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Henry IV Part One:
Tragedy, Mystery, Comedy, and History

By Kelli Frost-Allred
From Midsummer Magazine, 1996

 

What do William Shakespeare and John Grisham have in common? Besides their commercial successes during their own lifetimes, their inimitable talent for story-telling and character development, and their ability to describe the best and worst of times in their own respective worlds? If you said “none of the above” you will have to concur, at the very least, that they make for great entertainment in 1996! From the page to the stage, everyone loves a good tragedy, mystery, comedy, or history. And Henry IV Part 1 is all of these!

Don’t let the title throw you. If Henry IV Part 1 sounds like something less than entertaining, you are in for a pleasant surprise. My first exposure to this play came in the midst of a college English class, and it was love at first reading. As I got to know King Henry, Prince Hal, Hotspur, Lady Percy, Falstaff, and the rest of the less-than dignified lot, I fell in love with their individual stories: the usurper, the restless non-conformist heir apparent, the arrogant would-be prince and his head-strong wife, the once-formidable-turned-has-been knight, and the seedy band of unprincipled “soldiers” who contribute to Prince Hal’s misdeeds.

I think I may have made my first real connection to Shakespeare through reading Henry IV Part 1. The more I read about the historical events and places and people on which the play was based, the more respect I gained for Shakespeare’s ability to resurrect these historical figures. Of course, Shakespeare took great creative license with the histories. Nonetheless, when I witnessed the play performed for the first time, the characters came alive with laughter, tears, jokes, dastardly deeds, errors in judgement, generation gaps, sexuality, miscommunications, uttered truths and lies--the full range of mortality represented in the world of Henry IV.

You will have questions about this play: Who is Henry, and what do the numbers mean after his name? How are all these characters related? Why are the Percys so bent on usurping Henry’s crown? The story goes like this: Henry Bolingbroke usurped the throne of England from his cousin, Richard II. Now King Henry is planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to thank God for restoring the monarchy to the Bolingbrokes. Henry has a son, Prince Hal, who refuses to live up to his father’s expectations. The young prince cavorts shamelessly with the drunken knight, Falstaff, and a band of rebellious cronies. During the course of the play, we witness the transformation of the errant Prince Hal into a worthy heir apparent. This storyline alone make the play worth the price of admission. But there is more . . .

King Henry’s adversaries would usurp his crown: Glendower, Northumberland, and the Percys. The Percy linage will not go quietly into their new roles as earl, duke, and lord, because they have set their sights on regaining the power of the monarchy. They join forces, gather an army, and plan to assault King Henry’s armies from the west (Wales) and from the north (Scotland). There are some exciting scenes as the conspirators secretly plan to leave for distant battlefields. Conspiracy against the monarchy was a genuine concern during Shakespeare’s day in Elizabethan England. More than one gallant lost his head by conspiring to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, and mercy was never an option.

Harry Percy (“Hotspur”) is Prince Hal’s nemesis: If Hotspur’s father gains the crown, Hotspur will then become heir apparent, divesting Prince Hal of his title. With family honor at stake—another hot topic on Elizabethan stages—Prince Hal decides to exchange his “father figure” (Falstaff) for his father’s respect and family honor. Hal promises the king that he will forsake his past and become a prince worthy to inherit the throne.

You’re thinking this sounds like a dramatic television miniseries, right? But there are elements of sitcom in the story, particularly when Glendower informs his Welsh wife that he is off on a secret mission. He speaks no Welsh and she speaks no English. How they communicate is delightful to behold! And Hotspur’s wife could hold her own against Alice Kramden as she attempts to find out what Hotspur is up to when she catches him sneaking off with Glendower.

I’m reminded of a prominent twentieth century Irish-American family in which the patriarch bought political power using the fortune he amassed through illegal channels. His sons went on to become powerful political leaders, sometimes committing questionable acts along the way. In the end, they left a legacy filled with glamour, myth, history, admiration, and disdain, not unlike the elegancy Shakespeare captures in Henry IV Part 1.

Take my word for this one: You will find Henry IV Part 1 a stunningly beautiful and enlightening glimpse into English history. The histories are presented far less often than Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and romances. It may be years before you have the chance to see this marvelous play presented again at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. So don’t miss this rare opportunity!

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