Henry IV Part 1: When the Personal First Became Political

Timothy Furnish, PhD, in Henry IV, Part 1.

By Timothy Furnish Published on July 27, 2023

Last weekend on Jenn Psaki’s MSNBC show, Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) threw out a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here” (Act I, Scene 2). Raskin said he was referring to negative uses of technology, not to Republicans. That’s surprising considering Democrats have long, and often, used the Bard to smear their opponents. And there’s still room to doubt Raskin meant it.

At least I’m not alone in recognizing Shakespeare’s relevance to politics today. Here at The Stream  I’ve  done that with Julius Caesar. Today let’s look at Henry IV Part 1. I covered the same play last year, after performing in it. But that was about the value of community theater Shakespeare. Not really a play analysis.


A brief summary: King Henry IV faces a rebellion, after having deposed the ineffectual Richard II, who had confiscated his lands. Meanwhile his son Prince Hal — the future Henry V — spends most of his time drinking and carousing with Sir John Falstaff, a fat, cowardly, dissolute drunk who is nevertheless considered one of the Bard’s greatest characters.

The King suspects his son is neither worthy nor loyal — and tells him so. By the end, though, the two Henrys reconcile and win the day, defeating the rebels and setting the stage for Henry IV Part 2.

It’s often ranked as one of the Shakespeare’s best works, and perhaps his finest political one. (Keep reading for a list of filmed performances you can view.)

Most Important Characters

The play is named after the King, yet both Falstaff and Prince Hal get more lines than he. That shouldn’t detract from Henry IV’s importance, though. So said Robert J. Fehrenbach in Shakespeare Quarterly (Winter 1979). King Henry is “a different kind of person” from those two, “and his characterization is formed differently.”

Falstaff and Hal are “open books” who sometimes speak directly to the audience. King Henry, however, “is a private man and Machiavellian king” a “troubled ruler who in his dual struggle against past sins and present threats must always be the masker.” A “coldly effective politician,” he succeeds in securing the throne. 

Henry the Crusader 

Henry is also obsessed with going on Crusade. In fact, he opens the play with a long speech, part of which talks about doing so. James Black examines this (SQ, Spring 1983). Real world Henry, in the 1390s, had fought with the Teutonic Knights in Eastern Europe, then gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Were Shakespeare’s Henry’s public musings to do so again as King merely political?

Neema Parvini argues it was “a medieval ‘shock and awe’ policy intended to distract the English masses from Henry’s usurpation and (likely) murder of Richard II (In Shakespeare’s History Plays, 2012). Maybe so.

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But by all accounts Henry was legitimately pious, and so perhaps truly thought — like many of his time — that a crusade would serve God. Henry also tried to help the Byzantines against their Muslim foes. Over Christmas 1400, he even hosted Emperor Manuel II to discuss doing so. (The special music for that holiday has recently been unearthed and recorded!)

Prince Hal’s “Reformation”

Henry was not just a politician, he was a father to six children. Their mother, Mary de Bohun, had died young. And he was quite concerned that the eldest was not taking seriously his future responsibilities. Shakespeare plays this up. The tavern scenes featuring Hal and Falstaff run longer than the battles with the rebels. Particularly II, 4, the crux of which is Hal and Falstaff alternating between posing as King Henry judging his son.

Shakespeare loves the play-within-a-play motif. And while it’s not as developed here as in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s crucial. At the end of it, Hal ominously warns Falstaff that, as King, he will “banish plump Jack.” But of course we knew that was coming. For in I, 2, Hal informs the audience that his “loose behavior” was so much play-acting, which he would, at the right time, “throw off” and showcase his “reformation” into a serious successor to the crown.

“Reformed” Hal manifests most clearly in Henry IV Part 2, when as King Henry V he definitively rejects Falstaff and all his works. Shakespeare thus saw Henry V as “England’s greatest proto-Protestant king,” says Michael Davies. (In “Falstaff’s Lateness: Calvinism and the Protestant Hero in ‘Henry IV,’” The Review of English Studies, June 2005, 56, 225, pp. 351-378.)  

Trump as Henry IV?

Exactly five years ago I blogged at length on which Shakespeare character best matched President Donald Trump. Bardologists of the Left, both professional and amateur, have tried to paint Trump as a Shakespeare villain, usually Richard III, Macbeth, or Coriolanus. Most charitably, he has been likened to the crazy King Lear. 

But I say Trump was actually most like Henry Bolingbroke/King Henry IV. Trump was a man of the people, like Henry, who led a successful “rebellion” of deplorables against the entitled, arrogant Hillary/Richard II.

Trump is angling for a second term as ruler, and his opponent has changed. But Biden also resembles Richard II. He’s an ineffectual believer in “ideological absolutism,” while Trump, like Henry, is no ideologue. Not even a conservative one. Instead, “his plan…is to play to his strengths and make a virtue out of action — the sphere in which he most excels.” (Both quotes are from Parvini.)

Henry and Donald both worried more about results than ideological purity. Whether this will work again is to be determined. But at least Trump isn’t trying to pry any of his children out of seedy taverns while taking on political opponents.

Politics Aside, It’s a Great Play 

Henry IV, Part I was my favorite Shakespeare play, even before I was blessed to portray that King on stage. Long before modern feminist theory came up with “the personal is political,” Shakespeare was illustrating it here. It’s a fascinating mixture of the political and the personal. Its title character is flawed but well-intentioned. And the scenes with Falstaff are really funny — even if he is a despicable character.

Watch one of the film or TV versions. Better yet, get out to a stage near you and see it live, if possible.

On TV and in Film

Besides its many stage performances, this play has been done on TV and film several times. First as part of the 1960 BBC series An Age of Kings. (In which a young Sean Connery played Hotspur, one of the rebel leaders!) BBC produced several more adaptations, notably 2012’s The Hollow Crown with Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston, Marvel’s Loki, as Hal/Henry V.

The most famous film version is probably Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, which combines elements and dialogue from several relevant plays, focusing on Falstaff.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.

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