Henry IV Part One
One thing we’ve learned from Shakespeare is that kings don’t have a lot of fun. Mostly they seem to have cares and woes, poor lads. When they’re not being murdered, they’re regretting being murderers. Nobody ever likes them – well, not usually, anyway – and it seems they’re always being plotted against.
Henry IV regrets, if not being a murderer at least having caused a murder to take place and he is definitely plotted against. And he doesn’t even get to be the star of his own play. That position is shared by his hoodlum son Prince Hal, the bawdy irreverent Falstaff and the hot-headed Hotspur.
But look carefully. Henry Bullingbrook holds it all together.
It’s not easy, though. From the very first lines we see that the cares Richard has handed over with the crown are piling up. Henry tells his council:
So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
And breathe short-winded acts of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote. (Act 1.1)
All is not well in Henry’s England. Immediately after these lines fresh reports come. From the north, we and Henry are told, ‘gallant Hotspur’ and ‘brave Archibald’ of Scotland are conniving, and Hotspur’s uncle Worcester is ‘malevolent to you in all aspects’ (Act 1.1). We soon learn that Hotspur’s cousin Mortimer and the flamboyant Welshman Owen Glendower as well as the archbishop of York are also plotting against Henry.
These are not just petty personal quarrels or family feuds. As Jean E Howard points out in her introduction to the play in the Norton edition, Henry is being confronted by the ‘monarch’s central problem: how to maintain control over and enforce unity upon the territories over which he claims dominion but which threaten to break away or assert a worrisome autonomy’ (p. 1179). Hotspur’s Northumberland, Glendower’s Wales, York and Scotland – all of them were unruly and wild rebellious territories and Henry had his monarchically unity work cut out for him.
As if it’s not enough to have his own aristocratic friends and relatives from all sides of the country against him Henry is also having trouble closer to home. The working class of London are not gentle meek lambs. They go about robbing travellers and carousing and joking crudely, not the least about the king. Worst of all is someone who should know better, someone who should be on Henry’s side, a knight no less. We speak of course of the gloriously crude and irreverent Sir John Falstaff who’s not on anyone’s side but his own and though we love his ‘what is honour’ monolog, Henry would have been appalled had he heard it, as were many who heard it on stage in Shakespeare’s day, no doubt.
Closer still to home, to Henry’s very heart, is the rebellion of his own beloved son, the hooligan Prince Hal. In very moving monologs Henry compares the hot-headed but noble and honourable Hotspur to his own Hal:
… I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry… (Act 1.1)
He wishes it could be proven that the two had been switched by fairies at birth and that Hotspur were his son. In Act 3.2 he upbraids Hal for the young prince’s wild behaviour, unworthy of the king’s own reputation. He compares Hal to the scorned Richard, jeered at because he ‘mingled his royalty with carping fools,’ he tells Hal that Hotspur ‘hath more worthy interest to the state / than thou’ and complains
Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,
Which art my near’st and dearest enemy? (Act 3.2)
Hal comes round and does his princely duties, as he has always said he would, and Henry has reason in the end to be proud of his crown prince.
As the war approaches Henry takes firm control and shows himself to be a rather good king by asking the rebels what their grievances are and offering to grant them, thus avoiding war. This doesn’t happen, the war goes on. Henry is victorious.
But the memory remains of Henry Bullingbrook’s final words in Richard II:
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.
Come, mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent.
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand. (Richard II Act 5.6)
In this play’s opening scene he’s still planning a crusade but at hearing of the turmoil at home he says
It seems then that the tidings of this broil
Brake off our business for the Holy Land. (Act 1.1)
So his conscience – maybe his worst enemy? – is not to be cleared this time either.
As the war ends victoriously for him, Henry Bullingbrook says confidently enough
Rebellion in this land shall lose his way,
Meeting the check of such another day.
And since this business so fair is done,
Let us not leave till all our own be won.
Storm clouds are still threatening on the horizon. Henry IV Part Two is about to unfold. Bullingbrook’s blues continue.
- William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
- Howard, Jean E. Introduction in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
- BBC, 1979. Director: David Giles. Cast: Prince Hal – David Gwillim; King Henry – Jon Finch; Falstaff – Anthony Quayle; Hotspur – Tim Pigott-Smith; Mortimer – Robert Morris; Lady Mortimer – Sharon Morgan; Owain Glyndwr – Richard Owens.
- This is a well-done production. Jon Finch is very good as Henry, Quayle is a convincing Falstaff and the others are generally very good too. The only question mark is Gwillim as Hal, probably because I saw Branagh as Henry V first. Gwillim was better the second time (or was it the third) that we watched the play, but for me Hal will always be Branagh.
- The Globe, 2012. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Cast: Prince Hal – Jamie Parker; King Henry – Oliver Cotton; Falstaff – Roger Allam; Hotspur – Sam Crane; Mortimer – Daon Broni; Lady Mortimer – Jade Williams; Owain Glyndwr – Sean Kearns.
- This is a very boisterous production. Roger Allam is the star; he’s an excellent Falstaff. Jamie Parker is good as Prince Hal and Sam Crane is a handsome Hotspur. Oliver Cotton isn’t nearly as good as Jon Finch but the rest of the cast is fine. It’s very funny at times but is a bit slow at others. But as always, the Globe itself is a very strong presence and carries the play all by itself at times.