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What Are the Origins of Shakespeare's "Henry IV"?

By Lynelle Harmon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Henry IV, also called Henry IV - Part I or I Henry IV, is a play written by William Shakespeare in the late 1500s that has its origins in historical fact. The play forms the second part of a tetralogy that follows events associated with the House of Lancaster, one of the warring houses in the 15th century civil war battle called the War of the Roses. Most of the events follow history though dramatic license is used, and the majority of characters are exaggerations based upon real people.

Shakespeare wrote the play for his modern audience, assuming a certain understanding of history and moral climate. A tetralogy is a collection of four related works and Henry IV is the second chronological entry, following Richard III. Knowledge of Richard III, either the play or the historical monarch, aids a reader in understanding Henry IV. The latter entries in the tetralogy are Henry IV - Part II and Henry V.

The play begins when the civil war is on the verge of breaking out while King Henry IV’s allies begin to turn on him. This includes young soldier Hotspur, his uncle Thomas Percy, and father Henry Percy. Despite the name of the play, Henry IV’s storyline is actually less prominent than the more comedic happenings of his roguish son, Prince Harry, and his dramatic best friend, Falstaff. The final battle sees Harry and his father facing off against Hotspur and his uncle, with Hotspur’s father sitting out at the last minute.

Falstaff is the only character from the play that is entirely fiction. The Percy family is all based on real people who performed similar roles in real life and King Henry IV and his son were also obviously real. Dramatic license was taken with the personalities of the characters, with the Percy’s painted as more villainous and Prince Harry as more comedic than they probably were in real life.

Shakespeare likely drew his research for the play from a noted text of the time entitled The Chronicles of England. Henry IV was written presuming that the audience already had knowledge of the War of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. A major theme presented in the play, which was first produced in 1597, was whether nobility was divinely selected. That was a common question discussed in the arts during the time that Shakespeare was writing.

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