By Heather Helinsky, Dramaturg
In 1863, with the American Civil War still raging, President Abraham Lincoln went to see a production of Henry IV, Part 1. Lincoln, who studied and enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, was dismayed that one of his favorite scenes had been cut by American actor James Hackett. Lincoln then invited Hackett to the White House for dinner, questioning why this scene between Falstaff and Prince Hal, where they perform a play-within-a-play taking turns at playing the King of England, was cut from his production when Lincoln felt it was a key emotional moment.
In this scene, Prince Hal, the future hero-king of England, play-acts with Falstaff, his father-figure and mentor, at the tavern. As they take turns wearing the crown, Prince Hal realizes what he must do in the future as the King of England—banish his dear friend, the drunken knight. The scene boils down to four words: “I do; I will.”
It’s a masterful moment of playwriting, and modern productions of Henry IV, Part 1 have used those pointed words as a huge emotional turning point for Prince Hal on his journey into becoming the next King of England. It’s a test of friendship and character, and Shakespeare, a writer we admire for his use of language and wordplay, knows there are deeply profound moments, when the course of history and friendship can be broken and changed, and there’s no going backwards.
We can also wonder at how an American President, who had seen so many lives lost at Gettysburg in that summer of 1863, connected personally with Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. We can assume Lincoln understood too well the burdens of leading a nation when his own “right” to be the leader chosen by the people was being challenged, while the common man was dying brutally on the battlefields in the name of democracy.
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 is admired as a masterpiece for the subtlety with which it handles the ethical and emotional issues involved with the political narrative of King Henry IV, his son Hal, his rival Henry Percy “Hotspur”, and the comical knight Sir John Falstaff. It picks up where King Richard II leaves off, but we jump forward in time, where King Henry IV now has a grown son, who prefers spending his time at the tavern with the drunken Sir John Falstaff, over pleasing his father and learning to be England’s next king. The play covers the span of a civil war and ends with a climactic battle at Shrewsbury.
At the end of King Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke had strategically maneuvered to dispose of his cousin, the King. He turned the tide of public opinion against Richard II, creating a populist movement. However, it shattered an age-old belief in the divine right of kings, that the King of England was God’s chosen vessel to lead England. As we find the state of England now, we see the results of a country at war with itself, over the issue of succession. Now that Henry IV is King of England, will his wayward son become the next ruler?
Meanwhile, the Percy family, who had helped King Henry gain the throne from Richard II, is now regretting their role in putting Henry on the throne and is uniting with the Scottish in the North and the Welsh in the West, to put another family member, Edmund Mortimer, on the throne instead. Meanwhile, ambitious Hotspur is maneuvering and acting like the son King Henry IV wishes he had.
This play, although it follows King Richard II chronically in time, has a vastly different feel to it in style, tone, and structure. In King Richard II, we have a series of poetic soliloquies, revealing the inward world of Richard’s mind. The speeches are high poetry, asking rhetorical questions about England and what it means to be English. It’s also a play where even the Gardener, a lower-class character, speaks like a gentleman of the court, in verse, and not like a common laborer.
Not so with Henry IV, Part 1—here we are hearing the language spoken in an English tavern! It is raucous language—so much the language of the common man that when it was published in the First Folio, it had to be censored according to the Act to Restrain the Abuses of Players. Original names of characters also had to be changed, as the families in Shakespeare’s time who were descendents of some of the historical characters, including Sir John Falstaff (modeled on St. John Oldcastle) protested because Oldcastle was regarded as a Protestant hero who died a martyr. Yet, when it was first entered in the Stationer’s Register in February of 1598, it was immediately published in two quarto editions and continued to be published and sold as popular reading.
A play, though, is more than just how popular it was in its day. This England looks very different than the elevated, poetic world of King Richard II. The leader is a reflection of the people. In Henry IV, Part 1 we see Shakespeare exploring how all classes, not just the elite nobleman, are impacted by the questions of King Henry IV’s reign. This is a world where even thieves cannot be true to each other, and even games of trickery have a darker resonance. We see characters searching for friends who are true and constant to each other one moment, then double-crossing their closest friends. Falstaff brags about his conquests, but he spouts lies which he thinks will serve him in the moment. Even though Falstaff and Prince Hal tease each other fondly, as Hal sees Falstaff like the father he wishes he had, he still calls him out on his deceits:
While Falstaff is one of the play’s most enduring, memorable beloved characters, even he has an inward moment of reflection, although it’s not delivered in the florid poetry of King Richard II. Falstaff asks the audience very frankly to reflect on why soldiers serve their country in the name of honor. Shakespeare’s clowns often ask the most profound questions in the human experience:
Considered one of Shakespeare’s best works that masterfully interweaves comedy and tragedy, it introduces us to the dilemma for characters from all classes, especially the lower working class, who are impacted by this leadership crisis. Henry Bolingbroke, who once swayed the voice of the people to take the crown away from an eloquent “rightful” King, is now facing challenges on all fronts, from the Scots in the North, the Welsh in the West, his former allies in court who originally placed him on the throne, and even from his only son.
And when a country is at war with itself, how does it impact how all of us behave? Do we drink our problems away at the tavern? How do we treat our friends? How do we spend our precious hours alive before we are asked to serve our country? Who do we turn to for mentorship? How do the actions of our leaders set the tone for moral and ethical behavior? Who are the winners and losers? Shakespeare knows the drama inherent in all of these questions and more. Out of these existential questions, we get a larger-than-life character of Falstaff…and we see the education of a young Prince Hal, who will soon rise to be the hero-king in Henry V.
Through Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare is giving us a lesson in leadership, and the American President Lincoln certainly recognized the play’s relevance as he grappled with the challenges of the Civil War in his time. As a student of Shakespeare, we can only imagine that Lincoln recognized the power of choosing the right words—as common and lowly as words can be—writing a brief speech of his own.
Heather Helinsky, dramaturg: MFA from A.R.T./ Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, Harvard; 2001 alumna, DeSales University Theatre.