The Henriad is a collection of four Shakespearean history plays spanning the reigns of three different kings: Richard II, Henry IV (parts I & II), and Henry V. While they can be read and performed individually, each play is connected to those that come before and after it. Having read them out-of-order, I didn’t realize just how connected they were until I went back and read the Henry IV plays, which make up the middle part of the tetralogy.
Henry IV Part I is so filled with references to Richard II that I imagine it would have been very difficult to appreciate without already being familiar with Richard’s story. The whole conflict of the book is centered around the people who helped put Henry on the throne in the first place changing their minds and deciding, too late, they’d rather have Richard after all. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is the way the events of Richard II color the relationship between Henry IV and his rebellious son, Prince Hal.
Richard II was, among other things, a horrible king who had no idea he was a bad king, or that there could possibly be any such thing as a bad king. It’s not so much that he was intentionally cruel to anyone as that he was utterly self-centered, believing 100% in his divine right to rule, and to make whatever decisions he wanted. However, his incompetency and selfish nature are not the only reasons he was overthrown. The nobility seemed more concerned with the fact that he spent so much time with commoners, putting his “favorites” in positions of power and ignoring the nobles who would traditionally have been his closest advisors. Is it any wonder, then, that Henry IV is concerned to see his son and heir spend most of his time in a tavern with a bunch of drunken commoners?
Henry IV even explains this himself in Part I, when he scolds the prince for his behavior:
For all the world
As thou art to this hour was Richard then
When I from France set foot at Ravenspurgh;
And even as I was then is Percy now.
Henry IV sees in his heir the same tendencies that he opposed in Richard II, and he sees in Henry Percy’s rebellion the potential for the same kind of rebellion he himself led when he deposed Richard. It’s not just that he disapproves of the prince’s friends or is disappointed to see him wasting his time in a tavern and neglecting his princely duties. Rather, he seems to be deeply worried to see his own son behaving in a way that reminds him of the king he overthrew. He knows all too well how fragile a king’s grip on power can be.
Of course, having read Henry V, I know that isn’t the direction this story is taking. By the time Prince Hal takes the throne as Henry V, he’s ready to leave behind his rebellious ways and accept a king’s responsibility. His old friends appear in that play, but he pays them little attention, and by the end, most of them have died. I mentioned when I watched the 1989 movie version of Henry V that the short flashbacks to Henry IV made it easier to understand the moments in which Henry rejects or punishes an old friend; now, having read the entire Henriad, I think it would be interesting to go back to Henry V and see if I interpret anything differently.
One common thread, I think, is that Henry V is deeply aware of how the people perceive him, a quality that sets him apart from both his father and Richard II. While Richard seemed to enjoy putting on a performance of being king, also he seemed to assume that he was universally loved. Henry IV, on the other hand, believed in setting himself apart from his people and encourages his son to do the same. Henry V disguises himself to eavesdrop on his soldiers and makes eloquent speeches to inspire them before battle. Although his father does not realize it, he gives careful consideration to how his association with Falstaff and the others makes him look, and he deliberately plans out his own coming-of-age story to cast himself in the best light possible. He works carefully to craft a positive image for himself, one that contrasts with both his father, Richard II, and even his younger self.
The biggest complaint I have with Henry IV is that it could have been one play. The vast majority of the action and character development take place in Part I, with only a very few important developments in Part II:
- The rebellion is anticlimactically stopped
- King Henry IV dies
- King Henry V becomes king and rejects his old friends
The play is not so much its own story as a bridge between the ending of Part I and the beginning of Henry V. There is very little to Acts I-III, which really just set the stage for the events mentioned above near the end of the play. It was already implied that the rebellion would be stopped at the end of Part I, and the rest is evident in the opening scenes of Henry V. King Henry IV’s death scene (Act IV Scene V) and King Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff (Act V Scene V) are both powerful and moving scenes, but with those two exceptions, the play itself ends up feeling superfluous.