Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Traditional dating of this play is about 1596, for what that's worth. It was published anonymously in 1598 and then with the hyphenated Shake-speare name in 1599 (Ogburn and Ogburn 1028). The main reasons for thinking that Shakespeare wrote the source play also -- the anonymous play titled The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth -- in the 1570s and revised it into the two Henry IV plays and Henry V in the 1580s, are given by Ramón Jiménez, "The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth: Key to the Authorship Question?" The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 37.2 (Summer 2001): 7-10; and "'Rebellion broachèd on his sword': New Evidence of an Early Date for Henry V." The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 37.3 (Fall 2001): 8-11, 21. The elder Ogburns earlier had made the same basic assertions (Ogburn and Ogburn 710).

"If in Richard the Second he [Shakespeare] seems deliberately to have been limiting his stylistic range, in Henry the Fourth, Part One and its successors he revels in his command of a wide range of styles in both verse and prose and of the opportunities it affords him for suggesting idiosyncrasy of character through language" (Wells 141).

Although the play opens in mid-1402, about two years after the end of Richard II (Asimov 315), Shakespeare generally makes a "mishmash" of history in the Henry IV plays possibly because he was creating an allegory of the Scottish uprising, a near civil war Queen Elizabeth faced in 1569 (Anderson 44). The Northern Rebellion's Archbishop of York should be read as the 1569 Bishop of Ross according to this view (Anderson 44). Although the historical role of the 11th Earl of Oxford had been amplified in Famous Victories to "advisor and principal lieutenant," he is reduced in these revised plays (Ogburn and Ogburn 29), either because the secret service annuity to Oxford from 1586 onwards demanded greater anonymity or simply because he matured beyond hero-worship.

Falstaff has been among the most celebrated of literary characters because his vitality almost gives him a life of his own. Others find him reprehensible. It probably depends on how one takes subversiveness. Originally this character was named after Protestant martyr Sir John Oldcastle -- again from the source play, The Famous Victories, though a pun buried even in Henry IV, Part 1 survives (I.ii.41-42) -- but Oldcastle's descendant Lord Cobham may have objected to the portrayal as a reprobate. So the name was changed; and note, Fal/staff -- Shake/speare (e.g., Bloom 273). Fun-loving Falstaff always speaks in prose and is a "free artist of himself" (Bloom 271): a "Glutton, drunkard, coward, liar, lecher, boaster, cheat, thief, rogue, ruffian, villain," or "the very incarnation of charm, one of the liberators of the human spirit, the greatest comic figure in the history of literature" (Goddard, I 175), "Imagination conquering matter, spirit subduing flesh" (Goddard, I 178). Bloom insists that the role must have surprised Shakespeare and ran away from the original smaller intention, and the poet in the sonnets is a Falstaff figure suffering in relation to a Hal-like noble young man in the "Fair Youth." Falstaff represents how badly you can behave if you're a gentleman and get away with it, so he embodies a class system joke. He teaches us not to moralize, and he doesn't beat up on himself. "The Greeks incarnated in their god Dionysus the paradox of wine, its combined power to inspire and degrade" (Goddard, I 180).

Falstaff knows he will benefit in the future from his association with Hal. But he always says it is he who is misled by the youth. Falstaff provides part of the father role that is impossible between Hal and Henry IV. He takes admirable delight in a deconstruction of "honor." But it is difficult to admire him when he stabs Hotspur's corpse in the leg and claims he killed the warrior. At the end of the play, Falstaff may be at his worst and the Prince at his best. Or so it seems.

A few Oxfordians sense the figure of Lord Burghley behind at least early stages in the evolution of this character. But some also think that de Vere packed on some noticeable weight when he was in his 40s, and certainly some features strike us as autobiographical: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men" (Henry IV, Part 2 I.ii.9-10). Additionally, Falstaff's girth may be metaphoric or symbolic.

In a sense, courtiers such as de Vere were the true impresarios of that time, being constantly "on stage" in the public eye. During his participation in the Royal Progress of 1580, de Vere, according to an eyewitness, incited laughter from the crowds by gesturing with his white staff of office. One can only imagine. Moreover, the very name of Falstaff suggests letting fall a staff representing a symbolic dignity. (Farina 123)



King Henry IV's first year has been fraught with strife -- "civil butchery" (I.i.13) is Shakespeare's dark oxymoron -- but now this usurper king hopes to turn his attentions to the Holy Land. We might be apt to think at first he intends a pilgrimage, but no, his interest is that of a crusader and warrior, and he will "chase these pagans in those holy fields" of Jerusalem (I.i.24). Henry still maintains a melancholy anguish as at the end of Richard II, and he will yammer about going to the Holy Land through two more plays now. The historical Henry IV -- despite suffering from some kind of chronic disease involving skin lesions -- would have been about 36 years old here, but Henry in the play appears as a tired-out old man (Asimov 315). "Henry has no sooner declared the end of 'civil butchery' in the opening speech of the play than a messenger from Wales enters announcing a thousand men 'butcher'd'" (Goddard, I 164). The Earl of Westmoreland has Henry postpone the Holy Land venture when he brings report of happenings in Wales. Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, has fought successfully on the King's behalf and taken many prisoners, though he has not turned them over to the King as is expected. Henry laments that he is stuck with his own irresponsible son Prince Hal instead of the valiant Hotspur, and he fantasizes about them having been swapped at birth (I.i.86ff). Westmoreland blames the influence of Hotspur's hostile uncle regarding Hotspur's not having turned over the prisoners. Henry will hold his Council at Windsor to address this matter.

The Hal/Hotspur contrast is rather ahistorical since the actual Henry Percy was 23 years older than the Prince, two years older than King Henry himself (Asimov 321); but the parallelism provides a structural foundation here (Wells 141). Or, if one takes the plays as part allegory, there was no appropriately young figure in history to represent the Earl of Arundel, Philip Howard, "the brilliant young rebel of Elizabeth's day" (Clark 734), and so the age change. In terms of topical relevance, the Throgmorton plot against Elizabeth in 1583/84 seems to supply some substance to the plot against Henry. Applied perhaps too strictly, Hal is Oxford; Hotspur is Philip Howard; Northumberland is Philip II of Spain, Worcester is primarily Henry Howard, Oxford's reptilian cousin; Mortimer is the Duke of Guise; and Glendower is the Spanish Ambassador Mendoza (Clark 681; Ogburn and Ogburn 715). Both Henry IV and Elizabeth were viewed as usurpers by their enemies (Ogburn and Ogburn 714).

O that it could be prov'd
That some night-tripping fairy had exchang'd
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call'd mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Although Henry regrets that Hal and not Hotspur is his son, Henry also hints that he had his youthful fling too, and Hal will redeem his reputation in combat against Hotspur. A political irony is that Henry's own politics of succession based on this worthiness clashes with circumstances: Hotspur should be the next king, not the reprobate Hal. Also note, perhaps most extraneously represented so far by his reference to "cradle-clothes" (I.i.87), that "The language that pursues him [Henry] throughout the play is the language of costume and counterfeiting" (Garber 320).


Prince Hal -- another self-depiction, at least partly, of the "madcap" Earl (I.ii.142; IV.i.95) (Ogburn and Ogburn 719) -- occupies his time with Sir John Falstaff, "a grossly fat, dissolute, white-haired old villain, who, without a single saving grace but his wit, manages to be so entirely lovable as to win his way not only into the Prince's heart, but into the audience's as well" (Asimov 326). Along with friend Poins, who will be along soon, this batch insults each other and cleverly discusses drink -- mostly Falstaff's love of "sack," from the French "vin sec," which could mean any dry wine but tended to refer to southern European wines or Spanish sherry (Asimov 329), "a strong sherry-type wine, especially popular in the days before gin and whiskey" (Carey 219).

Although they are reprobates and thieves, or delinquents, Falstaff glorifies them as "Diana's foresters," "minions of the moon" (I.ii.25-26), "being govern'd, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal" (I.ii.27-29). Hal calls Falstaff "my old lad of the castle" (I.ii.43): "a fossil trace" of the Falstaff character's original name of "Oldcastle" (Asimov 330; cf. Wells 140). The character may partly have been based on Sir Nicholas Dawtry, one of the Queen's officers in the Irish service (Clark 682), although the elder Ogburns think that this overt depiction may have been a blind to the real character depiction of Burghley originally (Ogburn and Ogburn 716). Besides a "medlar" (or "apple-john") reference later (III.iii.4), the "shrewdness, greed, craft" are noted (Ogburn and Ogburn 717) regarding this "old humbug" (Ogburn and Ogburn 740).

Falstaff puns on "heir apparent" (I.ii.57-58) and requests of Hal, "Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief" (I.ii.62). "No, thou shalt," replies the Prince (I.ii.63), meaning potentially, "No, you're the one who shall hang as a thief." (Branagh transfers this in a chilling flashback in his Henry V.)

Poins enters and reports of "pilgrims going to Canterbury" (I.ii.126) -- an interesting Chaucerian glance! -- whom they should plan to rob at Gadshill (the name of both a place and a criminal we will meet). Hal wavers about his involvement. Poins privately tells him they should let Falstaff, Bardolph, and Peto do the deed, then the counterplot: they should rob them in turn and see what Falstaff says about the adventure afterwards. It will require little more than a change of "visards" (I.ii.178).

When left alone, in a soliloquy beginning "I know you all" (I.ii.195), Hal explains that he's hanging out with irresponsible lowlifes now so that when he throws off this life and emerges as king the effect will be more dramatic to the nation: "herein will I imitate the sun" (I.ii.197), emerging from behind the "contagious clouds" (I.ii.198).

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Thus "Prince Hal is pictured as not serious in his tomfoolery" (Asimov 334), although he seems to crave renown. Hal is either cold, calculating, and machiavellian (Garber 329), or he's recognizing the ultimate need to deny aspects of humanity in politics. Is it true that "only the dourest and most suspicious critic could claim that he is merely 'using' his friends" (Garber 332)? "To play the fool out of high spirits and youthful zest can be endearing; to do so out of deep political calculation is repellent. However, the speech need not be taken as a real part of the play itself. It is Shakespeare speaking to the audience, assuring them that Prince Hal is really going to be the hero-king someday and that they need not be disturbed at the Gad's Hill incident" (Asimov 334); "in educating himself to be effective in a position of power, a man may have to deny certain aspects of his own humanity" (Wells 142). But the glimpse casts "both backward and forward ... a shadow of insincerity" (Goddard, I 171). So Hal will play it out now and sow his wild oats in order to increase the dramatic effect of his later apparent conversion to the self-control of a king. In any case, this reveals his insincerity, that the fun was affected. Falstaff, revealing truth in ostensible joking, distinguishes between Hal and "the Prince." Both Henry IV and Henry V keep themselves hidden and then emerge as kings. "The hypocrite has always been a favorite subject of satire. Henry IV is one of the most subtly drawn and effective hypocrites in literature, in no small measure because the author keeps his portrayal free of any satirical note. But not of any ironical note" (Goddard, I 162).

The tavern as the locale for all the doings may be parallel to Fisher's Folly, which served as a center for de Vere and his literary and theatrical associates until he sold it in 1588 (Anderson 231). Oxford represented himself in Prince Hal in at least the early stages of development of this play material (Ogburn and Ogburn 714). Barkley, Pistor, and Mynne seem to have been among the Oxford people, becoming Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, but in blurry or mixed ways, since, for example, Pistol has Marlowe's bombast (Ogburn and Ogburn 717). Burghley sniped at the company his son-in-law kept, and Sonnet 110 may also address this issue (Ogburn and Ogburn 719).


"My blood hath been too cold and temperate" (I.iii.1), claims Henry, announcing the end of his supposed tolerance for defiant attitudes. "I will from henceforth rather be myself" (I.iii.5). Henry threatens the Percy family -- Northumberland, his brother Worcester, and his son Hotspur. Worcester reminds Henry how instrumental they were in getting him to the throne, and Henry dismisses him from the meeting. Northumberland is more conciliatory, and Hotspur claims the King's messenger was to blame for him not turning over the prisoners: the man was a fop and pissed off Hotspur with his effete attitude on the field itself right after battle. Henry thinks Hotspur wanted to use the Scottish prisoners as bargaining chips to ransom Mortimer, whom Henry considers a traitor despite Hotspur's defense of him. When the King leaves, Hotspur nearly goes after him in a rage to refuse him all the prisoners: "for I will ease my heart, / Albeit I make a hazard of my head" (I.iii.127-128). Dad Northumberland has him wait as uncle Worcester returns. With Hotspur railing against Henry -- he spits the word "Bullingbrook" a couple times (I.iii.137, I.iii.176) -- we hear a review of recent history, from Richard II's naming of Mortimer as his heir, through the Percy family's role in Henry's revolt and usurpation, until his haughty ingratitude now. Hotspur speaks of the ability "To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac'd moon" (I.iii.202) or from the bottom of the ocean.

This is Hotspur at his most one-sided extreme. Nothing exists for him but 'honor,' and it is important to realize that what he means by 'honor' is a reputation for daring, warlike deeds.... Nor does Hotspur offer to fight the Prince; it would stain his honor to take up a gentleman's weapons against such a dishonorable wretch. It would be enough to poison him, and not even with a glass of wine (a gentleman's drink), but with the low-class pot of ale. (Asimov 341-342)
"The fact that Hotspur talks so incessantly and extravagantly about 'honour' shows that he distrusts his own faith in it. He is another who 'doth protest too much'" (Goddard, I 166). And later, "When the play is done, there is about as much left of 'honour' as there was of the divine right of kings at the end of Richard II" (Goddard, I 167).

When Hotspur realizes why Henry is naturally unnerved by the existence of Mortimer, he invents a couple ways to torment Henry:

I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll hollow, "Mortimer!"
I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but "Mortimer," and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
Interestingly, Hotspur wants Henry not cowering, but enraged. Hotspur is an expert and even an artist in anger.

Worcester wants Hotspur to get over his "woman's mood" (I.iii.237) before laying out his plan: they'll mollify Henry now but unite with the Archbishop of York, Douglas, Glendower, and Mortimer for a confrontation with Henry.

"Hotspur is immensely attractive, and rather funny, in his impulsive impetuosity.... Shakespeare seems to be creating a pattern with Hotspur at one extreme, Harry somewhere around the middle, and at the other extreme, of course, Falstaff" (Wells 143). Hotspur may partly have been inspired by Philip Arundel, with whom Oxford vied in tournaments in the 1580s. Arundel was imprisoned in the Tower in 1585 for high treason in the Throgmorton plot (Ogburn and Ogburn 714).

Act II

Shakespeare Index