Essay on Rewriting History in Henry IV

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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
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For the most part, Shakespeare did indeed fabricate Falstaff, Poins, and the whole Tavern Group, yet historical evidence does support some sort of provincial getaway. McFarlane records that in 1412 the younger Henry "remained dissatisfied [with his father] and shortly afterwards withdrew once more into the provinces, where he was soon again at his old tricks" (110). Shakespeare originally named the character of Falstaff after the Protestant martyr John Oldcastle. Shakespeare eventually bowed to the objections of Oldcastle's descendants, renaming the character (Abrams 823).

At the Battle of Shrewsbury, Shakespeare describes how Hal kills Hotspur, eulogizes him (5.4.78-102), and then concedes the victory of the kill to Falstaff (5.4.138-50). History records that Hal himself suffered an arrow-shot to the face (Rowse 44) and that no one knows for certain who killed Hotspur (Jacob 52-3). History further records that, as for the eulogy, it was the king who shed tears over Hotspur's slain figure, not the young prince (Rowse 45). Despite Hotspur being three years older than Hal's father (Hotspur died at age thirty-nine) (Rowse 44), Shakespeare paints the portrait of Hotspur and Hal as contemporaries, following poet Daniel's lead (Drabble 475). Rowse does note, however, that Shakespeare did capture the essence in Hotspur of "something not grown-up about this fighting man, who…