Henry IV, Part I Summary
by William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part I Summary

Henry IV, Part I by William Shakespeare is a play about King Henry IV of England, who has risen to power after usurping Richard II, and Henry's errant son, Prince Hal.

  • King Henry is plagued by a group of rebels led by the charismatic Hotspur.
  • Meanwhile, Prince Hal carouses 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. King Henry, free of Hotspur, is pleased.


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.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,845 words.)