It will surprise no one to know that Shakespeare took a fair amount of creative liberty when presenting the history of Henry IV’s reign. He did this in part to create a more compelling story and in part to satisfy the Tudor propaganda that was extremely relevant to his ability to produce plays. First, he shows Henry’s reign as one that was filled with turmoil from beginning to end, when in reality, most of Henry’s reign was pretty boring. Second, he takes the characters of Hotspur and Hal and makes them of similar age to create a sort of rivalry between the two. Finally, Prince Hal (Henry V) is shown to be quite the rapscallion and not very princely at all. These changes speak both to Shakespeare’s abilities as a storyteller and the political climate of the time it was produced. By introducing these changes to students from the beginning, we can create a deeper dialogue about why certain narrative decisions were made.
Rebellion During Henry’s Rule
During the first few years of Henry’s reign, he faced pushback and outright rebellion from many of the Lords that had put him on the throne. He had set the dangerous precedent of overthrowing an unfit ruler. There were several key factors that led to the early rebellions. There was Edmund Mortimer on the border with Wales that was the rightful heir to the throne under Richard II, so when he was captured, Henry was only too happy to see him go. Then, the Scottish started encroaching on English land, so troops had to be sent North. Despite their successful campaigns and key captives, Northumberland and his son, Hotspur were not duly compensated for their efforts. The crown did not have enough money to fulfill promises, so a fight began over captives and ransoms. Along with everything mentioned above, there were also complicated family loyalties that eventually led to some of Henry’s allies abandoning him for the rebels.
The Tudors, especially Elizabeth, were not fans of usurpers, so Henry IV was not to be hailed as a hero. His unjust taking of the throne could only be shown as leading to chaos throughout the country. The idea being that this would dissuade any rebellions against the Tudor monarchy. Of course, this idea was also more compelling from a story standpoint. The fact that early rebellion was quashed and the final years of Henry IV’s reign were rather peaceful did not make for an interesting play, so Shakespeare shortened Henry’s reign and made it full of conflict and political intrigue. He had to sell those tickets after all.
Hotspur and Prince Hal
In reality, Henry Percy (Hotspur) was about a decade older than Prince Hal, so they weren’t exactly contemporaries. However, Shakespeare aged up Hal and aged down Hotspur to set up a rivalry between the two noble sons. Hotspur is the golden boy to Hal’s black sheep. He is a perfect example of chivalry and honor. He is well accomplished in battle, especially for his age, and has every reason to make his father proud. Hal is pretty much the exact opposite in every way, which we will discuss in more detail below. Even Hal has to acknowledge that in the end, if he is to be a successful King, he will have to be more like Hotspur. He contrives his own redemption story.
By putting the two men in direct competition, Shakespeare sets up an example of who Prince Hal will have to become. He creates an endpoint for Hal’s story that invests the audience into Prince Hal’s story. It makes the moment when Hal slays Hotspur in battle more poignant to the story.
The Tudor Myth of Prince Hal
Henry V, as we saw in Henry VI, was widely remembered for his heroic victories in France. He built and English empire, so it wasn’t super convenient for the Tudor’s to have overthrown his legacy. But, Henry V was well-loved for that victory. They couldn’t just pretend his awesome conquering of France was actually terrible. Elizabeth still laid claim to France in her title, despite not holding any lands there. So, they spread the word that, as a young man, Henry V was all together unprincely and debaucherous. They created the story that Hal surrounded himself with drunkards and even took to highway robbery for awhile. However, Hal was the Prince of Wales we would almost certainly know about him being a thief and most of the time he was holding down the fort in Wales. He didn’t stumble out of a tavern and win a big battle. He had proven his military prowess.
Shakespeare was able to serve to purposes by writing the tavern scenes. First, he satisfied the Tudor political machine. Second, he created some of the best characters he ever wrote, such a John Falstaffe. By giving Hal this redemption arc, he could bridge the gap between the Tudor myth and Henry V’s legacy. He made it so both men could exist in the minds of the English people. Plus, he wouldn’t get jailed for writing a play that made Queen Elizabeth mad.
It is crucial when walking into any history play to have a basic understanding of the actual history involved. However, it is especially crucial for the Henriad because this understanding can allow for a deeper reading experience. As students work through the play, they can explore what may have influenced Shakespeare as he wrote. What changes were made for the sake of story? What changes were made because of the political climate? We will likely never know the whole answer, but interesting discussion can happen along the way.