Sunday, 28 February 2021

Henry IV, Part 1

1/ The play is part of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V

Unlike Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 has comedy, and has both prose and verse. 

There are 4 different Henrys in the play (did people only have a dozen names available back then or something?), but Shakespeare is kind and makes it easier for us: 

- King Henry IV, who was Bolingbroke in Richard II. 

- His son, the future Henry V, is called Prince Hal. 

- Henry Percy is Earl of Northumberland and referred to as Northumberland. 

- His son, also Henry Percy, is nicknamed Hotspur. 

2/ Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have much more insults than other plays I’ve read. 

Poins says “true-bred cowards” and refers to Falstaff as “the fat rogue” (Act 1 scene 2), Gadshill says “mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms” (Act 2 scene 1); Falstaff yells at the travellers “whoreson caterpillars”, “bacon-fed knaves”, “gorbellied knaves”, “fat chuffs”, then says “no more valor in that Poins than in a wild duck” (Act 2 scene 2); Lady Percy calls her husband Hotspur “mad-headed ape”, “A weasel hath not such a deal of spleen as you are tossed with”, “paraquito” (Act 2 scene 3), etc. 

(Note: maltworms are drunkards, spleen means caprice, and paraquito is a parrot/ parakeet).  

I’m making notes—you never know, these insults may become handy. 

I’ve also noticed that there are lots of plague curses. E.g.: “a plague upon you both”, “a plague of all cowards”, etc. 

Now look at these exchanges in one of the best scenes in Henry IV, Part 1 and one of the greatest scenes Shakespeare’s ever written:

“PRINCE These lies are like their father that begets them—gross as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch—


PRINCE I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh—

FALSTAFF ‘Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish—O for breath to utter what it is like thee!—you tailor’s yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck!” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

The best word here that you need to know is pizzle, meaning penis.  

That is fabulous. Why did I fear that the history plays would be dry? Hal and Falstaff have great chemistry, even better than Romeo and Mercutio. Look at the bit where Falstaff role-plays Hal and Hal role-plays King Henry IV and “abuses” Falstaff:  

“PRINCE […] Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoll’n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it? Wherein cunning, but in craft? Wherein crafty, but in villainy? Wherein villainous, but in all things? Wherein worthy, but in nothing?” 


(Note: Vice, Iniquity, Ruffian, and Vanity are characters from old Morality plays and corrupters of virtue, but unlike Falstaff, who ought to know better, they’re young). 

Read it for the banter. Then the banter turns into something serious—is Hal warning Falstaff, or does he get carried away in his role-playing? It’s hard to say. Then they get interrupted.  

3/ At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare moves between 2 sharply divided worlds—the world of the court and the world of taverns (or 3, if you count the world of the rebels). Shakespeare also switches between 2 kinds of language, which is marvellous to see.

(I wonder how Oxfordians, who keep saying that Shakespeare lacked the personal experience to write about aristocrats, explain how Edward de Vere could have written about the thieves and other lowlifes).  

Now, does any character switch between 2 kinds of language in the play? Yes, Prince Hal. 

4/ I like the way Lady Percy appears in Act 2 scene 3—she clearly needs some dick. 

The more important character is of course her husband Hotspur. People understandably talk more about Hal and Falstaff, but Hotspur is also a fascinating character—he is hot-tempered, proud, confrontational; a courageous warrior who is nevertheless neither diplomatic for the court nor good for domestic life. His world is in battle. Tony Tanner notes that Hotspur is more interested in his horse than in his wife. 

There’s something else interesting: we know Shakespeare always changes something when borrowing stories from other sources; with the history plays, he has less freedom but still makes some changes. Falstaff for example is his own creation. Another change is that he makes Hotspur younger—the image of a young Hotspur is evoked over and over again throughout the play and he becomes a foil for Hal. The real Hotspur was 22 years older than Prince Hal and 3 years older than King Henry. 

Thus Shakespeare deliberately creates some parallel: Henry IV and Hal have a troubled relationship, Hal looks for a father figure in Falstaff whilst King Henry sees Hotspur as a surrogate son. 

5/ The scene of Hotspur bickering with Glendower is hilarious. 

“GLENDOWER I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

HOTSPUR Why, so can I, or so can any man; 

But will they come when you do call for them?”

(Act 3 scene 1) 


6/ Falstaff is a fantastic character, witty, vigorous, exuberant, full of humour and imagination. 

Hear William Hazlitt: 

“Wit is often a meagre substitute for pleasurable sensation; an effusion of spleen and petty spite at the comforts of others, from feeling none in itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good-humour and good-nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter, and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart's ease and over-contentment with himself and others. He would not be in character, if he were not so fat as he is; for there is the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence of his physical appetites. He manures and nourishes his mind with jests, as he does his body with sack and sugar. He carves out his jokes, as he would a capon, or a haunch of venison, where there is cut and come again; and pours out upon them the oil of gladness. His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers of his brain 'it snows of meat and drink'. He keeps up perpetual holiday and open house, and we live with him in a round of invitations to a rump and dozen.—Yet we are not to suppose that he was a mere sensualist. All this is as much in imagination as in reality. His sensuality does not engross and stupify his other faculties, but 'ascends me into the brain, clears away all the dull, crude vapours that environ it, and makes it full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes'. His imagination keeps up the ball after his senses have done with it. He seems to have even a greater enjoyment of the freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his ease, of his vanity, in the ideal exaggerated descriptions which he gives of them, than in fact.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

For Hazlitt, Falstaff is “perhaps the most substantial comic character that ever was invented”, and I can see why. He also offers a warmth that Hal doesn’t get from his own father. 

But the brilliance of Falstaff as a character is that he’s not just a funny and witty man, he’s also a rogue, a liar, a braggart, a glutton, and a coward. He’s complex and full of faults. 

Enough has been said of his robberies, what gets my attention is the way he verbally abuses the hostess of the tavern in Act 4 scene 1. He is normally a jovial, comic character, but here he is unjust, here he slanders and provokes her, here he hurts her feelings—over what? for what? Only to avoid paying her money?


7/ See this part of Worcester’s speech where he accuses Bolingbroke of having broken his oath of rebelling only to get back “the seat of Gaunt” and his properties and usurped the throne instead:  

“WORCESTER […] You took occasion to be quickly wooed 

To gripe the general sway into your hand;

Forgot your oath to us at Doncaster;

And, being fed by us, you used us so

As that ungentle gull, the cuckoo’s bird, 

Useth the sparrow—did oppress our nest, 

Grew by our feeding to so great a bulk 

That even our love durst not come near your sight 

For fear of swallowing; but with nimble wing

We were enforced for safety sake to fly 

Out of your sight and raise this present head…” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 


There’s more animal imagery in his speech to Richard Vernon in the following scene: 

“WORCESTER […] For treason is but trusted like the fox,

Who, never so tame, so cherished and locked up,

Will have a wild trick of his ancestors. 

Look how we can, or sad or merrily,

Interpretation will misquote our looks, 

And we shall feed like oxen at a stall.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

And then he calls Hotspur “hare-brained”. 

Interesting stuff. 

8/ I like that Tony Tanner writes about 2 levels of “thieves robbing thieves”—Falstaff and some others rob a group of a travellers then get robbed by Hal and Poins; on a higher level, Prince Henry IV has to defend the throne from a group of rebels including Hotspur, but he himself has usurped the throne from Richard II. 

In the introductory essay, Tony Tanner writes more about other parallels in Henry IV, Part 1, especially the concept of “counterfeit” that runs through the play. The genius of Shakespeare is not only in language and characters, but also in structure and pattern. 

9/ Tony Tanner talks about Hal: 

“Hal is ‘like’ everybody, and can beat them all at their own games. He out-policies his bemused father; he outwits Falstaff in his tavern knaveries; and he defeats Hotspur at his own chosen sport—on the killing-field of chivalric combat. He knows them all. Certainly, he is the lord and owner of his face.” (Introduction)

I think I’ll write more about Hal and Falstaff in a later post, but I love the way Tony Tanner analyse the role-playing scene:

“Falstaff playing the King is one sort of a joke—we have already gathered that he is, in some unspecifiable sense, a surrogate father, or father-figure. But the Prince playing the King—the son playing the father—is a different matter.” (ibid.) 

He then explains his point, using the text to back it up, and talks about the “abuse” that Hal heaps upon Falstaff. Then he mentions the famous line “I do, I will”. 

“At this point a chill comes over the play—over both plays—which is never quite warmed away. Partly because one of the effects of the Prince’s response is that feeling you get when someone says something outrageous, or deeply disturbing, to you, at the same time maintaining an absolutely impassive face which tacitly says—I defy you to tell whether I am joking or not. Is the Prince still ‘playing’ the King; or is this the Prince taking the chance to rehearse (‘practice’) what he will do and say when he is king? Is he still playing at all, or has he stepped out of the game?” (ibid.) 

This is fantastic. If you haven’t bought any Shakespeare, the best is the Everyman edition, which comes in 7 volumes (or 8 if you count the one about sonnets and other poems)—each volume has introductory essays by Tony Tanner. Or if you’ve got a Shakespeare collection already, get Tony Tanner’s book called Prefaces to Shakespeare, which is a collection of these essays. 

10/ I’m ending my post with Tony Tanner’s words: 

“What Shakespeare does, in these plays pre-eminently, is expose the realities of the amoral concern for power behind the pious orthodoxies and beneath the self-protective carapaces of men in high—and not so high—places.” (ibid.) 


  1. Glad you enjoyed this one. One of my favorites - perhaps a true testament to Shakespeare's genius is that I've yet to see an actor pull off Falstaff in a way that I feel fully captures this wonderful character. Yet another argument in favor of reading Shakespeare!

    1. Yes!
      This is a fantastic play. I've not seen any performance yet. What about Orson Welles?

    2. I haven't seen his rendition yet. I've seen it performed live twice by actors who failed to capture the humor and pathos in his character, and the only representation I've seen was the actor who played him in the BBC's "hollow crown" performance. That actor was better, but he also still seemed to fail to capture the essence of Falstaff. Hiddleston, FWIW, I think did a decent job of Hal in that performance.

    3. Okay. I've heard of the Tom Hiddleston one, but it seems that they cut a lot out?
      I understand the need for cutting things out, but sometimes it still bothers me a lot.


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