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Henry IV, Part 1 /

A Modern Perspective: Henry IV, Part 1

By Alexander Leggatt

Henry IV, Part 1 both tells a story and examines a society. The story appears to develop along clear lines to a decisive conclusion. A party of rebels challenges King Henry; his forces defeat them in a single battle at Shrewsbury. Central to this battle is a combat between the rebel leader Hotspur and the king’s son Prince Hal, who emerges from the taverns of Eastcheap, where he has apparently been wasting his time, to prove his true worth by killing Hotspur. Various themes come together at the climax, of which the most important is promise-keeping. Sir Walter Blunt warns the king that the rebels are a “mighty and a fearful head . . . / If promises be kept on every hand” (3.2.172–73). Promises, however, are not kept: a number of rebel leaders fail to show up, and the rebel party goes into battle at considerably less than its full strength. Hal, on the other hand, “the Prince of Wales . . . / Who never promiseth but he means to pay” (5.4.42–43), promises his father to redeem his reputation by killing Hotspur, and he does. Seen this way, Henry IV, Part 1 sounds like a tidy play, a structured action building to a carefully prepared conclusion.

The actual effect is rather different. One large complication is of course Falstaff, the great comic character who dominates the tavern scenes. Falstaff appears at first to fit into the neat story pattern I have been describing: he is the living symbol of what Hal rejects when he leaves the taverns to prove himself in battle. At Shrewsbury there is a telling stage picture as Hal stands over the bodies of Hotspur and Falstaff, pays a carefully measured tribute to each, and then leaves them lying there, going off to start his new life having dispatched his great enemy and seen the last of Eastcheap. Then Falstaff pops up from the ground; he was not dead at all. It is a moment that generally gets a startled and explosive laugh from the audience; it draws on a tradition of comic resurrections in mummers’ plays, an old form of rough popular drama current in England long before Shakespeare; and it tells us that Falstaff, and what he represents, cannot be disposed of so easily. When the play was first published in the quarto of 1598, it was simply The History of Henry IV, with no reference to its being the first part of a two-part play. But the title page, while advertising the battle of Shrewsbury, also advertised “the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff,” and it is Falstaff and his world, restricted to equal time with the public action through most of Part 1, who break out in a dramatic version of urban sprawl in the sequel, Henry IV, Part 2.

The local effect of some of the political scenes also works against the general impression of neatness: they twist and turn. The opening scene seems designed to get the audience leaning forward, straining to follow. Henry announces in elaborate and somewhat convoluted language the ending of civil strife in England and the launching of a crusade to the Holy Land. Then we learn that the crusade will not happen yet (it never does happen) and that civil strife is still going on (as Henry evidently knew even while he delivered his speech). On the king’s behalf, Mortimer is fighting Glendower, and Hotspur is fighting Douglas. But Hotspur is starting to turn against the king, and before long all these former antagonists will be united in a single rebel front—which will then fall apart. Act 1, Scene 3 takes up Hotspur’s refusal to hand over his prisoners to the king. Northumberland claims the prisoners “Were . . . not with such strength denied / As is delivered to your Majesty” (26–27), the implication being that they were denied. Hotspur declares flatly, “My liege, I did deny no prisoners” (30), then launches into a vivid and witty set-piece describing the fop who acted as the king’s messenger. As the speech develops into a long digression we begin to suspect a cover-up, and our suspicions are confirmed by Hotspur’s evasive conclusion that he “Answered neglectingly I know not what— / He should, or he should not” (53–54). In the end Worcester tells Hotspur to free his prisoners. The conflict is taking a more dangerous turn: the real issues have become the king’s ingratitude to the Percys, their fear and mistrust of him, and their decision to support Mortimer’s claim to the crown. We are also alerted to the fact that the pattern of king versus rebels is not so simple as it looks: Henry was himself a rebel not long ago, taking the crown from Richard II.

The play is full of unreliable narratives: Hotspur’s story of the fop, the king’s prophecy of the crusade, the Percys’ account of themselves as innocent dupes who somehow found themselves supporting Henry’s deposition of Richard. Falstaff’s tale of the rogues in buckram takes its place among these narratives—except that it is so flagrantly, amusingly dishonest it has a curious kind of integrity. He virtually demands to be challenged by building contradictions into his story: for example, having described what his assailants were wearing, he concludes, “it was so dark, Hal, that thou couldst not see thy hand” (2.4.232–33). When Hal confronts him with the plain facts Falstaff brazens it out with a new and more outrageous lie: “I knew you as well as he that made you” (2.4.278–79). The comic disputes between Falstaff and Hal are partly based on Hal’s attempts to confront Falstaff’s flow of invention with his own insistence on the facts. Similar disputes occur elsewhere in the play: Hotspur has something like Falstaff’s inventiveness, though not Falstaff’s control, and Worcester complains, “He apprehends a world of figures here, / But not the form of what he should attend” (1.3.214–15). In his confrontation with Glendower, on the other hand, it is Hotspur who curbs the Welshman’s flow, attacking with stubborn literal-mindedness his claim of supernatural powers. When the rebels start carving up the map, the tables are turned: Hotspur complains that for his purposes the river Trent is taking the wrong course and proposes to redirect it, while Glendower, pointing to the map, tries to recall him to the plain facts of English geography: “Not wind? It shall, it must. You see it doth” (3.1.110).

The conflict between prolix invention and a terse statement of the facts is acted out in the tavern play, in which Falstaff and Hal, with Falstaff taking the lead, construct their own version of the interview between Hal and his father that will be played quite seriously two scenes later. Part of the fun is a parody of old-fashioned theater: when Falstaff declaims “Weep not, sweet queen, for trickling tears are vain” (2.4.404), the audience would immediately recognize the sort of clunky writing they had heard from an earlier generation of playwrights who allowed themselves to be trapped by the iambic pentameter line Shakespeare himself used with such freedom. But there is also an internal debate between Falstaff’s play and Hal’s. In Falstaff’s, the fat knight is celebrated for his virtue, and whether he is playing the king or Hal, Falstaff invents a future in which Hal banishes everyone but him so that they will have the world to themselves. Hal, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to rehearse in comic terms the devastating attack he will make on Falstaff at the end of Part 2, and his reply to Falstaff’s request not to banish him is the simple, chilling “I do, I will” (2.4.499).

We might have expected the battle of Shrewsbury to be a test that will show what people really are, no matter how they have presented themselves. Yet it shares some affinities with the tavern play. It is full of impersonation and counterfeiting. Sir Walter Blunt does what Hal and Falstaff do: he impersonates the king. The difference is that he gets killed for it. When Douglas, meeting the real Henry, declares “I fear thou art another counterfeit” (5.4.35), he suggests that the king himself is impersonating the king (as in a way he is, given his dubious claim to the crown). Falstaff briefly impersonates a corpse, fooling both Hal and the audience, and when he goes on to stab Hotspur and then to claim credit for Hotspur’s death, he is doing what he did in the tavern play: he is taking over Hal’s part. Even the moments in the heat of battle when a character’s true nature seems to emerge can be seen as deceptive if we look back from Part 2. At Shrewsbury, Hal seems to have shed the Eastcheap world; in Part 2 he is back in it. Prince John emerges in the battle as a heroic fighter; in Part 2 he defeats a party of rebels by trickery. Not only does Henry IV, Part 1 contain some unreliable narratives; at certain points its own narrative is unreliable.

Yet if the battle generates deceptive images, it also makes us confront that final stubborn reality, death. On the question of honor, Falstaff is a realist. If honor cannot cure wounds or console the dead for being dead, it is worthless. He takes the corpse of Sir Walter Blunt as a practical demonstration of his argument: “There’s honor for you” (5.3.35). Hotspur in a way confirms Falstaff’s view: no thought of honor consoles him as he dies; death has left him with nothing, robbing not just his own life, but all life, of meaning. One of the play’s most eloquent characters, he dies talking; but what he talks of is the failure of his own language—“the earthy and cold hand of death / Lies on my tongue” (5.4.86–87)—and Hal has to finish his last sentence for him.

For Hal, on the other hand, Hotspur’s death is the final, decisive evidence of his own emergence as the heroic prince—but once again the play twists. In defiance of what the audience saw with its own eyes, the question is raised, who killed Hotspur? Of course, it is Falstaff who raises it. Before the battle he and Hal argue about who is going to perform this feat, even though we might have thought an encounter with Hotspur would be the last thing on Falstaff’s mind. When Falstaff makes his outrageous claim, Hal, as he did with the rogues in buckram, tries to insist on the plain facts, “Why, Percy I killed myself, and saw thee dead,” to which Falstaff, speaking (literally) no more than the truth, retorts, “Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying” (5.4.148–49). What is remarkable is that Hal not only lets Falstaff get away with the lie but promises for once to join him in elaborating it: “For my part, if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (5.4.161–62).

What is this play up to? At this point we need to backtrack to the soliloquy Hal delivers at the end of the first tavern scene, in which he announces his strategy of using his time in Eastcheap to create a misleading impression of his worthlessness so that his emergence as the true prince will be all the more dramatic. The resemblance to image manipulation in modern, media-dominated politics is so uncanny that we need to remind ourselves that Shakespeare is writing from, and about, a political context totally different from ours. The media were by our standards technically primitive, and dealt with contemporary politics at their peril; the kingship of England was not an office depending on popular election. Hal sees himself as playing to an audience, but what audience, and why? There are other plays, notably Richard II, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus, in which political figures appeal to the common people. This play’s focus is somewhat narrower. The clearest representative of Hal’s audience is the rebel Vernon, who is surprised and impressed by Hal’s appearance at Shrewsbury, falling into just the pattern of response Hal predicted in his soliloquy. Vernon is a member of the governing class. Within that class, as the play shows, people know each other, watch and judge each other. This is the audience Hal needs to manipulate. Hotspur is fooled by the “wild prince” image and fatally underestimates his rival; Vernon is won over even before the battle of Shrewsbury takes place; and King Henry, the key member of this audience, is converted, long before Hal kills Hotspur, by the mere promise that he is going to do it.

Even before the battle begins, then, Hal has won his point with his onstage audience; and when he kills Hotspur no one sees him do it. No one, that is, except the theater audience. Here we touch on a subtle but important difference between Shakespeare’s theater and ours. Shakespeare’s actors were surrounded by their audience, not stuck in a picture-frame stage. Playing in outdoor theaters in daylight, they were in the same light as the audience; the split produced by the darkened auditorium was an invention of the nineteenth century. This means that in Shakespeare’s theater, characters—not just actors, but characters—could have an awareness of the audience and address it directly, as a natural part of the theatrical idiom. When this happens in the modern theater we call it “breaking the fourth wall” and think of it as an experimental technique, a challenge to illusion. In Shakespeare’s theater there was no fourth wall to break, no illusion to challenge. When Hal and Falstaff take turns playing the king, Falstaff’s “Judge, my masters” (2.4.454) could easily be calling for a verdict from the audience as well as from the onstage characters. The awareness of the audience is more ironic when Falstaff declares, as he stabs the dead Hotspur, “Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me” (5.4.129); there are at a rough estimate two or three thousand people who can give him the lie direct. If we think in these terms, then Hal in his soliloquy is not talking to himself or to an undefined space; he is quite simply telling the audience what he is going to do. His onstage audience is satisfied with the mere fact that he has turned up at Shrewsbury; but a theater audience demands action, and it is for our benefit that he kills Hotspur. For this reason he can let Falstaff claim the victory, with an evident sense that he has nothing to lose: the theater audience knows the truth (remembering of course that this “truth” is itself a fabrication, not two heroes in mortal combat but one stage actor pretending to kill another).

There may be more positive reasons why Falstaff is allowed to claim the glory to which he is not literally entitled. I have said that the play does not just tell a story; it examines a society. In story terms, narrowly conceived, Falstaff is a supporting character. In theatrical terms he dominates half the action. In an orderly play, he stands for shapelessness: Hal speculates that if Falstaff’s girdle broke, “how would thy guts fall about thy knees” (3.3.161–62). Falstaff’s natural environment is Eastcheap, a world mostly untouched by the great events that are tearing apart the governing class of England. If Eastcheap stands for anything, it stands for transgression and inversion: Falstaff’s comedy is full of religious parody, Bardolph’s nose provokes jests about hellfire. Crime flourishes, mock kings are crowned with cushions, and the regal image of the sun (which Hal in his soliloquy promises to imitate) changes both class and gender, becoming “a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta” (1.2.10–11). But Eastcheap is not just a place of parody, for that would ultimately make it dependent on the serious world it mocks; it is also a world in itself, with its own sufficient life. When Falstaff carries off the dead Hotspur, Eastcheap is allowed to claim its own victory.

It is through Eastcheap that we occasionally glimpse a larger England going about its business. The Carriers who open 2.1 complaining about the inn, the stabling, and the fleas are ordinary men doing a job; their modern equivalents would be long-distance truck drivers. Their sheer irrelevance to the political action is the most important point of their scene; there is a whole life going on out there of which the great folks have no inkling.

We cannot say that the court is the center and Eastcheap the margin. When we are in Eastcheap the court seems marginal, and vice versa. For us, Eastcheap is a vivid, fully imagined world; the king dismisses it in four words: “barren pleasures, rude society” (3.2.16). Far from trying to harmonize class differences, the play shows a great gulf between one life and another. Nowhere is this clearer than in the depiction of war. Hotspur says of his enemies, whose gorgeous armor Vernon has just described,

They come like sacrifices in their trim,

And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war

All hot and bleeding will we offer them.


Falstaff’s recruits, ragged, miserable, half-dead already—“A mad fellow met me on the way and told me I had unloaded all the gibbets and pressed the dead bodies” (4.2.36–38)—show the other face of war. They are not heroic sacrifices but “food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better” (4.2.66–68).

However, simple dichotomies like court-versus-Eastcheap or Hotspur-versus-Falstaff will not allow us to see the full life of the play. Wales as we glimpse it in 3.1 is a third location, strange and magical, a place of art and enchantment on the borders of the practical daylight world that is England. Admittedly, much of this effect is created by the boasting of Glendower, which is part of his jockeying for dominance over Hotspur, and which Hotspur wittily deflates. Yet when Glendower calls for music, declaring, “those musicians that shall play to you / Hang in the air a thousand leagues from hence” (3.1.231–32), the music actually sounds, and Hotspur comments grudgingly, “Now I perceive the devil understands Welsh” (238). The music is more compelling for being the only nonmilitary music in the play. Equally striking, and more important in the long run, is the simple fact that in this scene, for the only time in this male-dominated play, there are two women onstage. We are allowed (with reservations I will come to shortly) to glimpse yet another sphere of action, the domestic life of the rebels, and the role of women in that life.

One of the key differences between Hal and Hotspur is that Hotspur has such a life and Hal does not. The prince has no home, only the court and the tavern. His one private scene with his father, his “homecoming” in 3.2, is largely given over to the public question of how he is perceived in the political world. Henry allows himself one moment of private feeling, and is ashamed of it, complaining that his eye “now doth that I would not have it do, / Make blind itself with foolish tenderness” (3.2.92–93). Hal presumably had a mother, but we never hear of her. The play’s first reference to women is in the opening court scene, Westmoreland’s account of the Welshwomen who subject the corpses of dead English soldiers to

Such beastly shameless transformation

                                  . . . as may not be

Without much shame retold or spoken of.


In the service of antirebel (and anti-Welsh) propaganda, the women are conceived as threatening, demonic figures, doing (like the witches in Macbeth) a deed without a name. (When we actually see a Welshwoman onstage, Lady Mortimer, the effect is very different; and the one character in the play who is shown violating a dead body is Falstaff.) The only woman in Eastcheap is the hostess, and she is first introduced as the butt of conventional bawdy jokes about Hal’s calling her to a reckoning; according to Falstaff, “Thou hast paid all there” (1.2.55–56). The hostess herself, who is trying to run a business, needs payment of a more practical kind, and Falstaff puts her off with insulting jokes. In a comic version of Westmoreland’s reduction of the Welshwomen to monsters, Falstaff says of the hostess, “she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her.” She walks right into the trap—“Thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou”—and Hal’s apparent defense of her—“Thou sayst true, hostess, and he slanders thee most grossly” (3.3.135–41)—only compounds the insult.

Despising the feminine is also part of Hotspur’s warrior style. Northumberland calls Hotspur’s passion “this woman’s mood” (1.3.245), and Hotspur’s habitual language seems designed to refute this slur on his manhood. He is offended by the fop’s “holiday and lady terms” (1.3.47) and says of the nameless letter writer who refuses to join the rebellion, “I could brain him with his lady’s fan” (2.3.23–24). He also works hard to keep Lady Percy in her place: “when I am a-horseback I will swear / I love thee infinitely” (2.3.107–8). In the Glendower scene he makes public jokes about her sexuality (as Falstaff does with the hostess): “Come, Kate, thou art perfect in lying down” (3.1.234), and invites her to what will be their last sexual encounter with the words “An the indentures be drawn, I’ll away within these two hours, and so come in when you will” (3.1.269–71). He is willing to make love, but only after consulting his appointment book. Lady Percy, however, fights back far more effectively than the hostess does, introducing her own distinct perspective on the action. She sees, and cares about, what Hotspur’s public life is costing him in terms of sleepless nights and restless dreams, and she speaks to him with a tenderness we hardly ever hear from the men in the play. But she is not sentimental. When Hotspur puts off her demand to know his secrets, she returns insult for insult, calling him “mad-headed ape” and “paraquito” (2.3.82, 90). Knowing he understands “bloody noses and cracked crowns” (2.3.98), she threatens, “I’ll break thy little finger, Harry, / An if thou wilt not tell me all things true” (2.3.92–93). In the end he promises to let her follow him a day behind, and asks, “Will this content you, Kate?” Her reply, “It must of force,” shows that in the end she has to submit, but she does not have to like it. Her unhistorical name, Kate, recalls the fiery heroine of The Taming of the Shrew; but this Kate shows no enthusiasm for being tamed. Her resistance raises at least the possibility of reading her relation with Hotspur as the sort of high-spirited affair that actually thrives on the exchange of ironic insults. Some will find that reading too optimistic; but the point is that the play’s depiction of this marriage opens out a range of possible interpretations for both readers and performers, giving it a spontaneity that contrasts sharply with Hal’s tight management of his own career.

Lady Mortimer may seem at first to be simply a victim of the male world. She is caught in a political marriage with a man whose language she does not speak. Her own Welsh speech is a torrent of marvelous-sounding language that neither her husband nor the bulk of the audience understands; it is her father who relays—and thereby controls—its meaning. Yet what he conveys in English, and what she conveys beyond words, in music and in that language we do not understand, is an extraordinary range of power and feeling. Glendower promises that her singing will “on your eyelids crown the god of sleep, / Charming your blood with pleasing heaviness” (3.1.223–24). She offers, with a hint of enchantment, the sort of rest Lady Percy wishes Hotspur could have. She herself is under a spell of another kind: Glendower declares, “I am afraid my daughter will run mad, / So much she doteth on her Mortimer” (3.1.149–50). Passionate, vulnerable, eloquent yet incomprehensible, able to work enchantment on her husband yet unable to talk to him, Lady Mortimer is one of the play’s most remarkable creations.

The political action could carry on without the women; but the play could not. They stand, like Eastcheap, for the fuller life that cannot be summarized in a narrative or ideological formula. For the rebels, the England we have seen—lords, commoners, women, soldiers, carriers, thieves, men with red noses—is simply a map to be divided. It is like watching the realities of war or poverty reduced to computer graphics. When Hal complains of Francis’s lack of language, we notice that Hal has contrived the effect himself by playing a trick in which Francis’s attempts to speak for himself are continually interrupted. The play itself does not do this. It lets us listen to a full range of voices; it fills out the life of England with an attention to detail we usually think of as novelistic. In the tavern, Falstaff calls for “a play extempore” (2.4.291–92)—a play with no script, leaving the actors free to take off on their own. Henry IV, Part 1 is as carefully contrived a script as Shakespeare ever wrote; yet its most remarkable achievement is to come off sounding like a play extempore.