Book Review: Henry IV, Part I by William Shakespeare

January 23, 2010

Blah, blah, blah, John Falstaff, what a laugh. Blah, blah, blah, the meaning of valor and honor. The prodigal brat son repairs his ways and leads the country to implied future greatness. These are all themes that seem a bit tired in our day, but Shakespeare probably played some role in putting them together in the first place.

Henry IVi is the second of the Bard’s (imposing) historical tetralogy following the ascent of Lancastrian dynasty, which first grapple into power in Richard II and carry it through the series. Then there’s the Henry VI plays (a different set). Then things devolve into chaos in full-on War of the Roses mode through dastardly Richard III before everyone gets vanquished by the glorious Tudors (one must pause and consider the historical source here a bit—Shakespeare as propaganda mouthpiece for the Tudors? Hells yeah, for sure).

OK, OK, so the Shakespeare history plays. Hard. I won’t gloss over that. And by hard I mean keeping one’s head around the characters. The (wayward) future Henry V is referenced in the play as: Prince, Henry, Harry, Hal, Lancaster, the Prince of Wales. Most people are named Henry and most have more than one title, which also serves as a moniker.

Here’s my advice. Remember these names: Percy, Neville, Northumberland. Those are the names and ducal territories of the dastardly northerners who rebel against Henry Bolingbroke (that is, the former Duke of Lancaster, aka Henry IV) in the play. To this day, the Percys and Nevilles are northerners with oomph (the current head of the Neville clan is Christopher George Charles Nevill, 6th Marquess of Abergavenny, born 1955; the current Duke of Northumberland is a Percy).

The fractious Percys and Nevilles, fronted by exquisite hothead Henry Percy—sigh, another Percy, another Henry, but rest easy: he’s called Hotspur throughout the play and lives up to the title—aren’t happy with the hand they’ve been dealt since Henry IV’s deposition of wimpy old Richard II. Promises, promises, Henry IV made, but apparently isn’t delivering. The specific reasons for the revolt are not that clear, nor do they appear to be that important to Shakespeare.

At the same time, wastrel/quintessential prodigal brat, the young King Hal, is frolicking around with the farcical John Falstaff, who resembles nothing more than a 16th-century Homer Simpson: fat, dumb, greedy, pathetic comic relief. His bawdy dipshittery is a stand-in for Hal’s real father (the king). The king would like nothing more than for Hal to act like Hotspur (this before the revolt), who, in his mind, is the ideal valiant son.

Throughout the play, Falstaff plays the opposite tack in terms of honor, through several speeches decrying its perceived value. Interesting stuff. The play’s tavern antics are balanced with standard Shakespeare high-falutin’ battle scenes. Everything ends well enough, with Hotspur dying grandly and honorably, and the succession less threatened.

The plays vernacular, prose (i.e. not in meter) sections are some of the hardest Shakespeare to get through, and require glossing for all but the most middle/early-modern English expert.

Get a good edition with lots of footnotes. I use the Folger Library series, not because of their physical quality—they have rough paper and the reek of coloring books or newsprint—but because their facing-page notes are the easiest reference I’ve found for getting through the plays. Not by a sight my favorite Shakespeare play, but, hey, I’m making it through the histories.

3.5 stars

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