KING HENRY IV, PART 1

By William Shakespeare
Written about 1596-97

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2009

General Note: In January 2009 I decided that Iíd like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadnít read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeareís plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play Iíve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeareís playís Iíve read and commented on

COMMENTS ON
RICHARD IV, PART I

I enjoyed this play a great deal, perhaps as much as any one of the nine Shakespear plays Iíve read this year. But it is certainly a rather strange play. We have three factions. There is King Henry IV Ė and the play is little about him really, and his loyal supporters, then there is the Duke of Wales, Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, and his supporters. They are raising an insurrection again King Henry, rooted, at least ostensibly, in a quarrel about the legitimacy of his ascension to the thrown. (That whole story of Henry IVís rise to kingship is the content of an earlier play, King Richard II.) Finally there is the faction of Prince Hal, son of King Henry IV. As the play opens Hal is young and living a very debouched life in the taverns and other lowly hangouts, and deeply engaged with the very disreputable liar and drunk, Sir Falstaff.

One obvious line of plot development is the work of Hotspur (who is the same age as Prince Hal) and his older allies to raise their assault on the king, and of the kingís faction planning how to defend itself.

However what is rather bizarre and sort of hard to swallow, is the character and role of Prince Hal. He certainly seems to be a young drunk and wasterel. Yet very early on in the play he comes out of his seeming character to tell his low-life friends, that he knows who he really is, and somehow this ďflingĒ of his youth is a sort of ploy for putting off possible enemies so that when he takes on his responsibilities, they wonít understand or know him, nor fear him, thus giving him some great advantage.

Prince Hal says:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify menís hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glirríring oíer my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
Iíll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

It was very difficult for me to accept this level of thoughtful self-reflection in one who is so into himself and the inane activities of Hal, Falstaff and their group. On the other hand, no one has any doubt about the character of Hotspur, nor how he got his nickname. His uncle, Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester describes the character of Hotspur to his face!

In faith, my lord, you are too willful-blame,
And since your coming hither have done enough
To put him quite besides his patience.
You must needs learn, lord, to amend this fault.
Though sometimes it show greatness, courage, blood --
And thatís the dearest grace it renders you --
Yet oftentimes it doth present harsh rage,
Defect of manners, want of government,
Pride, haughtiness, opinion, and disdain;
The least of which haunting a nobleman
Loseth menís hearts, and leaves behind a stain
Upon the beauty of all parts besides,
Beguiling them of commendation.

Not only Worceter, but all the other older nobles within the Percy faction recognize Hotspurís temper and yet none of them are able to restrain him as he leads them toward disaster. It is once again the throughtful Worcester who counsels Hotspur to not rush into this war without their full force and without full diplomatic efforts first.

Worcester says:

But yet I would your father had been here.
The quality and hair of our attempt
Brooks no division. It will be thought
By some that know not why he is away,
that wisdom, loyalty, and mere dislike
Of our proceedings kept the earl from hence.
And think how such an apprehension
May turn the tide of fearful faction
And breed a kind of question in our cause.
For well you know we of the offíring side
Must keep aloof from strict arbitrament,
And stop all sight-holes, every loop from
The eye of reason may pry in upon us.
This absence of your fatherís draws a curtain
That shows the ignorant a kind of fear
Before not dreamt of.

But Hotspur with not listen nor stop the rush to war, and none of these other noblemen in his faction will step up to challenge him, fearing, in great measure, the level of his anger and response.

Hotspurís decision is a disastrous one, and he is eventually killed in battle by the reformed Prince Hal, and the uprising is completely crushed.

Certainly Shakespeare is a dramatist and not an historian, but given that the two plays he wrote back-to-back, Richard II and this one, were about many of the same people, it is odd at how Shakespeare seems to flit back and forth in the portrayal of character. In Richard II, Bolingbroke, who has become Henry IV, was the hot headed one and one of whom it appeared Shakespeare didnít approve. Now in this play, Henry IV is a man of peace and measure and the angry and impetuous one is Hotspur. I found that all a bit hard to accept.

I have always found that some of the short and thoughtful short comments which Shakespeare wrote and which have often become famous sayings in our language and culture, to be right on the mark. In this play is one of my favorites, aimed at the hot-tempered decision of Hotspur to rush to war. We read that ďThe better part of valour is discretion.Ē Oh my yes.

Despite the difficulties I had with Halís character, and the weakness of Hotspurís older colleagues, I did really enjoy the play and had some fun laughs with the wasterl Falstall and his merry lot.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu