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Henry IV, Part 1 is one Shakespeare’s most notable historical plays. It is based on the historical records of the monarch Henry IV of England, who ruled from 1399 to 1413. According to historical record, Henry IV usurped the throne from King Richard II and later had him executed. The noble family of the Percies supported Henry IV in the usurpation and the murder of Richard II. After Henry IV came to the throne, there were serious conflicts between Henry (Hotspur) Percy, his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, his father, the Earl of Northumberland, and other nobles. Shakespeare covered Henry's coming to power in Richard II. Henry IV, Part 1 begins early in Henry's reign and covers the revolt of the Percies. In Henry IV, Part 2, the civil strife and the suppression of the rebellion continue, and the play ends with the death of Henry IV and the ascension of Hal as king. Hal's reign as king is continued in King Henry V.
Prince Hal’s youthful tomfoolery was well-known story and Shakespeare incorporated this popular tale within the play. His companion, Falstaff, is based on Sir John Oldcastle, a respected knight and friend of Hal, who was executed during his reign for heresy and treason. In Shakespeare's day there had been some debate whether he was a hero who had been executed for his religious beliefs or a true traitor to the crown. It is believed that descendants of Oldcastle may have forced the changing of his name to Falstaff.
Shakespeare’s changes in historical details contribute in making the play more interesting, immediate, and effective. Henry IV, Part 1 should thus not be read as history, but rather as drama.
Henry IV, Part 1 as an Elizabethan Drama
Shakespeare's audience was educated greatly through dramas and plays. Elizabeth I, in fact, used literary drama to put forth her political and social beliefs and expectations. Through the theater, Elizabethan England was reminded time and again that the monarch was a representative of God on earth, possessed of supreme authority. To rebel against God’s chosen one would bring misery and hellfire upon one. This message was repeated in churches throughout the land.
Although such a view may seem foreign to the modern reader, there was a strong need for it, certainly from the crown's point of view and perhaps that of the people as well. England had endured many centuries of political strife over royal succession. After the death of Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, there was a rebellion and decade-long period of political crisis, during which two monarchs briefly ruled, Edward VI and Mary I. Much of the political strife was based on religious clashes. Henry VIII had broken with the Roman Catholic Church and had established himself as head of the Church of England. Elizabeth herself, a moderate Protestant, clashed many times with the Catholic Church and Catholic rebels. Elizabeth's long rule brought political stability to England, but she endured many crises, both internal and external, during her long reign from 1558 to 1603.