Henry IV Part 1 is the second play in a tetralogy of plays commonly referred to as ‘The Henriad’. It follows the reign of, as you may have guessed, King Henry IV and notably his son Prince Hal. But more specifically, this play’s story follows the period of time that begins with Hotspur’s battle at Homildon Hill in Northumberland against Douglas late in 1402, and ends with the defeat of the rebels at the Battle of Shrewsbury in the middle of 1403. From its first performance, it has always been a highly regarded and loved play by many.
This is one of Shakespeare’s best history plays and we highly recommend reading and learning more about this incredible play.
So the artist formerly known as Henry Bollingbroke, now more commonly referred to as King Henry the IV or “Your Majesty”, has recently usurped King Richard the II and is having a pretty not so chill time as the new King of England. Now this new King thinks that a lot of his troubles could be solved by beginning a new crusade to the Holy Land, otherwise known as a Holy War. However, there are troubles at not one, but two of England’s two total borders which renders this idea ‘not so good’ given they’d have to leave the country, leaving the Kingdom vulnerable. He is also not too popular at the moment with the Percy family who helped him to the throne and Edmund Mortimer (The Earl of March), the guy who was supposed to be King, according to the last King.
He is also at odds with his son and heir apparent, Prince Hal, who’s been making himself look rather silly by constantly getting drunk with his mates, including but not limited to Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is Hal’s closest friend and companion. And it’s not too clear who’s the worse influence on who at this stage.
So there’s three main crews you need to wrap your head around. The King and his Court, who we’ve met. Then there is the Percy family, which includes a whole bunch of folks, but the ones we’re gonna focus on are Harry Percy or ‘Hotspur’, his Father, the ‘Earl of Northumberland’, and their leader, Hotspurs Uncle, Thomas Percy the ‘Earl of Worcester’. To make things easier lets just call that group ‘The Rebels’ And last but certainly not least, that rag tag bunch of drunks at the pub, Prince Hal, Falstaff and their merry band of friends who are really at the centre of this play.
At the beginning of the play, The King is angry with Hotspur for refusing him the prisoners taken in a recent battle against Scotland. Hotspur tries to negotiate but is shot down by the King, and as Michael Jordan would say: he took that personally. They decide to side against the King and join forces with the Welsh and the Scots.
Meanwhile, Prince Hal and chums are playing pranks on old Falstaff by disguising themselves and robbing them after they’ve robbed someone. You know, as friends do. It does end happily though when upon hearing Falstaff’s tall tales about it later, Hal returns the stolen money to him. Very soon after, Hal speaks directly to us to tell us of his plan. He says soon his days of hooliganism will come to a close and he will become a respectable member of the society and in doing so, after his years of wild misbehaviour, the respect he’ll earn will be even greater from the court and his people alike.
And that certainly happens sooner rather than later. When the Kingdom learns of Hotspurs insurrection, Hal takes charge to defeat Hotspur and his rebel army. And Falstaff isn’t off the hook either. Hal puts him in charge of a battalion of foot soldiers and away we go to the Battle of Shrewsbury.
Now this battle is pretty important, because if Hotspur wins, then their cause is bolstered and they will gain ground and may ultimately win this war. Lucky for Hal his troops outnumber Hotspurs. But what Hotspur lacks in numbers, he makes up for in a whole lot of ‘having nothing to lose’.
Meanwhile in the lead up to this face, we see Hotspur, who has not been a particularly honourable commanding officer, by stealing wages and other tomfoolery, fake his own death, in a last ditch bid to survive.
Anyway, meanwhile back at wherever Hal and Hotspur happen to be, they face off. They both fight well but ultimately Hotspur is bettered by Hal, and is killed.
Suddenly Falstaff revives himself from the dead! Seeing that he is alone, he stabs Hotspur in the leg and claims the credit for defeating him. Hal knows better than that but allows Falstaff to take the credit, as good friends do. Having done this Falstaff claims that he wants to get his act together and to live a good clean life as a nobleman should do.
And so the play comes to a close with the rebels stifled but ultimately not defeated. King Henry has his rival Thomas Percy executed. But Hal, being more honourable than people ever knew, releases his prisoners of war. They have won the battle, but not the war, and the next exciting chapter begins in Henry IV Part 2.
Characters of Henry IV Part 1
The King’s Party
King Henry IV – King of England.
Henry, Prince of Wales (nicknamed “Prince Hal” or “Harry”) – eldest son of Henry IV
John of Lancaster – represented in the play as the King’s second son, although he was actually the third
Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland
Sir Walter Blount (“Blunt”)
Eastcheap (The Pub Crew)
Sir John Falstaff – a knight who befriends Prince Hal
Mistress Quickly – hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern
Francis – tapster
Vintner – tavern keeper
Two Carriers (Mugs and Tom)
Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland
Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester – Northumberland’s brother
Harry Percy (nicknamed “Hotspur”) – Northumberland’s son
Edmund Mortimer – Hotspur’s brother-in-law and Glendower’s son-in-law
Owen Glendower – leader of the Welsh rebels
Archibald, Earl of Douglas – leader of the Scottish rebels
Sir Richard Vernon, 8th Baron of Shipbrook
Richard le Scrope (“Scroop”), Archbishop of York
Sir Michael – a friend to the Archbishop of York
Lady Percy (“Kate”, though her real name was Elizabeth) – Hotspur’s wife and Mortimer’s sister
Lady Mortimer (Catrin) – Glendower’s daughter and Mortimer’s wife
Servant to Hotspur
Lords, Officers, Drawers, Messengers, and Attendants
Robin Ostler, deceased character who preceded the current Ostler, concerned with the price of oats
Gilliams, courier sent by Hotspur
Best Henry IV Part 1 Monologues
- Prince Hal, Act 1, Scene 2, Line 64, “I know you all, and will a while uphold the unyolked humour of your idleness”
- Falstaff Act 2, Scene 4, Line 162, “Peace, good pint-pot, peace, good tickle-brain”
- Lady Hotspur, Act 2, Scene 3, Line 35, “O my good lord, why are you thus alone?”
- Hotspur, Act 1, Scene 3, Line 28, “My liege I did deny no prisoners”
Notes on Performance
Keep in mind the long history that has led up to the start of this play, luckily in this one there’s only one prequel in Richard II. If you can read that you won’t be sorry.
Do your best to understand all the ins and out, ups and downs of all of these relationships. There’s a lot to remember, but be rock solid in the relationships of your character.
Always respect the text, not just in Shakespeare but in any work you do. The writer puts in as much energy and love as any other creative, so we should always do our best to make their text shine. Even Shakespeare. If you are excited to learn more about Shakespeare improve your skills in this area definitely check out performing Shakespeare.