Rewriting History in Henry IV
The master of historiography is, perhaps, Shakespeare as evidenced by his History Plays. Whereas most writers merely borrow from history to fuel their creative fires, Shakespeare goes so far as to rewrite history. The First Part of Henry the Fourth follows history fairly closely, and Shakespeare draws this history primarily from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland and from Samuel Daniel’s verse epic The Civil Wars (Abrams 823).
The play opens shortly after Henry Bolingbroke has usurped the throne from Richard II, becoming the fourth King Henry, and changing the royal lineage from the House of Plantagenet to the House of Lancaster. In the opening sequence, Henry IV is in the process of vowing peace in England and promising a crusade to liberate the Holy Land. No motive for this crusade surfaces in 1 Henry IV, other than the fact that it is some unfinished business from Shakespeare’s preceding play Richard II (Kelly 214). Henry’s pledge of civil peace is ironic because during this first scene he receives word that his troops have been overtaken by Glendower in Wales, and Hotspur has met and defeated the Scots in the North (1.1.36-61). To the news, the King replies, “It seems then that the tidings of this broil / Brake off our business for the Holy Land” (1.1.47-8). Postponing the business in Jerusalem, Henry IV eventually leads England into civil war with Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury. These actions will ultimately ignite the War of the Roses between the Lancasters (Henry IV’s family) and the Yorks (descendants of Richard II).
The play then shifts its focus to the younger Henry, nicknamed Hal. Shakespeare portrays the …
… as king. Shakespeare the Historian is not so wonderful as Shakespeare the Playwright, yet through Shakespeare’s History Plays many modern readers draw their knowledge of the history prior to Shakespeare.
* Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
* Jacob, E. F. The Fifteenth Century: 1399-1485. London: Oxford UP, 1961.
* Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare’s Histories. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970.
* McFarlane, K. B. Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights. London: Oxford UP, 1972.
* Rowse, A. L. Bosworth Field: From Medieval to Tudor England. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
* Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. Ed. M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1, 6th ed. New York: Norton, 1993.