As a young man, Henry Bolingbroke was the David Beckham of his day. A champion jouster rather than footballer, but equally admired. His king, Richard II, was disliked, and seeing the popular Henry as a threat, banished him to France and stole his family estates. Outraged, Henry returned from exile and was embraced as leader of a rebellion to overthrow the king. It succeeded and Henry, the obvious replacement, was crowned Henry IV. Richard was imprisoned, and eventually perhaps even murdered.
Henry found himself burdened with a country rife with discontent, with constant guerrilla warfare both in Wales and the north. Parliament was evolving into a powerful force, and offered support only in return for his promise not to raise taxes for anything but foreign wars. Everywhere he looked he seemed to see enemies who now wanted him off the throne.
Although Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are set against this background and in reality his son the Prince of Wales was fighting for his father by the age of 14, Shakespeare deviates from history for dramatic purposes by writing the king’s heir, Hal, as a reprobate. He writes of a man watching with despair as his teenage son goes through the age-old rite of life to prove his independence.
Wherever the king turns there is turmoil. That, and the guilt he feels for deposing Richard II, turns him melancholy and eventually breaks his health. But as his hour comes to die, he finds comfort in the realisation that his son has grown into a magnificent young man, much better suited to the throne than he ever was. As he dies, he advises him to do what rulers the world over do (viz Mrs Thatcher in the Falklands or President Bush in Iraq) and concentrate on foreign wars to make people forget their problems at home. This Hal does to tremendous effect in the next play, Henry V.
These plays resonate today because, as in so much of his work, Shakespeare seems, more than anything, interested in human nature. And human nature never changes. I last played Shakespeare on film in 2004 in The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino. To have another chance to do so opposite a strong cast has proved a memorable time. We collaborated in the hope of making this 400-year-old play sing to today’s audience. I hope we’ve succeeded.
Jeremy Irons stars in The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 on 7 and 14 July (BBC2), directed by Richard Eyre. The cast includes Julie Walters, Simon Russell Beale, Michelle Dockery, Maxine Peake and Tom Hiddleston.