by John Wang
In Henry IV Part I, William Shakespeare plays upon the themes of rebellion and monarchial legitimacy. By addressing the concerns of Henry IV’s royal authority, Shakespeare comments upon the regent of his own time period—Queen Elizabeth I. Examining primary documents from the late sixteenth century allows one to gain perspective on Shakespeare’s commentary and motivations. “An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion” by Bishop John Jewel identifies the common religious views of the time and allows one to understand how Shakespeare integrated and shaped commonly held beliefs in Henry IV. The similarities between Henry IV and “An Homily Against Disobedience” show that Shakespeare paid homage to Queen Elizabeth’s monarchial legitimacy.
Shakespeare’s audience would have noted the parallels between Queen Elizabeth and Henry IV. Henry assumed the monarchy with the legitimacy of his reign in question. By forcibly seizing the throne, Henry could not claim to possess any divine right to rule. Instead, he had to argue that Richard II had transgressed natural law and that his abrogation was necessary to the continuation of a functional and just state. Similarly, Elizabeth’s claim to the throne rested on tenuous grounds after the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn. By Henry VIII’s decree, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and Elizabeth relied largely on public admiration to retain power during her reign. In addition, Elizabeth’s female gender agitated many of her subjects.
Thus, Shakespeare may have subtly commented on Elizabeth’s monarchy while overtly assessing Henry IV’s reign. Elizabethan audiences would have recognized the similarities between Henry IV’s victory over the northern rebellion and Elizabeth’s triumph over the Spanish Armada, both dire threats to the continuity of the English state. Even more analogous to the northern rebellion of Henry IV’s time were the incessant Irish rebellions that Elizabeth faced.
Indeed, Shakespeare highlights Hotspur’s failed rebellion and Henry’s survival through the rebellion. By incorporating the highwaymen robbery in Act II Scene ii, Shakespeare suggests that disintegration of justice and order accompany the northern rebellion. In fact, the plot between Hotspur, Northumberland, and Worcester has just begun to unfold in Act I Scene iii. Hotspur declares “All studies here I solemnly defy,/ Save how to gall and pinch this Bolingbroke” (I.iii.227-228), and soon after Hotspur agrees to take “revenged on [Henry],” (I.iii.289) Falstaff and his band of thieves rob a group of travelers. The timing of these episodes shows that Shakespeare intended the audience to attribute the breakdown in civil harmony to Hotspur’s plot to depose Henry IV.
In “An Homily Against Disobedience”, John Jewel argues that the monarch rules with complete power because of his or her heaven-sent mandate. By rising against the monarch, one in effect rebels against God. In addition, rebellion spawns more sins as disorder and heresy spread from one individual to the next. Jewel writes that, “For he that nameth rebellion, nameth not a singular or one only sin…But he nameth the whole puddle and sink of all sins against God and man…” (174). Jewel argues that rebellion spawns moral corruption, as the rejection of the monarch symbolizes the rejection of God. Thereafter, sin spreads like a plague amongst the rebels and moves to infect the general populace.
England’s deterioration figures prominently in Henry IV. Gadshill comments that the nobility “pray continually to their saint, the commonwealth,/ or rather not pray to her but prey on/ her, for they ride up and down on her and make her their boots.” (II.i.64-66). The peasants had always resented the landed gentry, but this frustration seems to boil over the moment Worcester hatches his plan. Immediately after the scene depicting the pact of rebellion, Falstaff and his men attack a group of travelers. Falstaff cries, “What, ye knaves, young/ men must live. You are grandjurors, are ye? We’ll jure ye, ‘faith” (II.ii.73-74). Here, Falstaff’s expresses his intense fury at these men of wealth by shouting, “Down with them! Cut the villains’ throats!” (II.ii.68). Although meant to inspire humor, these sentences do emphasize the peasants’ dissatisfaction with the ruling class. The deterioration of England occurs just as Jewel predicted. The northern rebellion has caused a breakdown in normal life and has led the commoners’ simmering frustration to finally boil over.
Moreover, Shakespeare allows Henry to triumphantly and nobly survive the final battle. In the final scene, Henry says, “Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke./ Ill-spirited Worcester! Did not we send grace,/ Pardon, and terms of love to all of you?” (V.v.1-3). Henry remains gracious in victory and laments the fact that such noble friends betrayed him. By comparison, Jewel writes that, “…our countrymen in obtaining the victory win the praise of valiantness… and die in a good conscience for serving GOD, their Prince, and their country, and be children of eternal salvation” (179). According to the Homily, fighting for the Prince and his ultimate victory over the rebels constitutes a sacrifice made to God. The gallantry of the act, in God’s eyes, opens the path to “eternal salvation.” In this case, it is Henry, the legitimate, heaven-ordained Prince, who triumphs over the rebels. His ultimate conquest resounds majestically and ceremoniously during the final lines: “Rebellion in this land shall lose his sway,/ Meeting the check of such another day” (V.v.41-42). This final success, coupled with Henry’s magnanimity, shows that the true ruler has taken the throne. Allowing his audience to make comparisons between the two regents, Shakespeare cements the triumph of the rightful monarch in each case.
The fact that the northern rebellion against Henry produces civil strife and discord insinuates that Henry rightfully attains the throne. Had God not selected Henry as the “parent of [the] country,” (175) rebellion against him would not induce the proliferation of “wickedness and damnation” (175). By analogy, Shakespeare applauds the reign of Elizabeth through her association with Henry IV. The play confirms Henry’s legitimacy as King and Elizabeth’s as Queen, essentially glorifying both reigns. By analyzing “An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion”, one can understand how Shakespeare’s audience would have interpreted and reacted to the disintegration of the English state in Henry IV. Considering contemporary religious beliefs, one can illustrate that Shakespeare intended to glorify and legitimize Elizabeth I. Thus, Henry IV Part I pays homage to Elizabeth’s reign and her patronage of the dramatic arts.
Shakespeare, William. “Henry IV, Part I.” The First Part of King Henry the Fourth: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Barbara Hodgdon. New York: Bedford, 1997.
Jewel, John. “An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion.” The First Part of King Henry the Fourth: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Barbara Hodgdon. New York: Bedford, 1997.
John Wang has lived in Woodridge, IL for his entire life, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t wanted to live elsewhere. John is what people would call a dreamer. Most of the time, his head is stuck in the clouds. He climbs back down to earth often enough to finish his homework and exams. He’s currently majoring in Economics and Math, spending much of his time making mathematical models and solving logic puzzles. Far surpassing any academic gratification from these pursuits, however, is his love for golf. He is an avid fan of the game and can be found practicing his swing in elevators, his dorm room, or while walking. John also enjoys swimming, baseball, and interesting conversations. Hopefully, his time here at MIT will give him plenty of the latter.