Some scholars see Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I as having drawn much inspiration from the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Found in the Book of Luke in the New Testament of the Bible, the prodigal son story speaks of a father and his two sons whom both receive their father’s inheritance. While the elder brother stays behind and dutifully serves his father, the younger son leaves home and goes on to squander his entire inheritance. The younger son returns to his father and begs for forgiveness for his rash behavior. The father takes his younger son willingly in his arms and even orders a banquet to celebrate his younger son’s return. The older son, offended that he never received such attention despite living life dutifully, refuses to attend the banquet. The father then says: “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32 NIV version).
In Henry IV Part I, we see some similar overtones; Henry V, Prince of Wales, or more affectionately known as “Hal”, spends his time in sketchy taverns with those of lower birth. Influenced by the disgraceful Falstaff, Henry IV scorns Hal’s behavior as ill-fitting and inappropriate. Hal eventually tries to prove himself worthy of being heir to the kingdom, and transforms into the regal and responsible prince who triumphs over his father’s enemy, Harry Percy, nicknamed “Hotspur.” Shakespeare even includes a second and younger son in the play, John of Lancaster, as the more dutiful of Henry IV’s children to act as a contrast to Hal’s debaucherous attitude. While the seniority has been reversed, the roles are still the same: Hal, the prodigal son, and John of Lancaster, the dutiful one.
While it is unclear what religion Shakespeare practiced, we can look at Hal’s character as well as historical context to take a guess at what Shakespeare may have believed in. Historically, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Queen Elizabeth I had outlawed Catholicism, and so at least publicly, Shakespeare was most likely a Protestant. Yet his depiction of Hal as the prodigal son seems to align itself more with a traditional Catholic interpretation of the story. While all theologians agree the message of prodigal son parable is about God’s mercy and willingness to forgive sinners, Catholics and Protestants disagree over why the son was forgiven of his sins. Protestants stress the importance of confession and repentance, and insist that the prodigal son was forgiven due to God’s grace, without the need of certain rituals to absolve him of his sins. On the other hand, Catholics believe that the prodigal son was forgiven through penance, the practice of confessing sins to a priest and thus given absolution. Barbara Haegar goes on to argue that besides theologians, dramatists argued over the differences in interpretation in the 16th century: “Protestant playwrights eagerly seized upon the parable as a vehicle for religious propaganda, adding prologues, epilogues, and/or additional speeches delivered by narrators in order to insure that the audience would understand the significance of particular scenes and would perceive that the sinner is saved by grace rather than by merit” (Haeger 1986, 129). Hal is forgiven by his father, King Henry IV, due to his own merit, not just simply from God’s grace. Hal shows up on the battlefield and delivers on his promise of taking down his father’s enemies, redeeming himself in his father’s eyes. This redemption is a more Catholic reading of the prodigal son parable, suggesting Shakespeare may have at least harbored some Catholic sympathies. Perhaps if Shakespeare had been more of a Protestant, the climax of Henry IV Part I would have gone differently, with the events lining up as if by fate through greater divine intervention.