“The poor abuses of the time”: Henry IV’s Strange Temporal Location

They say that “hindsight’s always 20/20”. Knowing what we know in the present, if it were possible to go back then we could “fix” the past—avoid the mistakes we made the first time around. In a similar vein, it is said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The past exists as a place defined by the present: we can see where we went wrong, and what we should have done differently. But, the past defines the present as much as it is defined by it.

When we, as 21st century readers read Shakespeare’s 16th century play, Henry IV, Part 1, which is set in the early 15th century, and also exists in a timeframe with three other plays which together span two generations of English kings—making up the second of Shakespeare’s tetralogy’s of history plays (which in itself is a prequel to the first tetralogy of history plays which were written earlier, and cover the third generation of nobles)—well, it’s easy to start getting confused about time. What makes the process even more confusing is that our conception of time, reality, and history are linked in a vicious spiral, and as soon as one peg falls, they all begin to.

We see this clearly in the character of Hal. While Shakespeare’s accounts of the lives of English monarchs were generally based on Holinshed’s accounts, and Hal was portrayed in those texts as a wild-child, bad-boy hell-raiser. Yet, there is more to Hal in the plays than just a bad-boy who becomes a savvy king (in the later plays). Hal is aware of the decisions he is making, and the part he is playing. He says that his “bad-boy” persona is just that, and that the real Hal is someone different:

So, when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am (1.3.198-200)

Within this story arc, Hal inherits the “debt he never promised” from his father, who deposed Richard II with dubious claims. Hal begins Henry IV Part 1 a scoundrel, and ends the eponymous Henry V as a great hero who has united France and England. We see Hal as a conquering hero, and an excellent King.

However, the world of the play, or even of the tetralogy is not the full context we should look at. Shakespeare wrote the series of plays Hal stars in after he wrote the series of plays that star his son, Henry VI who became king as a child after Hal’s untimely death, and who proceeded to lose his holdings in France, his kingship in England, and his life. Henry VI is the last of his line, and part of his inability to rule is that he took the throne so young. Had Henry V lived, history would have been immensely different. We know that, and with our hindsight we can beg him to make different choices—ensure a better future for his line. But in the play he does not have that power.

When Shakespeare’s audience viewed Henry IV Part 1, it was in the context of the earlier/later Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy where we see everything that Henry IV and Henry V build come crashing down. This obscures some of the glory that we find in this tale of a prodigal prince becoming the son his father always wanted: every moment between father and son is also a reminder of how Hal will not be there for his son.

If thus far I have spoken about the plays in the context of hindsight, let me now turn my attention to foresight: or what these plays tell about the future, specifically a possible future for 16th century audiences of Henry IV Part One. In 1597, the year in which many believe the play to be written, England was without a proclaimed heir. Though Elizabeth was an excellent monarch who rose to power despite obstacles, and ruled well she did not secure her line. In many ways she can be compared to Hal—the prodigal daughter of Henry VIII, who restored the Protestant faith to England, defeated the Spanish much like Hal defeated the French, etc. But Hal’s accomplishments are tinged by the fact that all that he achieved immediately crumbled after him, ironically paving the way for the ascension of the Tudor monarchy that gave rise to Elizabeth.

As much as Hal is a son, and prince, he is also a future father, and King and these are responsibilities that he must take seriously, just as Elizabeth must take her responsibilities to ensure the future stability of the realm seriously.