How does Shakespeare provide characterization in the beginning of Henry IV, Part One.

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In Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part One, the playwright offers characterizations as Henry addresses military concerns that he has, and receives reports of defeats and valliant behavior (or the lack thereof); this allows the audience to learn about the characters as information is discussed with the King.

In Act One, scene one, Henry's opening speech relays information to the audience that war within the borders of England has him greatly concerned—while he is making plans to partake in fighting in the Holy Lands, he realizes that he must direct his attention to difficulties at home first.

In Westmoreland's report to the King, we learn that Glendower, the "Welsh rebel," (fighting alongside the Scots) has taken the loyal Mortimer and murdered a thousand of his men; in doing so, the bodies of the dead have also been mutilated—it is so awful that Westmoreland cannot even speak of it. Glendower is portrayed (with this news) as barbaric, and the leader of uncivilized people.

…the noble Mortimer,

Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight

Against th' irregular and wild Glendower,

Was by the rude hands of that Welshman taken;

A thousand of his people butchered,

Upon whose dead corpse' there was such misuse (I.i.37-42)

Henry decides that the war in the Holy Lands must wait. Westmoreland then reports on the success of  "the gallant" Hotspur and those with him...

...At Holmedon met... (54)

Hotspur (and a Scot that serves the King, Archibald..."approved") has, on another front, fought and defeated "the Douglas" and his enormous army. The King has already had reports of this (from Sir Walter Blunt) and is greatly pleased by Hotspur's success. As the King relays details of Hotspur's defeat of the Douglas and the taking of a number of notable prisoners, Henry is delighted at Hotspur's accomplishments:

And is not this an honourable spoil,

A gallant prize? ha, cousin, is it not? (73-74)

The King envies Hotspur, the son of Northumberland:

Should be the father to so blest a son,--

A son who is the theme of honour's tongue;

Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;

Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride... (78-81)

While Hotspur does his own father proud, and good fortune smiles upon him in battle, showing him to be admirable and praiseworthy, the King feels quite differently about his own son. He laments the shortcomings of Harry (Hal). The depth of his disappointment is evident. Even while he praises Hotspur, he wishes that the fairies had switched the children at birth so Henry could claim Percy (Hotspur), while Hal (the Plantagenet) would be seen as Northumberland's son. Henry's disappointment in Hal is profound:

See riot and dishonour stain the brow

Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,

And call'd mine Percy, his Plantagenet! (83-87)

Hal spends his time not fighting for "King and country," but hanging about with Falstaff, the corrupt (yet comic) leader of a gang of "ruffians." While Hal enjoys his time with them, he knows it is temporary. Eventually, Hal will turn himself around, becoming a man worth admiring.

Most of the characterizations we get early on in the play come from the King's discussion of fighting with the Welsh and Scots, and the effort (or lack) of Henry's men on his behalf, with regard to the war raging in England.

Read the study guide:
Henry IV, Part I

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