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Henry IV Part 1 is the second play in Shakespeare’s second History tetralogy, which follows the turbulent reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. It was the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime, and introduced one of his most enduring characters, Sir John Falstaff – supposedly a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.
It tells the story of the Percy family’s failed rebellion against Henry IV, a key part of the War of the Roses.
Since Henry IV Part 1 doesn’t feature on any of the current GCSE specifications, the ideal time to teach the play is at KS3 (although it’s probably better suited to Y8 or Y9 than Y7). If you’re using the EDUQAS specification, it can lead brilliantly into a study of Henry V at GCSE, offering an overview into his development from Prince of Wales to King.
Of particular interest to such a study is Hal’s first soliloquy, in which he confides to the audience that his unprincely behaviour is a deliberate ploy to make his renaissance seem more remarkable to the people of England. This can provide an insight into some of the questionable tactics he uses at The Siege of Harfleur and The Battle of Agincourt, and his potential status as a war criminal.
There’s no need to teach the whole play, as an extract-based approach can be taken. You might choose to strip back the Hotspur/Glendower rebellion subplot and focus on Prince Hal and the relationships he has with his father, Henry IV, and his dissolute companion, Falstaff.
However, Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, is a useful dramatic foil to Hal; the son that Henry IV wishes he had. This pairing creates the climax of the play, when they meet in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
The History plays are very underrated and under taught. Henry IV Part 1 contains enjoyable comedic scenes, perfectly juxtaposed with the serious matters of kingship and rebellion.
Hal is a teenager during the events of the play, and modern teenagers may find it easy to relate to him and his estranged relationship with his father, leading Hal to hang out with the Classical tempter figure, Falstaff.
This sets up a narrative about a disaffected young man having to choose between the good father, the King, and the bad father, the hard-drinking Sir John. Teenagers should also enjoy the comedic, insulting banter between Hal and Falstaff, and the comic tour-de-force of the Gads Hill robbery.
The play is also interesting stylistically, because of the frequent moves between prose and blank verse. Hal proves himself adept in using both forms of speech and, along with Hamlet, is one of Shakespeare’s finest code-switchers, able to both speak the high language of the court and banter with his friends at The Boar’s Head Tavern.
The obvious link would be history, with the background of the War of the Roses. Like most of the Histories, the play explores notions of kingship and what it means to be a good king. This is an obvious thematic link to Macbeth, which is one of the most popular GCSE texts.
Links could also be made to media studies, where the influence of Shakespeare’s plays can be observed in the popular TV series, Game of Thrones. There’s also PSHE potential in exploring issues of teenage rebellion through the relationship of the king and his heir, and what it feels like to be a disappointment to your parents.
Shakespeare’s Globe’s 2011 production portrays the Falstaff/Hal relationship with an excellent rapport between Jamie Parker as Hal and Roger Allam in his Olivier Award-winning turn as Falstaff.
Alternatively, the BBC’s acclaimed production The Hollow Crown features Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russel Beale as the sparring pair, and offers a more cinematic take on the play.
Helen Mears is an English teacher who sits on the education committee of the British Shakespeare Association
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