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Henry IV, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 1 | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Henry IV, Part I is the second of a four-part series of Shakespeare's plays and is perhaps one of the most enduring and often performed. In this play, two main plots alternate, scene by scene, until they merge at the conclusion. One plot focuses on the stressed relationship between King Henry IV and his irresponsible son, Prince Harry, while the other plot involves the Percys, a family from the North, who feel their role in supporting the king has been taken for granted. As a result, they are planning a revolt.

The play's most enduring character is Falstaff, Prince Harry's closest barroom friend. Falstaff has entertained viewers—including Queen Elizabeth I—since the play was first produced. Biographer and critic Gerald Langbaine noted in 1691 that Falstaff "never fail'd of universal applause." Audiences find him either a "glutton, drunkard, coward, liar, lecher, boaster, cheat, thief, rogue, ruffian, villain" or "the very incarnation of charm, one of the liberators of the human spirit, the greatest comic figure in the history of literature"—or both.

1. Falstaff was based on a real person.

Falstaff was partially modeled after Sir John Oldcastle and was actually named Oldcastle in early versions of the play. Sir John Oldcastle was an early Protestant martyr whom King Henry V (Prince Hal in Henry IV) arrested for treason. Eventually, the king had him dragged through the streets, hanged, and then burned. A member of Queen Elizabeth's court who was also a descendant of Oldcastle's possibly forced Shakespeare to change the character's name in the play.

2. An audience member nearly choked to death during a performance of the play.

On November 2, 1667, diarist Samuel Pepys observed a member of the audience choke on a piece of fruit during a performance of the play. He recorded that the man "did drop down as dead, being choked; but with much ado Orange Moll [the fruit seller] did thrust her finger down his throat, and brought him to life again." Near-death instances aside, Pepys very much enjoyed the show.

3. Female characters have fewer lines than in other Shakespeare history plays.

Women in the play are mostly confined to the margins of the action, reflecting their role in Renaissance society. As the character Hotspur says, a woman's role is "to play with mammets and to tilt with lips." Ironically, the monarch at the time the play was written was a woman—Elizabeth I.

4. Phrases from the play have found their way into daily speech.

The phrases "send him packing" and "give the devil his due" both came from Henry IV, Part 1. To send him packing means "to get rid of someone." Give the devil his due means "to give credit to someone you don't like."

5. A one-man hip-hop musical is loosely based on Henry IV, Part 1.

The hip-hop musical Clay, written and performed by Matt Sax, includes a relationship between the main character, a rapper named Clay, and Sir John, a Brooklyn bookstore owner. The relationship is based on that between Henry IV and Falstaff.

6. Early reviewers of the play were fascinated by Falstaff's nasty qualities.

The poet John Dryden wrote in 1679, "Falstaff is a lyar, and a coward, a Glutton, and a Buffon, because all these qualities may agree in the same man." Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare's first editor, said that Falstaff had "so much Wit as to make him almost too agreeable." And the essayist and literary critic Samuel Johnson found a moral lesson in Falstaff's character: "no man is more dangerous than he that with a will to corrupt hath the power to please."

7. Henry IV, Part 1 is why the United States is overrun with pesky starlings.

In the 1890s, a group called the American Acclimatization Society decided to bring to the United States every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's plays (more than 600 species). In Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur says, "Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak/Nothing but 'Mortimer.'" The society released 100 starlings in Central Park. Now there are more than 200 million of these loud and—some think—unattractive birds in the country.

8. Henry IV, Part 1 has been adapted for film and television many times.

The BBC produced adaptations of the play in 1960, 1979, and 2012. Director Orson Welles (known for the classic Citizen Kane)used both Henry IV plays in his film The Chimes at Midnight and played Falstaff himself. And director Gus Van Sant used the play as the rough basis for his film My Own Private Idaho, starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix.

9. Prince Hal was shot in the face with an arrow in the battle of Shrewsbury.

Shakespeare describes Prince Hal's wound at Shrewsbury as "a shallow scratch." However, the wound that Prince Hal suffered was much more serious than that. The arrowhead remained six inches deep in the prince's face, next to his nose. A surgeon opened the wound with wooden sticks "infused with rose honey" as an antiseptic. He then built a set of tongs and used them to grip and extract the arrowhead. The wound very likely left a terrible scar.

10. The character of Falstaff appears in two other Shakespeare plays.

Falstaff makes appearances in Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor. According to legend, Queen Elizabeth I was so pleased by the character of Falstaff that she asked for a play in which he falls in love; Shakespeare produced the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor at least in part as a response to this request. Falstaff's death is also mentioned in Henry V, but he does not appear in that play.

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