Henry IV, Part One first appeared in print in 1598, when two separate quartos were made. The second quarto serves as the standard text for most modern editions, and was followed closely by five more quartos in 1599, 1604, 1608, 1613, and 1622. The First Folio of 1623 adopted the 1613 version of the play, but altered some of the scenes and oaths to conform with a profanity act passed in 1606.
Henry IV, Part One marks a new form of history play for Shakespeare. Following Richard II as part of the tetrology, it does not conform to the traditional setting or subject matter of a chronicle play. Instead, the play moves rapidly from court life to street life, from the poetry of the nobles to the rituals of drinking in the tavern. Added to this mixture of bawdy commercialism and aristocracy is the magical world of Glyndwr's Welsh castle.
In spite of comments by some contemporaries, notably Sir Philip Sidney, that this mixture of cultures violated social codes, the play proved immensely popular. It was printed in two quarto versions in 1598 and five more editions were added before the 1623 First Folio appeared. Subsequent individual publications followed, indicating how sought after the play was.
The history behind the play was remarkably current even in Shakespeare's time. In the play, it is the Percy family who rebels against Henry IV, forcing him to defend his rule. The challengers to the throne are from Northumberland, a place considered lawless even in the late sixteenth century. Indeed, as late as 1569 members of the Percy family attempted to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The alliance between Northumberland and Wales is also mirrored in contemporary times by the unrest in Ireland. In 1595, the Earl of Tyrone challenged English rule. The relationship between the Irish unrest and the Welsh rebellion is explicated several times in the play, notably by the use of language. Both Welsh and Irish were considered barbarous languages, and Shakespeare makes a point of comparing the two.
The central problem of this play is for Henry IV to establish control over territories he did not inherit. Henry IV soon realizes that he can only defeat the Celtic rebels and the Percy alliance by using tricks and warfare. Thus, in the famous battle at Shrewsbury, we see several noblemen pretending to be Henry IV as a way of confusing the enemy.
By far the most compelling character is Prince Hal, Henry's son. He is a prodigal son who wastes his time in taverns and with the commoners. This image of Hal is built upon a play called The Famous Victories of Henry V, printed in 1598, which depicts Hal as a madcap in his youth who then undergoes a reformation and assumes the throne. The image of Hal as being a man ready to assume power is presented in the first act to us, when Hal tells the audience that he is really only undercover, learning the languages of the common man.
Hal is in fact Shakespeare's version of the ultimate Machiavel, based on Machiavelli's The Prince, printed in 1532. The combination of trickery, acting and statecraft show up in the way Hal controls the stage whenever he appears. In playing the madcap, Hal is really only learning the skills he will need when he assumes the throne as Henry V.
At the time of writing, several of the names Shakespeare chose for his characters were censored and subsequently amended. Among them is Falstaff, who was initially known as Sir John Oldcastle. This man, an ancestor of the Cobham family, was likely removed after William Brook, the seventh Lord Cobham and also the lord chamberlain, protested to the use of his ancestor. Other characters who were changed include Peto, who was called "Harvey," and Bardolph, known as "Russell."