on May 21, 2003
henry iv is misnamed since the play isn't really about king henry but about his son, prince hal, and his enemies, especially henry percy (aka 'hotspur') who is a rival to hal. hotspur is one of the leaders of the rebellion against the king and, at a tender age, is already an accomplished soldier. his story provides the drama of the play. hal, on the other hand, has fallen out of favor with the king, and is whiling away his days in the company of dissolute company, led by sir john falstaff, one of shakespeare's great characters. his adventures with sir john provide the comic relief. fortunately for the king, hal sheds his prodigal ways in time to save his father and his crown in the battle at shrewsbury, where, coincidentally, hal meets and slays his rival, hotspur.
this is one of shakespeare's best plays. the story of the rebellion is intriguing, and the adventures of hal and falstaff are laugh-out-loud hilarious. the culmination of the two stories in the final battle scene is wonderful. this is a fitting sequel to richard ii.
note that there are some historical inaccuracies and even outright inventions in this play. foremost is the character of falstaff who is pure invention (and genius). the story of hal's adventures stems from his reputation, enhanced by legend, as a playboy. falstaff was the perfect foil for a carousing prince. the biggest inaccuracy is hotspur's age. he was actually of the generation of henry iv, and not as young as he's depicted in the play. shakespeare made him younger to enhance, maybe even create, the rivalry with hal. there are other inaccuracies here, but better for the reader to consult 'shakespeare's kings', an excellent book by saccio that explains the history of the period and the discrepancies in the play.
on November 2, 2002
When rating Shakespeare, I am comparing it to other Shakespeare. Otherwise, the consistent "5 stars" wouldn't tell you much. So when I rate this book five stars, I'm saying it's one of the best of the best.
As a matter of fact, it isn't unusual for Shakespeare's "histories" to be more interesting to the modern reader than either his comedies or his tragedies; they fit the modern style that doesn't insist that comedies must have everything work out well in the end, or that tragedies must be deadly serious with everyone dying at the end, as was the convention in Shakespeare's time. Thus, this book has a serious plot, real drama, and blood and destruction, yet still has many extremely funny scenes. And as Shakespearean plays go, it's a fairly easy read, although in places the footnotes are still neccessary. The only caveat I will make is that one needs to remember not to consider Shakespeare's histories particularly historical; they have about as much historical accuracy as the Disney version of Pocahontas. Treat them as excellent stories based (very) loosely on history, and you'll do fine.
It's a real shame that the language has changed so much since Shakespeare was writing that his plays are no longer accessable to the masses, because that's who Shakespeare was writing for. Granted, there is enough seriousness to satisfy the intelligensia, but there is generally enough action and bawdy humor to satisfy any connouiseur of modern hit movies, if only they could understand it, and this book is no exception. Unfortunately, once you change the language, it's no longer Shakespeare, until and unless the rewriter can be found who has as much genius for the modern language as Shakespeare had for his own. I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting.
on October 16, 2000
The lengthy title for the 1598 printing was "The History of Henrie the Fourth, With the Battell at Shrewsburie, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaffe".
Surprisingly, Hal, Prince of Wales, (later Henry V) was not even mentioned in this verbose title although many would consider him to be the central character. This play is clearly the dramatization of a struggle for a kingdom, but it is equally the story of Hal's wild and reckless youthful adventures with Falstaff and other disreputable companions.
Shakespeare did not write his plays about English kings in chronological order, but these plays do have a historical unity. It is helpful (but not essential) to read the tetralogy Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, and Henry V in chronological order. Whatever route you take, I highly recommend buying a companion copy of Peter Saccio's "Shakespeare's English Kings", an engaging look at how Shakespeare revised history to achieve dramatic effect.
A wide selection of Henry IV editions are available, including older editions in used bookstores. I am familiar with a few and have personal favorites:
The New Folger Library Shakespeare is my first choice among the inexpensive editions of Henry IV. "New" replaces the prior version in use for 35 years. It uses "facing page" format with scene summaries, explanations for rare and archaic words and expressions, and Elizabethan drawings located on the left page; the Henry IV text is on the right. I particularly liked the section on "Reading Shakespeare's Language in Henry IV" and Alexander Legget's literary analysis (save this until you have read the play). The fascinating article "Historical Background: Sir John Falstaff and Sir John Oldcastle" adds a religious dimension to the play that I had not previously noted.
The Bedford Shakespeare Series provides an excellent study text (edited by Barbara Hodgdon) titled "The First Part of King Henry the Fourth". It is a little more expensive, is about 400 pages, and provides a broad range of source and context documentation. It would be excellent for an upper level course in Shakespeare. The context documentation is fascinating and informative; it ranges from the Holinshed Chronicles to Elizabethan writing on Civic Order to detailed cultural studies of London's diverse populous. Other chapters address the OldCastle controversy and the "Education of a Prince".
I also like the Norton Critical edition (edited by James Sanderson), "Henry the Fourth, Part 1", particularly for its extensive collection of literary criticism. The essays are divided into two parts: 1) the theme, characters, structure, and style of the play and 2) a wide variety of interpretation directed toward that roguish character, Sir John Falstaff.
on August 14, 2000
Shakespeare's "Henry IV Part I" shows King Henry IV dealing with complex problems: England is in the midst of civil unrest, as the Percy family, angered by their treatment after unwittingly helping Henry IV ascend to the throne, threatens to depose the monarch. At home, Henry IV is despairing over the development of his son, Henry, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne. Prince Henry consorts with thieves, rogues, and scoundrels - his scandalous personal relationships seem to threaten the King's peace of mind more than the state of his kingdom.
Aside from these larger concerns that frame the play, "Henry IV Part I" deals more with Prince Henry than it does with the monarch of the title. Throughout the play, Prince Henry is seen more amongst the rabble commoners than attending to matters of state. He is guided in his licentiousness by the enormously funny (pun intended) Sir John Falstaff, whose schemes and drunkenness are more innocent and endearing in Part I than they become in Part II.
Falstaff's reckless and conceited behaviour casts a shadow over the entire play, symbolic as it is of Prince Henry's moral dilemma and of the precarious state of the nation. Falstaff instantly calls to mind Kenneth Grahame's magnificent Mr. Toad from "The Wind in the Willows," and is Toad's direct literary forefather. Falstaff is the most interesting and dynamic figure in "Henry IV Part I" and certainly the most memorable character in the play.
Prince Henry discovers that his responsibilities outweigh his fondness for Spanish wine, and is called to lead the King's army against that of the arrogant 'Hotspur' Percy, himself a rising political force. Their confrontation, brilliantly scripted and enacted, is central to Shakespeare's entire Lancaster-York saga, and should be read closely and with special attention.
Of the two parts of "Henry IV," Part I is by far the best and most flawlessly executed. The King's problems provide an adequate backdrop for the development of Prince Henry; 'Hotspur' is an excellent antagonist (with the whole Percy family offering a great contrast with that of the King); and Falstaff performs his role without dominating the play, as he tends to in Part II. Shakespeare does not need my praise or endorsement, but his "Henry IV Part I" blows me away. It is absolutely fantastic.
on March 18, 2000
Believe it or not, Shakespeare's funniest play will be found in the Histories section of your Complete Works. That's not to say this is a comedy, but the group of characters gathering at the tavern represent the Bard's supreme comic achievement. Falstaff and the future King Henry V will have you laughing out loud. However, in the serious main plot, which picks up from the previous play, Richard II, the Percys are leading a rebellion against the usurping King Henry IV. The rebellion continues into the next play, but the Battle of Shrewbury marks an important point in Henry's reign, and serves as a fitting end to Henry IV Part 1. The play is a complete unity unto itself, but I recommend you read the complete series (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Henry V) in order to get the most out a very exciting and entertaining cycle. I usually recommend the Arden editions, but in this case the Oxford is superior. David Bevington is clearly one of the top editors in the field, and his notes help smooth over the rough spots in the text, especially the comic scenes which really need to be seen or heard to be fully appreciated. In that respect the Arkangel Audio version of the play is excellent.
on November 21, 2001
Of all Shakespeare's histories, Henry IV, part I is the best. It is the first of three plays that examines the ascension of the great King Henry V. Here, we see a young Prince Hal as a troublemaker and a "royal pain" (pun intended), who hangs out in taverns with drunkards and derelicts. But we also see a young man who realizes his destiny and knows that the time will come when he will have to be a strong king for England's sake. The play is more than just one person's rise. It examines English society in atime of great instability and civil strife. It examines the role of family (fathers and sons, brothers, and uncles and nephews). This play is a reflection of Shakespeare at his finest and everyone should read at least this play, whether or not they love Shakespeare or not. It is worth the read. (and it is a rather simple read, too.)
on December 30, 2011
I, like everybody else trying to sell this book at Amazon, read this because it was required for an English class at university. I'm better for having read it. But let's face it, Shakespeare's stories were meant to be experienced in a theatre. If you want to know Shakespeare's story about Henry 4th, find a local theatre company and request it.
on October 22, 1999
This is one of the harder Shakespearean reads but if you do understand it, it is an interesting adventure with memorable characters and great quotes. Harder than Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, this is still a good book.
on September 4, 1999
i liked it that hal killed hotspur because in the movie hotspur was ugly and disgusting. everytime i looked at him i felt like i wanted to puke.
on May 10, 2004
In Part One of Shakespeare's "Henry IV," the titular king tries to defend his throne from a rebel army led by the hotheaded Hotspur, who has a long list of grievances about the king's treatment of his family, the Percys. Hotspur has allied himself with several principal figures including his uncle the Earl of Worcester, his brother-in-law Mortimer the Earl of March, Lord Douglas the Scot, and Owen Glendower, a Welsh chieftain with a vivid mystical imagination -- he is so egotistical that he insists an earthquake that occurred the day of his birth was a divine proclamation of his importance -- and a desire to usurp all of Wales from the king.
While he is preparing for war against the rebels, Henry IV laments that his own son Henry (Hal), the Prince of Wales, is a shameful libertine living the high life in London and consorting with a gang of scurrilous miscreants. Indeed, Prince Hal's idea of fun is robbing people, and his best friend and accomplice in this activity is Sir John Falstaff, who turns out to be not Hal's peer but a middle-aged man. In a character transformation of an abruptness that can only be described as magical, Hal becomes a serious young man determined loyally to defend his father's kingship from Hotspur's assault after he receives an earnest lecture from his father about the dangers of acting irresponsibly as a public figure.
Not enough can be said about Falstaff, who is undoubtedly one of the most richly realized characters in literature. He is fat, lazy, cowardly, yet boastful, but not in the same way Owen Glendower is -- Owen really believes what he says; Falstaff is just trying to make himself look better than he actually is, but fools nobody because he prevaricates and embellishes without bothering to remember his previous lies for the sake of consistency. You probably know somebody like this in real life -- especially if you're ten years old. Falstaff's piquancy, in fact, so outweighs the stature of the other characters that his absence is sorely felt in the scenes in which he does not appear.
Most of all, Part One of "Henry IV" is a play of contrasts personified by Prince Hal and Hotspur, who incidentally is also named Henry. In their confrontation on the battlefield, it seems unlikely that Hal, who wasted many of his best days living as a rake, could conquer a seasoned warrior like Hotspur in a swordfight. But there wouldn't be much of a tale to tell if not to show Hal triumphing after his resolution to change his weak habits, and the play ends with the conviction that, despite his past mistakes, he would make a noble king himself.