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Henry IV, Part I: Civil and Domestic Drama,
This review is from: Henry IV Part 1 (Mass Market Paperback)
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.