Many of Shakespeare’s history plays shine a detailed light on the failings of the ruling class. Often, with weakness at the centre, the rest of the governing elite breaks down into little more than a struggle for personal advantage.
“Richard II”, which is the prequel to this play, is a good example of this. Richard himself is a weak and wilful king without settled principles, who is essentially deserted by his own aristocracy, enabling his cousin Henry Bolingbroke to displace him as Henry IV.
Events have moved on by the time we join this play. Henry has troubles of his own, and when he should be able to rely on his own flesh and blood for support, his son and heir is roistering with the rogue Falstaff at the Boar’s Head.
But this is not a play about the shortcomings of the governing class (or family). Rather it’s about the failings of their opponents. Henry emerges as a fairly honourable character but his opponents are variously fantasists and charlatans with no sense of common purpose.
Shakespeare is keen to convey this message unambiguously. At the heart of the problem is Hotspur, who is bent on conflict, even when defeat seems unavoidable. Then at the moment that matters, he is let down by his own father, who fails to appear with his fighting men at the agreed time and place.
Also absent is Glendower, whom Shakespeare has earlier represented as a self-deluded mystic, apparently convinced that the heavens burst into fire at his birth. But at least Hotspur has Worcester, whom he uses as a diplomatic or go-between – and by whom he is fatally deceived.
In the circumstances victory seems improbable, but Hotspur is unmoved, extending a vainglorious welcome to disaster, even when there is time still to avoid it. With enemies like these, Shakespeare might be asking, who needs allies?
Stage by Stage
Act One Scene One
The King pledges that native Britons will no longer fight one another, as happened under Richard II.
Rather they will join sides and unite in an attempt to re-impose Christian control over Jerusalem.
But bad news from Wales reveals Mortimer captured and a thousand of his soldiers killed.
Better news from Scotland, where “gallant Hotspur” has routed ten thousand Scots in battle.
Moreover he has taken prisoner the Earl of Fife and numerous other high-ranking soldiers.
Henry wishes he could exchange “so blest a son” as Hotspur with “my young Harry”.
But he is unhappy that of all the captured men, only Mordake Earl of Fife is being sent to him.
Until he has heard why this is so, the expedition to recover the Holy Land will have to wait.
Act One Scene Two
Prince Hal affectionately teases his friend Falstaff for his habitual laziness and self-indulgence.
They look forward to the day when Hal is King and they are in charge of the legal system.
Falstaff teasingly accuses the young Prince of having corrupted him – he is “one of the wicked”.
Ned Poins appears and suggests robbing some Canterbury-bound pilgrims early next morning.
But Prince Hal turns down the invitation to take part, preferring to “tarry at home”.
When Falstaff leaves, Poins reveals his plan: after the robbery, they will ambush the robbers.
Then later they will enjoy listening to “this same fat rogue” exaggerating what has happened.
Alone, Prince Hal reveals that he means to leave his poor reputation behind him one day soon.
Act One Scene Three
In a hostile interview, Hotspur tells the King he did not plan to withhold his Scottish prisoners.
But his messenger struck the wrong note when he asked Hotspur for the captured soldiers.
The King believes that Mortimer has come to terms with Glendower and married his daughter.
He refuses to accept that Mortimer fought Glendower and now doesn’t want to hear of him.
Hotspur demurs, and pledges his loyalty to “down-trod” Mortimer over “this unthankful king”.
Hotspur’s uncle, Worcester, recollects that Mortimer was once named as heir to Richard II.
Hotspur calls on his father and uncle to avenge the murder of Richard, “that sweet lovely rose”.
Moreover he refuses to hand over a single Scottish prisoner to the King, despite instructions.
Worcester tells him to hand his Scottish captives back to Scotland “without their ransom”.
Hotspur should then form an alliance with the Archbishop of York, whose brother Henry executed.
Worcester concludes that Henry will always see them as enemies until he can “pay us home”.
Act Two Scene One
Early in the morning at a tavern near London two carriers are readying their loads for the day ahead.
Gadshill arrives to ask to borrow a lantern, but the carriers are suspicious and refuse to co-operate.
The hotel chamberlain tells Gadshill of some wealthy travellers staying at the hotel about to leave.
But he refuses Gadshill’s offer to take a cut of the profits from any robbery, for fear of the gallows.
Act Two Scene Two
Preparing in the wood for the ambush, Falstaff complains that his horse seems to have disappeared.
Hal is distinctly uncooperative with Falstaff – and quite rude, though Falstaff holds his own in that.
As the wealthy travellers approach, Falstaff’s horse is secreted away – not that he is aware of this.
Once the robbery is complete, the robbers are robbed in turn – “Got with much ease” as Hal reports.
Act Two Scene Three
Hotspur reacts angrily to a letter suggesting that his plans for insurrection are not well-organised.
But now that his plans are being discussed openly, he resolves to begin his campaign that evening.
Hotspur’s wife Kate rebukes him for ignoring her this past fortnight, and obsessing about battle.
Hotspur dismisses his wife’s anxiety that he is planning military action with her brother Mortimer.
He tells her she cannot divulge information “thou dost not know“, but she may join him next day.
Act Two Scene Four
Prince Hal, relaxing in the tavern after robbing Falstaff, amuses himself teasing the tavern’s staff.
Falstaff arrives to report that he was set upon by robbers – “Sixteen, at least” – but fought bravely.
Exaggerating the numbers of villains against him, Falstaff gets caught out by Hal, but ploughs on.
Then Hal revels the truth, saying Falstaff should feel “shame” for his cowardice and exaggerations.
But Falstaff claims he knew it was Hal, and he had no right to fight back against the “heir-apparent”.
News comes that with recent events in Scotland and Wales Hal is required by the King next morning.
Falstaff asks if he is afraid of the various rebels, but Hal replies that he lacks “some of thy instinct”.
They practise the expected interview with the King, with Falstaff playing the role of Hal’s father.
Performing theatrically, Falstaff reprimands “his son” for his lifestyle and the company he has kept.
But he excludes one “virtuous man” from this rebuke: Hal might keep Falstaff, but “the rest banish”.
Hal takes the part of the King and wittily denounces Falstaff as being “villainous … in all things”.
The entertainment is interrupted by the arrival of the Sheriff, on the lookout for “a gross fat man”.
Prince Hal assures him that Falstaff is “not here” but that he will deliver him to the Sheriff tomorrow.
They find him asleep and go through his pockets, finding papers with food prices written on them.
But tomorrow there are wars to fight, and Hal will find positions for all and repay the stolen money.
Act Three Scene One
Glendower claims the skies were “full of fiery shapes” when he was born – which Hotspur derides.
Glendower insists he is right despite Hotspur’s ridicule, and suggests it marks him as “extraordinary”.
The rebels agree the division of the kingdom into three, with Hotspur the north, Mortimer the south.
Hotspur is unhappy with his spoils, and argues with Glendower, admitting he can be disputatious.
When Glendower leaves, his son-in-law Mortimer rebukes Hotspur for “how you cross my father”.
Hotspur condemns Glendower for superstition, but Worcester criticises the young Percy for “pride”.
Mortimer and his wife, Glendower’s daughter, speak different languages – he English, she Welsh.
She sings to him in Welsh, at which Hotspur incurs his wife’s anger with his constant interruptions.
Act Three Scene Two
In his interview with “the Prince of Wales”, the King tells his son he sees him as a divine punishment.
Prince Hal apologises, but Henry says that had he behaved similarly, he would not have become king.
He tells his son that too many “vile” people have seen too much of him, and he has seen too little.
Hotspur has more right to the throne, he adds, and he does not trust Hal not to join Hotspur’s side.
Prince Hal looks forward to the day when he meets “this gallant Hotspur” in battle and defeats him.
He apologises again for his “intemperance” and repeats his vow to win honour at Hotspur’s expense.
Blunt arrives, to reveal that the rebels have gathered near Shrewsbury, news which Henry confirms.
Three separate armies are heading west, he reveals, including one led by Prince Hal to Gloucester.
Act Three Scene Three
Falstaff teases Bardolph, claiming that he has lost weight recently, though he is told “you are so fat”.
Hostess Quickly rejects Falstaff’s claim to have had his pocket picked and reminds him of his debts.
Prince Hal arrives and after much teasing of Falstaff, admits that it was he who picked his pocket.
Hal informs Falstaff he will have a military role in the upcoming campaign, in charge of foot soldiers.
With messengers despatched, Hal arranges to meet Falstaff tomorrow with the funds to equip them.
Act Four Scene One
Hearing his father is unwell and unfit to travel, Hotspur says coldly his timing is less than perfect.
Encouraged by his father to press on, Hotspur is confused how bad a blow his absence will prove.
Worcester believes that if his absence is seen as disloyalty, it will have repercussions elsewhere.
Vernon arrives to report that the King’s forces are “All furnish’d, all in arms” and approaching fast.
He reports on the impressive appearance of Prince Hal, but is cut short by an anxious Hotspur.
Hotspur announces he is keen to meet Hal in combat, “Harry to Harry” and “hot horse to horse”.
Now news comes that Glendower cannot gather his troops for the battle for a fortnight to come.
But Hotspur refuses to let his passion for battle be undermined by this news: “die all, die merrily”.
Act Four Scene Two
Falstaff concedes he has profited by recruiting “ancients, corporals, … slaves as ragged as Lazarus”.
His soldiers look like corpses, “scarecrows”, villains and “prodigals lately come from swine-keeping”.
Prince Hal arrives and agrees he “did never see such pitiful rascals” as the troops Falstaff recruited.
But as Falstaff points out they’re not too good to die, “food for [gun]powder” and good to “fill a pit”.
Act Four Scene Three
The rebel forces are divided over tactics: Hotspur demands to grasp the nettle and attack tonight.
Blunt arrives with an offer from the King that an armistice and pardon are possible if he is at fault.
Hotspur replies with a narrative that reveals a wide range of different grievances towards the King.
They agree that the rebels will reveal their decision by the morning whether they will fight or not.
Act Four Scene Four
The Archbishop of York reveals that Glendower withdrew from the battle for reasons of superstition.
He now despatches letters to various allies whose help he will need if the King prevails tomorrow.
Act Five Scene One
Worcester outlines his historical grievances against the King, going back to the days of Richard II.
Hal praises the valiant Hotspur, and offers to “save the blood on either side” with “a single fight”.
The King offers the hand of friendship to the rebels, but “if [they] will not yield”, battle will be joined.
Alone before the battle, Falstaff concludes that honour confers no benefit: “Therefore I’ll none of it”.
Act Five Scene Two
Worcester persuades Vernon to agree to conceal the King’s offer from the “hair-brain’d” Hotspur.
When Hotspur asks whether the King made any concessions, Worcester describes him as “hateful”.
Vernon reports Hal’s offer to fight Hotspur one-to-one, aiming to avoid more general bloodshed.
Letters arrive for Hotspur but he is too busy to read them immediately as he prepares for battle.
Act Five Scene Three
Blunt, disguised as the King for a decoy, is mistaken for Henry by Douglas, who fights and kills him.
Falstaff comes across Blunt’s body and draws a cynical conclusion – “There’s honour for you!”
Prince Hal, having lost his sword, begs Falstaff to lend him his own, but the request is refused.
Instead Falstaff looks to offer him his pistol but when he pulls it out, it emerges as a bottle of wine.
Act Five Scene Four
Henry enjoins Hal to have his wound treated but he derides it as no more than a “shallow scratch”.
The King is suddenly confronted by Douglas, but Hal threatens the rebel leader and chases him away.
Hotspur appears, and Hal tells him that “England [cannot] brook a double reign” and one must die.
Falstaff watches them fight, and then, attacked by Douglas, falls down pretending to be dead.
Hal stabs Hotspur, who recognises the blow as mortal and regrets the loss of his “proud titles”.
Hal bids farewell to Hotspur, then spots Falstaff on the battlefield and laments his apparent fate.
Hal leaves, whereupon Falstaff gets to his feet reflecting that the “better part of valour is discretion”.
Seeing Hotspur’s corpse close by, he stabs the thigh and decides “I’ll swear I killed him”.
As he carries off the corpse, he is met by Hal, who is stupefied to find him alive and claiming credit.
The battle comes to an end, leaving Falstaff to reflect on the honours that must now come his way.
Act Five Scene Five
With victory assured, Henry condemns Worcester and Vernon to death for misrepresenting his offer.
Meanwhile the King’s forces must gird themselves for further conflict to the north and the west.
“Henry IV, Part One” is a sequel. It follows on from “Richard II”, and contains many of the same characters. One character missing is the late King Richard himself, who has been usurped by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, imprisoned in Pomfret Castle in the north of England, and then murdered. “Richard II” makes it clear that Richard was a poor king, wilful and selfish. But the play also reflects Medieval England’s conviction that the King is God’s representative on earth, and that to remove him is to challenge God’s authority.
A central feature of Henry IV’s legacy on inheriting the throne is war with Scotland and insurrection in Wales against English rule. Scotland will not unite with England until the early 18th century, but Wales is already nominally under English control. However, rebellion under the somewhat mythical figure of Owen Glendower is presented here as a threat to Henry’s power and authority. It’s worth remembering that the Tudor dynasty in power at the time of the play’s composition were of Welsh origin.
Conflict on the northern and western borders of the realm is not Henry’s only concern, however, because as the first act illustrates emphatically, Henry has rivals closer to home. Most prominent among these is the hot-headed Harry Hotspur, who has recently returned from a successful campaign against the Scots with his self-confidence robust and threatening. In 1.3, his father and uncle make it a priority to restrain him, to rein him in.
A direct and recurring comparison is drawn in this play between Hotspur and the King’s son Prince Hal. We were introduced to Hal in “Richard II”, when his father, newly-enthroned, laments that the young man is not more disciplined and ambitious. The first act of “Henry IV Part One” creates an especially vivid contrast between the two young men. While Hotspur is portrayed in hot pursuit of military glory, Hal is roistering with disreputable (but loveable) rogues like Falstaff. It’s hard to imagine plot and sub-plot more contrasting.
A prominent theme of the first act is the relationship between fathers and sons. The friendship between the young Hotspur and his father Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, enables father to rebuke son where appropriate (“what a wasp-stung and impatient fool / Art thou” and so forth) whereas the King is left “in envy” that Northumberland should be “the father to so blest a son”. His own son, meanwhile, has a kind of surrogate father in Falstaff, introduced in 1.2 as having none of the martial virtues esteemed by the King and his court.
Meanwhile for all his self-indulgence, Prince Hal reveals a certain depth in his personality when, in his soliloquy at the end of 1.2, he reflects on the esteem in which he is held now and in future. He will bear the burden of a poor reputation in the present, if only to present his reformed conduct in future in a better light. There is more to me than “this loose behaviour”, he predicts.
The play presents no female voices until almost a thousand lines in – with the appearance of Kate, wife of Hotspur, in 2.3. The scene is remarkable for two reasons: first her complaints against her husband that his mind has been so full of military paraphernalia (“Of palisades, frontiers, parapets” etc) that he has no time left for intimacy, and she has become a “banish’d woman” from his bed; and second the dismissive spirit in which he answers her (“I love thee not, / I care not for thee, Kate”) as he prepares to re-enter the male world of insurrection and bloodshed
In parallel with the strong contrast between Hotspur and Hal – the one light-hearted and detached, the other impetuous and aggressive – runs a second parallel between two genres of drama – the comic scenes involving Falstaff and Hal are quite different from the serious matters that engage Hotspur and his rebels. Shakespeare has a genius for combining different registers in his writing to the benefit of both: one thinks of the porter in “Macbeth”.
The privileged insight we gain in 3.1 into the leaders of the insurrection – Hotspur, Mortimer, Worcester and Glendower – does not fill the reader with confidence that the uprising will be successful. First Glendower is presented as somewhat unrealistic about his own powers; then Hotspur emerges as argumentative and tactless. When the map is brought out to reveal the intended division of the spoils, Hotspur is instantly aggrieved and bent on changes. Meanwhile Mortimer’s inability to speak Welsh to his wife (who does not speak English) reflects a more general break-down in communication among the rebel forces.
Before the mid-point of the play (3.2), the contrast between Hotspur and Prince Hal has been quite clear. But now their paths converge. Hotspur, as 3.1 revealed, is preparing vigorously for military action, and now Prince Hal accepts similar priorities. In the process, Hal exchanges the surrogate father he had in Falstaff for his real father and the real responsibilities of his position. The play is laden with parallels and binary oppositions, and in reminding his son of the events that brought him to the throne, Henry raises another – between himself and his predecessor Richard II. As Shakespeare’s play of that name makes clear, selfish and wilful behaviour does not make a king popular or guarantee his survival.
The contrast drawn throughout the play between Prince Hal and Hotspur is the preamble to the moment when the two rivals meet in battle, and this climactic event is approaching. For all his passion for the fight in 4.1, however, Hotspur reveals his anxiety about his rival when Vernon begins to praise Prince Hal to Hotspur: he is “gallantly arm’d”, says Vernon, a natural horseman who “vaulted with such ease” into his saddle, bewitching onlookers with “noble horsemanship”. It’s a beguiling picture, but Hotspur has heard enough: “No more, no more”, he interrupts, before he reprises a boast about meeting him “Harry to Harry” on the battlefield.
Falstaff’s cynicism in profiteering from the way he has recruited troops (revealed in 4.2) is a daring insight by Shakespeare into the kind of personality that makes money out of suffering. After the First World War there was plenty of unease about the kind of businessman who looked as if he had “done well out of the war” because they were seen to have exploited the idealism of the majority. Something similar is visible here – along with a rejoinder to the kind of mind (like that of Sir Richard Vernon in 4.1) that believes that soldiers can look like Gods. War isn’t always like that, Shakespeare implies. Sometimes it’s just the weak and vulnerable who get caught up in it.
Falstaff’s cynicism towards money is reinforced by his cynical view of honour. At the end of 5.1 he delivers a soliloquy in which he explores what purpose honour would serve, and concludes it has no function that can be of benefit to him: “Therefore I’ll none of it,” he concludes. His realism contrasts vividly with the pragmatism of Hotspur in 1.3, who sees honour as “easy / To pluck … from the pale-faced moon, / / So he that doth redeem her thence might wear / … all her dignities”. Honour might serve him well, he concludes, and is easily acquired.
Worcester’s decision in 5.2 to deceive Hotspur about the discussions he has had with the King is a reminder that the rebel leadership is unfit for purpose. Earlier disagreements about the division of the spoils (should spoils emerge) have now given way to outright deceit. Worcester is quite bare-faced in his lies: the King offered “no mercy”, he reports, but behaved in a “haughty” spirit and used “hateful” terms to describe the rebels. Hotspur is suitably distracted.
The play concludes with plans being announced at the moment of victory for further campaigns to clear the kingdom of opposition: Archbishop Scroop, spotted briefly in 4.4, will serve as quarry for the campaign in the north of the country, while, to the west, Glendower will be the focus of activity. Thus closes the second play in a tetralogy that proceeds eventually to France with Henry V, and the final battles of the Hundred Years War.
Who’s Who / Characters
Prince Hal: on the face of it, Prince Hal’s roistering lifestyle, shared with Falstaff while his father shoulders the cares of office, does him little credit. The comparison with Hotspur is front and centre at this point. But reassurance about Hal’s character may be drawn from the soliloquy he delivers at the end of 1.2, in which he outlines a strategy to exceed expectations and prove himself when the time comes. This promise hangs over his light-hearted play with Falstaff and others, and he lives up to it when the need arises, not only leading his troops to victory over the rebel forces but also playing his pre-destined role on the battlefield by confronting and defeating Hotspur.
Harry Hotspur: admired by the King and compared favourably with the Prince of Wales by him, Hotspur is nonetheless treated with some suspicion by his own allies, including his father, who regards him as being at times an “impatient fool”. The best one can say for Hotspur is that his vices are also his virtues (so long as he is controlled, by others if necessary), and that in leading his troops to defeat in Act Five of the play, he was deceived by Worcester into engaging with the King’s forces.
Falstaff: a knight, but a stranger to chivalry, without any kind of moral code, cynical and dishonest, guilty of at least three breaches of good faith in the course of the play – yet, at the same time, among the most memorable and loveable characters in Shakespeare or any other writer. His genius for living off others is reflected in the speed with which he turns the tables on Mistress Quickly when he is presented with a bill, and his cynicism is vividly conveyed in his speech in 5.1 in which he denounces “honour” as vacuous before going on to claim credit for Hotspur’s downfall. Yet impossible to dislike.
Henry IV: when Hotspur in 4.3 and Worcester in 5.1 are asked to explain the source of their grievance against the King, both reach for the history book, in particular the chapter about Richard II and the way he lost his throne to Henry. In short, he can never seem to escape the past, except (at the climax of the play) through more bloodshed. In other respects Henry emerges as a temperate and measured monarch, much as one might have expected from the way he is presented in “Richard II”, so though his comparisons of Hotspur with Prince Hal early in the play might seem heartless, he emerges in general as a worthy monarch, though one with questionable credentials.
- Why does the tavern chamberlain refuse the invitation to take part in the ambush?
- What is the name of Hotspur’s wife?
- Into how many parts will England and Wales be divided if Henry is toppled?
- Which animals does Glendower say deserted the mountains at his birth?
- Which river does Hotspur intend to straighten following the defeat of the King?
- Give the name of the tavern of which Mistress Quickly is landlady.
- What does Prince Hal find in Falstaff’s pockets while he is sleeping?
- What does Falstaff say his troops are good for as they approach the battle?
- Give the name of the archbishop whose opposition to the King is revealed in Act 4.
- What does Falstaff hand to Prince Hal when he is looking for his pistol?
- Fear of the gallows
- The Trent
- The Boars Head
- Bills for food
- Gunpowder – they are cannon fodder
- A bottle of wine
Shakespeare’s plays don’t always have the titles you might expect. For example, the central character of “Othello” is surely Iago. Equally, the real hero of “The Merchant of Venice” may be Shylock or it may be Portia – but it certainly isn’t Antonio (who is the merchant of the title).
“Henry IV Part One” presents a similar challenge. Is the King the central character? Not exactly. The most memorable character is probably Falstaff, and in Part Two there will be more to come from that quarter. The character who develops most powerfully is most likely Prince Hal, and there is enough of the heroic about him, especially in the closing scenes, to have justified his name on the title page.
What then of Hotspur? He is the driving force behind the events the play describes, the source of discontent needed to give the narrative momentum. So he too has a claim. There again, that was the role assigned to Henry IV when he was plain Henry Bolingbroke in “Richard II” – so what goes around, as the phrase is, comes around.
In the end we are left to ask (with Juliet) “What’s in a name?” And if she is right when she says “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”, then the question of the title is surplus to requirements. Nevertheless it still seems at this distance a quirk of the text to assign to the title page the name of one of the play’s less prominent characters.