Henry IV, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 1 | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The setting is early 1400s Britain. King Henry IV of England talks with his counselors. Now that a recent civil war is over, he wants to lead an expedition to the Holy Land to help recapture it. As soon as he announces this, however, his counselors inform him that the country is not completely calm. Owen Glendower has just led a group of Welsh rebels against the king's forces, killing a thousand men and capturing Mortimer, a noble warrior on the king's side. Young Harry Percy (Hotspur) has led another group of the king's forces against Scottish rebels. Hotspur has captured the Earl of Douglas, leader of the Scottish rebels, as well as Douglas's son.

Hotspur's bravery is so great that the king publicly compares Hotspur to Prince Hal, wishing Hotspur were really his son. However, Hotspur has begun acting strangely; he sent word to the king that he would be sending only one prisoner to court, rather than all of them, which is required by feudal custom. The king decides to postpone the expedition to the Holy Land and sends for Hotspur so he can explain his actions.

Analysis

This first scene acts as a prologue and introduction. It provides contextual information on action the audience doesn't see, and it sketches in core relationships, both political and interpersonal. As a result, the first scene introduces the play's core plot and its themes. On the plot level, the play's greatest action is introduced: rebellions are occurring against the king on two fronts, in Wales to the southwest and Scotland to the north.

These rebellions are connected to the theme of order, acting as both the cause and result of the serious disorders that threaten the kingdom. Hotspur's actions are also related to the theme of honor, as he is not acting as a noble warrior should. The king is Hotspur's feudal lord, whom he is required to obey. By refusing to yield all of his prisoners to the king, Hotspur is asserting his own authority over his monarch. When King Henry openly says he would prefer Hotspur as a son instead of Prince Hal, the central theme of father-son relationships is introduced. That the king wishes his own son were a changeling, swapped at birth with the seemingly more gallant Hotspur, also hints at a central conflict between appearance and reality.

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