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The title character of
IV appears in Richard II as the ambitious,
energetic, and capable Bolingbroke, who seizes the throne from the
inept Richard II after likely arranging his murder. Though Henry
is not yet truly an old man in
IV, his worries about his crumbling kingdom, guilt over
his uprising against Richard II, and the vagaries of his son’s behavior
have diluted his earlier energy and strength. Henry remains stern,
aloof, and resolute, but he is no longer the force of nature he
appears to be in Richard II. Henry’s trouble stems
from his own uneasy conscience and his uncertainty about the legitimacy
of his rule. After all, he himself is a murderer who has illegally
usurped the throne from Richard II. Therefore, it is difficult to
blame Hotspur and the Percys for wanting to usurp his throne for
themselves. Furthermore, it is unclear how Henry’s kingship is any
more legitimate than that of Richard II. Henry thus lacks the moral
legitimacy that every effective ruler needs.
With these concerns lurking at the back of his reign,
Henry is unable to rule as the magnificent leader his son Harry
will become. Throughout the play he retains his tight, tenuous hold
on the throne, and he never loses his majesty. But with an ethical
sense clouded by his own sense of compromised honor, it is clear
that Henry can never be a great king or anything more than a caretaker to
the throne that awaits Henry V.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV Part 1!