Rewriting History in Henry IV
The master of historiography is, perhaps, Shakespeare as evidenced by his History Plays. Whereas most writers merely borrow from history to fuel their creative fires, Shakespeare goes so far as to rewrite history. The First Part of Henry the Fourth follows history fairly closely, and Shakespeare draws this history primarily from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland and from Samuel Daniel's verse epic The Civil Wars (Abrams 823).
The play opens shortly after Henry Bolingbroke has usurped the throne from Richard II, becoming the fourth King Henry, and changing the royal lineage from the House of Plantagenet to the House of Lancaster. In the opening sequence, Henry IV is in the process of vowing peace in England and promising a crusade to liberate the Holy Land. No motive for this crusade surfaces in 1 Henry IV, other than the fact that it is some unfinished business from Shakespeare's preceding play Richard II (Kelly 214). Henry's pledge of civil peace is ironic because during this first scene he receives word that his troops have been overtaken by Glendower in Wales, and Hotspur has met and defeated the Scots in the North (1.1.36-61). To the news, the King replies, "It seems then that the tidings of this broil / Brake off our business for the Holy Land" (1.1.47-8). Postponing the business in Jerusalem, Henry IV eventually leads England into civil war with Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury. These actions will ultimately ignite the War of the Roses between the Lancasters (Henry IV's family) and the Yorks (descendants of Richard II).
The play then shifts its focus to the younger Henry, nicknamed Hal. Shakespeare portrays the prince as a wild-eyed royal roisterer who bides his time at a tavern in the company of the vagrant Sir John Falstaff, the equally mischievous Poins, and a whole host of rowdy young men. For the most part, Shakespeare did indeed fabricate Falstaff, Poins, and the whole Tavern Group, yet historical evidence does support some sort of provincial getaway. McFarlane records that in 1412 the younger Henry "remained dissatisfied [with his father] and shortly afterwards withdrew once more into the provinces, where he was soon again at his old tricks" (110). Shakespeare originally named the character of Falstaff after the Protestant martyr John Oldcastle. Shakespeare eventually bowed to the objections of Oldcastle's descendants, renaming the character (Abrams 823).
At the Battle of Shrewsbury, Shakespeare describes how Hal kills Hotspur, eulogizes him (5.4.78-102), and then concedes the victory of the kill to Falstaff (5.4.138-50). History records that Hal himself suffered an arrow-shot to the face (Rowse 44) and that no one knows for certain who killed Hotspur (Jacob 52-3). History further records that, as for the eulogy, it was the king who shed tears over Hotspur's slain figure, not the young prince (Rowse...