Henry IV, Part 1: Act 1


Having now re-read Act 1 of 1 Henry IV, I am reminded why I have long thought this one of Shakespeare’s best plays. The first act lays out the two worlds of the play, the court of Henry IV, where the King has to contend with uprisings in the north and the west, and with former allies who helped him to his throne and now plot against him; and the tavern, where the King’s son is engaged with Falstaff, and a prospective double-robbery on Gads Hill. Shakespeare economically sets up parallels and contrasts between the worlds, especially Hal vs. Hotspur. He also makes clear that everybody is duplicitous.

I’ve always thought Bolingbroke/Henry IV a shrewd politician and ruler. He knows that a good way to distract attention from domestic conflict (which he candidly calls “intestine shock/ And . . . civil butchery”) is to redirect attention to a foreign enemy. Hence, his plan for another crusade. What became clearer to me this time is that at the outset Henry already knows that the plan will be postponed further. He asks Westmoreland what the council advises — he disingenuously compliments them by saying that he will act by their “decree” when it’s only the king who can decree — but in fact Henry has already decided that the crusade will be put off because he already knows (via Blunt) what Westmoreland tells him: that trouble is brewing in the north and west. In fact, he knows what Westmoreland doesn’t yet know — that Hotspur has won and is withholding prisoners. So in the stately iambs of his opening lines Henry is completely disingenuous and duplicitous with his loyal friends. What is his purpose?

It’s interesting — and surprising — that after reporting Blunt’s news, Henry says to Westmoreland that he is saddened by it, since Northumberland’s son Hotspur, “the theme of honor’s tongue,” makes his own riotous son look bad, compared to “so blessed a son.” I once imagined that Henry indeed wished that he and Northumberland could trade sons, but now I think that Henry is already very wary of “this young Percy’s pride,” and is determined to break him (as we soon find out in I.3). Henry only pretends to admire honor. So this shift from public concern to private concern is only apparent: Henry is still playing his cards carefully, and concealing his determination to denounce Hotspur.

It’s notable that I.2 begins with Falstaff asking Hal what time it is. This is not the trivial small talk that it first seems: Falstaff is in fact very concerned about time, and about how things will be different for him soon enough “when thou art king,” a phrase he repeats several times. Will they still be boon companions? Will Hal appoint him to some good office (“Diana’s foresters,” or public hangman), or have to disown him? And we soon find out that “time” matters a lot to Hal as well: he is the “heir apparent,” and is biding his time (though the clock is ticking), and at the end of the scene plans to “redeem” time “when men think least I will.”

Much of the exchange between Falstaff and Hal seems merely tavern talk, but it’s more than that: Falstaff resolves that “I must give over this life, and I will give it over.” Hal, who doubts Falstaff’s intentions, immediately proposes that they take a purse, and F. agrees, so Hal laughs ironically at Falstaff’s “good amendment of life.” This sets up Hal’s soliloquy, in which he too says he will amend his life, but shall make maximum benefit from his “reformation” by the timing of it. As generations of readers have sensed, Hal’s calculation makes us very ambivalent about him. He is playing a part which he plans to put off when it best suits him. So he is as duplicitous as his father, in his carousing (which he says is deliberate and politic, an “offense” that will prove a “skill”), and even with respect to his drinking pal, whom he and Poins plan to
doublecross and rob. The parallel between Henry and his son is extended at the beginning of 1.3, when Henry says “I will henceforth be myself,/ . . . Than my condition,” and will thereby win the “respect” that is my due. Hal is planning at some point to “be myself.”

The parallel between Hal and Hotspur is also extended: just as Falstaff says that a lord of the council “rated me . . . about you,” Hotspur says that he has been misrepresented at court, that he did not in fact “deny” prisoners. But in his hotheadedness Hotspur is just the opposite of cold, calculating Hal. Hotspur, like his father and uncle, is also duplicitous: they pretend to “love” the king, but as soon as he exits they denounce him. We now are reminded that Northumberland and Worcester helped Henry to the throne, when he was not in fact the true heir. They too, like Hal, are watching for the right moment to act. As Hotspur says, “yet time serves wherein you may redeem/ Your banished honors and restore yourselves/ Into the good thoughts of the world again.” The echoes of Hal’s soliloquy are clear: redeem, time.
You can’t trust anybody. Everybody’s got a hidden agenda.

I agree about 1 Henry IV: one of the best of the plays, and in large part because of Falstaff, who is genuinely funny. But the political/historical elements are splendidly woven with the comedy to provide commentary, often ironic, on them. I’ll give some response to Act 1, the go on to the massive Act 2.

Yes, Henry’s intentions for a crusade seem already deferred because of the threats from the North. His pious language may sound outdated, and if the very idea of crusade seemed dated in the early fifteenth century, it certainly would sound so in Elizabethan times. Maybe the best commentary on Henry’s language and intentions here is what he would tell Hal in 2 Henry IV: “Therefore, my Harry, Be it thy course, to busy giddy minds/ With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,/ May waste the memory of the former days.” Hal’s famous soliloquy, “I know you all,” sets up his turn toward the serious and shows him a certain chip off the old block. Falstaff’s desire for euphemistic titles, “Diana’s foresters,” “minions of the moon,” “our noble and chaste mistress the moon,” goes daringly close to some of Elizabeth’s favored mythic titles. Amusing that he’s going all Spenserian on us. And after this he starts to sound comically Puritan, almost his default position; he’ll give over his dissolute life and repent, and then insists that robbery is simply laboring in his vocation. What follows gives us a good forecast of the Gad’s Hill trickery. Does this comic falling out among thieves find an political parallel in the following scene? Hotspur’s characterization verges on the comic, but only verges, in his tendency to fly off the handle in his language, which his elders try to calm. As we know the historical Hotspur was a few years older than the king, so what Sh. has done with him seems a brilliant dramatic stroke to make him a foil for Hal.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell