Consequences of Henry IV's Seizure of the Crown
Shakespeare accepted what E. M. W. Tillyard has referred to, in his book, Shakespeare's History Plays, as the Tudor Myth of history, in which the disorders of Henry IV's reign were interpreted as the direct result of Henry IV's seizing of the crown from the legitimate king, Richard II. (These events are recorded in Shakespeare's play, Richard II). It did not matter to the Elizabethans that Richard was generally regarded as a bad king; it was still an offense against the cosmic order to overthrow him. This was because the Elizabethans believed that the King was anointed by God and was God's representative on earth. He ruled by divine right, even if he ruled badly. According to the Elizabethans, overthrowing God's representative was sure to produce disorder not only in the kingdom but throughout nature and the universe.
Henry IV is not presented as a bad king, but his crown is nonetheless tainted by his manner of attaining it. He knows this is the case, and it weighs heavily on his mind. Just before his death he asks God for forgiveness.
Politics and Morality
Although Henry's legitimacy as a king is questionable, that does not mean that the rebels are right to oppose him. In fact, the play does not show them in a flattering light. They lack cohesion, since once again Northumberland reveals himself to be an unreliable ally, and are willing to plunge the kingdom into disorder without good cause.
The hinge on which the action of the play turns, as far as the civil war is concerned, is a controversial maneuver by Prince John. He meets with the rebel leaders and tells them he will grant their demands. Then he persuades them to disband their army. After they have done so, he arrests them and sends them to execution. The theme seems to be that in politics and statecraft, the means justify the ends. No one reproaches Prince John for his actions, or suggests that he behaved dishonorably.
The Personal Development of Prince Henry
In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal lives a reckless, irresponsible life, consorting with Falstaff and the other rogues who frequent the Boar's Head tavern. He is the despair of his father. But he reforms himself sufficiently to play an outstanding role in the battle of Shrewsbury, killing Hotspur, the rebel leader, and thereby winning his father's approval. In Henry IV, part 2, however, it is almost as if those events had not happened, since at the beginning of the play, Prince Hal is still consorting with Falstaff, and his father is still distressed about his irresponsible son. But in this play, Shakespeare shows the Prince already tired of his indolent lifestyle, and ready to distance himself from Falstaff. Falstaff is unaware of this change in the Prince, but it is brought home emphatically when the Prince is crowned Henry V. He decisively rejects all his previous companions and makes it clear that he will rule his kingdom by law and will live up to the dignity of the office he holds. This final transformation of the Prince prepares the way for his role in the final play of this cycle of history plays, Henry V, in which he emerges as an inspiring and successful military leader.
Law versus Anarchy and Disorder
The theme of law and order versus anarchy and disorder appears at several levels in the play. In every case, order triumphs.
The kingdom of England is in a state of disorder because of the series of rebellions against the King. The rebels threaten to bring chaos and anarchy to the land. When they are defeated, a measure of order can return to England.
The same theme is echoed in the clash between Falstaff, who takes no notice of any laws that are inconvenient to him, and the Lord Chief Justice, who represents law and order. This contest reaches its climax when Falstaff rides to London following the ascension of Henry V to the throne. He is confident that the laws of England are at his command. But the Lord Chief Justice has the last word, when at the King's instruction, he conveys Falstaff to prison.
The theme occurs again in the personal development of Prince Hal. From being a man who consorts with lawbreakers and rogues of all kinds, he becomes an impressive King, dedicated to the rule of law. This theme reaches its climax in Act 5, scene 2. The Lord Chief Justice is fearful of what may be in store for him, since he once had to imprison the wild Prince Hal for striking him. But when challenged by Henry V, the Lord Chief Justice sticks to his guns, speaking nobly in defense of the rule of law. He finds to his surprise that the new King agrees with him, and allows him to keep his post.