The label history play is almost a misnomer when used to describe Shakespeare’s plays about the English kings, not only because he played fast and loose with the facts but also because the term conjures up in the popular mind the image of a historical documentary. In fact, these plays run the gamut of the human condition in all its sacred and profane, tragic and comic, beautiful and ugly aspects that characterize the comedies, tragedies, or romances. One critic even described Henry IV as “the broadest, the most varied, and in some ways the richest champaign in Shakespeare’s extensive empire.”
Although the title suggests that the central character might be Henry IV (the Bolingbroke of Richard II), and Falstaff has become one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, the play revolves around the fortunes of Hal, the Prince of Wales, the future Henry V. The main action of Henry IV, Part I charts Hal’s odyssey from profligate prince to chivalrous heir apparent in a Tudor version of the centuries-old theme of the prodigal son. Dover Wilson, a Shakespearean critic, has drawn an interesting parallel between Henry IV, Part I and an early 16th century morality interlude Youth. In the morality play Youth, the heir to his father’s land, first rejects spirituality in favor of a licentious lifestyle as he consorts with Riot (wantonness), Pride, and Lechery. In the end, of course, Youth embraces Charity and Humility, and all is well. Several clues in Shakespeare’s play suggest that the similarity of Falstaff to Riot and Hal to Youth was intentional. At the beginning of Henry IV, Part I Hal is described as a degenerate cohort of Falstaff and his friends, and, indeed, he appears more at home in the taverns and on the highways of London than at court. Even his father deplores his behavior, comparing him unfavorably with Hotspur and suggesting that he would not be unhappy if it could be proved that Hotspur were indeed his son and that the two boys were exchanged at birth. Thus, at the outset we find Hal stranded, as it were, between three worlds–Henry’s court, Falstaff’s taverns, and Hotspur’s feudal countryside. Everyone appears to have condemned him to Falstaff’s world, but if we follow the play closely we soon see that although he carouses with the merry-makers he remains apart from them in temperament. His soliloquy at the end of Act I, Scene 2 leaves no doubt that he is only biding his time before stepping up to claim his destiny:
So when this loose behavior 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, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
Even as he plays, his vision is fixed far ahead on the task he must undertake. During the first three acts he moves from the tavern to the court (even mobilizing Falstaff and company into an army of sorts), learning the value of responsibility from his father and earning the older man’s respect and affection, and by the end of the play he has even conquered Hotspur’s rebel world.
In some ways, Hal’s destiny lies between the positions of Falstaff and Hotspur, who stand at extreme ends of the same pole, for both are knights who corrupt the chivalric code in different ways—Falstaff in a comically pathetic manner, Hotspur in a tragic pursuit of misguided ambition. Hal emerges from the clash of these polarities to create a new ideal and a new world. He proves himself gracious and forgiving, honorable and just. Maynard Mack suggests that by the end of the play Hal “has practiced mercy as well as justice, politics as well as friendship, shown himself capable of mockery as well as reverence, detachment as well as commitment, and brought into a practicable balance court, field, and tavern.”
If King Lear is about the decaying of a king, and Richard II about the “unmaking” of a king, Henry IV, Part I is about the making of a king. In this world of the late twentieth century, where the character and private lives of kings, queens, and presidents are no longer considered unimpeachable and the debate rages as to what personality traits constitute a good ruler, this play raises some interesting questions. Are the indiscretions of youth merely that, or are they emblematic of some more profound flaw in one’s character? What, indeed, makes a ruler? Can the sins of the father be forgiven in the son? But over and above the philosophical questions it raises about kingship and governance, Henry IV, Part I is the dramatic unfolding of a personal journey that all of us must take–the evolution from youth to adulthood. This is what gives it universal significance and why it appeals to us long after the very concept of the monarchy has become an anachronism and it no longer matters who sits on the English throne.