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Henry IV, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 1 | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Henry IV, Part 1, why does King Henry offer to forgive the rebels not once but several times?

There are several possible reasons King Henry repeatedly offers to forgive the rebels. He loves his country. The king's opening speech in Act 1 shows he is deeply upset that civil war is damaging his country. He is more rational than they are and is looking toward the future. Repeatedly the rebels follow passion as they respond to insults to their honor. They lash out because they focus more on short-term gains (gaining redress of wounds to their honor, acquiring more territory, subduing their presumed enemies). He is royal. A king can afford to be magnanimous and forgive insults lesser men could not overlook. He feels guilty. Given the circumstances of his ascendance to the throne and Mortimer's competing claim to it, the rebels may have legitimate complaints. In case he has been unkind to them, he wishes to make amends. He is weak. The king is getting old. He may be more afraid of war than the rebels are. Also, King Henry is not fully reconciled to Prince Hal until Act 5, so he may offer forgiveness to try to bring the idealized Hotspur back into his service.

In Henry IV, Part 1, why don't the rebels accept the king's offer of forgiveness?

The simplest reason is that they don't trust him. In their eyes, he took the throne after promising not to, and if a man is willing to lie about something that big, surely he is capable of lying about smaller things. Their empathy also fails them. Hotspur could never forgive the sort of crime against his honor that the rebels have committed against the king, so he can't imagine the king would do so either. Furthermore, some of them genuinely want to rebel. Douglas is Scottish and does not care who has a legitimate right to the English throne, but rather wants to throw off any English influence over his country. Similarly, Worcester decides not to communicate the king's offer to the rebels, which suggests he has no interest in preventing war.

Many characters see portents throughout Henry IV, Part 1. What is the function of these portents?

Portents play several roles in King Henry IV, Part 1. Mood. When the king sees the sun peering "bloodily" over the field at the start of Act 1, Scene 1, that sets a somber mood. Foreshadowing. That same line from the king is an accurate prediction: the sun is about to see a field full of blood because the battle is about to start. Contrast. Both Glendower and Percy's wife talk about portents, talk that Hotspur rejects. The conversations point to two different worldviews, one in which a person's fate is determined by the heavens and another in which people determine their own destinies based on their actions.

Who is the main character of Henry IV, Part 1 and why?

Despite the title of the play, the main character is not King Henry. He is important, but he really doesn't change. His role is also smaller, with fewer lines, than the roles of the three other candidates for most important character. Prince Hal is most often regarded as the play's main character. He starts as a drunken disappointment, robbing people and making fun of servers, but by the end of the play, he's a hero. He saves his father and defeats Hotspur in single combat. Two other characters stand out. If this play were called The Tragedy of Harry Percy, Hotspur would be the main character. He has all the characteristics of a tragic hero. He's a great warrior and passionate about his honor—and that passion leads to his downfall. However, Hotspur remains the same, rejecting several opportunities to learn from his mistakes. And Falstaff has traditionally been the most popular character in the play, but Falstaff doesn't change either. He's still the same funny, cynical drunk at the end of the play that he was at the start.

Why is King Henry's opening speech in Act 1, Scene 1 of Henry IV, Part 1 so long?

Because Shakespeare's plays were performed with minimal sets, the script often had to describe what was around the speaker. The king's opening speech provides the audience with setting and context. In Shakespeare plays, the length of a speech is itself significant. Unless it is being played for comedy, the longer a speech is, the more important it is. The rebellion is very important to the king and to the plot of the play. The king also speaks at length because he is upset. He's talking about his country being ripped apart in a way intended to stir the audience's feelings.

How does the father-son relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal differ from the one between Prince Hal and King Henry?

Falstaff and Prince Hal spend time together that is fun, relaxing, and playful. They joke around together. They even role-play the prince's upcoming interview with the king. However, Prince Hal's relationship with Falstaff becomes complicated when the prince has to take on responsibilities that Falstaff rejects. While the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff grows strained, the one between Prince Hal and his father does the opposite. King Henry loves his son, but during the first three acts, all he does is complain about him. He complains about him in public. He complains about him to his face. This is an authoritarian, austere form of love, appropriate to a warrior king who is holding on to his kingdom by a thread. Their relationship improves once Prince Hal demonstrates that he is ready to take on his princely responsibility and defend his family's honor.

What is the importance of the missed messages and letters in Henry IV, Part 1?

A strong case could be made that the missed messages are the most important ones in the whole play. One significant message is the king's final offer of forgiveness, which Worcester chooses not to pass on to the other rebels in Act 5, Scene 2. He says he cannot do so because Hotspur would accept the offer and be forgiven for his youth, while the king will continue to mistrust the other rebels. That missed offer costs Hotspur his life, and Worcester's decision gains him nothing in the end, for the king sentences Worcester and Vernon to death after the battle is over. The message Hotspur chooses not to open in Act 5, Scene 3 might also be seen as most important. The message could have had major strategic importance for the upcoming battle, but Hotspur, and the audience, will never know.

Why is Prince Hal's behavior in the first half of Henry IV, Part 1 so upsetting to his father?

Early in the play, Hal isn't acting like a prince. Instead, he's drinking and spending time with a gang of common thieves. This upsets King Henry because he has a clear vision of how a king should act and, therefore, of how a prince should act, and Hal isn't meeting expectations. Prince Hal's behavior symbolizes the disorder into which the kingdom has fallen because of the widespread rebellion. Perhaps most importantly, King Henry knows how fragile kingship can be because he helped topple the previous king. Prince Hal's actions threaten the king's line and may even threaten his throne.

In Henry IV, Part 1, how does Northumberland let his son, Hotspur, down and why is it significant?

Northumberland gets sick and cannot fight in the final battle against the king, so he lets Hotspur down in that way, though he is hardly at fault. The larger way in which Northumberland fails to support Hotspur is more subtle and occurs throughout the play. Hotspur is a passionate, headstrong young man, but his father doesn't curb him. Northumberland makes excuses for Hotspur's not surrendering the prisoners, which gives Hotspur freedom to follow his own judgment and leads to a worse outcome for him in the long run. Northumberland notices his son is upset and says, "What, drunk with choler?" in Act 1, Scene 3. But he then hands off responsibility, saying to Worcester, "Brother, the King hath made your nephew mad." Obviously, the king's request was in line with his position, while Hotspur's response was out of order. Yet Northumberland does nothing to make his son realize that. Hotspur dies, in part, because his father fails to guide him.

How does the comic subplot involving Falstaff relate to the main political plot of Henry IV, Part 1?

The simplest connection is that both plots involve Prince Hal. Both of them also relate to social disorder. In the main plot, a cluster of forces rebel against the king. In the comic subplot, Falstaff robs religious pilgrims and the prince robs him, creating disorder among another class of society. In both plots, the relationship between a young man or men and an older father figure is central. In the main plot, the relationships are among Prince Hal, Hotspur, and the king; in the comic subplot the significant relationship is between Prince Hal and Falstaff. When it comes to honor and bravery, the two plots show contrary trends. Prince Hal sees the rebels Hotspur and Douglas fight bravely, even tremendously well. He sees cowardice and dishonesty when Falstaff engages in conflict.

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