In the Stationers' Register, the official record of licensed booksellers and publishers in London, appeared the following entry for February 25, 1598:
The historye of Henry iiiith with his battaile of Shrewsburye against Henry Hottspurre of the Northe with the conceipted mirth of Sir John Ffalstoff.
Later in the same year, the First Quarto edition of the play was published, the title having been modified to read
the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percie, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstlaffe.
Prior to the play's inclusion in the First Folio, 1623, five other quarto editions of the play were published. Among the ten chronicle-history plays written by Shakespeare, only Richard III provides comparable evidence of sustained popularity, both plays excelling in this respect all of the fifteen other Shakespearean dramas which were published in quarto editions during this period. King Henry IV, Part 1 was and remains a favorite stage piece.
The reasons for its great popularity are not hard to find. The subtitle of the Stationers' entry and to the main title of the quarto points to the first and most important one: the conceited mirth, the conceits, that is, the jests, of one Sir John Falstaff. Not only is it that in this chronicle-history play for the first time comic scenes alternate with the serious ones, but in the portrayal of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare created the greatest comic character certainly in English literature and quite possibly in world literature. And among all characters in drama, this same Falstaff emerges as one of the most complex.
The reference to "Hotspur of the North" in both subtitles points to a second reason. Henry Percy, or Hotspur, emerges as the most prominent of the rebel leaders, an attractive if headstrong young man, one not devoid of heroic and tragic stature. The role of Hotspur in the main plot brings up the subject of structure. The typical chronicle-history play, of which Shakespeare's Henry VI plays are representative, tends to be epic in structure; that is, it tends to lack focus and to present action characterized by a series of climaxes prior to the resolution. The subtitles of King Henry IV, Part 1 give some indication of what the dramatist has accomplished: this is a play about rebellion; the royal forces are pitted against rebels among whom Hotspur is pre-eminent. But in the play, although King Henry is the titular hero and does lead his forces against enemies of the Crown, it is his son and heir, Prince Hal (as he is called familiarly), who directly opposes Hotspur. In all likelihood influenced by his contemporary, Samuel Daniel, whose narrative history in verse, The Civil Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York, Books I-IV, was published in 1595, Shakespeare made Hotspur the young contemporary of Prince Hal, although the rebel leader was actually somewhat older than Henry IV. The structural advantage of all this should be apparent. There is an admirable centralizing of the conflict as the action rises to its climax and falls to its resolution at Shrewsbury. Furthermore, Shakespeare compressed the historical action, which extended from June 1402 to July 1403, into a few months.
King Henry IV, Part 1 ranks high among all of the thirty-seven plays in the Shakespeare canon for superior portrayal of characters, leading and subordinate. Brief notice has been made already to the prime example, Sir John Falstaff, who unquestionably disreputable, is endowed with such a superior wit in his comic revolt against law and order that some critics would elevate him to the status of hero. In important ways both Prince Hal and Hotspur are leading characters who are no less well realized, and much can be said for the characterizations of lesser figures, including Worcester, Glendower, and even Poins. In addition to these virtues, one should also consider the maturity of style, both in verse and in prose, a style notable for its wide range, vivid imagery, and strong verbs. Excepting only romantic love (found, for example, in that later chronicle-history play, Henry V), Henry IV gives us God's plenty.
For the main plot Shakespeare depended chiefly upon Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Vol. III, 1587, avoiding any change in sequence of historical events with the exception of that in which the king and Prince Hal achieve reconciliation (III.ii), which actually took place nearly ten years after the Battle of Shrewsbury. The way in which the dramatist selected and changed specific details to suit his purpose may be illustrated by the following quotation from Holinshed:
The king, in deed, was raised, & did that daie manie a noble feat of armes for, as it is written, he slue that daie with his owne hands six and thirtie persons of his enemies. The other [Prince Hal] on his part, incouraged by his dooings, fought valiantlie, and slue the lord Persie, called sir Henrie Hotspurre.
In Shakespeare's play, it is Prince Hal, especially, who is accorded the laurels of the peerless warrior, refusing to retire from battle despite his wounds, rescuing his royal father from the renowned Douglas, and defeating Hotspur in single combat. King Henry, the titular hero, is not given comparable prominence in this culminating episode, although his kingly virtues are not ignored.
When this play was first produced, Falstaff was identified not by that name but as Sir John Oldcastle. Evidence of this original identification remains, for Prince Hal calls the fat knight "my old lad of the castle" in the first comic scene (I.ii.46). Moreover, in 2 Henry IV, the 1599 quarto uses Old. for Fal. as one of the speech prefixes (I.ii.137) and the epilogue to 2 Henry IV includes the statement that "Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man." The historical Sir John Oldcastle was a well-known aristocrat during the reign of Henry V, and a leader of the Lollards, that faction whose religious views were considered heretical, for which reason he ultimately was burned at the stake. Descendants of Oldcastle, the Lords Cobham, flourished in Protestant sixteenth-century England and understandably were offended by the use of their ancestor's name.
The historical Oldcastle received some notice in Holinshed's Chronicles, but that is not the source used by Shakespeare in this instance. He found the name in the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V, a comedy-history play which was produced as early as 1588, but not published until a decade later. This excessively inept drama deserves brief attention as a second source used by Shakespeare, especially for the comic scenes in his play.
In Famous Victories, Sir John Oldcastle, familiarly called "Jockey," plays a subordinate role. A comparison of him with Shakespeare's Falstaff is one of the surest ways of attaining a sound appreciation of Shakespeare's creativity. But the playwright's debt, however slight, must be acknowledged here. This is also true of Hal's relationship with the habitués of the Boar's-Head Tavern and especially the robbery at Gadshill. Indeed, the confusing name Gadshill for one of the participants in the robbery derives from the earlier play, and in it Prince Hal is no more than an irresponsible, dissipated prodigal.
The name Falstaff may well derive from the Sir John Falstoffe, a historical figure, who makes a brief appearance in Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI and who, according to many chronicles, was one-time owner of the Boar's-Head Tavern.
Historically, King Henry IV, Part 1 continues the action set forth in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Richard II (1595), and the dramatist necessarily includes in it many references to events dramatized in the earlier play. These include the events leading up to the usurpation of the throne by Bolingbroke (who thus became Henry IV), aided by the powerful baronial family of the Percies; the ominous prophecy of the fallen Richard, for whose death Bolingbroke was responsible; and the new king's determination to do penance for his heinous crimes by fighting the enemies of Christendom in the Holy Land, once political matters in England are settled.
The Earl of Northumberland, as leader of the Percy faction, is quite prominent in Richard II, and his son Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur, is also among the drama is personae. Hotspur describes himself as "tender, raw, and young" (II.iii.42); he fights courageously in behalf of Bolingbroke and is present at the deposition of the anointed monarch, Richard II. Young Prince Hal does not make an appearance in this earlier play, but in it he is set in opposition to the valiant Hotspur. Late in the action, the triumphant Bolingbroke asks, "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?" (V.iii.1). And he makes reference to Hal's "unrestrained loose companions," to the "dissolute crew" with whom the prince, "wanton" (carefree) and "effeminate" (refusing to accept manly responsibility), fraternizes. Thus the public characters of Hotspur and Hal are already well established. But, in Richard II, when Hotspur reports Hal's impudent reply to the news of his father's triumph, Bolingbroke replies,
As dissolute as desperate; yet through both
I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years
May happily bring forth. (V.iii.20-22)
In this way Shakespeare prepares the way for the full-length portrait of the prince who will emerge as the Ideal Prince, the leader who was to become the prototype of the Hero-King, the model of all English sovereigns, as he was depicted by all the chroniclers and as he appears in Shakespeare's own chronicle-history play.