Summary of the Play
King Henry IV of England cancels sending his army to the Holy Land in order to concentrate on the more serious situation in England where rebellions are occurring in Wales and Northumberland. After hearing about the valiant efforts of Hotspur, son to Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, King Henry expresses his disappointment that his own son Hal is not as daring as Hotspur. To expedite matters, King Henry arranges a subsequent meeting at this council chamber.
As the serious business of war and rebellion occupy King Henry’s court, Prince Hal of Wales passes his time among his friends at the Boar’s Head Tavern, the local haunt of Sir John Falstaff and his gang of ruffians. After arranging a highway robbery with Falstaff, Poins, another member of the gang, enlists Hal’s aid in playing a practical joke on Falstaff. Hal goes along with the practical joke, and at the same time realizes that his life as a madcap is only a temporary one.
The council meeting that was arranged by King Henry takes place at the Windsor Castle. The central issue at the meeting concerns Hotspur’s denial of the prisoners he took while suppressing the rebellion in Northumberland. Hotspur explains that he did not intentionally deny the prisoners as was reported. He says that he was weary from the battle when the prisoners were demanded and, as a result, answered neglectfully. Henry adds that Hotspur’s denial of prisoners is worsened since it is Hotspur who has made Henry pay ransom for Mortimer who was captured by the Welsh rebel Glendower. When Henry calls Mortimer a traitor, Hotspur vehemently defends Mortimer’s actions, but King Henry does not accept Hotspur’s explanation and silences Hotspur on the issue. This dismissal further incites Hotspur with respect to the King, and after several outbursts, Hotspur is calmed down by Worcester who intimates the plot to usurp Henry’s power.
Meanwhile, at an innyard in Rochester, two carriers discuss the dilapidated conditions that exist in the hotel. Gadshill enters and tries to enlist the aid of the carriers and the chamberlain in his highway robbery. Subsequently, on a highway near Gad’s Hill, Falstaff, Peto, and Bardolph prepare to rob the travelers who are on their way to London. As the gang prepares for the robbery, Poins and Hal plan their practical joke on Falstaff. After Falstaff and his gang rob the travelers, Poins and Hal, disguised as travelers, set upon Falstaff and his gang and rob them. Falstaff, who is left befuddled and shaken by the whole incident, runs away leaving his money behind.
While the rebellion is being plotted, Hotspur receives a letter expressing concern about the dangers involved in the scheme. Hotspur becomes annoyed at the hint that the Percys’ plan may be less than successful, and Lady Percy comments on Hotspur’s erratic behavior. Hotspur tells her that he cannot reveal his plans but assures her that she will soon follow him to where he goes.
After the robbery on the highway at Gad’s Hill, Hal waits for Falstaff to return to the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. While he waits for Falstaff, Hal enlists the aid of Poins to play a practical joke on Francis, the wine drawer at the inn. The practical joke is interrupted by the entrance of Falstaff, Bardolph, and Peto, who are visibly upset by the robbery. Next, Falstaff tells what happened to them but exaggerates the incident in terms of the number of men who attacked them and how they defended themselves. When Hal catches Falstaff in a contradiction about the robbery, Hal reveals the whole truth. Consequently, they all have a good laugh about the incident, and Falstaff suggests that they perform an impromptu play. At the same time, the frivolity at the inn is interrupted by a message from Sir John Bracy requesting that Hal come to court in the morning. As a result, Hal’s meeting with his father forms the basis for the extemporaneous play in which Falstaff and Hal rehearse what Hal might say to this father in the morning. Again, their fun is interrupted, this time by a sheriff who is investigating reports of the robbery. Hal instructs Falstaff to hide while he speaks to the sheriff, but Falstaff falls asleep. This provides another opportunity to play a joke on Falstaff as Hal searches him and keeps what he finds.
In Wales, the Percys meet to plan their rebellion and divide the kingdom they hope to gain by their insurrection. Hotspur argues about the size of the portions because he feels that his share is smaller than the other sections. After Worcester calms Hotspur’s anger, the men’s wives arrive to say good-bye to their husbands.
The meeting between Hal and his father takes place at the palace in London as Henry questions his son about the company he keeps. Henry tells Hal that it is not befitting for a prince to be seen with commoners. Hal acknowledges his actions and vows to take his role as prince more seriously. Henry then informs him of the seriousness of the rebellions that are occurring in England.
Once again the scene turns to the Boar’s Head Tavern after the pickpocketing incident. Falstaff suggests that the clientele at the inn consist of thieves, a suggestion to which Mistress Quickly, hostess of the inn, takes offense. After she and Falstaff get into an altercation about her reputation, Hal and Poins enter marching, and Falstaff joins them. Again the pickpocketing incident arises, and Hal reveals the truth to Falstaff, assuring him that the money is paid back. Hal also tells Falstaff that he will lead an army of foot soldiers to aid the King’s men.
In preparation for battle, the rebels meet near Shrewsbury and receive some disheartening news. Northumberland is ill and cannot meet them, Lord John of Lancaster and the King are marching to Shrewsbury, and Glendower will not be ready to join them for 14 days.
As the rebellion progresses, Falstaff regrets the condition of the army he has assembled, and the Prince and Westmoreland concur that the army is rather decrepit.
Back at the rebel camp at Shrewsbury, Worcester and Douglas advise Hotspur not to be so quick to precipitate the rebellion against the King’s forces because the rebels are not as prepared as they should be; however, Hotspur rejects their advice. Sir Walter Blunt enters with an offer of pardon from the King, but Hotspur will not acquiesce to the King’s conditions and tells Blunt that Worcester will be sent to Henry in the morning with the rebels’ answer. The weakened condition of the rebels’ plot is underscored as the Archbishop of York expresses his fear of being discovered.
At the King’s camp near Shrewsbury, Worcester enters with the Percy grievances. Henry replies that Worcester isn’t saying anything new, and Hal adds that he will defend the King’s position. Consequently, Hal challenges Hotspur to a single fight to determine the outcome of the rebellion. Once again, the King makes his offer of pardon and strongly advises that the rebels should accept it or pay severe consequences. Back at the rebel camp, Worcester lies by telling Hotspur that the King will do battle presently and adds that Henry called the Percys traitors. Worcester does tell Hotspur about Hal’s challenge, and Hotspur is eager to do battle.
The King enters the battlefield with his army, and Douglas meets Sir Walter Blunt who is disguised as the King. After they fight and Douglas kills Blunt, Hotspur tells Douglas that Blunt is not the true King. In another part of the battlefield, Douglas encounters Henry whom he thinks is another counterfeit king. Consequently, they fight and Hal intercedes to defend his father. Douglas flees and Hotspur enters. At this point, Hal and Hotspur engage in single combat, and Hal kills Hotspur. Meanwhile, Douglas reenters and fights with Falstaff who feigns death. Douglas flees again, and Hal stumbles upon the fallen Falstaff whom he believes to be dead. After Hal leaves, Falstaff gets up, sees Hotspur dead, fears Hotspur’s faking death, too, and stabs him in the leg. When Hal enters, he sees Falstaff carrying Hotspur on his back, and Falstaff says that he killed Hotspur. Of course, Hal knows this to be a lie but goes along with Falstaff’s story to the amusement of all. King Henry, the Prince of Wales, and Lord John of Lancaster enter with Worcester and Vernon as prisoners. King Henry denounces Worcester’s actions and sentences both Worcester and Vernon to death. Hal lets the King know that Douglas has been taken, and Henry relegates Douglas’ fate to Hal, who in turn tells his brother John to determine Douglas’ fate. Finally, the King divides the remaining powers to suppress the other rebellions.
Estimated Reading Time
If a text with ample footnotes is used, an average student should be able to read each act in an hour when reading the play for the first time. Subsequent readings should take less time as familiarity with the story, characters, and language increases. It is suggested that an entire act or a few scenes be read in one sitting. Since there are five acts with a total of 19 scenes, the student could expect to complete the play in at least five hours, or five to seven sessions.