1. When was the play first performed?
2. Where was the play first performed?
Probably at The Theatre, James Burbage’s outdoor playhouse, north of London’s city walls, where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men played.
3. How does this play fit into Shakespeare’s career?
Henry IV, Part 1, is one of the four plays that make up Shakespeare’s second “tetralogy” of history plays. He’s already written some of his most popular plays, including Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice, and he’s beginning the decade that will produce his greatest works. Perhaps he knows by now that he is a pretty big deal, because around this time he applies for a Shakespeare coat-of-arms and purchases a grand home in Stratford.
4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?
This sequel to Richard II looks at the reign of the usurping Bolingbroke (King Henry IV). As usual, Shakespeare creates “round” characters about whom we have a variety of conflicting feelings—primarily King Henry, Prince Hal, Hotspur, and (“roundest” of all) Sir John Falstaff.
5. How is this play unlike Shakespeare’s other plays?
Whereas Shakespeare’s previous history plays have used a linear approach to the historical material and focused primarily on the title characters or their royal opponents, here Shakespeare uses a triple split-screen approach, alternating scenes of the English court with scenes of Hotspur and the rebels and scenes with Falstaff and his gang of ne’er-do-wells in Eastcheap.
6. What do scholars think about this play?
They universally admire it. They like that it is a coming-of-age story of a young prince, that beneath the historic narrative of major events is the domestic story of a father and son, and that Shakespeare manages at the end of the play to condense the complicated story of a rebellion to a showdown between Hal and Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury. They like that the play provides a glimpse of tavern life in London. They see the reprehensible yet irresistible Sir John Falstaff as one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations.
7. Are there any controversies surrounding the work?
At first. The original name of Fat Jack was “Sir John Oldcastle,” the name of a famous rebel and religious non-conformist, but his descendant Lord Cobham, a member of Elizabeth I’s Privy Council, objected, and Shakespeare had to change the name. How good was Shakespeare? “Falstaff,” simultaneously suggests cowardice, old age, impotency, and, oh yes, just happens to be a two-word antonym of “Shakespeare.”
8. What characters should I especially look for?
Take your pick. Even beyond the four “leads” (the King, the Prince, Hotspur, and Falstaff) the play is stuffed with roles any actor would want: the magician Welshman, Glendower; the Hot Scot, Douglas; the hostess, Mistress Quickly; and Hotspur’s wife, Kate, the Lady Percy.
9. What scene should I especially look for?
The Boarshead scene (Act Two, scene four) following the robbery at Gadshill is a play within a play and has everything from broad comedy to pathos.
10. What is the language like?
Where its predecessor Richard II is almost entirely verse, some of it “high” poetry, the Falstaff scenes of Henry IV, Part 1, are almost half prose, all of it pure “low” poetry.