“The History of Henry the Fourth (1 Henry IV),” from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare

I’d love to know what it is about Shakespeare and his unique ability to make kings into secondary characters in their own stories. Well, perhaps it’s because he was too busy thinking up Henry V that he had to throw some of it in here first, lest he lose all his ideas.

I just find it funny that Henry V only has one play under his name, while Henry IV and VI have two to three respectively. It’s clear which king (or prince) was Shakespeare’s favorite of all.

1 Henry IV begins with King Henry IV, who is aged but not quite beaten down. He doesn’t seem to do much himself at the beginning of the play, because he’s wrestling with the morality of his kingship. He’s had to fight to maintain the throne  by this point, and there’s a new uprising occurring. Henry is stuck in his thinking because he’d killed the previous king, Richard II, in order to become king, and should he really expect nobody to try and usurp him in return if they feel up to it?

Henry is having trouble with Prince Harry, his eldest son (affectionately called Hal by his friends), who spends most of his time in London with unscrupulous, lower-class people, like thieves and barflies. Harry, the future Henry V, is really a clever young man who enjoys himself, but seems to not notice how badly his behavior affects and concerns his father. They’re largely estranged from each other til Hotspur (Harry Percy) and others begin an uprising and the father and son meet each other on honest terms face to face.

I do think it was a bit distracting having the play’s scenes swing in such wildly different directions. First we’re in scenes of tenseness, of King Henry trying to deal with the crown’s issues, and then in the next, Hal and his friends are just being totally crazy and planning robberies and robberies of robberies (Act 2 has a lot more on that)

Shakespeare was flexing his comedy muscles big time, using plenty of wit. I just suppose it’s the (mostly) fabricated juxtaposition between Hal the scoundrel and what he would become that just made it feel too big a leap.

Again, though, that could be because the play is supposedly 1 Henry IV, NOT “Henry V, part whatever.”

Whatever Hal’s inclinations as far as odd friendships go, he’s a damned good soldier, and when his father needs him, he can rally his drinking buddies to go to war and fight beside him. More about Hal’s early service between the events of Richard II to 1 Henry IV can be found in Shakespeare’s English Kings. And there’s just a touch of his bravery on the field in this one.

I think it’s a great character study of a play, but I do feel it’s a bit misleading. Honestly, for a play called 1 Henry IV, I would expect to learn a lot more about the man…but then again, maybe his role at this point is to safeguard the throne til his death and Hal’s ascension.

I suspect that’s all Shakespeare had to say about that…for now. Part 2 will come about much later in the reading timeline, and then Henry V will come eventually.

For now, some notable quotables:

SIR JOHN: …I have peppered two of them. Two I am sure I have paid–two rogues in buckram suits. I tell thee what, Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse. Thou knowest my old ward–[he stands as if to fight] here I lay, and thus I bore my point. Four rogues in buck ram let drive at me.

PRINCE HARRY: What, four? Thou saidst but two even now.

SIR JOHN: Four, Hal, I told thee four.

POINS: Ay, ay, he said four.

SIR JOHN: These four came all afront, and mainly thrust at me. I made me no more ado, but took all their seven points in my target, thus. [he wards himself with his buckler]

PRINCE HARRY: Seven? Why, there were but four even now.

SIR JOHN: In buckram?

POINS: Ay, four in buckram suits.

SIR JOHN: Seven, by these hilts, or I am a villain else.

PRINCE HARRY (to Poins): Prithee, let him alone. We shall have more anon.

–Act 2, Scene 5

KING HENRY: I know not whether God will have it so

For some displeasing service I have done,

That in his secret doom out of my blood

He’ll breed revengement and a scourge for me,

But thou dost in they passages of life

Make me believe that thou art only marked

For the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven

To punish my misreadings. Tell me else,

Could such inordinate and low desires,

Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts,

Such barren pleasures, rude society,

As thou art matched withal and grafted to,

Accompany the greatness of thy blood,

And hold their level with thy princely heart?

PRINCE HARRY: So please your majesty, I would I could

Quit all offences with as clear excuse

As well as I am doubtless I can purge

Myself of many I am charged withal;

Yet such extenuation let me beg

As, in reproof of many tales devised–

Which oft the ear of greatness needs must hear

By smiling pickthanks and base newsmongers–

I may, for some things true wherein my youth

Hath faulty wandered and irregular,

Find pardon on my true submission.

–Act 3, Scene 2


Oh boy, the end of the book can’t come soon enough…only because I promised myself I’d finish reading all these plays and helpful guides, THEN see The Hollow Crown series. Can’t wait to see Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/Henry V for longer than a few seconds.

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