Henry IV, Part I is very likely the best Shakespeare play you’ve never seen in either play or movie form, much less actually read. Although not as well known as his greatest tragedies or comedies, Henry IV, Part I is generally regarded as the apex of his history plays, especially his cycle of British history plays. One of the reasons the play is so highly regarded is because it features what may very well be the single most beloved character in the entire Shakespeare canon, the fat, funny Falstaff. Henry IV, Part I is also well loved because it features one of Shakespeare’s most memorable villains, if by the term villain you mean the character who isn’t supposed to win in the end. This character is Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur.
Hotspur is not only a favorite of actors and audiences, but also a favorite of King Henry IV. Hotspur is admirable precisely because of his hotheaded impetuousness, and it is his ultimate misfortune to be the one knight whom the king holds up as a model for what he wishes his own son, Prince Hal, were. King Henry IV previously became King of England as a result of the murder of King Richard II (chronicle in Shakespeare’s Richard II, not surprisingly) with the help of rebels that included Hotspur. As is usually the case when a monarchy is gained through violent means, dissatisfaction with Henry’s leadership is growing among those who helped bring Henry IV to power. Another rebellion is gaining ground.
While Hotspur is going about proving himself a brilliant soldier, King Henry IV’s son, Prince Hal, is hanging out with the fat, drunk and lazy Sir John Falstaff, frequenting taverns and spending time with lowlifes. The scenes Shakespeare writes that take place between Hal and Falstaff are among the funniest-and most dramatic-in all Shakespeare. These scenes are comic masterpieces that also point up the dramatic differences between Hal and Hotspur that will eventually lead them to a showdown. Prince Hal is far more clever than Hotspur, far more of a politician. Hotspur leads with his heart. Prince Hal is playing the role of the frivolous prince, but in reality he is merely biding his time until the moment arrives when it will appear to all as if he reformed, thereby making him look all the more courageous and kingly by comparison.
The audience knows this through Hal’s soliloquy, a masterpiece of deception. Hal and Falstaff play a fascinating and insightful game of role reversal with Falstaff playing the part of Hal’s father, the king. Falstaff as king encourages Hal to rid himself of bad influences…like Falstaff. Under his breath, Hal responds that he will.
Meanwhile, the rebellion against King Henry IV is falling into disrepair with arguments prematurely arising over how the kingdom will be divided once they drive out King Henry. Plans are set in motion to attack King Henry IV at a place called Shrewsbury. Prince Hal meeting with his father results in the knowledge of just how deeply the father’s disappointment with the son goes, and Hal promises that he will prove his mettle against the King’s favorite, Hotspur. Falstaff, of course, is somewhat less than thrilled to learn that he has been given command of soldiers and will be expected to engage in battle himself.
At Shrewsbury, Hotspur learns that his own father is not well, too sick take part in battle. He also learns that Prince Hal’s brother John is headed his way with 7,000 soldiers. Hotspur being a hothead, a gloriously charismatic hothead whose speeches will remain with you long after the play ends, refuses to show concern and instead continues making jokes about Hal’s lack of manliness. Hotspur is a soldier, kind of a jerk, but he is so funny and so admirable in his way that he outshines Prince Hal. He argues that they should attack immediately because their glory will be all the greater for having defeated an army which greatly outnumbered their own. Sure, that’s totally insane, but when he urges warlike insanity it sound reasonable. Too bad our own leaders don’t have the wit that Hotspur possess. Despite his bloodlust, however, Hotspur is intelligent enough that when one of the King’s men arrives with a peace offer, Hotspur agrees to discuss the offer.
The peace talks go about as well as the typical Middle East peace talks, however. Prince Hal offers to fight a one on one combat with Hotspur to decide the whole matter; Hotspur’s uncle the Earl of Worcester decides not to inform Hotspur of the king’s offer and instead tells him that the king arrogantly threatened them. Needless to say, this news serves to drive Hotspur mad with the desire to spill Prince Hal’s blood in battle.
Much takes place in the ensuing battle, not least of all Prince Hal saving his father’s life, Falstaff getting attacked and pretending to die, Hotspur and Hal meeting face to face and Hal killing Hotspur, but eulogizing over his dead body with a moving speech. Falstaff rises from his fake dead and stabs Hotspur’s corpse in the leg, taking credit in front of Prince Hal and Prince John for being the true assassin of the great and proud warrior Hotspur’s. Hal lets Falstaff assume the honor and glory.
King Henry IV sentences Worcester to death and then divides his forces so that he can defeat what remains of the rebellion. Prince Hal’s courage and kingliness is celebrated and it appears all his partying is forgiven and forgotten and he is on his way to becoming the new Hotspur. Well, maybe not. The title of the play is Henry IV, Part I, after all. Yes, Shakespeare was prevailed upon to pen a sequel despite the fact that there appeared to be no real reason. (And you not needless sequels were a modern day invention).
It appears that Falstaff was such a popular character that Shakespeare was actually forced by popular demand to write a sequel simply for the sake of providing more fodder for Falstaff. Henry IV, Part II cannot begin to compare with the original, however. Oh, it’s not because Falstaff isn’t just as funny. The problem with this sequel, as with so many others, is that the opening has things set back to the way they were before the ending of the original. Prince Hal is back to partying with Falstaff again and the situation between King and Prince is pretty much back to where it was when the story began in the first part.
Of course, the biggest reason that Henry IV, Part II is nearly as good as the original can be summed up in two words: Hotspur’s dead. Without Hotspur, all the great scenes with Falstaff are merely empty exercises.