Henry IV, Part 1 (~1597) by William Shakespeare

The appeal of Shakespeare’s histories, often the grouping of his plays neglected in favour of the comedies and tragedies, seems clear to me now having read “Henry IV, Part 1”. While I’ve read and loved “Richard III” in isolation, enjoyed well enough the fairly standalone “King John” and the apocryphal “Edward III”, and found the first play in the Henriad cycle, “Richard II”, excellent, it’s the nature of “Henry IV, Part 1” as a sequel, building off characters, relationships, and story elements set up in “Richard II” that so impresses me. It’s proper longform storytelling, and the fact there are six more plays in this sequence of English histories excites me, because that’s such a large canvas for Shakespeare to have wrote on. Like one of the vaunted advantaged of television over cinema, these history plays offer so much more time to develop themes, characters, and story than a standalone work does. Of course that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better, not at all, but it’s exciting to experience something so different to the usual standalone Shakespeare experience.

As for the play itself, it lacks the cohesiveness and unity of form that the preceding “Richard II” had, but that’s to be expected as it has “part 1” in the title, signifying it is in some way incomplete, not a standalone work. Still, it’s far from being incohesive, although the pacing is at times awkward, and it definitely lags at times. Every plot thread converges at the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury.

Henry IV (formerly Bolingbroke in “Richard II”) struggles with the dishonour of how he illegally deposed Richard II. Richard II told Northumberland, one of the lords most vital to Henry IV succeeding in his rebellion, that he thought eventually Northumberland would turn on Bolingbroke as well, getting to the heart of one of the central ideas of that play, the shattering of the idea of legitimate, unquestioned monarchy, replaced with fickle rebellions as the split between the divine image of monarchy and the ugly realities of power, ambition, and violence widened. What Richard II called “the hollow crown” becomes more and more hollow. Henry IV grapples with this in the play, as what Richard II foresaw indeed comes to pass, and Northumberland, his hot-headed son Hotspur, and a league of other lords rebel against Henry IV’s crown. This is one of the main story threads of the play, and what passes for legitimate right to rule is one of the main themes underpinning it.

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The other main story thread concerns Henry IV’s son, “Hal”, “Harry”, the man who would become Henry V. Any image of divinity and prestige that Richard II and even Henry IV had is not shared by Hal, who cavorts in taverns with brigands and all manner of baser folk. He’s a jolly soul, and many of his hijinks play to Shakespeare’s comedic strengths (to the point that his main partner in crime, Falstaff, ends up in a comedy spin-off of Shakespeare’s, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”).

The division between high and low is one of the main themes explored in the play, with Hal as the fulcrum point. The rebels seethe under feeling low under Henry IV, Henry IV struggles with the “low” way he took the throne, the baser folk like Falstaff and his crew seem to exist a world apart from the nobles in many way, but Hal manages to glide and thrive between both high and low worlds with comparative ease. Hal seems to take people on their own terms, instead of prejudging them based on endless factors of class, wealth, and so on.

The play acts as a coming-of-age tale for Hal, as he ends up overcoming his father’s disappointment in him, and taking steps to become the heroic leader that could eventually become a storied king in his own right.

While it’s clearly not a complete standalone work in its own right, “Henry IV, Part 1” is a strong story with compelling characters, building smartly off issues set up in “Richard II”. I give it four boar’s heads, and a stab in the leg.

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