Henry IV picks up about a year after the end of Richard II, and the situation is largely the same as at the end of the previous play. Henry has deposed and murdered the rightful king and is wracked with guilt; he wants to make a voyage to the Holy Land for absolution, but instead he is forced to deal with the rebellions against his rule that are cropping up all over the country. The most serious rebellions are those in Scotland and Wales, led by the Earl of Douglas and Owen Glendower. He sends Henry Percy, aka Hotspur, and Edmund Mortimer to deal with these insurrections — and by doing so, he sows the seeds for all of these leaders to join together against him in the rebel coalition that he will have to face at the battle of Shrewsbury.
At the same time, Henry's oldest son, Prince Hal, is a constant embarrassment, drinking and carousing in the taverns with Falstaff and his crew of prostitutes and thieves. Unlike in Richard II, where Hal's misbehavior is only mentioned briefly, in the Henry IV plays the Hal-and-Falstaff storyline is so prominent that it threatens to take over the plays completely. Shakespeare weaves these different storylines together brilliantly so that they converge multiple times, at the battle of Shrewsbury and, later, in the final moments of Hal's interactions with his father and Falstaff.
Shakespeare's first Henry IV play, what we know now as Henry IV, Part 1, was probably written in 1596-97, a year or two after Richard II. It was easily his most popular play in his own time. Its title when it was first published — really more of an advertising blurb than a title — is a perfect guide to the things that Shakespeare's audiences liked most about it: The History of Henry the Fourth, with the battle at Shrewsbury between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North, With the Humorous Conceits of Sir John Falstaff. The epic battle, the character of Hotspur, and the irresistible comic appeal of Falstaff are just as enjoyable for modern audiences; and when they are combined with the family drama between Henry IV and Hal and the acute examination of the consequences of Henry's political actions that forms the moral core of Shakespeare's history series, the result is one of the most complete and satisfying plays that Shakespeare ever wrote.
This first Henry IV play was so popular that, in true Hollywood fashion, it generated a sequel and a spinoff (Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Scholars are still debating whether Shakespeare intended from the start to write two Henry IV plays or whether the second was only conceived in response to the popularity of the first part. There's no way to know for certain, but the most reasonable explanation seems to be somewhere in between — he started with the intention of writing one play, realized that he had too much material, and then decided to divide it into two parts.
ISC's production weaves together material from both Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. The goal was to cover the whole arc of Henry's reign — and the whole arc of Hal's relationship with both his father and Falstaff — in a single production. Obviously, that meant that a lot of material from both plays had to be cut — 68% of the total text of the two plays combined, in fact! — but we think we have managed to keep the most important elements of both plays intact, even in this compressed form.
One of the difficulties modern audiences have with Shakespeare's history plays is that there are so many characters, and it can be difficult to keep straight who they are and what they're fighting for. So here's a quick guide to the major characters in Henry IV. As with Richard II, we'll be starting Henry IV with a brief prologue that will give you a visual introduction to the main characters and provide the necessary context for the story.
The following chart shows the main characters in Henry IV and their family relationships:
Henry IV and his family and key supporters are shown in red, while the key members of the rebel coalition are in green. The previous generation of the royal family is shown in purple; although they do not appear in this play, they are referred to often and the conflicts and relationships of the current generations trace back to them. Individuals in blue boxes do not appear in the play but are important as connectors of the key characters.
Each of the leaders of the rebels have their own motives for fighting against Henry IV, motives which are strengthened by their family connections and, in most cases, arise out of the events depicted in Richard II:
In almost every case, the rebels' motivations are a response either to Henry's own actions or that of the English monarchs more generally, in their attempts to maintain dominion over Scotland and Wales. This is one of the most profound elements of Shakespeare's plays in general and his history series in particular: he shows us not only the characters' actions but also the consequences of those actions as the story unfolds. And we see here how tightly interconnected the history plays are: Henry's actions in Richard II are what generate most of the conflicts in Henry IV.
There is actually a significant historical mistake in Shakespeare's play: the Edmund Mortimer who was Hotspur's brother-in-law and married Glendower's daughter was not the same Edmund Mortimer who was declared heir to the throne by Richard II. Shakespeare's primary historical source, Holinshed's Chronicles, conflated these two different Edmund Mortimers into a single individual, and Shakespeare followed suit in his plays. Although this is a historical error, it undoubtedly makes for a better story — having a single Edmund Mortimer who has a claim to the throne and is connected by marriage to several members of the rebel coalition clarifies the motives of the rebels and raises the stakes in their conflict with Henry. Our family tree diagram and these notes reflect the relationships as they are portrayed in Shakespeare's play, rather than as they were in historical fact.
Although the Henry IV plays are titled after the reigning monarch, Henry is not the central protagonist of the story. That place belongs to his son Prince Hal, the heir to the throne, who will go on to become King Henry V in the next play. The Henry IV plays are largely focused on the progression of Hal's relationships with each of the two major father-figures in his life.
First, there is his real father, the stern, authoritative King, who expresses constant disapproval of Hal and openly wishes that Hotspur was his son instead. The extent to which Hal has been wounded by his father's comments is made clear at one of the key turning points in the play, when Hal vows that "this gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight, and your unthought-of Harry" — i.e., Hal — will meet in battle, and Hal will prove to his father that "I am your son." This moment is the first step in the long reconciliation process that will bring the two characters together in the end, as Hal prepares to take his place as the next king.
And then there is Falstaff, the lovable rogue who steals purses, drinks sack, and hurls insults back and forth with Hal. Hal's relationship with Falstaff provides all the joy, warmth, camaraderie, affection, and acceptance that is lacking in his relationship with his real father. Falstaff and the tavern crew function like a big, loud, unruly family; they squabble and play tricks on each other, but underneath all that they are fiercely devoted to each other and always have each others' backs when it really matters. The scenes between Falstaff and Hal are boisterous and hilarious, but they are also the emotional heart of the play — which makes the final encounter between the two of them all the more heartbreaking. For just as Hal must reconcile with his father before taking the throne himself, he must also recognize that there is no place for his carefree revels with Falstaff in the world of a king.
Henry IV is comedy, drama, history, and adventure all rolled into one. The rowdy comedy of Falstaff and his tavern mates blends into a moving exploration of the relationship between father and son, all leading up to a climactic battle featuring some of the most spectacular fight choreography we've ever had. Don't miss it!