Shakespeare: Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V

copyright J V Ward. 27th July 2003

Richard II to Henry V: One play in four parts.

This series of plays can be viewed as a whole divided into four movements. The publication dates of the quartos suggest that they were written in sequence giving grounds for the belief that when Shakespeare began Richard II, he had in mind the composition of a series finishing at the end of the reign of Henry V where the earlier Henry VI -- Richard III tetralogy had begun. The unity of the sequence is conveyed by the use of prophecy which gains subsequent fulfilment, retrospective analyses, a continuity of themes common to all the plays and plots which override the boundaries of individual dramas.

An outstanding feature of Richard II is prophecy. This becomes apparent in the early stages of the drama when Gaunt in extremis says ‘Methinks I am a prophet new inspired’ and wishes that his father had been gifted with foresight ‘had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye’ for he would have barred Richard from the throne. Prophetic vision comes to the fore when the relationship between king and subject is closely examined. The canon of the era was the divine right of kings and the duty of subjects to an anointed king. Gaunt states the case succinctly in defining the king as ‘God's substitute/ His deputy anointed in His sight’. The subject is precluded from taking action against the king, be he ever so unjust, for as Gaunt says ‘I may never lift an angry arm against His minister’. This regal immunity is reinforced by Richard's boast ‘not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king’. Shakespeare departs from his source material in transforming Carlisle's plea for leniency towards Richard into a statement of prophetic doom. ‘... let me prophesy

The blood of English shall manure the ground ..........
Lest child, child's children cry against thee woe’.

Carlisle's words find an echo in Henry V when Henry pronounces ‘and some are yet ungotten and unborn that shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn’.

In Henry IV Part I, we find the fulfilment of Carlisle's awful prophesy. Henry having usurped the throne finds his state festering with internal broils. The play opens with the imagery of sickness turmoil and exhaustion which echoes the blood imagery so prevalent in Richard II

‘So shaken are we so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant ......’

The imagery of bruising, butchery and blood in the king's opening speech not only shows the depressed state of the king in accordance with Richard's curse ‘your care is gain of care by new care won’ but depicts the kingdom in a state of unrest as a direct consequence of Henry's illegal action. The king cannot even find time to redeem himself by fulfilling the pledge of a crusade promised in the final scene of Richard II ‘to wash the blood from off my guilty hand’.

The picture of turmoil during Henry's incumbency of the throne is augmented by the machinations of Falstaff, a metaphor for a doom laden spirit haunting England. Falstaff is introduced as being confused as to the time of day, for him night and day are transposed. He and his crew are ‘gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon’. It is noticeable that later at the height of the civil unrest, Henry is unable to sleep and is obliged to enquire the time of night in the early hours of the morning. This atmosphere reflects the turbulent state of the kingdom where the price of oats rises and turkeys go unfed. Falstaff's felony in robbing the king's treasury and being robbed in turn are reminiscent of the theft of the crown and the unwillingness of the Lancastrians to restore it as Falstaff says ‘I do not like this paying back ‘tis a double labour’. Falstaff's acceptance of bribes from reluctant soldiers is a representation of the state of dishonesty which prevails in the realm when the pinnacle of the state is a fraud.

Falstaff s eventual rejection by Hal marks a turning point in the drama. Falstaff anticipates coming to the zenith of his power when the old king dies saying ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’. The king on his deathbed fears for the realm saying to Hal ‘Up, vanity!/ Down, royal state’ a phrase which echoes the downfall of Richard when the Welsh captain says

‘Rich men look sad, and ruffians dance and leap
The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,
The other to enjoy by rage and war.’

However the king's passing on the crown to Hal confers a form of legitimacy as the king says ‘what in me was purchas'd/ Falls upon thee in fairer sort'. Henry V is innocent of Richard's blood and can claim a legal title. This theme is pursued throughout Henry V when Henry having respectfully re‑interred Richard's bones and employed beadsmen to pray for the repose of his soul, prays that God will overlook ‘the fault/ My father made in compassing the crown!’ Henry is especially careful in his claim to the crown of France . He pointedly asks Canterbury ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’ Henry ascribes his victory at Agincourt to Divine providence believing the crime occurring in Richard II and the retribution exacted in Henry IV Parts I & II have been exorcised. This motif of expiation of previous offences is enlarged by the death in penury of the profligate Falstaff, the afflicted demise of the promiscuous Hostess and the hanging of the sacrilegious Bardolph. Only Pistol remains although humiliated and assaulted, to maintain a tinge of uncertainty which is to be resuscitated in Henry VI when the legal niceties of the Lancastrian claim are to be scrutinised in detail.

The theme of deposition does not end with Richard's dethronement. Before he is exiled to Pomfret, Richard prophesies the attempted removal of Bolingbroke. Northumberland ‘the ladder wherewithal the mounting Bolingbroke ascends .... knowest the way to plant unrightful kings’. Shakespeare makes the parallel between Richard's prophecy and Northumberland's rebellion more poignant by having the king in Henry IV Part I repeat almost verbatim Richard's words ‘thou ladder by which Bolingbroke ascends my throne’. Richard looks forward to Henry IV Part I where the Percy family irked by the caprices of Bolingbroke, who in turn is fearful of their power, attempt to supplant Bolingbroke with Mortimer and take a portion of the kingdom for themselves. The Percys' justification for rebellion against Bolingbroke is their hazy recollection of the events of Richard's reign. The irony of Hotspur's calling Richard ‘that sweet lovely rose’ only becomes apparent upon reflection of the previous drama when, amongst other events, Northumberland badgers Richard to sign a paper of ‘weaved up follies’ in order to justify to the Commons his deposition. Similarly Bolingbroke's plaintive excuse:

‘But that necessity so bow'd the state
That I and greatness were compelled to kiss’

becomes poignantly ironic when we remember his declamation ‘In God's name I'll ascend the regal throne’.

Bolingbroke's self-justification is counterpointed by his accurate memory of the events leading up to his seizure of power. He explains to Hal the basis of prophesy  ‘the soul of every man/ Prophetically do foretell thy fall’. He recalls ‘that men would tell their children that is he’ and ‘I stole all courtesy from heaven’. This is an accurate reflection of Richard's sneering remarks 'Now he did seem to dive into their hearts’ and "Off goes his bonnet to an oyster wench’. This recollection makes ironic Richard's sour phrase

‘As if our England were in reversion his
And he our subjects' next degree in hope’

At the central point of the drama, King Henry has fulfilled the prophetic words of Richard's ‘death of kings’ speech where the tribulations of kings are defined.

'How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,"

Henry discerns that some kings ‘have been deposed’ and himself fears to be deposed and indeed has been deposed by proxy by Prince Hal in the tavern scene when Hal reverses roles with Falstaff. Henry has not been ‘slain in war’ but has been brought to a state of nervous exhaustion by it. Although he is not one of those ‘poisoned by their wives’, his hopes have been poisoned by his son’s behaviour and the king cannot rest for fear of being ‘sleeping killed’. In his statement ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’, Henry has unerringly echoed the morbid imagery of ‘the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king’.

The crucial binding factor in the tetralogy is the central character of Prince Hal whose gradual process of reformation is a major theme. Hal is mentioned fleetingly in Richard II where the hearsay evidence of Bolingbroke and Percy foreshadows the ‘dissolute yet desperate’ character with the reservation of ‘some sparks of better hope’. It is noteworthy that in order to make the connection, Shakespeare is obliged to pervert history by transforming a historical twelve year old into a pubescent youth. This characterisation is reinforced in Henry IV Part I, when Hal appears on stage ‘with unrestrained loose companions’ and exhibiting all the foretold qualities of depravity. The obverse of his character is shown towards the end of the second scene in the Prince's oration. This set piece is soliloquised to make it more credible, rendered in blank verse to attract attention and loaded with imagery of the sun contrasted with clouds and mist and bright metal against baseness in order to show the attributes of future kingship. The inclusion of this passage is vital to the plot of the series as it renders credible the eventual transformation of the reprobate Prince Hal into the potent Henry V.

Pointers to the future Henry V continue throughout the series with Hal and Falstaff. Falstaff continually demands of Hal what he will do when he becomes king. The equivocal responses he receives serve to build up an anticipation for the subsequent revelation. Probably the most poignant indicator to Hal's eventual abandonment of Falstaff is the climax of the tavern scene where Falstaff is pleading for himself in the prince’s persona. His appeal ‘banish not him thy Harry's company’ is thwarted by the positive ‘I do, I will’.

Hal's semblance of wildness is abated by his prowess in battle where he rescues the king and distinguishes himself by the defeat of Percy. However this victory is compromised by the appearance of Falstaff, his malignant alter ego, whose fatuous claim to have inflicted the death blow on Percy make us consider whether the positive or negative aspects of Hal's character are in control.

The final apotheosis of Prince Hal into Henry V comes upon the old king's death when Canterbury comments:

‘.... his wildness, mortified in him
Seem'd to die too; yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came
And whipp'd th'offending Adam out of him,’

The pun on mortified and the references to 'th'offending Adam', a quote from the christening service, combined with the imagery of baptismal waters in ‘came reformation in a flood’ indicate the suddenness of the transformation. This linking scene renders credible the change from the dissolute Prince Hal to the ‘warlike Harry’ who is to ‘assume the throne of Mars’.

Although each of the plays is to some extent a unity in itself there is always at least a remnant of plot waiting for its denouement. The fulfilment is promised by an omenous statement portending further development. At the conclusion of Richard II, we hear of Bolingbroke's potential ‘voyage to the Holy Land’ which echoes Richard's assertion ‘our pilgrimage must be’. This gives the expectation of an arduous journey to be undertaken by Bolingbroke which is fulfilled although not in the shape which he envisaged.

Henry IV Part I is a unity only inasmuch as it encompasses a ‘two hour traffic of our stage’. The battle of Shrewsbury has taken place but further battles are promised with Prince John and Westmoreland going forth to meet Northumberland in battle while the king and Hal prepare to take on Glendower. Similarly in Henry IV Part II, the final lines, written in rhyming couplets for further effect, forecast further action; 

‘I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleas'd the King’.

Only Henry V reaches a true denouement with the eponymous character at the zenith of his power. The portentous reference to ‘Henry VI in infant bands crowned king’ is immediately quashed by the Chorus when he reminds the audience that this refers to plays previously staged.

Overall the tetralogy depends for its unity on the theme of' prophecy reinforced by the process of recollection. This theme makes itself evident in the plot and the characterisation. In addition echoes of imagery and verse form combine in order to bind the sequence of four plays into a satisfactory whole.

Links to other essays
 American Beauty   the movie.
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
John Milton Lycidas
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night