I’m a huge Shakespeare fan. I’ve read 23 of the plays, and seen 14 of them performed. I’ve even been in one (so far): Much Ado About Nothing, as Leonato. The Bard’s histories are my favorites–not surprising, considering I teach college history. And within that category, Henry IV Part 1 tops my list. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps because Henry is wracked with guilt, yet soldiers on. Maybe, as a father of teenage boys, I can identify with a father who is often at loggerheads with one (or both) of them at any given time. I certainly respect a man who won’t back down when his (admittedly medieval) rights and possessions are taken away. And I must confess to admiring the bravery of Henry’s Crusading exploits.
Of course, Shakespeare “history” plays are not verbatim historical accounts. John Julius Norwich points this out in his book Shakespeare’s Kings. For example, one might be forgiven for thinking that Henry’s musings about going on Crusade (Act I, Scene I) are just, well, theater. But per Norwich: “Unlike Richard [II]…he had seen the world. Between 1391 and 1393 he had travelled first to Lithuania, on a crusade with the Teutonic Knights, and then to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, visiting Prague and Vienna, Rhodes and Cyprus, and on his return journey, Venice, Milan, Pavia and Paris…. Both journeys were taken in a spirit of genuine piety, for he was naturally devout. He also seems to have been totally faithful to his wife Mary Bohun…who had died in 1394 while bearing him his sixth child. At the time of Henry’s accession , there was no doubt of his popularity throughout the country, the vast majority of his subjects rightly believing that he had seized the throne only because his predecessor had shown himself incapable of government. His position, however, was still dangerously weak….Henry was a usurper….” (pp. 131-32). So little wonder that Henry faced rebellions, which in large measure Shakespeare does describe accurately.
The most amazing interlude of Henry IV’s reign, and one little noted or appreciated (and upon which I hope to write a story, perhaps even a book), has nothing to do with his fighting insurgents in England. For several months (December 1400-February 1401) Henry hosted the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos. The latter was visiting European leaders, seeking help against the encroaching Ottoman Turks. Henry did pony up a substantial sum of money, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help with military forces.
Henry was also certainly a better warrior than Shakespeare gives him credit for in Act 5, Scenes 3 and 4. Norwich notes that “Hotspur and Douglas…with a band of thirty chosen followers, cut their way through to the royal standard and dashed it to the ground; but they failed to kill the King, who had by now dispatched thirty of the rebels on his own account, despite being forced three times to his knees.” A bit later Shakespeare has Henry, fighting with Douglas, “being in danger” [stage directions] and saved by the intervention of Prince Hal–who puts Douglas to flight and then kills Harry Percy. “There can, however, be no doubt that the King…fought with exemplary courage throughout. Did the Prince really save his father’s life? There is some evidence, but not much…. Did Prince Hal kill Harry Percy? Possibly, yes. Most historians are skeptical; it has been pointed out that the true Hotspur–as opposed to the Shakespearean ideal–was twenty-three years older than the Prince, a seasoned general for whom Hal had a deep respect….but Percy was now a dangerous and desperate rebel, and nothing we read of either of them suggests that in such a situation either would have hesitated to kill the other…. Whoever maybe have been responsible for it, the death of Harry Hotspur ends not only the battle of Shrewsbury but, effectively, Shakespeare’s play” (pp. 147-48). Norwich has much more on Henry IV (and the future Henry V) as well as on Sir John Falstaff in terms of historical reality v. what was performed at The Globe: see pp. 111-148.
But we don’t read, much less perform, Shakespeare for his historical accuracy. The play’s the thing! And for analysis purely of at least some of Shakespeare’s characters, the best source I’ve ever read is John Palmer, Political and Comic Characters of Shakespeare. Palmer doesn’t take on Henry IV, but he DOES examine “Henry of Monmouth,” the future Henry V–and in doing so, to some degree, looks at his father (and quite a bit at Falstaff, as well). “Bolingbroke is tormented by the insecurity of power attained by violence. He owes too much to the friends who helped him in order to help themselves. He suffers, too, the remorse of a sinner who, like Claudius of Denmark, is unable to repent because he cannot bring himself to surrender the fruits of his sin. He can only hope that God will consider his crime to have been sufficiently expiated in his own person and that he may be able to pass on to his son an unblemished succession. But even this hope seems denied, for riot and dishonour stain the brow of his young Harry and he sees as part of his punishment the inordinate and low desires affected by his heir….” (p. 211).
Palmer continues: “Shakespeare was clearly fascinated by the spectacle of this unhappy man, enticed by circumstance…to commit a crime [overthrowing Richard II, and probably ordering his murder] which was to stain with blood the pages of English history for over a century….meeting his enemies with a brave face, though he had within himself no peace of mind….” (Ibid.)
And I am, as well. In fact, I don’t see how anyone who reads, or watches a performance of, Henry IV Part 1 could not be.
By the way: for any of my blog followers in the Atlanta area, Grayson Shakespeare in the Park will be performing this play at the Grayson City Park Ampavilion, July 22-24, 2022. Don’t miss it!