“It is difficult to imagine that a historical play as good as Henry IV will ever again be written” (Lectures on Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, 101). Several reasons may be posited for Auden’s high praise, but among them has to be the unique structure that many critics have defined as the four dramatic spheres or worlds in Henry IV Part One. Marjorie Garber identifies them as “each a vital sphere of influence: the court world ruled by King Henry; the tavern presided over by Falstaff; the world of the rebels, which is also the world of the countryside and of the feudal lords, dominated by Hotspur; and the world of Wales, a world of magic and music, represented by Owen Glendower” (Shakespeare After All, 318). Let’s examine these four worlds beginning with the least influential and graduating forward.
Shakespeare wrote of the supernatural when referencing Wales, a place full of mystical mountains and vales. Wales was populated with bards spreading folklore, magical warriors, and even wild Welshwomen in Henry V and Cymbeline.
Glendower, or Glyndwr, the last Welshman to proclaim himself “Prince of Wales,” envisions himself invincible, an indomitable wizard-magician:
“Glendower and his family thus represent . . . an outmoded way of looking at human events” (Garber, 319). The disrespect Hotspur shows Glendower, supposedly an ally, encapsulates the colliding worlds of the wizard-magician versus the warrior-cynic. Hotspur will rue his disrespectfulness when in act 5, Glendower eschews the battle at Shrewsbury citing he is “overruled by prophesy” (4.4.18).
The court of Henry IV is a world of skepticism and wariness. Henry has aged from the Bolingbroke of Richard II. Garber again points out, “His very first words in act 1, ‘So shaken as we are, so wan with care,’ seem personal rather than general or public. King Henry is a man weighed down by a double sin, the usurpation of Richard’s throne and the subsequent murder of Richard” (316). Henry feels the disasters perched over his kingdom are punishments from God. Act 3 scene 2 further reveals that he views Hal’s irresponsible behavior as an affliction caused by his sins. No longer the confident soldier/statesman, he is now full of complaint at the thought of battle, “we doff our easy robes of peace/ To crush our old limbs in ungentle steel” (5.1.12–13). Unable to dulcify former allies, he becomes aloof, defensive, and resolute. He ceases to be the tour de force we witness in Richard II. Henry simultaneously faces a second rebellion, the recalcitrant rebels/revelers of Eastcheap under Falstaff’s tutelage.
“The England of Henry IV is a fallen world, a world, we might say, made up too much of politics and plotting, and not enough of fellowship and love” (Garber, 321). Hal’s dilemma is grappling with the fine line between the unapproachable ruler into which his father has morphed and the merits of befriending one’s subjects in order to better understand and love them. This befriending serves a deeper purpose. It has a humanizing influence on Hal. Falstaff himself points out in 2 Henry IV, that the drinking of sack has, “in Hal warmed the cold Bolingbrokian blood.”
The realms of Glendower and the King have their effect on Hal; but the dichotomy of the worlds of Hotspur and Falstaff, with their differing concepts of “honour,” seems to be where his real inner battles lie.
Hotspur, fiery-tempered and impetuous, is nevertheless valor and heroism personified. The King bemoans the comparison of the two Harrys,
The king’s descriptions of Percy, “Mars in swaddling-clothes” and “[t]his infant warrior” (3.2.112–113), have a definitive mythological ring to them.
“Hotspur comes from an older world of drama. . . . He is an overreacher, a hyperbolist, a mythic figure” (Garber, 323). He also avails himself a perfect target for Hal’s parody, “I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North—he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work’” (2.4.94–97).
The dramatic construction in the welding of the comedic world to the rest of the play is conceivably the greatest achievement of Shakespeare in Henry IV. Falstaff is the Lord of Misrule in his world. The farceur-philosopher of Eastcheap, (mis)rules supreme at the Boar’s Head with his sophomoric cronies and cast of characters. Harold Bloom claims Falstaff “speaks what is still the best and most vital prose in the English language, Sir John’s mastery of language transcends even Hamlet’s, since Falstaff has absolute faith both in language and in himself” (Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, 275), and “Only a few characters in the world’s literature can match the real presence of Falstaff” (279). In this world, “The sage of Eastcheap inhabits Shakespearean histories but treats them like comedies” (276). Falstaff’s “Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying” (5.4.154–155), has become an ironic icon of proverbial comic lore. He pictures himself a pseudo father-figure to Hal, imparting what he considers wisdom but is mostly wit. “Hal is Falstaff’s masterpiece: a student of genius who adopts his teacher’s stance of freedom in order to exploit a universal ambivalence and turn it into a selective wit” (277). It is his roistering vibrancy that makes Falstaff raffish good/bad companionship for the prince.
Much like As You Like It, where everyone starts at court but necessarily ends up in the Forest of Arden, all the worlds collectively collide at Shrewsbury for both conflicts, the battle of the king’s men against rebels and the struggle inside Hal. “Hal has elements of Falstaff in his nature and character, and elements of Hotspur, and in a sense the whole play is the working out of this inner conflict” (Garber, 328). Prince Hal is the only one who connects/converses with all the worlds. He boasts, “I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language” (2.5.16–17). It is this element that makes him the exceptional ruler in Henry V Part One. Palpably his eccentric behavior is not a lack of interest in the crown but is, in his own view, an educational progression. His “I know you all,” soliloquy all but confirms this. Carefully weighing the differing definitions espoused by Hotspur and Falstaff of the word “honour,” Hal recognizes the equipoise of the burden of the public versus the private man. What better education for the Prince of Wales?
The unique four-world structure—and it is an exceptional and elaborate structure—each with its ruling crowd, character development, and sprinkling in rich humor, all seem to confirm Auden’s assessment of the brilliance of Henry IV Part One, yet it certainly remains disquisitive.