Introduction: Henry IV, Part 1

December 5, 2009 in Introduction

“So shaken as we are, so wan with care”: so King Henry IV, the former Bolingbroke, begins a play that remains half in the shadow of the regicide at the end of Richard II. The King worries about his son, whom he sees as a prodigal and liable to be supplanted by the far more brightly shining Hotspur, just as he, Bolingbroke, supplanted Richard before. Yet only one half the play is held in fear of history repeating itself, for those scenes in the tavern or out robbing travellers with Prince Hal and Falstaff are shot through with a subversive and inventive energy that is in stark contrast to both the anxious court, and the factious rebel camp.

At the end of the first tavern scene, Hal, alone on stage, proves that he is no prodigal, and instead claims that “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will.” That reference to time recalls an earlier speech by the imprisoned Richard II, portraying the King as guarantor of his time, and, indeed, this play and those that follow it probe the questions of what it means to be a king, and to what extent kingship is just a construct, made from rich cloths and language.

As the play moves towards its conclusion on the battlefield, the world of the tavern and of the court are often side by side, with Hal shuttling between Falstaff and his father. The royalist victory at the play’s conclusion appears to confirm the end of Hal’s ‘prodigality’, and his reception into the royal flock. Yet the audience will also remember Falstaff, uproarious in the tavern, cynical on the battlefield, and ending the play claiming that he, not Hal, killed Hotspur.

James Harriman-Smith

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