A good leader is hard to find.
At the time I began my preliminary research and preparation for Henry IV, Part 1, we were in the throes of a government shutdown. I was amazed, shocked and disgusted that my country’s so-called “leaders” would opt for a cheap political one-upmanship and complete dysfunction rather than do the harder work of seeking compromise and serving the people. I was struck by the similarities between American politics today and English politics 600 years ago. As I read about the patrician generation of Henry, Northumberland and Glendower sending their young sons to war, I couldn’t help but think, “Not much has changed”—quickly followed by, “A good leader is hard to find.”
What makes a good leader? King Henry IV wrestles with this question throughout the play, as do the younger generation of characters—leaders and would-be leaders of the future. The stark contrast between Hotspur, the roaring mouthpiece of the rebel army, and Prince Hal, the reticent heir apparent, pricks and stirs my imagination as I re-read the play—it’s like watching two high-speed trains locked in a collision course, hurtling toward… what? A decision about what kind of leader will take England into the future.
Had Hotspur won on that fateful day at Shrewsbury, what kind of king might he have made? As I read Prince Hal’s battlefield eulogy for his fallen foe, I get the feeling he’s not at all sure the best man won—and I can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare himself was wistfully pondering what might have been:
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound.
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough. This earth that bears three dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
This is a thrilling preview of the nobility and generosity of spirit Hal will show in his very best moments as King Henry V. Would Hotspur have been so gracious? Was he even capable of it? We’ll never know.
What does this tell us about today? I guess, ultimately, amid all the fracture of politics and ideology, the best we can do is look for the good, even in those who disagree with us. Especially in those who disagree with us. If we can all learn to do that, who knows? Maybe fewer of us will prematurely become “food for worms.”
—Carolyn Howarth, director
King Henry IV has long been planning a return visit to Jerusalem, but is interrupted when he hears that Owen Glendower has captured Mortimer, an English nobleman. Simultaneously the English have once again put down the Scots, but young Harry Hotspur refuses to give up his prisoners to the king. Glendower, Mortimer, Worcester, and Hotspur conspire to raise the Welsh against King Henry, recalling that he only became king by usurping Richard II, with the aid of Hotspur’s father, Northumberland.
Meanwhile, Prince Hal, King Henry’s eldest son, has been cavorting with Falstaff—a man known more for his love of sack than his nobility—and friends at the tavern. They embark on dubious ventures and practical jokes, poking fun at each other and generally ignoring their duties to king and country. While Hal enjoys this carefree life, he knows that soon he must leave it to shine as England’s heir.
At the threat of rebellion, Prince Hal and his father reconcile when Hal vows to fight the rebels and defeat Hotspur. Hall and his companions prepare for battle (through Falstaff has only hired beggars and thieves, allowing other men to buy their way out of soldiering), as Mortimer and Hotspur learn that Northumberland is too ill to join the battle, and that Glendower has been delayed, leaving them without valuable resources. King Henry offers to hear Hotspur’s grievances, and Hal offers to meet him in single combat. However, Worcester lies to Hotspur and doesn’t relate the king’s offer, resulting in the two sides meeting in battle. Prince Henry and Hotspur fight each other on the battlefield, and Hal is victorious. The play ends with King Henry IV reasserting his power, condemning the traitors to death, and preparing to march on the scattered remaining rebels.
—Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
King Henry IV, aka Duke of Lancaster, or, colloquially, Bolingbroke.
Patrons of CSF’s 2013 production of Richard II will recall King Henry IV’s rise to power. Born in 1366, Henry of Lancaster, a.k.a. Bolingbroke, was educated alongside his cousin Richard II, and the two were inducted into the Order of the Garter together. Henry then seems to have lived the life of a gallant knight, winning renown on the battlefield and traveling across Europe.
Henry’s first foray into politics came when he joined with the Lords Appellant in 1387 and temporarily removed Richard from power. While this situation was received, it created tension between the cousins. As recounted in Richard II, the banished Henry traveled to France, where he received word that his father, John of Gaunt, had died and Richard had seized Henry’s inheritance. Henry returned from exile to regain what was rightfully his, or so he claimed. Whether he came from his inheritance or to usurp Richard, the conflict ended with Richard’s surrender.
Henry IV spent most of his reign defending his right to be king. First he had to justify his claim as next in line for the thrown. Then there were the rebellions: the Oxford plot; Owain Glyn Dwr (Owen Glendower), the Mortimers, and the Percys (who feature in Henry IV part 1); and Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York. Ultimately his sons, Prince Hal and Prince John, helped Henry put down the rebellions and secure his kingdom.
In later years, Henry developed a mysterious illness, perhaps leprosy, psoriasis, epilepsy, eczema, or even congenital syphilis. Because this led to frequent absences from court, a power struggle developed between Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury (and Henry’s favorite), and Henry’s half-brothers the Beauforts and Prince Hal. Hal and the Beauforts eliminated Arundel’s power, causing a rift between the king and his son.
Henry died in the Jerusalem chamber of the Abbott of Westminster’s house at age 45, fulfilling a prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem. He was buried at Canterbury Cathedral, departing from the royal tradition of burial at Westminster. There are conflicting stories of his burial: on its journey to Canterbury along the Thames, a storm struck, supposedly washing his body overboard, and another body was substituted. When the tomb was opened in the 1830s, sources differ on whether the body found inside is likely someone else because of its simplicity, or if it resembles the effigy atop, confirming that it is the king.
—Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
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