1. Date of Composition

King Henry IV, Part 1, was apparently written in the year 1596-1597, when Shakespeare was in his thirty-third year. He had probably already produced nine successful plays, among them Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. The year 1596 had witnessed the English expedition to Spain and the destruction of the city of Cadiz; the year 1597 saw the destruction of the second Spanish Armada. English patriotism never found nobler expression than in the historical plays of Shakespeare written during these years of national trial and endeavour.

2. Early Editions

The popularity of this play is attested by the large number of early editions, no less than six appearing before the publication of the first Folio in 1623. The first Quarto appeared in 1598, and was followed by others in 1599, 1604, 1608, 1613, and 1622. The first Quarto furnishes the best text. The text of the first Folio was apparently based upon the fifth Quarto.

3. Sir John Oldcastle and Sir John Falstaff

In Shakespeare's first version of the play he evidently retained the name Oldcastle for the fat knight who attended the Prince. Hal's pun, 'my old lad of the castle' (I. ii.) bears witness to this, as does the metrical imperfection in the line

Away good Ned, Falstaff sweats to death (II. ii.)

which would be corrected by the substitution of the word Oldcastle for Falstaff. In the first Quarto of Henry IV, Part II, the prefix Old. is found instead of Fal. before Falstaff's speech in I. ii. 137, and in the Epilogue to this play the author explicitly states that the Falstaff of the play is not the Oldcastle who 'died a martyr.'

Oldcastle was a famous Lollard, and according to tradition many Elizabethan Protestants protested against Shakespeare's 'degradation' of an honorable name, and 'some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it.' It is at least a singular coincidence that Shakespeare substituted the name of a Lollard sympathizer, Sir John Fastolfe, in slightly disguised form. The Falstaff of the play bears no resemblance, save in name, to either Sir John Oldcastle or Sir John Fastolfe.

4. Stage History

Of the first performances and the first players of Henry IV no records are extant; but the large number of contemporary references add their testimony to the fact of the play's popularity. Ben Jonson alludes to the fatness of Sir John Falstaff in Every Man out of his Humour, and in Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle, Ralph, the apprentice, when asked to 'speak a huffing part,' declaims Hotspur's speech on honor, with variations. Shakespeare's chief rivals, the Lord Admiral's players, in 1599 paid him the compliment of producing a play of their own on The Life of Sir John Oldcastle; and even during the period of the Commonwealth, Puritan legislation failed to prevent the clandestine performance of a farcical abridgment of Shakespeare's play, known as The Bouncing Knight.

John Lowin (1676-1659) is the earliest actor whose name is associated with the play. James Wright in his Historia Histrionica (1699) says that 'before the wars' Lowin acted Falstaff 'with mighty applause.' Lowin seems to have joined Shakespeare's company in 1603, six or seven years after the probable date of the first performance of Henry IV.

This play was one of the first to be revived publicly after the Restoration. Pepys first saw it in December, 1660, and was disappointed,—'my expectation being too great, . . . and my having a book I believe did spoil it a little.' The next spring, however, Pepys saw it again, and pronounced it 'a good play.' In November, 1667, and September, 1668, Pepys attended performances again, and 'contrary to expectation was pleased in nothing more than in Cartwright's speaking of Falstaff's speech about "What is Honour?"'

During the seventies John Lacey succeeded Cartwright in the rôle of Falstaff; and in 1682, the year after Lacey's death, at the time of the union of the King's and the Duke's players, the great Thomas Betterton appeared as Hotspur. Eighteen years later, at the age of sixty-five, Betterton appeared as Falstaff 'which drew all the town more than any new play produced of late. . . . The critics allow that Betterton has hit the humour of Falstaff better than any that have aimed at it before, . . . though he lacks the waggery of Estcourt, the drollery of Harper, and the salaciousness of Jack Evans.' (Genest, II. 381; V. 696.) Six notable Falstaffs in one generation is a record of which the seventeenth century may be proud.

Betterton's acting version of the play was published in 1700. Genest notes that he 'judiciously retains' the conversation of Falstaff and the Prince in Act II, and also the first scene in Act III, although he omits the character of Lady Mortimer. The obvious inference to be drawn from Genest's opening remark is indeed astounding, namely, that it had been the custom, before Betterton's time, to cut the great Boar's Head Tavern scene. But it was after Betterton's time that, according to Genest, a 'happy (sic) addition' was made to Falstaff's speech which begins 'By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye' by prefixing the question 'Do ye think that I did not know ye?' This singularly infelicitous addition to Shakespeare's text was retained by Sir Herbert Tree in his performance of the Boar's Head Tavern scene at the Shakespeare Tercentenary Festival in the New Amsterdam Theatre, New York, in April, 1916.

Verbruggen was Betterton's Hotspur, and according to Genest (II. 381) he was 'nature without extravagance, and freedom without licentiousness,—he was vociferous without bellowing.' The inference to be drawn with respect to former performances is again interesting.

Twenty other actors are known to have played Falstaff between 1700 and 1750, and the play-bills of twenty performances of Henry IV, Part I, between 1706 and 1826 are in existence. Six of these performances were at the Haymarket, seven at Drury Lane, two at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and five at Covent Garden.

Garrick first appeared as Hotspur at the Covent Garden performance in 1746, his great rival, Quin, appearing as Falstaff, a rôle in which he had made himself a great name eight years before. We are told that 'the advantage was greatly on Quin's side, as the part of Hotspur was not suited to Garrick's figure or style of acting.'

Henderson was the great Falstaff of the latter half of the eighteenth century, and played at the Haymarket, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden. He is said to have made Falstaff 'neither very vulgar nor very polite.' An entirely unique performance must have been that of 1786 when Mrs. Webb appeared as Falstaff in a 'benefit' for herself.

In the 1824 production at Covent Garden, Charles Kemble appeared as Falstaff. 'He endeavored to rescue the part from coarseness. In the presence of the King and in the conversation with Westmoreland, he invested it with gentility and courtly bearing.' The Drury Lane production two years later was made notable by the appearance of Macready as Hotspur.

A popular Falstaff of the early nineteenth century was Bartley, who made his first appearance in the rôle in 1815. 'His success was equal to his most sanguine expectations, and richly merited.' Bartley made a triumphal tour of America in 1818-1819, and gave instruction in reading and elocution in many American colleges. In 'Hertford,' the capital of Connecticut, he and his accomplished wife were arrested for indulging in dramatic readings, one Ebenezer Huntington, a Puritanical Attorney General, having resurrected one of Connecticut's famous blue laws for this purpose.

Since Bartley's farewell performance in 1852, there have been few revivals of Henry IV. For two centuries the play was revived in almost every decade; since 1850 it has been practically ignored. In recent years it has formed part of the repertoire of Sir Herbert Tree and of Sir Francis Benson's company at the Stratford Memorial Theatre. Miss Julia Marlowe appeared as Prince Hal in an abridgement of the two parts of the play in New York in 1895-1896, with William F. Owen as Falstaff. Professor Brander Matthews has recorded some excellent stage business of Owen's in an essay on Stage Traditions, published in Shakespearean Studies, Columbia University Press, 1916. The play has been revived in England and America by University Dramatic Associations, at Cambridge in 1886 and at Yale in 1906.