Preliminary Note on Henry IV, Part 1
[This short note has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, for students who are reading Henry IV, Part 1 without having read the first play in the sequence, Richard II]
Henry IV, Part 1 is the second play in a four-play sequence which tells a more-or-less continuous story of the first part of the Wars of the Roses, a prolonged civil war carried on by different factions of the royal family, the Plantaganets. This four-play sequence is commonly called the Second History Cycle, because it comes later in Shakespeare's career than the other four-play sequence which tells the end of the story.
To understand Henry IV, Part 1, the reader needs to know a little of what happened in the earlier play, Richard II. This note provides that information. For a more detailed introduction to the entire quarrel and an account of the different parts of the royal family see the text called "Historical Background to Shakespeare's History Cycles" (available here).
Richard II tells the story of a rebellion against the legitimate king, Richard II. He treats his subjects badly, misgoverns the country, spoils his favorites, and may have murdered his uncle (there’s a very strong suggestion in the play that he arranged that assassination). Early in the play he confiscates the estates of John of Gaunt, his uncle and a senior member of the royal family. Richard needs money to control his kingdom, and Gaunt has just died, so the confiscation is something Richard decides to do without thinking about the consequences. However, the act clearly violates traditional laws.
John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, has been exiled by Richard on something of a trumped-up charge. He returns to claim his father’s estate, which is now legally his. Back in England, Bolingbroke collects an army and some important followers, most notably the nobles Northumberland and Worcester (two brothers) and Hotspur (Northumberland’s son). Together they overthrow Richard, put him in prison, and make Bolingbroke king, Henry IV. At the end of the play, Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) arranges to have Richard murdered.
Henry IV, Part 1 continues the story almost without pause. It begins with a quarrel among those allies who helped to overthrow Richard II. They are obviously very suspicious of each other’s power. Such a development is a key theme in the play--the idea that those who base their political understanding on power (rather than on traditional legitimacy) have no reliable way of dealing with each other. Hence, politics becomes a never-ending scramble for security, and the kingdom suffers from endless bickering (the images of sickness are important in the play).
The importance of Mortimer in Henry IV, Part 1 stems from the fact that, once Richard II is dead, Mortimer’s claim to the throne of England may be more legitimate than Henry’s. Hence, he provides the rebels with a reason to fight against Henry, just as he provides Henry with reason to worry. For a full explanation of Mortimer’s claim to the throne, see the essay referred to earlier (or click on the link in the second paragraph above).
Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare’s longest play, is very largely a repeat of Henry IV, Part 1, but in a lower, gloomier key. Together both plays explore, among other things, how rebelling against legitimate authority, even when that authority is corrupt, can create a situation in which there is no political trust anywhere and politics degenerates into a series of power grabs in an endless civil war. In Shakespeare’s Second History Cycle, this succession of violence is broken only with the death of Henry IV (at the end of Part 2) and the brief and glorious reign of Henry V.
The Wars of the Roses continued long after Henry V (whose reign brought a short interlude in the civil war). For a more detailed account consult the document already referred to.