Shakespeare’s magnificent history play, Henry IV, Part 1, comprises the second installment of the four-part “Henriad,” following Richard II and preceding Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V. It is known as the first play of its kind to introduce comedic technique into the recounting of historical events (rather, historical events as Shakespeare portrays them: whereas Richard II follows that monarch’s life story with fidelity, the other three installments of the tetralogy culminating in the brief reign of England’s much beloved Henry the Fifth, play fast and loose with time, facts, and figures with classic Shakespearean license).
Drawn from various sources and rooted in the tradition of the wayward young man who must overcome the temptations of Vice and Carnival in order to come into his own, this is the play that gives us Sir John Falstaff who, along with Hamlet, Rosalind, and Shylock, ranks among Shakespeare’s greatest creations. But it is also the play that launches a legendary and beloved Prince on his journey to leadership. Caught between the polar opposites of Falstaff and Henry Percy (Hotspur) who never waiver in their identities or central cores, Prince Hal must face his inevitable, inherited fate, redeem his tarnished reputation, and earn his father’s trust as he begins to navigate his way to the throne and establish his own identity as the people’s King.
As with most of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV, Part 1 resonates across time with startling immediacy and relevance. It’s a play about honor; it’s a play about younger men being sent into battle by a calculating and petty generation of political and familial elders; it’s a play about fathers and sons; it’s a play about lost sons finding their way in a treacherous world; it’s a play about personal and political rebellion; it’s a play about coming of age; it’s a play about the cost of war; it’s a play about play-acting; it’s a play about redemption and reconciliation.
The Folger Shakespeare Library has had a significant role in my life as a student, teacher, and director of Shakespeare’s plays. It is humbling and exciting to make my Washington, DC directing debut here at this particular time in our own country’s evolving history with this rich, complex, challenging, moving, and fun assignment.
Paul Mason Barnes,