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Henry IV, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 1 | Themes



In the Elizabethan worldview, the king is intimately connected to his people and country. Any disorder in the royal court produces disorder throughout both society and the natural world. The play begins with armed forces rebelling against the king. Prince Hal should be at his father's side, but he is off drinking and carousing. Even the rebels are motivated in part by a desire to restore order; they see King Henry IV as having overstepped his proper authority and his promises by usurping the throne, and they see their rebellion as restoring order to the kingdom.

This theme extends throughout the play. When Hal (wearing a disguise) rousts Falstaff, Falstaff claims he instinctively recognized Hal as a prince and knew it would be wrong to attack someone above him in the hierarchy. Also, in the final scene, the king declares the defeat of the rebels to be effectively a preordained restoration of order by declaring, "Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke."


This is a period and a realm in which a man's honor means everything. Men can be motivated to great heroism by a chance to prove their honor, and political alliances can shatter over insults to a man's honor. In the first act, the nobles and the king evaluate Hotspur's prowess in battle and find it honorable, even worthy of a prince, while Prince Hal's apparent lack of honor is part of what disturbs his father so intensely.

Falstaff continuously flouts the precepts of honor, and the audience is tempted to sympathize with him, particularly when he declares that only the dead have honor. However, Falstaff is one of many characters whose dishonorable behavior is intended to contrast with the honorable ideals of the king, his faithful nobles Westmoreland and Blunt, and, ultimately, Prince Hal.

Father-Son Relationships

There are three father-son pairings—two literal and one figurative—in the play. King Henry IV and Prince Hal are the most significant father and son in the work, and their relationship is tense when the play starts. By the end of the play, the two are reconciled after Prince Hal expresses regret over his former behavior, rescues his father from Douglas on the battlefield, and kills Hotspur.

Their relationship contrasts with two other father-son relationships—the first between Hotspur and his father, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland; and the second between Prince Hal and his father figure, the drunken Falstaff.

In contrast to King Henry IV, Northumberland is very lenient with his son. Even so, when Hotspur needs him most, Northumberland symbolically betrays his son by falling sick and not fighting with the other rebels.

Falstaff is always there for Prince Hal, even at the play's end, when Hal certainly does not need him. He also gives Prince Hal advice, but most of it is either illegal or immoral, and the rest is philosophically suspect. If there is such a thing as a good rebellion, it can certainly be found in Prince Hal's ultimate rejection of Falstaff's company.

Appearance versus Reality

Throughout Henry IV, Part 1, appearance and reality clash. As early as the opening scene, King Henry wishes some good fairy had swapped Prince Hal and Hotspur at birth, so that the fierce warrior Hotspur could be his son. The theme continues with Prince Hal and Falstaff when, during their interactions, Hal behaves like a commoner. Falstaff continually tells stories that are not true, runs scams, and reworks reality to suit himself. Prince Hal adopts a disguise to rob Falstaff, who then tells a whopper of a lie about what happened to him.

This tension between appearance and reality drives the play's main plot and comic subplot, and at times it plays out on a cosmic level. In Act 3, Scene 1, the wild Welsh rebel Owen Glendower claims that on the day he was born, "heaven was full of fiery shapes," proving he was meant for great things. The pragmatic Hotspur punctures this idea by agreeing that those shapes appeared but claiming they meant nothing. For Hotspur, there is no relationship between seeming portents and reality. As it turns out, Hotspur is correct, as Glendower amounts to nothing.

This tension between appearance and reality has deadly repercussions in Act 5, when King Henry sends a number of men into battle disguised as himself and several of them die. Falstaff pretends to die but survives, and he then pretends to have killed Hotspur.

Questions for Themes

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