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Henry IV, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 1 | Context


Written around 1596–97, Henry IV, Part 1 is one of Shakespeare's history plays. This means that rather than taking its dramatic shape and meaning from its structure and tone, as tragedies and comedies do, it follows known historical action—although Shakespeare sometimes includes legend as well as fact in his plays. Henry IV, Part 1 is the second of four plays by Shakespeare that recount the founding and development of a specific royal family. Shakespeare scholars call this tetralogy (four-part series) the "Henriad." It starts with Richard II, continues in this play and in Henry IV, Part 2, and concludes in Henry V. However, Henry IV, Part 1 is unique because it is not a sequel to Richard II and does not require the audience to know that work.

Scholars believe Shakespeare relied on three main sources for the story told in this play. The first was The Third Volume of the Chronicles (1587) by Raphael Holinshed, a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The second source was The First Fowre [Four] Bookes of the Ciuile [Civil] Warres between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke (1595) by Samuel Daniel. The final source was The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymously written play that may have been performed in the 1580s but was not published until 1598.

The political context for many of Shakespeare's history plays was the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars between the royal houses of Lancaster and York waged in England from 1455 to 1485. The war ended with the defeat of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Afterward, the feuding houses were united when the Lancastrian Henry Tudor married Elizabeth of York and ascended the throne as King Henry VII. In the person of Queen Elizabeth I (who ruled from 1558 to 1603), the Tudor dynasty still ruled England when Shakespeare wrote most of his history plays. Although Henry IV, Part 1 takes place much earlier than the Wars of the Roses, it tells the story of the founder of the Lancastrian line and therefore helps establish the royal lineage of the Tudors. Pleasing the reigning monarch was essential for any troupe of performers in Elizabethan London.

There are no clear records about the first performance of Henry IV, Part 1. Because Shakespeare's theater company was experiencing some financial troubles at the time, it is not even clear in which theater it was performed first.

The play was, however, popular from its early performances. It is not considered one of Shakespeare's greatest plays (like Hamlet, King Lear, or the other great tragedies), but it is still performed regularly. Its continued popularity may be due to two intertwined factors: the timeless themes of honor, father-son relationships, and political order, and the great characters of Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff.

People from all walks of society attended Shakespeare's plays. The upper classes paid two or three pennies to sit in the galleries (covered seating that surrounded the stage). A higher price secured seats that were at a higher level. People from the lower-middle or working classes paid a penny to stand on the ground in front of the stage, which was at eye level. These spectators were called groundlings.

The play's most famous character, Sir John Falstaff, ignited some controversy. Shakespeare originally named him Sir John Oldcastle, after an actual historical figure, but the man's descendants protested. This protest carried serious weight because one family member was Sir William Brooke, otherwise known as Lord Chamberlain, who was responsible for licensing plays for performance. Shakespeare changed the character's name to Falstaff before the play was printed in 1598. Falstaff became so popular that the play was performed in 1625 under the title The First Part of Sir John Falstaff.

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