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Henry IV, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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In-Depth Summary and Analysis

Course Hero Literature Instructor Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan provides an in-depth analysis of the plot, characters, symbols, and themes of William Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part 1.

Henry IV, Part 1 | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Welsh and Scottish forces are rebelling against King Henry IV of England. Douglas leads the Scottish rebels, and Owen Glendower leads the Welsh. In a recent battle, Hotspur (the nickname of Henry Percy) captured some rebel leaders while fighting on the side of the king. However, Hotspur refuses to send the prisoners to the king as required, so the king summons him to explain.

In a comic subplot, Prince Hal (short for Harry), elder son of the king and heir to the throne, is at a tavern drinking with Sir John Falstaff and other thieves. Falstaff invites Prince Hal to join him in robbing a group of religious pilgrims. Prince Hal refuses, but then another thief, Poins, suggests that they disguise themselves and rob Falstaff as a joke. The prince agrees, but in a soliloquy (a speech by one actor), he tells the audience he intends to take his political place soon and so will have to give up playing such pranks.

When Hotspur arrives at King Henry's court, he explains that he refused to send the prisoners to the king because he took offense at the way a courtier addressed him after the battle. Hotspur then asks the king to pay the ransom to release his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, from the Welsh rebels, but King Henry refuses, believing Mortimer to be a traitor. This offends Hotspur's honor, so he joins the rebels.

In Act 2, when the thieves go to rob the pilgrims, Prince Hal and Poins sneak away and disguise themselves. Falstaff and Gadshill, a friend and highwayman, rob the pilgrims, but then Prince Hal and Poins rob their friends.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Hotspur gets a letter from someone he asked to join the rebellion; the nobleman turns him down. This refusal prompts Hotspur to move the start of the action up to that very night.

In the comic subplot, Falstaff enters a tavern and tells Prince Hal and Poins a story about the robbery, casting himself as a hero who fought many men. Prince Hal reveals that it was he and Poins in disguise who robbed Falstaff. A messenger from the king arrives and orders Prince Hal to court. To prepare for meeting with his father, Prince Hal holds practice interviews with Falstaff. The scene ends with a sheriff coming for Falstaff, who hides while Prince Hal promises the sheriff he'll deal with Falstaff.

In the political plot, Hotspur, Mortimer, Glendower, and Worcester (Hotspur's uncle) meet to plan the rebellion. Hotspur's attitude is on display as he argues with Glendower and complains about the portion of England that will go to him once it is conquered.

At court, King Henry tells Prince Hal that he is disappointed in him, and Prince Hal promises to reform. Just then, a messenger arrives to announce that the Scottish and English rebels have joined forces.

Back at the tavern, Falstaff is drinking and complaining to the innkeeper. Fresh from his fatherly harangue, Prince Hal enters and tells Falstaff he's obtained a commission for Falstaff to gather a group of soldiers. From this point on, the two distinct plots join up.

Act 4 opens with the rebels. A messenger brings the news that Northumberland (Hotspur's father) is too sick to fight, but the rebels decide to fight anyway. Then they learn more bad news: Glendower will be delayed from the fight for two weeks.

Falstaff, on behalf of the king, marches to war with a ragtag band of men—the better men having bought their way out of fighting.

The action shifts back to the rebels arguing over what to do. Sir Walter Blunt arrives, bringing an offer of forgiveness from the king in return for an end to the rebellion. The rebels have to decide by morning whether they will accept the king's offer.

Act 5 starts on the battlefield, where leaders from both sides meet. King Henry criticizes Worcester and Vernon (a relative of Worcester's) for rebelling, but he again offers forgiveness if they'll stop. Worcester says the king caused the rebellion by rebelling himself against the previous king and taking his throne. The king counters that the rebels are exaggerating. To try to decide the issue, Prince Hal challenges Hotspur to single combat. Instead, the rebels decide to fight en masse.

As the battle begins, Douglas slays Blunt, who is pretending to be King Henry. Douglas thinks he has killed the king until Hotspur enters and explains that many people are fighting disguised as the king.

The scene shifts to King Henry, Prince Hal, Lord John (the king's younger son), and Westmoreland (a military leader loyal to the king). Prince Hal is injured, but he refuses to leave the field. After most of the loyalists leave, Douglas enters and attacks the king. In an effort to prove himself, Prince Hal returns and drives Douglas away. Impressed, the king tells his elder son that this act has redeemed him for all his previous laziness and disorder.

But Prince Hal is not done fighting. After the king leaves, Hotspur enters, and Prince Hal kills him. Meanwhile, Falstaff has been cheering on Prince Hal, but he pretends to be dead during a skirmish with Douglas. The prince mourns his friend, then leaves the field. Falstaff gets up and plans to claim that he is the one who killed Hotspur. A trumpet sounds, signaling that the king's forces have won.

In the final scene, King Henry sentences the captured Worcester and Vernon to death. Douglas has also been taken prisoner but is released because of his valor. The king swears to defeat the rebels who still lurk in the kingdom.

Henry IV, Part 1 Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 King Henry IV gives a speech about rebellion in England.

Rising Action

2 Falstaff plans to rob pilgrims.

3 The Percys rebel after the king refuses to ransom Mortimer.

4 Falstaff robs pilgrims; Prince Hal and Poins rob Falstaff.

5 Several nobles meet to plan rebellion.

6 Henry lectures Hal on his behavior; Hal decides to reform.

7 The rebels refuse the king's offer of forgiveness.

8 Douglas kills Blunt, thinking he is the king.


9 Hal kills Hotspur.

Falling Action

10 Falstaff claims he killed Hotspur.

11 The king's forces defeat the rebels.


12 King Henry IV sentences Worcester and Vernon to death.

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