on October 16, 2000
The lengthy title for the 1598 printing was "The History of Henrie the Fourth, With the Battell at Shrewsburie, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaffe".
Surprisingly, Hal, Prince of Wales, (later Henry V) was not even mentioned in this verbose title although many would consider him to be the central character. This play is clearly the dramatization of a struggle for a kingdom, but it is equally the story of Hal's wild and reckless youthful adventures with Falstaff and other disreputable companions.
Shakespeare did not write his plays about English kings in chronological order, but these plays do have a historical unity. It is helpful (but not essential) to read the tetralogy Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, and Henry V in chronological order. Whatever route you take, I highly recommend buying a companion copy of Peter Saccio's "Shakespeare's English Kings", an engaging look at how Shakespeare revised history to achieve dramatic effect.
A wide selection of Henry IV editions are available, including older editions in used bookstores. I am familiar with a few and have personal favorites:
The New Folger Library Shakespeare is my first choice among the inexpensive editions of Henry IV. "New" replaces the prior version in use for 35 years. It uses "facing page" format with scene summaries, explanations for rare and archaic words and expressions, and Elizabethan drawings located on the left page; the Henry IV text is on the right. I particularly liked the section on "Reading Shakespeare's Language in Henry IV" and Alexander Legget's literary analysis (save this until you have read the play). The fascinating article "Historical Background: Sir John Falstaff and Sir John Oldcastle" adds a religious dimension to the play that I had not previously noted.
The Bedford Shakespeare Series provides an excellent study text (edited by Barbara Hodgdon) titled "The First Part of King Henry the Fourth". It is a little more expensive, is about 400 pages, and provides a broad range of source and context documentation. It would be excellent for an upper level course in Shakespeare. The context documentation is fascinating and informative; it ranges from the Holinshed Chronicles to Elizabethan writing on Civic Order to detailed cultural studies of London's diverse populous. Other chapters address the OldCastle controversy and the "Education of a Prince".
I also like the Norton Critical edition (edited by James Sanderson), "Henry the Fourth, Part 1", particularly for its extensive collection of literary criticism. The essays are divided into two parts: 1) the theme, characters, structure, and style of the play and 2) a wide variety of interpretation directed toward that roguish character, Sir John Falstaff.
on November 2, 2002
When rating Shakespeare, I am comparing it to other Shakespeare. Otherwise, the consistent "5 stars" wouldn't tell you much. So when I rate this book five stars, I'm saying it's one of the best of the best.
As a matter of fact, it isn't unusual for Shakespeare's "histories" to be more interesting to the modern reader than either his comedies or his tragedies; they fit the modern style that doesn't insist that comedies must have everything work out well in the end, or that tragedies must be deadly serious with everyone dying at the end, as was the convention in Shakespeare's time. Thus, this book has a serious plot, real drama, and blood and destruction, yet still has many extremely funny scenes. And as Shakespearean plays go, it's a fairly easy read, although in places the footnotes are still neccessary. The only caveat I will make is that one needs to remember not to consider Shakespeare's histories particularly historical; they have about as much historical accuracy as the Disney version of Pocahontas. Treat them as excellent stories based (very) loosely on history, and you'll do fine.
It's a real shame that the language has changed so much since Shakespeare was writing that his plays are no longer accessable to the masses, because that's who Shakespeare was writing for. Granted, there is enough seriousness to satisfy the intelligensia, but there is generally enough action and bawdy humor to satisfy any connouiseur of modern hit movies, if only they could understand it, and this book is no exception. Unfortunately, once you change the language, it's no longer Shakespeare, until and unless the rewriter can be found who has as much genius for the modern language as Shakespeare had for his own. I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting.
on August 14, 2000
Shakespeare's "Henry IV Part I" shows King Henry IV dealing with complex problems: England is in the midst of civil unrest, as the Percy family, angered by their treatment after unwittingly helping Henry IV ascend to the throne, threatens to depose the monarch. At home, Henry IV is despairing over the development of his son, Henry, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne. Prince Henry consorts with thieves, rogues, and scoundrels - his scandalous personal relationships seem to threaten the King's peace of mind more than the state of his kingdom.
Aside from these larger concerns that frame the play, "Henry IV Part I" deals more with Prince Henry than it does with the monarch of the title. Throughout the play, Prince Henry is seen more amongst the rabble commoners than attending to matters of state. He is guided in his licentiousness by the enormously funny (pun intended) Sir John Falstaff, whose schemes and drunkenness are more innocent and endearing in Part I than they become in Part II.
Falstaff's reckless and conceited behaviour casts a shadow over the entire play, symbolic as it is of Prince Henry's moral dilemma and of the precarious state of the nation. Falstaff instantly calls to mind Kenneth Grahame's magnificent Mr. Toad from "The Wind in the Willows," and is Toad's direct literary forefather. Falstaff is the most interesting and dynamic figure in "Henry IV Part I" and certainly the most memorable character in the play.
Prince Henry discovers that his responsibilities outweigh his fondness for Spanish wine, and is called to lead the King's army against that of the arrogant 'Hotspur' Percy, himself a rising political force. Their confrontation, brilliantly scripted and enacted, is central to Shakespeare's entire Lancaster-York saga, and should be read closely and with special attention.
Of the two parts of "Henry IV," Part I is by far the best and most flawlessly executed. The King's problems provide an adequate backdrop for the development of Prince Henry; 'Hotspur' is an excellent antagonist (with the whole Percy family offering a great contrast with that of the King); and Falstaff performs his role without dominating the play, as he tends to in Part II. Shakespeare does not need my praise or endorsement, but his "Henry IV Part I" blows me away. It is absolutely fantastic.
on May 21, 2008
These excellent audio performances are a great way to get into Shakespeare the way it was meant to be--lively. Clinking glasses in taverns and birds chirping in the forest. The meanings of lines and the essence of the play come across easily through the characters's voices and the sound effects.
Shakespeare is often overanalyzed in school before students even understand the basic gist of the play. These CDs help rectify that, really bringing out the meaning of each line as you hear how it was meant to be said in the audial context.
One good strategy is to listen once, read, then listen again to reinforce and solidify.
on July 9, 2014
Henry IV, Part 2, is seldom performed today. The story, which continues the action that more or less concluded in Henry IV, Part 1, is a bit anti-climatic. So why bother? And why Five Stars? Well, first it is Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is always worthwhile, and second, one of the characters is Shakespeare's greatest comic invention, Sir John Falstaff. The Fat Knight, who also appears in Henry IV, Part 1, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and who dies in Henry V, has been amusing playgoers for 400-hundred years. He is no less funny today. Equally worthwhile is the introduction by Claire McEachern, a Shakespeare scholar and professor at UCLA. Her analysis of Henry IV, Part 1, is the finest I've ever come across. Her brilliant essay on Prince Hal's transformation is a veritable training course in leadership. She sets the stage for Henry IV, Part 2, showing us that a change has taken place in English society since the battle at Shrewsbury, that concluded Part 1. The teaming universe of valiant young men in possession of high and often misguided ideals, has been exhausted and largely decimated by war, replaced by "a country of old men," where "politics is no longer a matter of high ideals and high tempers, but an ignoble and repetitive motion of declining momentum." Indeed, she tells us that the thrilling confusion, the risk-taking of Prince Hal, and the heroic sacrifice of Hotspur at Shrewsbury, has been replaced with diminished expectations and leaders of lesser scruples, such as "the subtle scheming of Prince John, who violates the terms of truce once the rebel army deserts its leaders. Glorious death has become ignominious capture, and daring combat, cold scheming."
Even Falstaff has been affected. He's no longer as funny. Writes McEachern: "The vitality, energetic wordplay, and improvisational mockery of power that endeared him to us earlier have dwindled to a few stale jokes about his girth." It is Prince Hal who has changed the most, having shown himself in battle as a fierce warrior and an effective leader. He no longer has time to banter with Falstaff in an Eastcheap saloon, but is fully prepared to assume leadership of the English people--too ready. In one memorable scene, thinking his father has died, he tries on the crown only to be severely reprimanded by his father who is in fact still alive. At the play's conclusion, with his father buried and Hal now Henry V, king of England, he refuses to recognize his old friend in public, Sir John Falstaff. "I know thee not, old man," he says. It's one of the key moments in the play. Says McEachern: "The rejection of Falstaff by Henry V may be the most painful moment in Shakespeare."
McEachern has more to say about Henry IV, Part 2, which makes The Pelican Shakespeare edition worthwhile. The play isn't bad either. Which begs the question: why spend 10-hours reading today's novelists who are here today and gone tomorrow, when you can read one of immortal Shakespeare's plays in 90 minutes? It's food for the brain, not candy.
on March 27, 2012
Not much to say honestly, because I haven't got a thing on Shakespeare except to say I love his work, his characters, his wit, his charm, the comedy, the tragedy, and...well you probably get my point.
Henry IV Part I is personally my favorite of his plays and I take the typical stance of being a Falstaff sympathizer (expedited by Roger Allam's portrayal at Shakespeare's Globe and Orson Welles' in Chimes at Midnight), but enjoy all the characters and their interactions.
Folger Shakespeare Library has been an excellent resource for me, as I came to these plays with absolutely no knowledge of Shakespeare whatsoever. There are word translations on one side of the page and text summaries for each act, and the occasional illustration. Can't ask for more for $6, 5 stars.
What is the leading role in this play? Who is the hero? A case might be made for Henry Percy, otherwise known as Hotspur, who is an impassioned but principled rebel against the throne. A stronger case could be made for Prince Harry, the Prince of Wales, familiarly known as Hal, who for much of the play is a dissolute partier and prankster, but who suddenly and completely transforms himself when the rebels lead their armies against his father at the Battle of Shrewsbury, in the course of which he slays Hotspur. Then there is Sir John Falstaff: although he certainly is not heroic, most actors surely regard the leading role of the play to be the corporeal and irrepressible Falstaff, boon companion to Prince Harry in his frivolities and debaucheries. Yet the play is named after Henry IV, who as Harry Bolingbroke had seized the crown from Richard II in Shakespeare's earlier history, "Richard II". Thus, as with some other Shakespeare histories, the title character is not really the lead character.
As I make my way through Shakespeare's plays, I am struck time and again by his genius. Yet in HENRY IV, PART I he eclipses himself; it is a tremendous play. It also constitutes my introduction to Falstaff (at least in Shakespeare, as I am familiar with Verdi's opera). As great as the play is on any number of levels, Falstaff steals the show. For the first time in my ongoing traversal of Shakespeare's plays, upon finishing a play I felt a strong urge to re-read it immediately, all because of Falstaff, his wit and jollity, his cynical realism, and his unabashed narcissism.
Most of the nobles comport themselves in accordance with the chivalric code. Not so Sir John Falstaff. Honor? Here are Falstaff's thoughts on the eve of battle concerning fighting honorably: "What is honour? A word. What is in that word 'honour'? What is that 'honour'? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon."
And then, when Falstaff cannot avoid giving battle to Douglas, the great Scottish warrior, he collapses in a heap and plays dead. Afterwards he rationalizes his conduct thus: "I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man. But to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life."
In many of my reviews I include material to help me remember the work in question in the future, much as some people keep reading notes in a journal. There is no reason to do so with HENRY IV, PART I, as I certainly will re-read it . . . soon, and perhaps more than once.
on July 29, 2004
Henry IV remains one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, even though the tragedies and comedies get far more attention and seeming appreciation than do the histories. As an English major, I examined Henry's (Hal's) character, and I focused on his development from a somewhat foolhardy young man into a self-assured, even manipulative prince. It is hard to say which of these Hal truly is, or if he is a little bit of both.
At the beginning of the play, Hal spends his free time cavorting around with his friend Falstaff (who provides all of the laughs in the play and is cited as one of the best comic characters in all literature). In the first act we already see hints in Hal's sololiquy that he may not be as carefree as we are led to believe, and that he might betray friends like Falstaff to be the prince that he is expected to be. Read on in "Henry V" to see just how much of a polished politician Hal becomes--his battle cries and his "once more unto the breech, dear friends" is masterful in its persuasiveness and ability to induce his countrymen to fight.
Hotspur serves as a nice counterpoint to Hal in "Henry IV." Hotspur is the hothead and Hal makes his decisions calmly and rationally. This almost inhuman rationality comes into play again in "Henry V" and makes you long for the seemingly carefree Hal.
All in all, "Henry IV" is a great read and quite an interesting character study--I highly recommend it!
This is the play where the Percy rebellion begins and centers around the Achilles-like Hotspur. Eventually, Hotspur (Henry Percy) and Prince Hal (Henry Monmouth - later Henry V) battle in single combat.
We also get to see the contrast between these young men in temperament and character. King Henry wishes his son were more like Hotspur. Prince Hal realizes his own weaknesses and seems to try to assure himself (and us) that when the time comes he will change and all his youthful foolishness will be forgotten. Wouldn't that be a luxury we wish we could all have afforded when we were young?
Of course, Prince Hal's guide through the world of the cutpurse and highwayman is the Lord of Misrule, the incomparable Falstaff. His wit and gut are featured in full. When Prince Hal and Poins double-cross Falstaff & company, the follow on scenes are funny, but full of consequence even into the next play.
But, you certainly don't need me to tell you anything about Shakespeare. Like millions of other folks, I am in love with the writing. However, as all of us who read Shakespeare know, it isn't a simple issue. Most of us need help in understanding the text. There are many plays on words, many words no longer current in English and, besides, Shakespeare's vocabulary is richer than almost everyone else's who ever lived. There is also the issue of historical context, and the variations of text since the plays were never published in their author's lifetime.
For those of us who need that help and want to dig a bit deeper, the Arden editions of Shakespeare are just wonderful.
-Before the text of the play we get very readable and helpful essays discussing the sources and themes and other important issues about the play.
-In the text of the play we get as authoritative a text as exists with helpful notes about textual variations in other sources. We also get many many footnotes explaining unusual words or word plays or thematic points that would likely not be known by us reading in the 21st century.
-After the text we get excerpts from likely source materials used by Shakespeare and more background material to help us enrich our understanding and enjoyment of the play.
However, these extras are only available in the individual editions. If you buy the "Complete Plays" you get text and notes, but not the before and after material which add so much! Plus, the individual editions are easier to read from and handier to carry around.
on September 12, 2015
Wonderful. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's greatest characters. Hal is an interesting study. Other colorful characters, too. This is a good edition for teaching. My students liked it less than Henry V, though.