And now we continue on with the history plays. Batten down your hatches, folks; there’s civil unrest a-brewing.
Henry IV Part 1 takes place a year after Richard II. Henry is now king, but his position is tenuous; after deposing a king one proves that kingship is not a permanent occupation. Henry had wanted to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as penance for Richard II’s murder, but that isn’t possible with the turmoil in his kingdom at the borders of both Scotland and Wales. On top of all that, Henry keeps butting heads with the Percy family, which includes the Earl of Northumberland, his son Hotspur, and the Earl of Worcester.
If you’ll remember from Richard II, Northumberland helped Henry depose Richard. The Percy family doesn’t think the king has shown enough gratitude for their efforts in establishing him as king; they seem to expect Henry to grant them favors he doesn’t seem inclined to give. We see this when the play opens: Henry is angry that Hotspur is refusing to hand over the prisoners he captured at the Scottish border. Hotspur doesn’t want to turn over the prisoners until Henry ransoms Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, from the Welshman Owen Glendower.
(A bit of a complication here: Edmund Mortimer is the brother of Hotspur’s wife and was also Richard II’s chosen heir.)
Rather than agree to ransom Mortimer, Henry refuses, insults Mortimer’s loyalty to the crown, and is rude and threatening to the Percys. So basically, the Percy family is thinking, “Who does Henry think he is? He’s acting like he belongs on the throne and that we didn’t place him there. What’s more, we have the rightful heir on our side…” You can see how easily the plot thickens. The Percys hatch a plan to join with the Welsh and the Scots and play musical chairs once more with the throne.
Further complicating Henry’s trials is his son and heir Hal, the Prince of Wales. (Hal’s real name is Henry, as is Hotspur’s; there is an embarrassment of Henrys in this play so I’ll be referring only to King Henry IV by his given name.) Hal is acting the wastrel, frequenting taverns and engaging in vices with like-minded companions Poins, Bardolph, Peto, and Sir John Falstaff. As such, the nobles question Hal’s ability to rule and Henry is ashamed of him.
Hal and his friends decide to add highway robbery to their illustrative resumes, but Hal and Poins have an ulterior motive: they plan to leave Falstaff, Bardolph, and Peto to the actual robbery and will then double-back and rob the three in disguise, just for the lark of seeing how Falstaff makes excuses the next day. Sure enough, both the robbery and the prank work like a charm. Falstaff’s lies are so exaggerated that they’re hilarious and obviously lies. After a little bit of trouble (it would appear the authorities know exactly who robbed the pilgrims) Hal returns the money.
With Mortimer and the Percys revolting after combining forces with Glendower from Wales and the Douglas from Scotland, Henry summons Hal and berates him for his profligate behavior. Hal claims that he does know responsibility and the weight of his future office (and says much the same in a monologue earlier in the play) and vows to prove himself and kill Hotspur. Henry gives Hal a high command and Hal, in turn, orders Falstaff to gather a group of foot soldiers and join the battle at Shrewsbury.
At the battle, Henry offers clemency to Hotspur and the other rebels using Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, as a middleman. Worcester lies to Hotspur and makes no mention of the offered forgiveness (in fact, he says quite the opposite), which angers the hot-headed Hotspur. Even though Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, is too ill to join forces with his son and Glendower’s forces are still a ways off, Hotspur decides to engage the king’s forces. The battle begins.
At one point, Henry is beset by the Douglas (who has been attacking all the dupes dressed like the king). At the point where it looks like the Douglas will win the fight, Hal appears and saves his father and forces the Douglas to flee. Henry and Hal share a heartwarming, male-bonding moment (Battle! Blood! MANLY THINGS!) before separating.
After Henry leaves Hal encounters Hotspur. The two fight and Hal wins, killing Hotspur. Meanwhile, Falstaff decides that honor isn’t worth all this fighting and fakes his own death after a minor encounter with the Douglas. Hal sees Falstaff’s body and leaves the scene, saddened that his friend has died. Falstaff rises, sees Hotspur’s body, and decides to take credit for the rebel’s death; he stabs Hotspur’s corpse in the thigh and claims that Hotspur rose from his seeming death, just as Falstaff had, and the two fought before Falstaff overpowered Hotspur.
So, Henry wins this battle. The king orders the execution of Worcester and gives the Douglas’s fate to Hal. Hal decides to show mercy and releases the Douglas without ransom due to his valor. Of course, the war isn’t over; there’s still Northumberland, Mortimer, Glendower, and the Archbishop of York to deal with. And thus we have our set up for Henry IV Part 2.
Themes in this play include the nature of honor, which Shakespeare seems to conclude relies more on the character of a person rather than honor itself, whose definition changes with each person. Falstaff believes honor is just hot air while Hotspur believes honor lies in defending one’s good name and reputation and of victories in battle (all very chivalrous ideals). Henry believes his honor has been tainted by his usurpation of the crown, which we’ll see more of in Henry IV Part 2.
Hal, on the other hand, has an interesting relationship to honor. He seems willing to cast his honor aside to achieve his goals but also believes he’ll be able to reclaim his honor at a later time. As we see in Hal’s monologue in Act 1 Scene 2, Hal plans to lower everyone’s expectations of his character and ability to rule so he can then gain even more love and loyalty when he proves himself an able ruler when he assumes the crown. (Of course, this could just be him making excuses for his wastrel behavior.)
This play also continues the discourse started in Richard II on the legitimacy of kingship. Is Henry, who usurped the crown from Richard II, the rightful king? He’s an heir to the throne, of course, being Richard’s cousin through the line of kings, but that means that all of house York also has a claim to the throne (which comes to a head in Henry VI Part 3). If Henry isn’t the legitimate ruler, can just anyone claim the throne, as the Percy’s attempt?
Included in this theme is the question of what qualities make a good ruler. Here, we have a three-fold foil between Henry-Hal-Hotspur. Henry is unyielding, cunning, and distant. By contrast, Hal is cunning while also being very personable (he gets on well with people from various classes), but no one seems to know his true motivations. Hotspur has a short temper but is quick to make decisions and lead his men. Which is better? It’s an open-ended question, but my money is on Hal; then again, I always seem to root for cunning people who hold their cards close to their chests.
There are a lot of contrasts in this play: Hal vs Hotspur, the English Court vs the tavern vs. the rebel alliance, and Henry vs Falstaff as father figures towards Hal. Speaking briefly on Falstaff (there’s a wealth of information on this character; people love him), he’s the antithesis of Henry: he’s fat, corrupt, and has no interest in honor, but he’s also charismatic and personable as anything. He captivates people. Henry does not; Henry is a good ruler, very concerned with honor (specifically the state of his own, as mentioned above), and aloof. It’s fitting that we see these two men as foil father figures (alliteration ftw!) for Hal, especially since we can see characteristics from each embodied in the prince.
We’re deep in Shakespeare’s history plays, and will continue to be for the weeks to come until we finish with Richard III. But why did Shakespeare write so many plays following kings from so short a period of time (Richard II, who ruled in the later 14th century, to Richard III, who ruled in the later 15th century)? My friends, welcome to the War of the Roses.
The War of the Roses sounds like something out of Game of Thrones. (In fact, it quite possibly had an influence; George R. R. Martin used history as inspiration for some of his most famous scenes.) In fact, the War of the Roses was a series of civil wars in England that took place between about 1455-1487 where (mainly) the houses of Lancaster and York fought for the crown and named for the symbols of those houses: a white rose for the house of York and a red rose for the house of Lancaster.
Now, the War of the Roses doesn’t actually start until well into the Henry VI plays, but we can see everything from Richard II as a lead up to the conflicts to come. Shakespeare’s audience would have known the conflicts well; after all, it there was only a little over a century between the actual events and when Shakespeare wrote his plays. It’s a bit like the American Civil War today.
But keep in mind that these history plays are also colored by the politics of Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare lived under the reign of Elizabeth I, a monarch of the house of Tudor. As such, the first chunk of history plays (beginning with Henry VI) are heavily propagandized to show the dangers of civil war that culminates with Richard III. Richard III is depicted as a horrible, monstrous person and England was saved from his rule by Henry VII, first monarch of the house of Tudor.
See the propaganda? I love history.
But there are more layers! Beneath the Tudor propaganda is a discourse on the end of the Middle Ages with the rise of Machiavellian politics. Basically, the political structure of the medieval period was “pure” (the divine right of kingship and all) until opportunism caused its fall. It’s pure nostalgia, evoking the past and how it was “better” than the present in some way. This happens all the time; just listen to the rhetoric of the current American presidential race.
I’m not going to go into the Machiavellianism of characters in Shakespeare’s plays, though Shakespeare’s exploration of Machiavellian characters seems to be a rather key point in Shakespeare studies. I’m extremely interested to see how these characters evolve as we go further into Shakespeare’s later works. This is one of the beautiful things about reading these plays in (more or less) chronologically-written order.
For more information on Shakespeare’s history plays, go here. Next week we’ll look into Shakespeare’s historical sources.