Henry IV: Part I is the second in a series of four English history plays that make up Shakespeare's major tetralogy. It continues the saga of the Bolingbrook family and the Plantagenet monarchy that begins with Henry IV's seizure of power in Richard II; it leads naturally to Henry IV: Part II; the tetralogy culminates in Henry V, as Prince Hal of Henry IV's reign becomes Henry V, the great and beloved warrior king of the English people. Quite obviously, Shakespeare drew upon chronicles of actual English history as the framework for Henry IV: Part I and the other three plays in the series. Just as clearly, the playwright compressed the timing of events for dramatic purposes and composed all of the play's dialogue.
But even more important, the "tavern" dimension of Henry IV: Part I is purely Shakespeare's creation. Its addition allows Shakespeare to use the dramatic techniques of juxtaposition, inversion, and antithesis as the plot shifts back and forth between the troubled realm of Henry IV's court and the madcap, vulgar world of the tavern in which Sir John Falstaff presides. Indeed, the counterpoint contrast between the high and the low that Shakespeare uses here was a radical stage innovation in its day, allowing for the inclusion of comic episodes within a deadly serious political history. At bottom, Henry IV: Part I is essentially a coming of age story in which the king's son, Prince Henry or Hal, emerges from his youthful role as a wastrel companion of the tavern crew, into the role of a genuine English monarch by virtue of both blood and character.
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.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After he forced the anointed king, Richard II, to relinquish his crown, Henry Bolingbroke became King Henry IV of England in 1399. Within only a few years, Henry himself has begun to face challenges to his kingship. The nobles who supported him against Richard II have begun to defy the new king and aspire to the throne themselves. Henry Percy, Jr., or Hotspur, fighting on behalf of Henry IV, defeats the invading army of Douglas of Scotland in northern England, but Hotspur then refuses to subordinate himself to the king’s authority and turn his Scottish prisoners over to the king.
Worried by the threat of revolt by Hotspur and other nobles affiliated with him, Henry IV postpones his planned trip to the Holy Land and...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I Summary and Analysis
King Henry IV: King of England; seized power from Richard II
Lord John of Lancaster: younger son to King Henry IV
Earl of Westmoreland: nobleman; loyalist to King Henry IV
Sir Walter Blunt: nobleman; loyalist to Henry IV
At the King’s palace in London, Henry expresses deep concern about the current rebellions in England and vows to stop all wars. As he promised when he became King, he sends an army to fight the Crusades to fulfill his vow. He asks Westmoreland what the council decreed regarding the matter of the Crusades, and Westmoreland replies that the issue was undergoing serious discussion when they received news from Wales that...
(The entire section is 2052 words.)
Act II Summary and Analysis
Carriers: men who deliver goods
Gadshill: member of Falstaff’s gang of thieves; arranges robberies
Chamberlain: inn employee who serves meals
Ostler: manager of the inn
At 4:00 in the morning at an innyard in Rochester, a carrier enters and discusses with a second carrier the chaotic conditions that prevail at the inn. Both men are impatient since the ostler has not prepared their horses with which they are to deliver their goods. Gadshill enters and tries to find out what time the carriers will arrive in London. He then calls a chamberlain who informs him that a rich farmer who is at the inn will be leaving presently. Gadshill asks the chamberlain if...
(The entire section is 2385 words.)
Act III Summary and Analysis
Act III, Scene 1
Lord Mortimer: Edmund, Earl of March
Lady Mortimer: wife to Mortimer; daughter to Glendower
Owen Glendower: Welsh rebel; father to Lady Mortimer
In Wales, the Percys meet to plan their rebellion and divide the kingdom that they hope to win. Glendower takes this opportunity to talk about how the strange phenomena which occurred at this birth support his claim to magical powers. Hotspur is quick to dismiss these happenings as mere coincidence. The rebels then divide the kingdom, and Hotspur objects that his portion is not equal to the rest. Mortimer and Glendower try to convince Hotspur that his portion is equal,...
(The entire section is 1972 words.)
Act IV Summary and Analysis
Act IV, Scene 1
Archibald: Earl of Douglas; captured by Hotspur; member of the rebel faction
Sir Richard Vernon: member of the Percy Rebellion
Messenger: brings letter from Northumberland to the rebels
Hotspur, Worcester, and Douglas meet in the rebel camp near Shrewsbury, and Hotspur tells Douglas what respect he has for him. At this time, a messenger enters with letters from Northumberland informing the rebels that he is sick and will not be able to join the rebellion. Worcester expresses concern that this will weaken the rebels’ cause, but Hotspur believes his father’s absence will make their plan more daring in the eyes...
(The entire section is 1478 words.)
Act V Summary and Analysis
Act V, Scene 1
At the King’s camp near Shrewsbury, Worcester enters and reminds the King of all the Percys did to ensure Henry’s power. The King notes his remarks and tells him that he isn’t saying anything that hasn’t already been said to give the rebel cause some justification. Hal adds that he will defend his father’s position and challenges Hotspur to a single fight. Again, the King makes his offer to the rebels and wants to be sent word about what they decide to do. He strongly suggests that they acquiesce or pay dire consequences.
When Worcester leaves, Hal tells his father that he doesn’t believe the rebels will accept the terms. At the end of the scene,...
(The entire section is 2151 words.)