Theme and Text
Early Modern History Plays
William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV (1596–97)
For this seminar, please be prepared to respond to the following discussion points…
- What defines history plays as a literary genre is the connection to and reworking of a historical narrative. The earliest forms of history plays (known more widely as Greek tragedies) blended narratives of historical events with mythology and supernatural elements. The Medieval theatre continued this tradition of treating historical narratives as stories rather than verifiable events, focusing on religious narratives about saints and moral education. In the early modern period, history and historical narratives acquire a new use—namely, historical events are used to justify or question contemporary policies or political institutions, sometimes explicitly for the purpose of political propaganda. In Elizabethan England, the popularity of history plays went hand in hand with national sentiments, consolidating a sense of a shared national history, language, and national pride. Shakespeare’s history plays continue the genre’s concern with questions of political legitimacy, royal succession, and republican agitation, but they significantly deviate, stylistically, from the established genre of history plays as propagandistic. One way to sum up Shakespeare’s achievement is that his history plays use historical narratives to capture in style (through linguistic equivocations, character ambiguity, and complex thematic concerns) the dramatic decline of the medieval world and the advent of the modern social and political order.
Read James Knowles’ essay on the play and discuss what aspects of that new modern political and social order are highlighted in 1 Henry IV and how they relate to the play’s style.
- Consider the title of the play in the Stationers’ Register, 25 February 1598, when it first appeared in print: “The historye of Henry the IVth with his battle of Shrewsbury against Henry Hottspurre of the Northe with the conceipted mirthe of Sir John Falstoff.” Discuss how this title frames the play’s thematic concerns and the balance between its serious subject and entertainment value.
- Critics have argued that Shakespeare uses contrasts of place and character foils to capture the new social dynamic between high and low, noble and ordinary, honour and cowardice. Discuss Prince Henry (Hal) as bridging the different social orders and as prefiguring the new type of political ruler.
- Finally, discuss the character of Falstaff in the play. In what sense is Shakespeare’s characterization of Falstaff contradictory and why? Is he cowardly (as early critics read him), or shrewd (as later readers saw him), or is he an experienced realist and a creative genius, whose humour and wit are liberating like “the bliss of freedom” (A. C. Bradley)? Find textual evidence to give your reading of Falstaff.