William Shakespeare Context Context William Shakespeare is likely the most influential writer in the English language. The son of a mildly successful glove-maker, Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in northern England. He married in 1582 and had three children. Around 1590, at the height of the English Renaissance, he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Both public and critical success quickly followed. Shakespeare’s career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and he was a favorite of both monarchs.
James granted Shakespeare and his company the greatest possible compliment by making them the king’s players. Shakespeare died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two, the author of numerous sonnets and 38 remarkable plays, some of which were not only inarguably brilliant, but so influential as to effect the course of literature and culture ever after. From time to time controversies flare up about whether Shakespeare, a man of middling education and stature, could possibly be the author of such incredible literature. Many theories are forwarded, offering the credit of authorship to such diverse figures as Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, or the Earl of Oxford. But in the absence of definitive proof that Shakespeare is not the author of the work credited to him, Shakespeare will continue to be assessed as one of the preeminent artists the human race has ever produced.
1 Henry IV is one of Shakespeare’s so-called history plays; it forms the second part of a tetralogy, or four-part series, which deals with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. (The play which comes before it is Richard II; it is followed by 2 Henry IV–that is, Henry IV Part 2–and Henry V.) The play was probably composed in the years 1596-1597. Set around the years 1400-1403, the action of 1 Henry IV takes place two centuries before Shakespeare’s own time. In general, it follows real events and uses historical people, although Shakespeare significantly alters or invents history where it suits him. For instance, the historical Hotspur was not the same age as Prince Hal, and Shakespeare’s Mortimer is a conflation of two different historical people.
The play refers importantly back to the history covered in its prequel, Richard II, and a quick review of the events of that work might prove helpful in understanding its characters’ motivations. Among Shakespeare’s most famous creations is Falstaff, Prince Hal’s fat, aged, and criminally degenerate mentor and friend. His wit is legendary and irreverent. Falstaff has many historical precedents: he owes much to archetypes like the figure of Vice from the medieval morality plays and Gluttony from the seven deadly sins pageants; the arrogant soldier (miles gloriosus) from classical Roman comedy; and the Lord of Misrule from folk festival tradition (see the Norton Anthology). But ultimately he is a unique creation, second among Shakespearean characters only to Hamlet as an object of critical interest. The play mixes history and comedy innovatively, moving from high scenes of kings and battles to low scenes of ruffians in taverns and engaged in robberies.
Its larger themes include the nature of kingship, honor, and loyalty; its great strengths include a remarkable richness and variety of texture, a fascinatingly ambiguous take on history and on political motivations, and a new kind of characterization, as found in the inimitable Falstaff. Summary King Henry IV, the aging king of England, is very disappointed in his son: everybody in the land knows that Prince Hal, the heir to the throne, spends most of his time in taverns on the seedy side of London, hanging around with highwaymen and vagrants. His closest friend among the rascally crew is Falstaff, a sort of substitute father figure; a worldly, fat old man who steals and lies for a living, Falstaff is also an extraordinarily witty person, who lives with great gusto. Trouble is brewing in England. A discontented family of noblemen, the Percys, starts to plan a rebellion against the King.
This family, which helped King Henry rise to power, is angry because they feel the King has forgotten his debts to them. The Percy forces are headed by young Harry Percy, called Hotspur. Hotspur is a youth of Prince Hal’s own age, but is as widely respected for his bravery in battle as Hal is scorned and despised for his idle tavern life. The Percys gather a formidable set of allies around them: leaders of large rebel armies from Scotland and Wales, as well as powerful English nobles and clergymen who have grievances against King Henry. The King has no choice but to go to war. Severely rebuked by his father, Prince Hal decides it is time to reform, and vows that he will abandon his wild ways and will vanquish Hotspur in battle in order to reclaim his good name.
Drafting his tavern friends to fight in the King’s army, Hal accompanies his father to the battlefront. The civil war is decided in a great battle at Shrewsbury. Prince Hal boldly saves his father’s life in battle, and finally wins back his father’s approval and affection. Hal also challenges and defeats Hotspur in single combat. The King’s forces win, and most of the leaders of the Percy family are put to death.
Even Falstaff manages to survive the battle by avoiding any actual fighting. Powerful rebel forces remain in Britain, however, so King Henry must send out his sons and his forces to the far reaches of his kingdom to deal with them. When the play ends, the ultimate outcome of the war has not yet been resolved; one battle has been won, but another remains to be fought. Special Note: – One of the greatest challenges in reading Shakespeare’s history plays is keeping track of all the names and relationships between people: the plays are crammed with major and minor players. And some of these people seem to have several names.
That’s because aristocratic characters in Shakespeare are sometimes referred to by the name of the piece of land they hold title to, as well as by their family or given name, or their nickname. To compound matters in 1 Henry IV, all three of the main characters are named Henry! Fortunately, the names they usually go by are distinct. This guide aims to help you identify and place these and other major figures. Note that the …