The background of ‘The Making of a King’

 Background and dramaturgy material courtesy of dramaturg Adam Versényi

Plot Summaries

The Making of A King draws its events from a group of four related plays by Shakespeare:  Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II and Henry V.  In Richard II we see the downfall of one king and the rise of another.  Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke and claims all of his lands and possessions.  Henry returns to England and, with his allies the Northumberland Percys, leads a rebellion. Richard is defeated, forced to abdicate the throne, and Bolingbroke is crowned Henry IV. 

The two parts of Henry IV Ishow us the fractious nature of the new king’s reign.  Threatened constantly by insurrection, much of it led by his erstwhile allies the Percys; Henry IV is also greatly distressed by the behavior of Prince Hal, his son and heir, and we track his journey from youthful abandon in the taverns of Eastcheap to valor in his father’s cause during the Battle of Shrewsbury.  By the end of the play Prince Hal distances himself from his old drinking companions, especially the father-substitute he found there, Sir John Falstaff, and is crowned Henry V.

In Henry V we see the new king as a man who feels he has been called upon to cement the control of the Plantagenet line on the English throne and to unite the kingdoms of France and England.  Following his father’s advice to launch a foreign war to quell civil unrest at home, the young king decisively invades France. In the process he demonstrates his growing understanding of statecraft as he dispatches both aristocratic traitors and common soldier thieves from his old tavern days. By the play’s end Henry V, against monumental odds, defeats the French at Agincourt, marries the French King’s daughter Katherine, and is crowned King of England and France combined.

From Agincourt by Juliet Barker, October 2005

The Making of A King

Henry IV, in Henry Holland,
Baziliologia, 1618

While the British Monarch is largely a figurehead today, the subject of royal weddings, Helen Mirren films, and tabloid scandals, the British Monarchy was for much of its existence a powerful political and military force.  That is not the way it began, however, and Shakespeare’s plays deal in many ways with the personal, dynastic and social forces that forged the monarchic state.

Henry IV shows us Prince Hal’s coming into his own during the uncertain times that follow his father’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne.  Henry IV is bedeviled by numerous forces:  civil unrest fomented by the lords who helped him claim the throne and now feel abandoned by him; fear that Richard II’s designated heir, Edmund Mortimer, will press his claim to the throne; and the clear sense that, by killing Richard, he has both violated the divine right of kings and made it impossible to assume that right for himself.

The beginning of the play focuses on the tension between a centralized monarchy and the diverse geographical regions, languages, and cultures that comprised the British monarchy. Henry IV is trying to break the grip of powerful independent warlords, particularly from the North, who have challenged the authority of the king.  In essence, what Shakespeare dramatizes here is a painful transition from a feudal system to a nation-state. The Northumberland Percys and Worcester place feudal loyalties above fealty to a single monarch and Hotspur is the strongest embodiment of feudal chivalry with its code of honor, its admiration of heroism on the battlefield, and its elevation of loyalty to self and family above any loyalty to the state.

Hotspur’s greatest danger to Henry is his assertion of feudal rights against the law of the land.  Rather than the traditional image of the monarch as the sun, Hotspur sees him as the moon, a mere reflection of the king that Henry deposed.  Fiercely independent, embracing personal honor and lineage over nationalism, valuing bravery and force of arms for its own sake rather than what it can achieve, and zealously asserting his political autonomy, Hotspur is a weapon skillfully wielded by those, such as Northumberland and Westmoreland, who want to break Henry’s rule.

An artist’s illustration of the town and part of Harfluer.

Shakespeare alters his sources to make Prince Hal and Hotspur the same age—the historical Hotspur was closer in age to Henry—and makes the Hal of his play a bit older than he was in reality. The historical Hal was only twelve years old during the Battle of Shrewsbury where, despite being wounded by an arrow in his face, he fought valiantly.  Shakespeare makes these alterations to make Hal and Hotspur’s final confrontation more dramatically compelling, and Hal must defeat Hotspur to inherit a secure kingship from his father, but his greater challenge will be to defeat the lure of the tavern world where first we find him reveling.

Taverns were alehouses where anyone could drink publicly. All layers of society from the criminal to the courtly mixed freely outside the rigid class distinctions and constraints of the court. During Henry Bolingbroke’s exile Hal was a ward of Richard II and the experience of watching his father depose and execute his mentor may also contribute to Hal’s motivation for fleeing the court to dally in the tavern world.  Where Hotspur is a rival for Hal, Falstaff is presented as surrogate father to him and, therefore, a rival to Henry for paternal authority.

Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that Falstaff the thief is akin to Henry the usurper, who stole the throne from Richard.  Both create positions of power they base upon theft.  Hal, who will inherit the kingship through legitimate succession, has the opportunity to establish the crown as rightly his.  All of this suggests, and the play extends the idea, that political power depends not upon divine right, but upon performance.  He who best plays the king is the king. This is a particularly apt concept for Elizabethan England where, as Machiavelli observed in The Prince,  “political power is secured by theatrical illusion—a populace can best be controlled by dissimulation, image-making, and role-play.”

This is one reason that Henry IV’s recurring illness became such an issue both historically and in the play.  What he actually suffered from is unclear, only that he suffered many bouts of a debilitating illness starting in 1405.  Whatever the specifics of the diagnosis, all his contemporaries agreed that his illness was divine retribution for having usurped the throne.  Henry himself seems to have believed this as well.  The first words of his will are, “I, Henry, sinful wretch” and refer to “the life I have mispended”.

While Henry IV begins with the world of the court and the feudal lords, the play also presents a richly observed catalogue of all of the other social classes that comprise the new nation.  Hal boasts that he “can drink with any tinker in his own language”, implying that being able to speak the common tongue is essential to his future governance.  Throughout the play Shakespeare explores various alternatives to the official speech of the court, moving those voices from the margins to the center, with the loudest voice of all provided by Falstaff. 

As the play proceeds Falstaff is increasingly painted as a cynical, manipulative and degenerate character that Hal must reject in order to rule.  But the brio with which Falstaff speaks, the bravado with which he moves, and the keen eye with which Shakespeare observes denizens of the world beyond the court insures that while we understand the necessity of Hal’s transformation into Henry V, the demands of the state also reject human compassion and theatrical excitement.  Our sympathies remain with Falstaff.

Henry V in a fifteenth century
portrait by an unknown artist.

Shakespeare’s Henry V dramatizes the new king’s decisiveness as he moves to consolidate his power at home and brilliantly beats the French at Agincourt.  Interestingly enough, the animosity between the English and the French, many of the techniques of warfare that they used, and the feudal system that Henry IV began to break and that Henry V completely quashed, can all be traced back to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

By the time of Henry V’s rule the feudal system had largely been superseded by a centralized state and by invading France Henry resumed the Hundred Years War.  Its basic cause was a dynastic quarrel between the kings of England, who held the duchy of Guienne, in France, and resented paying homage to the kings of France. The conflict languished until 1415, when Henry V defeated France’s best knights at Agincourt.  He then allied himself with Burgundy and went on to subdue Normandy.  In the Treaty of Troyes (1420), Charles VI of France was forced to recognize Henry as regent and heir to the throne of France, disinheriting his own son, the Dauphin.  By 1429 the English and their Burgundian allies controlled practically all of France north of the Loire and had Orléans under siege.

French fortunes were reversed that year, however.  Joan of Arc lifted the siege of Orléans and saw the dauphin crowned Charles VII at Rheims.  Her capture and execution did not end the string of French victories.  In 1435 Charles obtained an alliance with Burgundy, and by 1450 France had reconquered Normandy.  By 1451 all of Guienne except Bordeaux was in French hands.  Bordeaux fell in 1453, leaving the English only Calais (which they retained until 1558).  Domestic difficulties, specifically the War of the Roses, kept England from making any further attempts to conquer France.  The Hundred Years War inflicted untold misery on the French people.  Famine, the Black Death, and roving bands of marauders decimated the population.  An entirely new France emerged.  The virtual destruction of the feudal nobility allowed the monarchs to unite the country more solidly under the royal authority and to ally themselves with the newly rising middle class.  England ceased to think of itself as a continental power and began to develop as a sea power.  While this description of the Hundred Years War goes beyond the scope of Henry V’s involvement, it illustrates both the roots of the English-French conflict and how both countries were moving from a feudal worldview to one based upon the concept of the nation-state.

While we have combined these history plays into two nights of performance, up until the twentieth century Shakespeare’s histories were performed largely as stand alone pieces.  Furthermore, both in Shakespeare’s day and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the two parts of Henry IV were seen as Hotspur and Falstaff’s plays, leading to the probably apocryphal story from Shakespeare’s first editor that Queen Elizabeth was “so well pleas’d with that admirable Character of Falstaff in the two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to shew him in love”, that being the genesis of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Contemporary performances of these history plays have focused more upon Prince Hal than upon Falstaff or Hotspur, but perhaps more importantly, they have also revealed the broad canvas on which Shakespeare paints his world.

In The Making of A King we travel from high court to lowly tavern, from comedy to tragedy, fact to fiction, private memories to public motives.  While one strand of the plays shows how authoritative control and the making of a nation-state is achieved, another strand of the plays vividly portrays how the diverse populations that live in that new nation-state respond to its creation around them.  As audience members we glory in larger than life characters like Falstaff and Hotspur, but Shakespeare pays no less attention to minor characters like Justice Shallow or the soldier Williams.  Perhaps that is what gives Shakespeare’s history plays their continued appeal.

While the plays’ concern with unifying the nation against the threat of civil war at home and invasion abroad must have resonated with the playwright’s own audience worrying about what would happen to their nation after Elizabeth’s death, our own time is no less unsettled.  As we bring one war to an end in Iraq our soldiers still face horrors in Afghanistan.  Our attempts to stave off economic depression seem tenuous at best.  Natural disasters like hurricanes and the probability of humanly created catastrophes like global warming wreak havoc with our daily lives.  National politics, while not fought on the actual battlefields of war, seem to have devolved into perennial legislative battles where politicians squabble over their own increasingly polarized definitions of what constitutes the nation.  In the meantime the thousands upon thousands of ordinary citizens protesting in the streets occupy our imaginations.  In such an environment Shakespeare’s history plays that constitute The Making of A King still have much to tell us.