I know almost nothing about Shakespeare’s history plays, except that we were randomly assigned to read Richard III in tenth grade, and I am entirely grateful to that teacher (for that, and that alone — I never really liked her) for introducing us to the lesser known Shakespeares, even as famous as Richard III is ultimately.
If you’re trying to keep your history straight, the earliest of the histories (of England plays) King John appears first, ruling around 1200 during the absence of King Richard. Later we get Richard II, who is deposed at the end by Bolingbrooke, who becomes Henry IV. Henry IV also introduces us to the two character Prince Hal (who will become Henry V, spoiler alert, at the end of the second play) and John Falstaff, the friend and adviser to Prince Hal, is is as famous for his guidance as for his drunken loutishness. Orson Welles famously played a version of him in a film covering the three plays Henry IV and Henry V. For reference, these plays are followed by three Henry VI plays and the finally Richard III. Obviously far back of course we get Macbeth in there, and if you’re keeping track Edward I was Longshanks from Braveheart, and Lion in Winter concerns Henry II, the father of King John and Richard I. Phew.
So in this play we’re mostly concerned with the political intrigue of several…and I mean several rebellions and invasions. There’s a noble rebellion, which this play is going to deal with and there’s the Welsh rebellion leaded by Owen Glendower, which I think is in play two. We also get the rising up of Prince Hal into the noble leader he will need to be. So in this play among other things we get Hal and buddies pretending to rob Falstaff as a prank, and we also get Hal winning a one-on-one duel to help put down the rebellion. And at the end, we of course get a clear reference to the next play, with the coming battle with Glendower.
It’s a weird play because it’s not complete, but it is a character play in the way of building up the character of Hal.
In part two, we get the further continuation of the story and especially the divide that resulted from Hal’s growing up and moving away from Falstaff as influencer. It’s a shame of course because Falstaff might not make for a good king, but no kings are good kings, and well, Hal is going to be king. The play moves them continually in different directions, again, a shame because Falstaff is such a good character. It’s interesting to wonder always what Shakespeare is up to with his history plays, given how politically ambiguous they tend to feel and how influential he ended up becoming. Maybe he didn’t influence or direct policy, but he had the monachy’s ear, at least partially.