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About this book

This engaging double-volume Handbook explores the Henry IV plays as texts for performance as they unfold, moment by moment, on the stage. With scene-by-scene commentary, and including an account of their life on stage, film and in criticism, this guide illuminates two plays that together rank as one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements.

Table of Contents

1. The Texts and Early Performances

Abstract
One of the immediate questions raised by a consideration of Henry IV: Parts I and II is the relationship between the two plays, in terms of their conception, composition, performance, and publication. Did Shakespeare conceive of them as two halves of a single work, or, indeed, as part of a larger design encompassing four, or eight, or ten historical dramas? Did he begin Part I intending a single play on the reign of Henry IV and then find he had materials sufficient to produce a second part? Or did he write Part I as a single, self-contained work, and only afterwards decide to add a sequel?
James N. Loehlin

2. Commentary

Abstract
Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays are about many things: rule and misrule, rebellion in the family and the state, fathers and sons, the contrasting worlds of court, tavern, and countryside. They are about the state of England, at all levels of society, about duty and dereliction, pleasure and strife, holiday and everyday. Perhaps, above all, they are plays about playing, written with a theatrical self-consciousness rivaled in few among Shakespeare’s works. They are filled with performances, literal and metaphorical, and their governing action is Prince Hal’s preparation for his role as King. Hal is constantly switching characters, from the ‘nimble-footed madcap’ to the hope of England, from the tavern ‘lad of mettle’ to the bloody-faced warrior. In extemporaneous performances, he takes on the roles of his rival Hotspur, his father the King, and various versions of himself; all are in some way preparations for the moment in Part II when he must play the King in earnest. Such playing is not unique to Hal, but is endemic through both plays. The King attained his title through his enactment of majesty; Hotspur burlesques a perfumed courtier, a cowardly rebel, and Glendower; Falstaff’s roles range from prince to penitent, from military hero to surrogate father.
James N. Loehlin

3. Sources and Cultural Contexts

Abstract
In almost all of his plays, Shakespeare worked from identifiable pre-existing sources. He took characters, situations, and even dialogue that were already part of his culture and refashioned them to meet the particular demands of his medium, his company and his artistic imagination. In the case of his English history plays, his materials were, by and large, real people and events, documented in a range of sources with varying claims to historical accuracy. For reasons of prudence and censorship, he treated subjects just outside the range of living memory. At the beginning of his career, writing his tetralogy on the late medieval Wars of the Roses, he stopped with the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry VII in 1485; the very oldest in his audience might conceivably have been born under the latter monarch, but none would have had personal experience of the former. At the end of his life, in Henry VIII, he concluded with the birth of the Princess Elizabeth, who had been in power during his first decade in London; but all of the political actors represented in that play were long dead. In the case of Henry IV: Parts I and II, he was treating of events nearly two hundred years in the past: about the same distance that separates the first readers of this book from the British/American War of 1812.
James N. Loehlin

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays have been popular on the stage throughout English theatrical history, though Part I has been performed much more often than Part II. Pre-twentieth-century productions of either play were generally centred on star performances of Falstaff, or more rarely, Hotspur. Court records indicate performances of both parts during the season of 1612–3, celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine. Part I seems to have been referred to as ‘The Hotspur’, Part II as ‘Sir John Falstaff’, indicating the extent to which productions were already dominated by these starring roles.
James N. Loehlin

5. The Plays on Screen

Abstract
Despite their long-standing appeal in the theatre, the Henry IV plays have been virtually ignored as material for adaptation to the screen. The only feature film of the plays is Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966), with Welles as Falstaff and Gielgud as the King. Fortunately, it is one of the greatest of all Shakespeare films; though it is not necessarily a fully satisfactory version of Henry IV. A television version more closely corresponding to Shakespeare’s text is the BBC production of Cedric Messina and David Giles (1979), which I will treat first in this chapter. It is important, not only as the most comprehensive and widely-available video version, but because it reproduces Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff, nearly thirty years after his performance in Stratford and in a different medium. Of other film and video versions, the English Shakespeare Company’s merits mention for its record of Michael Bogdanov’s directorial choices, though it lacks John Woodvine’s Falstaff. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991, with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix) is of some interest as an homage to Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, though it cannot really be considered a film version of Henry IV.
James N. Loehlin

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
Plays as complex and varied as the two parts of Henry IV are necessarily susceptible to a variety of critical approaches. Plainly they raise the same sorts of critical issues as the other history plays, investigating the problems of government, the conflicts of monarchy and feudalism, and the tension between the sacred office of kingship and the all-too-human figure who must fill it. The plays’ hybrid generic status — ‘mingling Kings and clowns’, to borrow Sir Philip Sidney’s phrase — invites consideration in terms of their relation to established categories such as comedy, tragedy and epic, as well as the new, quintessentially Elizabethan genre of the history play. Their overt theatricality, with scenes of play-acting and a continual emphasis on the performance of kingship, prompts consideration of the plays as self-reflexive explorations of Shakespeare’s medium. Their use of oppositional worlds and paired, balanced characters suggests symbolic or archetypal readings, as does their central story of prodigal prince and scapegoated Falstaff. The emphasis on fathers and sons (real or surrogate) and particularly the vexed Freudian conflict of the King and Prince indicates a move into psychoanalytic territory. The virtual absence of women from the plays as well as the passionate relations, personal and political, between men, invite consideration in terms of gender theory.
James N. Loehlin
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