The Tragic, Comic, and Historic King Henry IV

King Henry IV is like its counterpart King Henry V in that it incorporates elements of all three genres of Shakespeare’s drama: tragedy, comedy, and history.  This is done by working plotting, characters and scene arrangements.

The characters are both humorous and serious. King Henry, his court, and the men surrounding Hotspur are very serious. Northumberland, Worcester, and Glyndwr are the serious, authoritative figures of the rebels while King Henry, Blunt, and Lancaster are serious and authoritative figures of court.

In contrast, Falstaff and Hal are humorous characrers who provide comic relief throughout the play. The other tavern-buddies are also humorous, but Falstaff is the main comedian. Hotspur and Hal can both be very serious (as can Falstaff) but they can also be highly comical. Many characters are historical, but several are fictitiously added to the story.

Plotting is important to this play’s combination of tragedy, comedy, ad history as well because through the various added events of the play that did nothappen historically, the audience is shown a more realistic picture of what happened. Instead of focusing on the purely historical perspective (because everyone would have known what happened), Shakespeare adds the whole “tavern” element, and embellishes the characters of Falstaff, Glyndwr, and Prince Harry and Hotspur. The whole incident of the double robbery serves as a very comic element of the play (as well as a rather symbolic foreshadowing of what Hal would do in the future), and the added strife between Hal and King Henry serves at first as a tragedy, then as a more comical element in their reconciliation at the end.

By including the fighting scenes, Shakespeare successfully incorporates historically accurate and embellished events which certainly seem tragic to the one sympathetic character of Hotspur and comic for the other sympathetic character Prince Henry. The fight between the two is charged with emotion and the audience is torn between who they will sympathize with the most. By giving equal development to Hotspur and Hal, Shakespeare gives the audience that tension: it knows someone will be the loser, but both Hal and Hotspur are now sympathetic to them. So when Hotspur dies, it is tragic, because we liked him. On the other hand, we rejoice when Hal wins because we liked him also. Both men are portrayed well; they are shown in their familiar surroundings and their comic natures make them endearing. So by using plotting to successfully develop these two most important characters, Shakespeare incorporates comedy, tragedy, and the historic elements of the story.

Some arrangement is also used to make elements of comedy, tragedy, and history combine. The battle scene, by being placed at the end of the play, makes this tragic because the finality of Hotspur’s death is emphasized. Audiences had earlier seen him joke with his wife, brag about his strength, attempt to compile a rebellion army, and then, after following his pursuits so closely, they see him die in the last act. Although, as previously mentioned, the “comedy” of Hal’s victory is also felt, it is marred significantly by the finality of Hotspur’s death. His death is the more tragice because it follows after the scene in which he learns that his reinforcement help (with his father and others) have basically deserted him and left him on his own. With Hal, his assumption of the “royal” role almost seems tragic as well. he turns his back on Falstaff and abandons his drinking parties at the tavern to become the serious prince and fighter his father desired him to be.  While this change in morality seems positive, it also is rather tragic because we have seen the fun times, the tavern has become familiar to us, so by turning his back on it, Hal seems to die to a certain aspect that we liked about him and with which we were well acquainted.


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