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Playing at History

Excerpted from the full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays available for purchase for the Kindle or Nook. Visit

In 1784, in a study of Shakespeare, an English critic wrote that “the First Part of Henry IV is, of all of our author’s plays, the most excellent.” Modern critics have been less willing to grant the play absolute pride of place (there is, after all, Hamlet or King Lear to consider), but W. H. Auden, for example, recognized its remarkable quality: “It is difficult to imagine that a historical play as good as Henry IV will ever again be written.”

“Title page of the First Quarto of Henry IV, Part 1" (1598)

It does seem to me that Henry IV, Part 1 is the best history play ever written. But it is worth noting that it wasn’t written as Part 1 of a twopart play. It was first published in 1598 merely as The History of Henrie the Fovrth, though this was graced with an elaborate subtitle: With the battell at Shrewsburie betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir Iohn Falstaff. Most likely this play was to be directly followed in Shakespeare’s prolonged dramatic investigation of England’s medieval history by Henry V, but the popularity of Henry IV, and particularly of Falstaff, demanded the sequel. But even after Part 2 did appear, the first play has always been the more popular (in large part because the audacious dramaturgy of Part 2, which is less a continuation of the historical events than a revision of Part 1 transposed into a minor key, has so often been misunderstood).

But Henry IV, Part 1 was an immediate success both on stage and in the bookshops. Indeed it was the best-selling of all of Shakespeare’s plays, with nine editions published by 1639, whereas Henry IV, Part 2 was never reprinted after its initial publication in 1600. On stage, it was no less successful, played regularly and filling the theatre throughout the seventeenth century. “Let but Falstaff come, / Hal, Poins, the rest, you scarce shall have a room, / All is so pestered (i.e., crowded),” as a contemporary poet wrote.

What ultimately accounts for the play’s enduring appeal for theater companies and audiences, as for critics and general readers, is the unrivaled capaciousness of its historical vision. The play sets before us an intricately woven tapestry of recorded history and invented comedy, of high and low characters, of public and private motives, of politics and carnival, of poetry and prose. The complex focus enables us to see not only the richly variegated play world but also history itself as a brilliantly polychromatic pageant that is more inclusive (and also therefore more unstable) than the histories written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, which were almost exclusively about what Renaissance historians called “matters of state.”

The play is a serious political investigation of how power is legitimated and also an acute psychological drama about the complex relationship of a father and a son. It is a play about both the powerful ambitions of the nobility of medieval England and the fragile dreams of its commoners. It moves from the court to the tavern to the battlefield, the triangulated locations in which the education of Prince Hal takes place. And it gives us that remarkable personality, Sir John Falstaff (“the most substantial comic character that was ever invented,” as the great nineteenth-century essayist William Hazlitt punned), whose irrepressible energies always threaten to overwhelm the complex design of the play.

But the brilliance of Shakespeare’s structure is that, however appealing Falstaff is, he is never quite allowed to dominate it. Indeed the seeming threat he poses to both the commonwealth and the play’s design is itself part of Shakespeare’s brilliant artistry. He is the very antithesis of civic responsibility. He knows that too often the claims made in its name are mere cant, masking self-interest as public good. The rationalizations, the hypocrisies and the stupidities of the public world are relentlessly exposed by Falstaff’s ever alert and irreverent wit.

Portrait of Henry IV, King of England from the National Portrait Gallery, London

And yet his critique of the political world comes at a price. If his anarchic laughter exposes the joyless purposefulness of the political world, his irresponsibility is a danger not merely to those who seek after power but to the innocents who too often suffer through the dishonesty and cowardice of their leaders. By his own admission, Falstaff has “misused the King’s press damnably,” taking bribes to allow those with the means to pay to escape impressment and mustering only the “poor and bare.” When Prince Hal says that he “did never see such pitiful rascals,” Falstaff replies that “they’ll fill a pit as well as better.” And so they do. “I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered. There’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive, and they are for the town’s end to beg during their life.”

Falstaff by Eduard von Grützner (1906).

In the tavern, Falstaff is irresponsible and funny; on the battlefield his irresponsibility costs innocent and powerless men their lives. Neither sentimentalizing Falstaff nor moralizing about him will quite do. He is unreliable and self-indulgent, but his behavior marks a commitment to life (at least to his own) over a set of thin abstractions that too often deny it. “Give me life, which if I can save, so,” he says; and that is the essence of his philosophy. He wants to live, to enjoy, to indulge. He wanders over the battlefield with a bottle of sack instead of a pistol. If his are not the most noble of aspirations, they are unmistakably and understandably human. Always he is a survivor, suspicious of all values that might put that survival at risk and holding them up to the glaring light of common sense, allowing us at least to see them for what they are.

Shakespeare never lets us either fully embrace him or easily reject him. We may not hold him in esteem, but always we enjoy him. In part this is because his lies are never intended to deceive. His outlandish exaggerations when he is baited by Hal and Poins into relating the events at Gad’s Hill are not lies anyone is expected to believe but are the evidence of his improvisatory genius that has long delighted his friends (and generations of theatergoers). The “two rogues in buckram suits” who he says attacked him turn quickly to four, then seven, then nine, and finally eleven. No one has ever more literally recounted an event. But if this is a lie, it is, as Hal says, one so “palpable” that it cannot possibly be intended to mislead anyone about the truth. And his jokes are usually at his own expense. His wit is the exercise of a remarkable verbal inventiveness and social intelligence. He may be a liar, a coward, a glutton and a thief, but he is neither hypocrite nor a fool.

Still, it is important not to let Falstaff escape the exacting design of the play. It never becomes his play. The serious and the comic interact, each commenting on the other: the political plot ultimately reveals the dangerous irresponsibility that Falstaff displays but that neither Hal nor most audiences want to admit; the comic plot witheringly exposes the compromises and self-deceptions of the political actors, devaluing their rationalizations. But always the play preserves its delicate balances.

Photo of the cast of STC’s 2004 production of Henry IV, Part 1 by Richard Termine.

David Scott Kastan is the George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale University. He has written widely on Shakespeare and other early modern writers, and he serves as a general editor of the Arden Shakespeare and series editor of the Barnes and Noble Shakespeare.
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