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Essay on Rewriting History in Henry IV

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 …

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… as king. Shakespeare the Historian is not so wonderful as Shakespeare the Playwright, yet through Shakespeare’s History Plays many modern readers draw their knowledge of the history prior to Shakespeare.

Works Cited

* Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

* Jacob, E. F. The Fifteenth Century: 1399-1485. London: Oxford UP, 1961.

* Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare’s Histories. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970.

* McFarlane, K. B. Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights. London: Oxford UP, 1972.

* Rowse, A. L. Bosworth Field: From Medieval to Tudor England. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

* Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. Ed. M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1, 6th ed. New York: Norton, 1993.

Was Henry V’s Victory a Miracle?

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition.

And gentlemen in England now abed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

These words, spoken by Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, reflected the pride the English took in the memory of a glorious victory and, by connecting the Battle of Agincourt with a holy day, helped reinforce the popular belief that Providence played a role in England’s fortunes during that historic battle. The ensuing bloody and chaotic clash seemed proof enough of divine intervention, because Henry’s troops rose up to defeat a French army almost four times as large.

This rousing truimph during the Hundred Years War ranks alongside the rout of the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Britain as one of England’s “Finest Hours,” but it was not quite the miraculous event that Shakespeare and his contemporaries related. Henry’s army posed a much more formidable threat to the French than simple numbers suggest. Given the circumstances, a British victory was nearly inevitable.

The Hundred Years War, fought intermittently from 1337 to 1453, erupted over the Plantagenet kings’ rather weak claim to the French throne, which they based on Edward II’s marriage to Isabella, daughter of France’s King Philip IV. Although that claim had grown rather stale by the time Henry V rose to power, he pressed it through force of arms. In a series of brilliant military campaigns, he conquered much of France, and married Cath…

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…he Battle of Agincourt was King Henry’s decision to execute his French prisoners during the fighting. At the time, such blatantly brutal practice was unheard of. Henry has borne the harsh judgment of history for his actions.

In the heat of battle, Henry noticed that one segment of his army had been caught off-guard and was in serious danger. The only soldiers available to reinforce his line were those guarding prisoners. To reassign them meant risking the prisoners’ escape, or worse, having them turn on their captors.

Henry chose the more ruthless but less risky course and ordered the prisoners to be executed. It was a decision borne of necessity during battle, rather than personal malice, but one which nevertheless inflamed the French to greater resistance and set the stage for further rounds of slaughter in the seemingly endless Anglo-French wars.

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