edited by David Scott Kastan
King Henry IV Part 1 is the second play in Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy, following on from King Richard II.
The play was first printed in the First Quarto of 1598 (Q1), as 'The History of Henrie the Fovrth; With the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir Iohn Falstalffe'. It seems that it was an extremely popular play as it was reissued in a second edition in the same year, a rare occurrence at the time. The Arden text is taken from Q1 and from Q0, the surviving fragment of the quarto from which Q1 appears to have been taken.
The action of the play is based on part of the king's reign, from 1402–3. Shakespeare used multiple historical sources in the writing of King Henry IV Part 1, in particular Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587) and the cautionary The Mirror for Magistrates (1559).
As the play begins, Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV of England, is plagued by guilt at the usurpation and murder of his predecessor, Richard II, and troubled by disquiet from rebellious nobles from two of the highest families in the land, the Percys and the Mortimers.
The king's son, Prince Hal (the future Henry V), has acquired a new friend in the merry-making Sir John Falstaff, a lover of sack (a type of early modern sherry), who takes him round taverns and introduces him to low-lifes and madams. Hal insists he is living this lifestlye only temporarily, so that when he decides to become princely once again, members of the court will have more respect for him.
The opportunity arises when the revolt of the nobles comes to a head at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Hal comes head to head with his foil, Henry Percy (or 'Hotspur'), and eventually kills him in combat. Having been coerced onto the battlefield, Falstaff steals money from fallen men and plays dead when under attack, surviving the battle, but declaring that from then on he will live an honourable life. The play ends with the king commanding his sons and allies to ride towards York and Wales to prepare to fight further rebellious nobles.
As is common in Shakespeare's history plays, King Henry IV Part 1 deals extensively with the idea of kingship: how legitimate is Henry's reign, and is he a good king? Hal learns that he too must decide what kind of prince (and later, king) he wants to be: he rejects his friends in order to become the man that will one day defeat the French at Agincourt, the most glorious of English victories to the early modern mind. Honour, chivalry and courtesy are always brought into question in the play's medieval courtly world view.
Falstaff, the opposite of all that is 'honourable', has remained throughout the centuries one of Shakespeare's best-loved comedic creations. Likely first portrayed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men popular clownish actor, Will Kemp, rumour has it that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with the character that she 'commanded' Shakespeare to write a further play that saw Falstaff in love: The Merry Wives of Windsor.