause gains greatly, as they have other powers awaiting under Northumberland, Glendower, Mortimer, and the Archbishop of York. Henry needs a decisive victory here. He outnumbers the rebels,[4] but Hotspur, with the wild hope of despair, leads his troops into battle. The day wears on, the issue still in doubt, the king harried by the wild Scot Douglas, when Prince Hal and Hotspur, the two Harrys that cannot share one land, meet. Finally they will fight – for glory, for their lives, and for the kingdom. No longer a tavern brawler but a warrior, the future king prevails, ultimately killing Hotspur in single combat.

On the way to this climax, we are treated to Falstaff, who has “misused the King’s press damnably”,[5] not only by taking money from able-bodied men who wished to evade service but by keeping the wages of the poor souls he brought instead who were killed in battle (“food for powder, food for powder”).[6] Left on his own during Hal’s battle with Hotspur, Falstaff dishonourably counterfeits death to avoid attack by Douglas. After Hal leaves Hotspur’s body on the field, Falstaff revives in a mock miracle. Seeing he is alone, he stabs Hotspur’s corpse in the thigh and claims credit for the kill.[7] Though Hal knows better, he allows Falstaff his disreputable tricks. Soon after being given grace by Hal, Falstaff states that he wants to amend his life and begin “to live cleanly as a nobleman should do”.[8]

The play ends at Shrewsbury, after the battle. The death of Hotspur has taken the heart out of the rebels,[9] and the king’s forces prevail. Henry is pleased with the outcome, not least because it gives him a chance to execute Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, one of his chief enemies (though previously one of his greatest friends). Meanwhile, Hal shows off his kingly mercy in praise of valour; having taken the valiant Douglas prisoner, Hal orders his enemy released without ransom.[10] But the war goes on; now the king’s forces must deal with the Archbishop of York, who has joined with Northumberland, and with the forces of Mortimer and Glendower. This unsettled ending sets the stage for Henry IV, Part 2.

My Thoughts:

This really should have been entitled “Henry V, the Early Years”. While Henry IV is the titular character, he seems to do little besides provide a reason for more kingdom drama. Everyone is going off to war at a moments notice on what seems pretty much like a whim. During all of this, young Prince Harry (by the by, WHY does the name Henry spawn the nickname Harry? It’s not even shorter for goodness sake) is carousing it up and being a blot upon his father’s name. He is unfavorably compared to the other Harry, the one leading the rebellion against the King.

In the final battle Harry shows his royal colors and mans it up perfectly. He seems to have set his rascally youthful ways behind him and to take his responsibilities seriously. Of course, all his old low friends are sure they are going to be sitting pretty once Harry becomes King, so they do what they want. Oh ye evil men, Judgement is coming!

Once again, I am loving these history plays. I was actually looking forward to reading this when Shakespeare rolled around in my reading rotation. What a change from earlier plays where that word “Shakespeare” brought dread and dismal despair to my heart. In fact, I seriously thought about just reading Part II of Henry IV but thankfully calmer and wiser heads prevailed (ie, my rational self instead of my emotional self).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

42 thoughts on “Henry IV, Part I ★★★★☆

  1. Nope. Shakespeare gets it wrong again. After Twilight and Hunger Games, I thought the trend for splitting stories into Part 1 and Part 2 was over, but here comes Old Bill, trying to make a fast buck from the audience again. They don’t split up the Police Academy movies, do they? No. And that’s why they’re better than Shakespeare…

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t think Shakespeare forgot the final harry potter movies as he probably just ignored them.

          But yes, the Bard is definitely going for the commercial angle here. He built that two-bit theater after all, probably still owes money on it.


            1. Be honest though, how could anybody write a series as good as Twilight? Billyboy is just some english yokel writing one off plays. Meyers is a femme fatale with MOVIES under her belt now. I don’t think it’s at all fair to compare the two.

              Liked by 1 person

                  1. Every school kid should be able to work out if they’re Team Edward or Jacob by the time they’re six. It’s not much to ask in a Twilight worshipping society. Bin all this Shakespeare rubbish, where are the werewolves in his books, hmm?

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. Say it again! Come on everybody, say it with me:
                      Where are the werewolves in Willy Shakez plays?

                      That message needs to be shouted from the mountaintops! We need to march on Washington DC, New York City, Melbourne, London, Podunk and let our voice be heard!

                      So ruck up those socks and get marching….

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. William Wallace is very ashamed of you. He’s mooning you right now in fact.

                      It wouldn’t surprise me if some author had done something like that to one of Shakespeare’s plays. If they can do it to Austen, Dostoyevski, Verne and others, then Shakez is fair game.

                      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a big fan of ‘Henry V’, having read it and watching several productions. ‘Henry IV’ I-II I have not read but am familiar with from watching the Orson Welles movie ‘Chimes at Midnight’, in which he portrays Falstaff.

    ‘Henry V’ the BBC radio play was my favorite performance.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I did not carer for the Branagh movie too much. I prefer the Lawrence Olivier version of ‘Henry V’ better, but neither is as good as the BBC radio production, in my opinion.

        ‘Chimes at Midnight’ is Orson Welles production of Henry IV I and II. Welles is Falstaff and Sir John Guilgud is Henry IV.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I believe that the title is a line from one of the plays. The film primarily draws upon material from Henry IV I-II, but also draws upon other plays, so giving it a direct play title might be misleading.

            Orson is known for playing fast and loose with the Bards material. I luv his version of The Scottish Play, where he plays Big Daddy McB, even though he does rearrange a bit of dialogue. He is also famous for producing an all black cast version of the play set in Haiti.

            I dig Orson so I cut him some slack.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Still looking forward to seeing The King sometime. Chimes at Midnight is brilliant. Liked both the Olivier and Branagh Henry Vs. The Hollow Crown Henry V with Tom Hiddleston is no good, but the versions of Henry IV in that series are excellent.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s all down to medieval people who used to like messing about with names, and doing rhyming stuff and the like, Richard = Dick, Robert = Bob, Edward = Ted, William = Bill. Cos even back in medieval times we were bonkers.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have the BBC 1960s 15-part mini-series Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings based on Richard II, Henry IV (1 & 2), Henry V, Henry VI (1-3), and Richard III. Sean Connery plays Hotspur, Robert Hardy (who plays Fudge in Harry Potter) plays Prince Hal/Henry V, and Julian Glover (Star Wars and Indiana Jones) plays Westmoreland in Henry IV & Henry V along with smaller parts until he plays Edward IV in the Henry VI & Richard III sections before playing Oxford at Bosworth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is the thing that I can never got over about the Beeb, they’re always switching people around and expect the audience to just accept it. It was like when I tried to watch the Brother Cadfael show. The sherriff guy was always being played by someone different and keeping who he was straight was too much for me 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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