General Estimation of Shakespeare’s History Plays: Analyzing Henry IV of Second Tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V)

"PRINCE HENRY If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work.
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
For all practical purposes there are four main plays in this group, the so-called ‘second tetralogy’: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. Read More Drama  Earlier chapters have suggested how vital the role of the monarch was in Elizabethan and Jacobean society, and the second tetralogy sets out to examine some of the more vexed issues of kingship, as well as illustrating some conventional points about It. The sequence opens with Richard II, a play that was apparently very popular in Shakespeare’s own time Richard Is the rightful king; he has inherited the crown through his father, and his claim to it, legally and morally, is beyond question. He is also in some respects an attractive figure. He is a fluent and imaginative speaker, and clearly has reserves of courage and determination. Read More William Shakespeare He is not, however, a good king. He is unpredictable, has favourites, and be mishandles people, and in general fails on many of the counts against which he would be judged as an effective king. In particular he alienates one of his cousins, Bolingbroke, whom he banishes. Bolingbroke returns to England to claim back his position and his lands, and in the process of so doing and himself deposing Richard and becoming king himself, almost without his wishing it. Read More Elizabethan Literature Bolingbroke, who is now Henry IV, is undoubtedly better suited to be King than Richard. He is shrewder, politically more skilful, and has far more in the way of authority and personal power than Richard— but Bolingbroke Is not and never can be the rightful king, having taken the crown by force Richard ii ends with Henry in a fit of temper ordering the death of Richard,  dies bravely. The play illustrates the problems that arise when the rightful king does not have the necessary qualities to exercise his kingship effectively.

The two parts of Henry IV examine the other side of the coin. Read More Elizabethan Literature Henry IV has the personal qualities, but not the right. Read More Drama  He has sinned in the eyes of God by taking the power of election to kingship into his human hands, whereas it should be left to God alone to make kings through the hereditary principle. As a result of Henry’s illegal seizure of the throne, his reign is doomed from the start, his usurpation having let a cancer of rebellion into his kingdom. Henry is driven to his death by rebellion after rebellion, and the plays suggest that, however good the man, his reign cannot succeed if he does not have a right to the throne. There is a complex moral issue here in addition to the central one posed by Henry IV. He is in the wrong by having usurped and taken over the throne, but those who rebel against him during his reign are also wrong, and as guilty as Henry himself. Read More William Shakespeare This might seem odd when all the rebels are doing is trying to remove from the throne a man who should not be there in the first place, but the Issue is the same. Man is not allowed to decide who shall be king under any circumstances, this task being God’s and God’s alone, and so even in attempting to remove a usurper rebels are at fault. This is a simple philosophy, and it does not always bear up under close scrutiny, but it was never intended for such scrutiny. In the first place the broad view is sufficient.
William Shakespeare
Richard II shows the chaos that results when a rightful but ineffective king rules, and Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part 2 show the chaos and political sickness that results when an effective man without true title to the throne is in charge. The scene is clearly Set for the ideal king to make his appearance, and Shakespeare produces him in the final play, Henry V. Read More Drama Henry (known as Hal In Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2) has inherited the throne from his father, and so is not a usurper, and he also has the necessary qualities for a king. He is just, honourable, religious, militarily skilful, and powerful, fully aware of the responsibilities that be carries and prepared to put his country before his personal feelings and needs. 

Broadly speaking, therefore, the second tetralogy plays discuss the questions of kingship and power, and specifically the requirement of and for the Ideal king. Read More William Shakespeare However, the issue of what has to be sacrificed in order to achieve perfect kingship is also scrutinized, and this is where Falstaff enters the action. Read More Elizabethan Literature The young Prince Hal, who will eventually become Henry V, becomes friendly with Sir John Falstaff, a huge fat man based loosely on the Vice figure in the old Morality plays. Vice is dangerous, but also very attractive, and this is true of Falstaff. He is the last person on earth with whom the heir to the throne should be consorting, but he is amusing, witty, and free from any feelings of responsibility save towards himself and the satisfaction of his physical needs. Hal gives plenty of hints he will reject Falstaff when the time is ripe, and Shakespeare progressively blackens Falstaff’s character as hi rejection comes nearer, presumably in order to soften the blow and avoid the audience’s blaming Hal for doing what he has to do: Falstaff is anarchy, and the ideal king (or for that matter any king at all) cannot have anarchy at his elbow as he tries to govern. There has been, however, a persistent feeling amongst some critics and theatre audiences that the price Hal has to pay in order to become the ideal king is too great, and that in scarifying and rejecting Falstaff he is turning himself into an automaton, a machine like being who does everything right except retaining his warmth and humanity—In other words, that the price for perfect kingship is too high in human terms. Read More William Shakespeare This is a view that is easy to hold in a country for which economic, political, and social survival does not depend on the good offices of the monarch; but, as we have seen, the Elizabethan would have bad a very different view of these issues. The student must from his own understanding of the situation and its outcome; but for Shakespeare to have suggested that Hal should retain Falstaff and so ruin a kingdom would have been remarkable indeed. Much depends on the extent to which Henry V is shown to suffer and display human emotions whilst he is undertaking the duties of the King. Whereas marriage is the final symbol in a comedy, and rebellion the symbol of a diseased kingdom, so military success is used as the symbol of a successful reign in Henry V with Henry’s victory over the French at Agincourt the climax of the play. 

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