Henry IV Part I: Performed and Read

In Henry IV by William Shakespeare the uncomfortable inspiration is less obvious than in other literature, but it is certainly present. In the play Shakespeare deals with the history and war of England, he examines human nature and relationships, and he explores what it really means to be a man and to be a king. Is it possible to be a good man, husband, lover, soldier, and king, or is the myriad of masculine definitions too much for one person to embody? Additionally, it is possible that the writing in general was uncomfortable for Shakespeare, for as Samuel Johnson wrote inthe Preface to The Works of William Shakespeare in The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, history “is not always very nicely distinguished from tragedy” and “in tragedy he was always struggling after some occasion to be comic” (1501)

Any time an author looks too closely at human nature it is uncomfortable, but it is also inspiring. Writers want to share their viewpoint with their audiences. Samuel Johnson wrote, it “is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life” (1500). This close examination is disconcerting, as it is when Shakespeare explores the relationship between Prince Hal and his father.

King Henry IV in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

King Henry IV in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

In the play King Henry IV does “envy that my Lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blessed a son- / a son who is the theme of honor’s tongue” (I.1).  Whereas with Falstaff Hal is comfortable and joking, Falstaff calls him a “sweet wag” and teases him freely, with the king Hal is ashamed and uncomfortable, feeling unworthy (I.2).  To the king he says “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head/ And…/ Be bold to tell you that I am your son” (III. 2).  Shakespeare explores these the father/son relationships here, and as this is an aspect of human nature, it is uncomfortable. People may not like to think that a father and son could not be naturally bonded or that a prince could prefer a ruffian to his own father.

Shakespeare also examines the definitions of masculinity and kingliness, largely through Hotspur and Hal. Towards the end of the play we see kingly characteristics in Hal, such as when he slays Hotspur but says “brave Percy. Fare thee well, great heart” (V.4). While he did his duty in war, he regretted the loss of life and bravery, just as a king should. Hotspur in contrast is brash and violent, choosing war over staying with his wife and when he says to his her “when I am a-horseback, I will swear/ I love thee infinitely” (II.3).  The audience sees these characteristics in Hotspur and doubts his ability to rule well.

Seeing the production of Henry VI Part 1 in Stratford brought even more depth to the characters and vividness to the scenes. Not only did watching the play make dialogue easier to follow, but made relationships more clear through body language, and moods more obvious. Particularly in reference to cadences of speech and body language, the experience of watching the play was far superior to reading it because even when I did not comprehend the dialogue I could observe body language and tone of voice and expand my understanding. For example, the conversations between Falstaff and Hal were rather confusing to me when I read the play because they changed moods, threw insults, and joked with each other often.

Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV Part I from the RSC Production Photos

I was sometimes unsure if Falstaff was really being insulting or insulted. Seeing the amusement and camaraderie in the expressions of the actors when one called another a “mad wag” made the jests more obvious and the friendship truer. Additionally the characters came through more vividly when we saw the play performed. For example the way Hal is portrayed through actions that were not necessarily in the written play put his character in perspective. He is much more likable as a character, full of feeling and amusement, but his reckless and imprudent ways are more obvious as well when he is seen drinking and having sex. The play exaggerated his un-princely behaviors, making the changes in his character and relationships even more clear and meaningful. Another example is the way that Hotspur acted, jumping about and laughing wildly really created a countenance of immaturity and brashness. The way he and his wife interacted really clarified the first scene she is in, when she probes him about his stress and sleeplessness. His changes from near violence to softness and love and back showed him to be a bit mad, and their marriage rocky. His character’s instability brings into question whether the roles of masculinity are possible to fulfill all at once, and shows the audience that Hotspur, at least, is unable to do so.

Photo citations:

“Henry IV Parts I & II.” Production and rehearsal photos. N.p., 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/henry-iv/production-photos-part-i.aspx&gt;.



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