“O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal — God forgive thee for it!”

Henry IV, Part One

Act One

By Dennis Abrams


Major Characters

King Henry IV (sometimes known as Bolingbroke)

Prince Harry, Prince of Wales, Henry IV’s eldest son and heir (also known as Hal)

Lord John of Lancaster, a younger son of Henry IV

Earl of Westmoreland and Sir Walter Blunt, supporters of the King


Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, leader of the rebels

Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, Northumberland’s younger brother

Sir Henry (Harry) Percy, Northumberland’s son and heir (known as Hotspur)

Lord Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, Hotspur’s brother-in-law

Lady Mortimer, Mortimer’s wife

Owain Glyndwr (Owen Glendower), a Welsh lord, Lady Mortimer’s father

Archibald, Earl of Douglas, a Scottish lord

Sir Richard Vernon, an English knight

Richard le Scorpe, Archbishop of York

Sir Michael, a member of the Archbishop’s household

Lady Percy, Hotspur’s wife and Mortimer’s sister (known as Kate)

Lady Mortimer, Glyndwr’s daughter and Mortimer’s wife


Sir John Falstaff, one of Hal’s companions (called Oldcastle) in the early printed texts)

Falstaff’s followers:  Edward (Ned) Poins, Bardolph, and Peto

Mistress Quickly, hostess of an Eastcheap tavern

Francis, a barman, and a Vintner (tavern-keeper)


In print by 1509, I Henry IV was most likely first performed in the summer of 1596 (soon after Richard II, its chronological predecessor).


As with his other histories, Shakespeare put Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587 edition) and possibly Halle’s Union (1548) to good use.  It seems likely that he also read Samuel Daniel’s verse Civil Wars (1595), chronicles by John Stow and the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry V (c. 1580s).


Both highly topical and immediately popular, the play was published in 1598 (a few fragments still survive of what is called Q0) and reprinted seven more times (Q1-7) by 1632.  An altered version was printed in the First Folio of 1623.


Act One:  (action continued from Richard II – does anyone need a quick recap?)  Henry Bolingbroke, new to the throne, is already battling his first rebellion.  Mortimer has been taken prisoner by the Welsh rebel Glyndwr (known as Owen Glendower), though the King’s forces have succeeded in the north, where Hotspur has defeated the Scots.  In contrast, Henry’s wastrel son, Prince Hal, is boozing with cronies rather than fighting for his father.  At a tavern, Hal conspires with Poins to play a practical joke on their friend Falstaff – who has turned to highway robbery to pay his bills – by robbing him in disguise.  Hotspur, meanwhile, has withdrawn his co-operation until the King pays Mortimer’s ransom.  When he refuses – denouncing Mortimer as a traitor – Hotspur is enraged and plots rebellion against him.


The grand theme of Shakespeare’s “second tetralogy,” the group of four plays stretching from Richard II to Henry V, is the so-called “Tudor Myth”, which held that the deposition of Richard II by Bolingbroke fatally weakened the English throne and directly instigated the Wars of the Roses (remember those?) – a conflict that was brought to a close only by the accession of Henry Tudor in 1485.  In 1 Henry IV, those somewhat abstract arguments, extensively worked over by the Tudor-friendly historiographers who were Shakespeare’s reading, acquire a somewhat somber human dimension.  Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles make it abundantly clear that Henry’s “unquiet” rule was caused by his usurpation:  “his regiment [reign],” the historian explains, confronted “the hatred of his people, the heart grudgings of his courtiers, and the peremptory practices of both together.”

But in Shakespeare’s masterful Part I, the King’s tragedy – which will eventually grow into the tragedy of England, as we already learned from the Henry VI plays (remember those?  They begin, as you recall with the funeral of Henry V) – is less than half the story.  The playwright shifts the conflict into another generation, and what results is a kind of competitive comedy between King Henry’s wastrel son Hal, Prince of Wales, and his dashing rival Hotspur, son of the King’s main foe, Northumberland.  Historically spurious though it is (the real-life Henry Percy was over twenty years older than Henry), this dynamic story of two young sons competing for supremacy dominates the action of the play, offsetting the political narrative and often threatening, it seems to eclipse it altogether.  (Of course, along with the battle of the two sons is the battle of the two fathers, Henry IV and Falstaff over Prince Hal.  More on this later.)

At first it seems as if there will not be much in the way of competition:  while Hal is seemingly content (or is he?) to while away the hours with various “low-life” types, Hotspur is where any young nobleman worth his salt is supposed to be – out on the battlefield – a source of some discomfort to Hal, who wittily, but perhaps nervously at the same time, satirizes him as a man “that kills some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life!  I want work.”  (2.5. 103-6).  Hal’s father is altogether less than happy about the contrast between the two, unable to think about much else.  Henry expresses his “envy” that “my lord Northumberland/Should be the father to so blest a son –“

A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,

Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,

Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride –

Whilst I by looking on the praise of him

See riot and dishonour stain the brow

Of my young Harry.  O, that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

In cradle clothes our children where they lay,

And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

Far from fearing that Hal is not his own child, the King actively wishes he were someone else’s.  Though his frustration is deeply ironic – this disregard for the niceties of inheritance is one reason why he is the one sitting on the throne – it is also agonizingly real:  a father’s grief that his son simply will not be as he should.

But it’s not like Hotspur’s relationship with his own father is any more productive or satisfying.  While Northumberland is a wily politician with a strong sense of self-preservation, his son is the polar opposite.  Hotspur’s brilliance and chutzpah make him a natural in battle – as well as a fiery figure on stage (Olivier shined in this role) – but leave him utterly at sea in the messier world of interpersonal politics.  Committed to knightly integrity and a strict moral code, he cannot stand “this ingrate and cankered Bolingbroke,” “this vile politician,” the “king of smiles” who has (in his view) glad-handed himself onto the English throne.  While Richard’s usurpation is a matter of political regret for King Henry – a miscalculation, perhaps – Hotspur vows to “empty all these veins,/And shed my dear blood drop by drop in the dust” in order to avenge it.  “By heaven,” he exclaims imperiously to his father,

     methinks it were an easy leap

To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,

Or dive into the bottom of the deep,

Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,

And pluck up drowned honour by the locks,

So he that doth redeem her thence might wear,

Without corrival, all her dignities.

As an angry young man, only Coriolanus comes close – and the parallel doesn’t bode well.  As Worcester wearily notes, Hotspur is addicted to his imagination:  “he apprehends a world of figures here,/Not the form of what he should attend.”  Brilliant though his wit is – and we see it deployed to devastating effect as he vies with the other rebels for supremacy – it will be one reason for his downfall.

From Tony Tanner:

Richard II contains no comedy – and no prose.  As befits, it might justly be thought, its almost continuously ceremonial, even sacramental (no matter how inverted) character.  Henry IV very notably, indeed explosively, has both comedy and prose – and this difference allows us to glance at a major problem, or at least a determining factor, for Shakespeare when he wrote his history plays.  To put it very simply, as a creative dramatist he is hemmed in by history.  When it comes to events – let us unblushingly call them the facts – he is limited by, and pretty strictly adheres to, the chronicles.  Of course, within these givens he can be, as we have seen, marvelously adroit and inventive, with his conflations, rearrangings, telescopings, omissions, and – though these are comparatively rare – additions.  And it goes without saying that, when it comes to revelation of motive and exhibition of character, Shakespeare has and takes all the liberties he wants.  Just occasionally, it seems as if he is on the brink of pushing history off in a non-historical direction (in King John for example), but he always comes back to the facts as then known.  His Richard III may multiply his murders unconscionably, but will have to turn up to meet his fate at Bosworth.  Prince Hall can spend as may, entirely legendary, hours in taverns as Shakespeare decides, but he has a date he must keep at Shrewsbury (albeit Shakespeare takes great liberties with the ages of the leading players).  And when Hal speaks a prince, in princely mode, he speaks poetry.  History, it seems, demands the muse.

But bringing in a figure like Falstaff (though, to be sure, there isn’t another figure in literature ‘like’ Falstaff), opened up entirely new areas of possibility for Shakespeare.  Falstaff is related to an historical predecessor in only the most tenuous of ways, and the origins of the Falstaff we see are, ultimately, unknowable, untraceable.  From one point of view, he is not an historical character at all.  Yet there he is, in a history (he is at Shrewsbury, too), even while he seems to be making very free with history, indeed threatening ‘history,’ at least in its official chronicle form.  You don’t make annals out of Falstaff’s anarchic antics.  Yet with Falstaff, Shakespeare was able to perfect a genre of ‘comic history’ which added a whole new dimension to historical drama – arguably to drama tout court.  [MY NOTE:  “tout court” — With no addition or qualification; simply: “he saw it as an illusion, tout court”]

To get some sense of the new kind of historical drama Shakespeare with the presence of Falstaff, I want to consider the first three scenes in some detail.  We start where we might expect to start – in the King’s palace in London.  The King’s opening speech is grave, and, as so often in Shakespeare, the first lines set the tone of the play.

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,

Find we a time for frighted peace to pant

And breathe short-winded accents of new broils

To be commenced in stronds afar remote.

The immediate impression is of a strained and insecure monarch, and an apprehensive nation, seriously out of breath.  We are reminded how recently it was that the ‘thirsty’ soil was ‘daub(ing) her lips with her own children blood,’ and ‘trenching war’ ‘channel(ing)’ the fields and ‘bruise(ing)’ the flowers.  How ‘opposed eyes…Did lately meet in the intestine shock/And furious close of civil butchery.’  The King’s hope is that

The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,

No more shall cut his master.

But there is a lot of that cutting edge and civil butchery to come.  Once more the King has to defer his promised Crusade (to expiate the murder of Richard II), because of more local ‘broils’ in Wales, Scotland, and the north of England (uprisings and rebellions or incursions from these realms were to trouble most of Henry IV’s reign, dubbed, accurately enough, by Hall ‘The Unquiete Time of King Henry the Fourthe’).  Westmoreland tells of the success of ‘wild Glendower’ and how a thousand Englishmen have been ‘butchered’:

Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,

Such beastly shameless transformation

By those Welshwomen done, as it may not be

Without much shame retold or spoken of.

This probably refers to castration – but in due course we are to see for ourselves some ‘misuse’ of a ‘dead corpse,’ different but perhaps no less shocking; and there are ‘transformations’ to come, how ‘beastly’ or ‘shameless’ may be individually decided.

There has also been a ‘sad and bloody hour’ in Northumberland against Douglas and the Scots, but here Hotspur has had success and taken some important prisoners, described by the King as ‘honorable spoil,’ ‘a gallant prize.’ – a vocabulary of robbery we are to hear much of.  More to the point, the King makes it clear that he wants, and intends to have, those prisoners for himself – despoiling the spoiler of his spoils we might say, glancing ahead at what is to come.  The King also reveals his discontent with his son, particularly in comparison with Hotspur – ‘sweet fortune’s minion and her pride.’  Hotspur is ‘the theme of honor’s tongue,’ while

See riot and dishonor stain the brow

Of my young Harry.

The contrast, comparison, and competition between the two ‘young’ Harrys will be central to the play (Hotspur was, in fact, twenty-three years older than Hal – indeed, he as two years older than the King), as will be the theme of ‘honor.’  In one short scene, a lot of the play has been prospectively opened up.

The language throughout is grave, compacted, dignified blank verse, and the atmosphere is of serious state business.  Posts and messengers arrive; news – ‘uneven and unwelcome’ or ‘smooth and welcome’ – keeps coming in; questions are of ‘power,’ and matters are mainly military.  Speed is of the essence – ‘this haste was hot in question,’ ‘come yourself with speed to us again’ – as we watch a pale and trouble king trying to manage volatile and discontented factions erupting all over the land.  I note that the last word of the King’s first speech is ‘expedience,’ and with this king, in this court, the politics of expediency are paramount.

The first line of the second scene – actually set in the Prince’s ‘lodging,’ presumably in a ‘tavern’ part of London – introduces us to Falstaff, asking the time.  ‘Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?’  This provokes, by way of a response from the Prince of Wales, a most unprincely blast of demotic prose:

What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day?  Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

Time is for soldiers and statesmen; for utilitarians and fixers; for schedulers and planners.  Time is for kings, particularly if, like this king, they have a lot of ‘business’ (key word).  ‘Come yourself with speed to us again’ – because we’ll need all the time we can get.  Hal is right.  Falstaff has nothing whatever to do with such closely observed clock time.  He is exclusively physical and corporeal, and is mainly concerned – still Hal’s response – with eating and drinking and ‘unbuttoning’ after supper.  The literal act is apt for metaphorical extrapolations, since Falstaff inhabits, and to some extend presides over, a world of multiple ‘unbuttonings’ – of trousers, morals, religions, codes, language – ultimately perhaps, the unbuttoning of value itself.  We will see.  Falstaff’s immediate response to the Prince is characteristic – ‘Indeed you come near me now, Hal.’  Not only can he always deflect any criticism; he can invariably turn it to his advantage, even when it seems completely unanswerable.  On this occasion he asks Hal – ‘when thou art king’ – to dignify Falstaff and his gang. ‘Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shad, ninions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.’  And let them say that black is white.  But how plausible-sounding, and, anyway, pleasurable, is this brazen casuistry; and he has enough bits of the lexicon of mythology and polity to make his case sound sonorous and dignified – he sounds as if he is talking a compound of heraldry and law.  The pun on that last word, ‘steal,’ is perfection – at once, telling a truth and showing a lie.  Inasmuch as ‘steal’ can mean ‘creep quietly for protection,’ this is just what he is doing at the moment, hiding his nefarious activities behind a mystifying mythological panoply of Diana and the moon.  Inasmuch as ‘steal’ means steal, this is exactly what they do – they rob by night.  This is pure Falstaff, of course.  But by the end of the play, when we have seen and heard the nobles, the princes, the King himself, in action, we might well want to avail ourselves of Falstaff’s words and ask – under whose countenance do they steal?”

More to come…


My next post:  Thursday night/Friday morning…more from Tanner, as well as Bloom and…as we continue our exploration of Act One of I Henry IV.

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2 Responses to “O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal — God forgive thee for it!”

  1. Hampgal says:

    Preface: I decided 2 months ago to read all WS’s plays, then I found this group! After teaching the same plays in our homeschool, I find that I don’t even know the endings of many—so I am reading Hen IV for the first time. If my comments are excruciatingly ignorant, please forgive.

    I think it is not an accident that Ecclesiastes is alluded to by Falstaff and quoted by Hal. Who is the wise son, who the foolish? Of course, Hal at first glance is foolish, tempting me to believe he can change his leopard spots…Hotspur, brave and quick tempered, speaks before he reasons. Perhaps there is no righteous one among them.

    At first I wondered if Falstaff was a jaded Solomon, now lean toward his being the “fool” Solomon speaks about in Ecc. and Proverbs. Am I reading too much into it?

    Thanks for the commentary & videos—this is fun!

    • Hampgal: First of all, welcome to the read! Second of all — I don’t think you’re reading too much into it at all — there’s a reason that Ecclesiastics is alluded to by Falstaff and quoted by Hal. There are, I think, very few “accidents’ in Shakespeare.


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