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The most influential writer in
all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to
a successful middle-class glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded
no further. In 1582 he married an older woman,
Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he
left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor
and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and
Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England
and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns
of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James
I (ruled 1603–1625),
and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s
company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members
the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired
to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age
of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries
such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various
editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century
his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was
well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works
led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth
of biographical information has left many details of Shake-speare’s
personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded
from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s
plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the
Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support
for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory
is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary,
Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays
and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy
of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays
seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming
so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature
and culture ever after.
Henry IV, Part 1, more
commonly referred to as 1 Henry IV, is one
of Shakespeare’s history plays. It forms the second part of a tetralogy,
or four-part series, that deals with the historical rise of the English
royal House of Lancaster. (The tetralogy proceeds in the following
order: Richard II,
IV, 2 Henry IV—that
is, Henry IV, Part 2—and Henry
V.) 1 Henry IV was
probably composed in the years 1596–1597.
Set in the years 1402–1403, the
action of 1 Henry IV takes
place nearly two centuries before Shakespeare’s own time. In general,
it follows real events and uses historical figures, although Shakespeare significantly
alters or invents history where it suits him. For instance, the
historical Hotspur was not the same age as Prince Harry, and Shakespeare’s
Mortimer is a conflation of two separate individuals. The play refers
back to the history covered in Richard II (which
can be considered its prequel), and a familiarity with the events
of Richard II is helpful for understanding the
motivations of various characters in 1 Henry
Among Shakespeare’s most famous creations is Falstaff,
Prince Harry’s fat, aged, and criminally degenerate mentor and friend. -Falstaff’s
irreverent wit is legendary. He has many historical precedents:
he owes much to archetypes like the figure of Vice from medieval
morality plays and Gluttony from medieval pageants about the seven
deadly sins. His character also draws on both the miles
gloriosus figure, an arrogant soldier from classical Greek
and Roman comedy, and the Lord of Misrule, the title given an -individual appointed
to reign over folk festivities in medieval England. Ultimately,
however, Falstaff is a Shakespearean creation, second among Shakespearean
characters only to Hamlet as a subject of -critical interest.
The play mixes history and comedy innovatively, moving
from lofty scenes involving kings and battles to base scenes involving
ruffians drinking and engaging in robberies. 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.
Shakespeare’s so-called history plays are generally thought
to constitute a distinct genre. They differ somewhat in tone, form,
and focus from Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and romances.
Many of Shakespeare’s other plays are set in the historical past
and even treat similar themes, such as kingship and revolution—Julius
Caesar and Hamlet, for instance. However,
the eight works known as the history plays have several additional
things in common: they form a linked series, they are set in late
medieval England, and they deal with the rise and fall of the House
of Lancaster (a period that later historians often referred to as
the Wars of the Roses).
Shakespeare wrote his most important history plays in
two tetralogies, or sequences of four plays apiece. The first series,
written near the start of his career (roughly 1589–1593),
1 Henry VI,
3 Henry VI, and Richard
III, and covers the fall of the Lancaster dynasty—that
is, events in English history between about 1422 and 1485.
The second series, written at the height of Shakespeare’s career
covers English history from around 1398 to 1420.
This series consists of Richard II and the most
famous history plays of all,
2 Henry IV, and Henry
V. There are two other, less-celebrated history plays: King
John, whose title figure ruled from 1199 to 1216, and All
Is Well, which takes the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547)
as its subject.
Although the events he writes about occurred some two
centuries before his own time, Shakespeare expected his audience
to be familiar with the characters and events he was describing.
The battles among houses and the rise and fall of kings were woven
into the cultural fabric of England and formed an integral part
of the country’s patriotic legends and national mythology. One might
compare this knowledge to the American public’s general awareness
of the events and figures surrounding the American Revolution, which
occurred more than two centuries ago. As it did for the English
commoners of Shakespeare’s era, the passage of time has obscured
for us many of the specific details of important historical events,
and thus the heroes and battles of an event like the American Revolution
are, to some degree, cloaked in myth. Shakespearean history is similarly often
inaccurate in its details, although it reflects popular conceptions
of history. (A famous example is Shakespeare’s portrayal of the defeated
Richard III in the play of that name as an evil, malformed hunchback.
Popular mythology of the time conceived of Richard as a hunchback,
but little historical evidence supports the legend, and portraits
from Richard’s own era do not depict him as such).
Shakespeare drew on a number of sources in writing his
history plays, as he did in nearly all his work. His primary source
for historical material, however, is generally agreed to be the
second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s massive work The Chronicles
of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1587.
Holinshed’s account provides the fundamental chronology of events
that Shakespeare follows, alters, or conveniently ignores to suit
his dramatic purposes. Holinshed’s work was only one of an entire
genre of historical chronicles, which were popular at the time.
Shakespeare may well have used any number of other sources; for Richard
II, for example, scholars have suggested at least seven
possible primary sources.
An important question that preoccupies the characters
in the history plays and that links these plays is whether the king
of England is divinely appointed—that is, whether he is God’s “deputy anointed
in his sight,” as John of Gaunt says in Richard II (I.ii.38). If
such is the case, then the overthrow, deposition, or, worst of all, murder
of a king is akin to blasphemy. In Shakespeare’s works, as in the
classical Greek tragedies (such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia),
such an act may cast a long shadow over the reign of the king who
deposes or murders his predecessor, and even over his descendants.
This shadow, which manifests itself in the form of literal ghosts
in plays such as Hamlet,
Caesar, and Richard III, also looms over Richard
II and its sequels. In the play that bears his name, -Richard
II is haunted by a politically motivated murder—not that of an actual
king but that of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.
After his eventual overthrow, the new king, Henry IV, is, in turn,
haunted by his own responsibility for Richard’s overthrow and eventual
murder. This shadow hangs over both the plays that bear Henry IV’s
name. Only after Henry IV’s death does his own son, Henry V, symbolically
prove himself worthy to wear the crown and rule as king of England.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV, Part 1!