Henry IV, Part I Summary

In Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare dramatizes the reign of King Henry IV, who rose to power after Richard II was usurped. Henry IV is plagued by a group of rebels led by the charismatic Hotspur. Henry's son Hal leads the battle against the rebels and kills Hotspur, though Hal's friend Falstaff takes the credit. The rest of Henry's reign is chronicled in Henry IV, Part II.

  • When the play opens, Henry IV is angry with "Hotspur" (Henry Percy, the son of the Earl of Worcester), who won't surrender the prisoners taken in a recent battle with the Scots.

  • Henry's son Hal meanwhile spends most of his time carousing with his friend Falstaff, an amoral but amusing knight. Hal later has a change of heart and decides to prove himself as a nobleman and prince.

  • Hal leads the troops in battle against the rebels. He defeats Hotspur, but Falstaff takes the credit for the kill. Henry, now free of Hotspur, is very pleased.

Introduction

Henry IV, Part I cover image

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.