Summary and Analysis
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2013 ©
.......Henry IV Part I is a history play with episodes of both comedy and tragedy. Although the play is based on the facts of history, it presents fictional characters, such as Sir John Falstaff and his plebeian friends, as well as fictionalized episodes involving them. Shakespeare is believed to have written the play in 1597 or earlier. It was first performed between 1597 and 1600.
.......Henry IV Part I was first published in a 1598 quarto edition. In 1623, it appeared in the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
.......Shakespeare based Henry
I primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England,
Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael
Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal
printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was
published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also used the following
sources: The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre
and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547); The Civil Wars (about
the Wars of the Roses), by Samuel Daniel (1563-1619); and a play, The
of Henry the Fifth. Shakespeare may have based the
character Falstaff, in part, on a boastful but cowardly soldier named
Pyrgopolynices in Miles Gloriosus, a play by the Roman
dramatist Plautus (254?-184 BC).
King Henry IV: Skilled politician who, as Henry
Bolingbroke, forced Richard II's abdication and usurped the throne. The
oldest son of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), Henry was the
first English king in the House of Lancaster, reigning from 1399 to
1413. During this play, he battles uprisings by British nobles.
.......As the play opens, Henry is at his palace in London. Now consumed by guilt for causing Richard’s death (even though Richard was a weak and vindictive king), Henry prepares for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his sins. However, news of another uprising against him forces him to postpone the trip. (Eight months before, Henry had suppressed a conspiracy organized by supporters of the late Richard.)
.......According to the Earl of Westmoreland, rebel armies are on the march to overthrow Henry. Owen Glendower, a Welsh rebel, poses a threat in the west. Archibald, the Earl of Douglas, poses a threat in the north. Reports from the battlefield say that Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, led an English army against Glendower but that Glendower defeated him and took him prisoner. However, another English army, led by Henry Percy (known as Hotspur), defeated Archibald and took several important earls as prisoner, including Mordake, the eldest son of Archibald. The king extols Hotspur’s deeds and wishes that his own son and heir to the throne, Prince Henry (known formally as the Prince of Wales and informally, to his friends, simply as Hal), were more like Hotspur.
.......At that very moment, Prince Hal is busy pursuing merriment in London with his old pal and surrogate father—a fat wine-swilling, food-stuffing, good-for-nothing braggart, robber, and loafer, Sir John Falstaff, a knight of the realm. How he attained knighthood is a mystery, for he would rather run than fight—or storm a tavern than a castle. In Hal’s London apartment the two men are regaling themselves with tales of past misdeeds and making plans for another, a robbery. Poins, a drinking companion, enters just as Falstaff is leaving for Eastcheap, a seedy section of London. Poins accuses Falstaff of selling his soul to the devil on Good Friday for a cup of wine and a cold capon leg. Hal says Falstaff “will give the devil his due” (1.2.39).
.......After Falstaff leaves, Poins suggests a mischief to Hal: They will agree to take part in the next robbery with Falstaff, but at the scene of the crime—when Falstaff is in the act of robbing—they will keep their distance. Later, when Falstaff comes away with the booty, they will wear disguises and steal it from him.
.......Such are the reprehensible ways of Prince Henry: He is a carouser, a robber, a rascal, a rogue. And his father is not at all pleased. However, what King Henry IV does not realize is that young Hal is educating himself in the ways of the common people. He is also masking his true worth and talent by participating in base activities. In so doing, he will build a reputation as a wastrel and ne’er-do-well, then shock and confound everyone when, as king, he turns out to be a savvy, highly skilled leader of a men. In one of the most important passages in the play, Prince Henry reveals these thoughts after Poins leaves and Hal is alone:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,.......When Hotspur arrives fresh from battle at the king’s palace, he promotes a plan to return his captives to the enemy (Glendower) in exchange for an English prisoner, Edmund Mortimer, Hotspur’s brother-in-law. However, King Henry condemns Hotspur’s plan, for he has heard that Mortimer has found time to woo and wed Glendower’s daughter in the enemy camp. Therefore, the king says, Mortimer “hath willfully betray’d / The lives of those that he did lead to fight.” (1.3.84-85). Infuriated, Hotspur refuses to yield his prisoners to the king. “An if the devil come and roar for them,” Hotspur says, “I will not send them” (1.3.128-129). In fact, so angry is Hotspur that he decides to join the rebellion against King Henry.
.......While Hotspur returns home to Warkworth Castle to make his traitorous plans, Hal and Poins play their trick on Falstaff, wearing disguises as they rob Falstaff of the money he robbed from travelers. Falstaff runs off without putting up a fight. Later, at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, Falstaff bemoans his loss to Hal and Poins, unaware that they were the ones who robbed him of his booty. He claims he fought with a dozen robbers for two hours before yielding his prize and escaping miraculously. “I am eight times thrust through the doublet,” he says, “four through the hose; my buckler cut through and through; my sword hacked like a hand-saw” (2. 4. 66).When Hal reveals himself and Poins as the trick-playing villains who robbed Falstaff, the fat knight says he knew all along that it was Hal who had set upon him. But, he says, he did not resist because he did not wish to injure the future king.
.......One of the king’s nobles arrives at the tavern to deliver a message reporting the latest news of the rebellion and commanding Hal to return to court in the morning to see his father, the king. Falstaff, realizing that Hal must go to war, says, “Are thou not horribly afeard?” (2.4.147). Hal replies, “Not a whit, i’ faith; I lack some of thy instinct” (148). The next day, King Henry scolds his son for his “inordinate and low desires” (3.2.14) and reprimands him for the “rude society” (3.2.16) he keeps. Hal then promises, “I shall hereafter . . .be more myself” (3.2.94-95).
.......After King Henry learns that some of the rebels, including Hotspur, are marshaling their forces in the west, at the town of Shrewsbury, he commissions Hal to command part of the army. The king himself will ride at the head of the army. In turn, Prince Hal commissions Falstaff to raise and lead a regiment of foot soldiers against the rebels. However, Falstaff drafts only cowards who have money, knowing full well they will offer to buy their way out of military service. When they hand over three hundred pounds each to win their right to return home, Falstaff pockets all of the money except a small portion with which to hire riffraff as stand-ins. Later, as Prince Hal inspects Falstaff’s recruits, he says, “I never did see such pitiful rascals” (4.2.17). Falstaff says they’ll do just fine because “They’ll fit a pit as well as better” (18).
.......Meanwhile, in an eleventh-hour effort to prevent hostilities, King Henry offers the rebels a general pardon, but Hotspur and his forces come out fighting. The year is now 1403; the site of the fighting is near Shrewsbury on the Welsh-English border. As the battle rages, Hal and Hotspur seek each other out. When they find each other, Hal kills Hotspur. But Hal does not rejoice, for he recognizes that there was greatness in Hotspur. Hal salutes his fallen foe, saying “Fare thee well, great heart!” (5. 4. 94). All of Falstaff’s men die in the battle. Not wishing to meet their fate, Falstaff lies down and pretends to be dead. When he arises later, he says, “The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part, I have saved my life” (5.4.118). Coming upon the corpse of Hotspur, Falstaff eyes it suspiciously, wondering whether Hotspur may still be alive. In a fit of bravery he stabs the corpse and decides to take credit for having slain the warrior. He then picks up the corpse and heaves it onto his shoulder, as a hunter would a dead stag, and carries it off.
.......When Prince Hal happens by, Falstaff throws the corpse down and says, “There is Percy: if your father will do me any honour, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you” (5.4.130). Hal then announces that it was he who slew Hotspur while the fat old knight was lying in a ditch. Falstaff replies, “I grant you I was down and out of breath; and so was he: but we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so; if not, let them that should reward valour bear the sin upon their own heads” (5.4.132). In the distance, a trumpet blares a retreat, and Hal declares the Battle of Shrewsbury over and the victory won. As Hal leaves for another part of the battlefield, Falstaff follows, saying, “He that rewards me, God reward him! If I do grow great, I’ll grow less; for I’ll purge, and leave sack, and live cleanly as a nobleman should do” (5.4.141).
.......The two rebel leaders, Worcester and Vernon, are taken prisoner and summarily executed. However, a third prisoner—the valorous Archibald, Earl of Douglas—is released by the generous Prince Hal. King Henry and Hal then leave for Wales to confront rebels under the command of Owen Glendower and the Earl of March. At the same time, Prince John of Lancaster, Hal’s younger brother, heads toward York to battle rebel forces led by the Earl of Northumberland (Hotspur’s father). The play ends when King Henry declares, “Rebellion in this land shall lose his sway, meeting the check of such another day: And since this business so fair is done, let us not leave till all our own be won” (5.5.44-47).
Turning a Sow's Ear Into a Silk Purse
.......While befriending Falstaff and his rowdies, Prince Hal is a carouser, robber, womanizer, and practical joker. And his father is not at all pleased. However, what King Henry IV does not realize is that young Hal is deliberately masking his true worth and talent by participating in these base activities. His goal is to educate himself in the ways of the common people. After building a reputation as a wastrel and ne’er-do-well, he will shock and confound everyone when he turns out to be a savvy, highly skilled leader of men. The sow's ear will have become a silk purse.
.......Prince Hal’s courageous deeds in war help mold him into a leader esteemed ny those who previously thought he was a ne'er-do-well. This motif recurs throughout literature and history, as demonstrated in ancient times by Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and in modern times by Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy.
Carpe Diem: or Eat, Drink, and Be merry
.......Falstaff lives for the moment—for wine, women, song, and making mischief. “I live out of all order, out of all compass” (3.3.5), Falstaff says of his carpe diem philosophy. Although he appears to have ensnared Prince Hal in his happy-go-lucky lifestyle, the young prince knows well his responsibilities as heir to the throne and, when the time comes, he doffs his veneer of devil-may-care merrymaker to reveal himself as a brave and wily king-to-be.
Guilt From Ill-Gotten Gain
.......Henry IV experiences deep guilt for the manner in which he came to power: overthrowing the previous king, Richard II. (Shakespeare says he did not merely overthrow him; he murdered him. This guilt consumes him and remains with him (as the reader learns in Henry IV Part II) until he draw his last breath.
.......Henry IV uses his army to fight citizens of his own country. In modern times, governments have often done the same, rightly or wrongly, in Russia, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, and other countries.
.......The main conflicts center on (1) Henry IV and his rebellious enemies and (2) Henry IV and his seemingly rebellious son. The king wins a great battle, but the war goes on. Hal reforms and redeems himself in his father's eyes when he kills the redoubtable Hotspur.
.......The tone of the play is alternately serious and lighthearted, with the comic episodes of Hal and Falstaff contrasting with the sober business of making war. The tone reflects the mood of the central character, Hal, who early on is a rascally merrymaker and later a terrible engine of war.
Henry IV partly in prose and partly in verse.
Prose Passage......Now, then, what about single lines—those spoken in conversation as questions, replies, or ripostes? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming line or is too abrupt to contain a metric scheme. Following is example of such a prose passage with single lines.
HOTSPUR We’ll fight with him to-night.......But what of the multi-line passages? Why are some in verse and others in prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and plebeians—or wine-swilling hooligans, like Falstaff (Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II)—often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters, like Hamlet and Volumnia (Coriolanus), sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters, like the witches in Macbeth, often speak in verse. Even the lowest of the low—the beast-man Caliban in The Tempest—speaks often in verse. In The Merchant of Venice, the characters associated with the dirty world of money speak frequently in verse, and the characters associated with the rarefied world of nobility and refinement speak often in prose. Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing is almost entirely in prose, with highborn characters only occasionally speaking in verse.
......Why, then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose? Shakespeare used verse to do the following:
One: Express deep emotion requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their emotions in verse from time to time.......Shakespeare used prose to do the following:
One: Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior.Imagery: Similes
.......To vivify his writing, Shakespeare frequently uses similes in Henry VI Part I, as in the following passages. (A simile uses like, as, or than to compare two dissimilar things).
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
......Following are examples of other figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet (1.3.57)Anaphora
And thou hast talk’dHyperbole
By heaven methinks it were an easy leapMetaphor
Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dialsParadox
The better part of valour is discretion. (5.4.118)Personification
No more the thirsty entrance of this soilPrince Hal: Crafty Dissembler
.......Early in Henry
IV, Shakespeare depicts Prince Hal as a fun-loving, hard-drinking,
womanizing rascal who enjoys the company of commoners, a
characterization that gives him a certain romantic appeal. However, in
a soliloquy in Act I, Scene II (a soliloquy
reproduced in the plot summary above), Hal discloses that he is
leading a life of dissipation in order to learn about the ways of
commoners, including vulgar lowlifes, and thereby prepare himself to
become a king who knows the minds of his subjects. In other words, Hal
is spying on the common people; he is going to school on them, as it
were, pretending to be friends with them when, in reality, he regards
them as objects in an experiment designed to serve his aims.
.......English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that Falstaff was one of the greatest comic characters in literature. He said:
If Shakespear's fondness for the ludicrous sometimes led to faults in his tragedies (which was not often the case) he has made us amends by the character of Falstaff. This is perhaps the most substantial comic character that ever was invented! Sir John carries a most portly presence in the mind's eye; and in him, not to speak it profanely, "we behold the fulness of the spirit of wit and humour bodily." We are as well acquainted with his person as his mind, and his jokes come upon us with double force and relish from the quantity of flesh through which they make their way, as he shakes his fat sides with laughter, or "lards the lean earth as he walks along." Other comic characters seem, if we approach and handle them, to resolve themselves into air, "into thin air;" but this is embodied and palpable to the grossest apprehension: it lies "three fingers deep upon the ribs," it plays about the lungs and the diaphragm with all the force of animal enjoyment. His body is like a good estate to his mind, from which he receives rents and revenues of profit and pleasure in kind, according to its extent, and the richness of the soil. Wit is often a meagre substitute for pleasurable sensation; an effusion of spleen and petty spite at the comforts of others, from feeling none in itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good-humour and good-nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter, and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart's ease and over-contentment with himself and others. He would not be in character, if he were not so fat as he is; for there is the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence of his physical appetites. He manures and nourishes his mind with jests, as he does his body with sack and sugar. He carves out his jokes, as he would a capon, or a haunch of venison, where there is cut and come again; and pours out upon them the oil of gladness. His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers of his brain "it snows of meat and drink." He keeps up perpetual holiday and open house, and we live with him in a round of invitations to a rump and dozen.--Yet we are not to suppose that he was a mere sensualist. All this is as much in imagination as in reality. His sensuality does not engross and stupify his other faculties, but "ascends me into the brain, clears away all the dull, crude vapours that environ it, and makes it full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes." His imagination keeps up the ball after his senses have done with it. He seems to have even a greater enjoyment of the freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his ease, of his vanity, in the ideal exaggerated descriptions which he gives of them, than in fact. He never fails to enrich his discourse with allusions to eating and drinking, but we never see him at table. He carries his own larder about with him, and he is himself "a ton of man." His pulling out the bottle in the field of battle is a joke to shew his contempt for glory accompanied with danger, his systematic adherence to his Epicurean philosophy in the most trying circumstances. Again, such is his deliberate exaggeration of his own vices, that it does not seem quite certain whether the account of his hostess's bill, found in his pocket, with such an out-of-the-way charge for capons and sack with only one halfpenny-worth of bread, was not put there by himself as a trick to humour the jest upon his favourite propensities, and as a conscious caricature of himself. He is represented as a liar, a braggart, a coward, a glutton, &c. and yet we are not offended but delighted with him; for he is all these as much to amuse others as to gratify himself. He openly assumes all these characters to shew the humourous part of them. The unrestrained indulgence of his own ease, appetites, and convenience, has neither malice nor hypocrisy in it. In a word, he is an actor in himself almost as much as upon the stage, and we no more object to the character of Falstaff in a moral point of view than we should think of bringing an excellent comedian, who should represent him to the life, before one of the police offices. We only consider the number of pleasant lights in which he puts certain foibles (the more pleasant as they are opposed to the received rules and necessary restraints of society) and do not trouble ourselves about the consequences resulting from them, for no mischievous consequences do result; Sir John is old as well as fat, which gives a melancholy retrospective tinge to the character; and by the disparity between his inclinations and his capacity for enjoyment, makes it still more ludicrous and fantastical. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817)
Falstaff: the 'Supreme Comic Character'
.......Renowned Shakespeare critic G.B. Harrison, impressed with Shakespeare's handling of Falstaff, wrote the falling appraisal of the character:
Shakespeare's Best: Mark Van Doren
Poet, writer, and teacher Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) held that Henry IV was among Shakespeare's best plays. He wrote:
Playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) held an opposing view:
Everything that charm of style, rich humor, and vivid natural characterization can do for a play are badly wanted by Henry IV, which has neither the romantic beauty of Shakespeare's earlier plays nor the tragic greatness of the later ones. . . . The combination of conventional propriety and brute masterfulness in his [Prince Hal's] public capacity with a low-lived blackguardsman in his private tastes is not a pleasant one. No doubt he is rue to nature as a picture of what is by no means uncommon in English society, an able young Philistine inheriting high position and authority, which he holds on to and goes through with by keeping a tight grip on his conventional and legal advantages, but who would have been quite in his place if he had been born a gamekeeper or a farmer.—Shaw, George Bernard. Quoted in Eastman, A.M., and G.B. Harrison, eds. Shakespeare's Critics: From Jonson to Auden. Ann Arbor, Mich.: U of Michigan, 1964 (page 208).
House of Lancaster: Henry IV ("Bolingbroke," son of
the Duke of Lancaster), 1399-1413. Age at death: 47. Henry V (son of
Henry IV), 1413-1422. Age at death: 34. Henry VI (son of Henry V,
deposed), 1422-1471. Age at death: 49.
1...Which character in the play is the most admirable?
Which is the least admirable?