Comedy in Henry IV
Set in bars, castles, and battlefields, Shakespeare’s Henry IV is presents a peculiar version of chivalry. Upon first inspection, this play reads as a boy’s tale of mischief, kingly growth, and knightly success. Shakespeare, however, proves too elusive a dramatist to offer so simple a play. Although a history, Shakespeare also has saturated the work with qualities of another genre: the Comedy. In this play, readers see the comedic in both plot and character. In regard to plot, Shakespeare employs a block comedic in both senses of the word on a very strange case of unrequited love: King Henry’s affection for Hotspur. Fittingly, Shakespeare also removes that block—which makes the play comedic, not tragic—in an equally unconventional way. In Hal’s slaying of Hotspur, Hal replaces King Henry’s desire as Hal emerges as a deserving successor. Numerous comedic foils and aids interact with this block; however, one character in particular, Falstaff, is bound exceptionally tightly to this play’s comedic tone. The unofficial jester of King Henry’s court, Falstaff serves as this play’s emblem of comedy. Falstaff not only offers a comedic disposition but also drives the play’s larger comedic plot by aiding in Hal’s development as a successor. Henry IV, although a history, is irrevocably tied to the comedic both in jest and in structure.
Although this play carries a comedic tone, it opens with the utmost gravity. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV is set in an environment of political instability. War plagues England in the present, and anxieties over Henry’s successor plague its future.