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This drama was first entered at Stationers' Hall February 25, 1597-8: its production is assigned by Malone to the year 1597, while Mr. Chalmers and Dr. Drake suppose it to have been written during the preceding year. No fewer than five quarto editions of this play were published during the life-time of our author; in 1598, 1599, 1604, 1608, and 1613.
The action of the First Part of Henry the Fourth begins immediately after the defeat of the Scots at Holmedon in 1402, and terminates with the defeat and death of Hotspur at Shrewsbury about ten months afterwards.
Dr. Johnson observes, that “Shakspeare bas apparently designed a regular connexion of these dramatic histories from Richard the Second to Henry the Fifth. King Henry, at the end of Richard the Second, declares his purpose to visit the Holy Land, which he resumes in the first speech of this play. The complaint made by King Henry, in the last act of Richard the Second, of the wildness of his son, prepares the reader for the frolics which are here to be recounted, and the characters which are now to be exhibited.'
It may be remarked, however, that the introduction of the prince at this early period of history is to be
attributed solely to the desire of the poet to produce dramatic effect; since, at the time when the conspiracy of the duke of Aumerle was discovered, Prince Henry was but twelve years old; and therefore too young as yet to be a partaker in the debaucheries of London taverns. It is also extremely probable, that the licentious habits, attributed to him by the English chroniclers of the sixteenth century, have been greatly exaggerated.
After the deposition and death of the unfortunate Richard,
the attention of Henry is directed to the incursions of the Scots, who, under the conduct of Douglas, advance to the borders of England, where they are totally routed by the celebrated Percy, surnamed Hotspur. The intelligence of this victory no sooner reaches the ears of the king, than, regardless of the debt of gratitude due to the powerful family of the Percies, he demands the prisoners taken in the late struggle, among whom was the renowned Douglas; contrary to the practice of those times, when the custody and destination of captives were determined at the discretion of the conquering general. Exasperated at this unexpected mandate, Hotspur dismisses all his prisoners without ransom, and with his relatives and dependents raises the standard of revolt against the sovereign, whose elevation they had so recently effected. Having formed a treaty of alliance with the Scottish and Welsh leaders, the insurgents arrive at Shrewsbury, where they are encountered by the king in person. A decisive battle ensues, in which Hotspur is slain, and the rebels sustain a signal defeat. The remainder of this drama is occupied with the amusing detail of the frolics of the prince of Wales and his merry companions, among whom sir John Falstaff occupies the most conspicuous part.