Henry IV, Part I

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Henry IV, Part I

by William Shakespeare


A play set in England during the year 1402; probably first performed in 1597.


King Henry IV, a recent successor to the English throne, battles rebels and attempts to teach his son the lessons of leadership.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Although he may have learned some aspects of successful play writing from other dramatists of his time, William Shakespeare remains a major innovator of the English history play. Such early Shakespeare plays as Henry VI and Richard III were among the first to achieve any sort of commercial success. In Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare continues his tradition of re-enacting the history of his native land.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The reign of Henry IV

Because he had actively opposed Richard II, the reigning king of England from 1376 to 1399, Henry Bolingbroke was living in exile when he succeeded his father as Duke of Lancaster. Immediately following this inheritance, King Richard seized Henry’s lands and his title and ordered him into exile for life. Henry soon returned to England with a band of supporters and sought to usurp the kingship. Charging Richard with whimsical and oppressive rule, the rebels rather easily overthrew his regime in 1399. Although Richard had named Edmund Mortimer as his successor, Henry’s leadership during the revolt earned him the crown. The distribution of England’s political power following the revolution, however, made it difficult for Henry to maintain his authority.

There was a division of loyalties best explained, perhaps, by the complicated lineage from which both Henry and Richard descended. The following family tree helps to clarify this point.

As the family tree indicates, Henry had, in fact, overthrown his cousin when he dethroned the king. According to rights of inheritance, the throne should then have passed to the second-eldest son in the family line, Edmund Mortimer. Because Edmund had died in 1381 and Roger, his eldest son, had died in 1385, Richard’s rightful successor should have been Roger Mortimer’s son Edmund. The boy was too young to rule or resist, however, so Henry claimed the title. By ignoring the established royal lineage, Henry knew that it could prove difficult for him to maintain his seat on the English throne for long. He would, in fact, reign from 1399-1419, when he died at age forty-six.

During the revolution and the early years of Henry’s reign, the Percy family acted as his chief supporters. In the north, Harry Percy, known as “Hotspur,” led the English military against Scottish revolters. Elsewhere, Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, assisted King Henry IV in matters of the court. Henry Percy’s brother Thomas, the Earl of Worcester, counseled Henry IV as well, even though Thomas had previously assisted Richard II. The loyalty that the Percys originally exhibited, however, did not last for any great length of time. Hotspur’s marriage to Elizabeth Mortimer (called Kate in Henry IV, Part I), a woman from a family unfriendly to Henry IV, created a serious breach. King Henry could only be suspicious of an ally who would so readily marry into his rival’s family. King Henry’s subsequent refusal to ransom Elizabeth’s brother Edmund after his capture by the Welsh, combined with his demand for Scottish prisoners that Hotspur had claimed, served to burn the shaky bridges of loyalty that Henry had established. His government, new and weakened from the previous civil strife, faced rebellion in 1402.

Edmund Mortimer’s father-in-law, Owen Glendower, led the revolt. Given their new ties to the Mortimer family via Hotspur’s marriage, the Percy clan quickly joined the rebels. The events of their rebellion are portrayed in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. Henry’s first defeat of the rebel group took place at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, in which Hotspur was killed. Although the curtain of Shakespeare’s play closes without the promise of victory for Henry IV, by 1408 all of his enemies had met with defeat.

England and Scotland

One of the principle reasons why Henry could not unite his nation was the constant wars that England faced along its borders. Since the reign of Edward I of England (1272-1307), Scotland had lived under English rule. Although the Scots had managed to defeat the English in 1314, England took advantage of weak Scottish leaders to restore its claim. The rule of Henry IV occurred during what became a seesaw period of constant struggle between the two forces. Having known autonomy for a brief time, Scotland attempted to assert its independence. England, however, unwilling to relinquish one of its holdings, refused to lose Scotland again. In the opening of Shakespeare’s work, the king receives a briefing on the condition of the Scottish uprising. Although Hotspur does quell the attempt, the debate over the fate of his prisoners eventually causes the internal rebellion against Henry.


In Shakespeare’s play, Falstaff, one of the drama’s comedic figures, attempts to rob a group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury. The Catholic Church often ordered such pilgrimages as penance for sins. In 1170 Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been cruelly murdered inside his cathedral walls. For the members of the congregation who had looked to Becket as a spiritual leader, the murder elevated him to the status of a martyr. Two years following his death, Thomas Becket was canonized as a saint, and the English faithful began making journeys to his burial place.

Such pilgrimages involved long and often dangerous travel. Along the way, the travelers stayed at inns and private hostels. Since they had to pay for all their food and lodging, pilgrim parties often carried relatively large sums of money. By the fifteenth century, pilgrimages had evolved into festive events. These elaborate parties proved tempting to thieves such as Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

Education of Henry V

Although Shakespeare paints young Prince Hal (Henry V) as a novice soldier, the actual Henry V (1387-1422) received an extensive education in the skills of a knight. Records show that on Henry’s tenth birthday he participated in a tournament at Pleshey Castle in Essex that tested skills such as horse riding and archery. In 1403, at the age of sixteen, Henry was called on to assist his father in battling the rebels. While the playwright credits Hal with the slaying of Hotspur, in actuality this slaying was accomplished by an unnamed figure. The real Henry V, though he fought with vigor in other wars, was not present at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Nonetheless, from his first moment on the battlefield, Henry V established himself as both a prominent soldier and leader. He would reign in England from 1413-1422 and become the subject of Shakespeare’s later history play Henry V.

The Play in Focus

The plot

The action of Henry IV, Part I begins where Shakespeare’s Richard II leaves off. A chronological series, Shakespeare’s histories are connected to one another. The opening of Henry IV, Part 1, therefore, finds a newly seated Henry who has not fully established his authority. With the civil distress of the revolt against Richard in the recent past, Henry desires to unite his countrymen in a crusade to the Holy Land. He cannot accomplish this ambition, however, due to the several wars England is waging on its own fronts. In the north, a Scottish uprising threatens the English borders, while in the west, the Welsh present a similar problem. Although his noble compatriots, Harry Percy (“Hotspur”), Henry Percy (the Earl of Northumberland), Thomas Percy (the Earl of Worcester), and Edmund Mortimer (the Earl of March) ably lead the king’s armies into battle, civil unrest clearly exists. Since Richard II left no direct heir to the English throne, Henry IV realizes that the Mortimer family is his chief rival. At the opening of Henry IV, Part I, the rift between Henry IV and the Mortimers is already a significant one. Phillippa Mortimer’s son Edmund has been captured by the Welsh. King Henry IV, much to the distress of Edmund’s relatives, refuses to ransom him.

Henry IV’s problems, however, do not stem solely from political affairs. His son Hal provides the king with several domestic concerns. An untried soldier, Hal possesses neither the ambition nor the acclaim enjoyed by Hotspur. He prefers to spend his days with his tavern friends, chief among them the portly thief John Falstaff. During one episode, Falstaff and his men rob a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury. For amusement, Hal and another man, in turn, rob Falstaff. While these events provide great fun for the young Prince of Wales, they do not amuse his father. During a soliloquy in Act I, however, Hal recognizes his seemingly immature behavior. He promises that his wildness will make his future behavior “show more goodly and attract more eyes /Than that which hath no foil to set it off” (Shakespeare, Henry IV, 1.2.202-03).

Incensed over both the king’s refusal to ransom Edmund and the king’s rather despotic rule, Hotspur, Glendower (Edmund’s father-in-law), and a few others plot their revolt. They divide the map of England according to who shall rule which territory after their victory. Once Henry IV receives word of the conspiracy, he speaks with his son. For almost the entire conversation, the king expresses disapproval of the prince. He marvels at how barren pleasures and rude company could please a man of Hal’s position. In response Hal vows to “salve / The long-grown wounds of my intemperature” (Henry IV, 3.2. 155-56). Joining with those still loyal to the crown, the king and his son plan their military strategy. Hal even enlists Falstaffs aid in defending his father.

The two armies meet at Shrewsbury in western England. Through one of his messengers, Henry IV tells the rebels that he will pardon their conduct if they abandon their plans. Hotspur, the rash leader of the band, refuses the offer. He sends the rebel Earl of Worcester as a messenger to inform the king of his decision. In a bid to avoid mass bloodshed, Prince Hal offers to fight Hotspur in one-on-one combat to settle the

grievances. But Hal’s father, King Henry, dismisses this idea, instead offering the rebels one last chance to surrender with a promise not to punish them. Because Worcester fears for his life, he does not inform Hotspur of these developments. He worries that Hotspur may be tempted to surrender and that the king would then punish an old rebel such as himself despite the promise of amnesty.

A battle ensues, costing many men their lives. In one of the final scenes, Hal kills Hotspur. The prince receives no credit for this victory, however, due to the ever-scheming Falstaff. After losing their leader, the rebels Worcester and Vernon surrender to the enemy and the gallows. Although the close of the play does not entirely


The character of Falstaff proved the most problematic for Shakespeare when the play first went into production. Originally the rogue bore the name of Sir John Oldcastle, The real Sir Oldcastle had been executed for heresy against the Catholic Church. Although revered by the Protestants, he endured many posthumous attacks by the Catholics, who described him as a “ruffian-knight” (Parsons in Kay, p. 213). In presenting this figure as a comedic one, Shakespeare offended Oldcastle’s living descendants and ran the risk of angering Protestants. William Brooke, one of Oldcastle’s relatives, served as one of Queen Elizabeth’s advisers and therefore also as a patron of Shakespeare’s company. In order to avoid conflict, the name of the character was changed to Falstaff in both public performance and print.

resolve the conflict, the king expresses confidence that his side will crush the remaining forces that oppose him. More importantly perhaps, the king acknowledges Hal’s progress: “Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion, / And showed thou mak’st some tender of my life” (Henry IV, 5.4.47-8).

Shakespeare’s morality play

Although drama had become a more sophisticated art form by Shakespeare’s time than it once was, some vestiges of fifteenth-century theater still remained. Shakespeare added to these, developing a livelier, more complicated play. In Middle English times, the main focus of the theater was the morality play. These productions featured universal characters, with names like “Lechery,” who attempted to lead the protagonists astray from moral behavior. Shakespeare both drew and deviated from this structure within his work.

The corpulent figure of Falstaff, for instance, resembles physically the character “Gluttony” who appears in several older works such as The Castle of Perseverance and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Likewise, Falstaffs drunkenness finds its roots in similar stock characters. Although not as clearly allegorical as these figures, Falstaff’s lifestyle represents the immoral world into which Hal may fall.

Within morality plays, the alternatives of vanity and vice are presented to the protagonist in the form of a choice. The scenes alternate between serious probabilities and ridiculous representations of the immoral world. Henry IV, Part I similarly alternates between the serious scenes of the court and the ridiculous ones of the tavern. Until Act 3, Scene 2, when Hal promises a reformation to his father, this pattern does not falter. In this manner Falstaff becomes a foil against which the figure of the king is played. Both men offer role models to young Hal; in the end the prince must choose whom to follow.


Because Shakespeare based his play on English history, all characters and events come from historical works. The playwright relied heavily on the third volume of Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, published in 1587. Most critics agree, however, that Shakespeare’s play far outreaches its historical roots. Other than a brief account of conflict between King Henry IV and his son found in The Chronicles of England, this entire subplot comes from the playwright’s own imagination. Shakespeare, not history, described the familial strife between the king and the prince.

In addition, the conflict that Henry IV faces with his nobles seems to have been embellished, or even misrepresented, in Shakespeare’s play. Like Holinshed, Shakespeare confused which of the Edmund Mortimers could lay rightful claim to the English throne. In reality, the first Edmund Mortimer’s grandson (the son of his second son), not his third son, would have been next in line for the position of king. Throughout the play, however, Shakespeare indicates that Owen Glendower’s son-in-law, the second Edmund Mortimer, would inherit the throne. The playwright cannot be faulted entirely for this error; his source, Holinshed, misrepresented this situation as well.

Shakespeare seems to take poetic license in his interpretation of Hotspur as well. Indeed, the man’s hot-tempered disposition, as well as his prominent contribution to the rebellion, appear to have been entirely the work of the playwright. Moreover, the rivalry between Hal and Hotspur could not have been so intense. The real-life Hotspur, aged thirty-nine when he died in 1403, was quite a few years older than Hal, then aged sixteen, so the two men probably had only limited interactions with each other. Certainly Hal never challenged Hotspur to one-on-one combat. Another of Shakespeare’s sources, Samuel Daniel’s The First Four Books of the Civil Wars, does credit the prince with the slaying of Hotspur, but both the historian and the playwright are incorrect in this regard, as they interpreted preceding historical texts.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

England and Scotland in Shakespeare’s lifetime

By the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), England had become a rather small country and did not have large holdings in other areas. The English empire in the Americas had only just begun to take shape with the settlement of Virginia in the 1580s. Although England still ruled Wales and Ireland, the English crown no longer held the lands it had once controlled on the continent of Europe. Scotland had also managed to gain its independence from England in 1314 and did not become a part of Great Britain until 1707. In fact, 1603 would see the ascension of a Scot (King James I) to the English throne.

The rule of King James I resulted from the tangled lineage of English and Scottish royalty. Because Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, many Roman Catholics would not recognize her as the proper inheritor of the throne. They considered Henry’s second marriage invalid because it contradicted Catholic law. Instead of Elizabeth, the Catholic faction recognized Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, as the proper queen of England. Her claim to the throne lay also with Henry VIII. Mary’s grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was Henry VIII’s sister. She and Elizabeth 1, therefore, were cousins of sorts.

Following Henry VIII’s death in 1547, his only son, the boy king Edward VI, ruled until 1553. After his death, Mary Tudor, Edward VI’s older sister, ascended to the throne. Because Mary died childless in 1558, the throne then passed to Elizabeth I. In 1587 Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, found herself implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. She was beheaded at Elizabeth’s command for her alleged participation. When Elizabeth I died without an heir in 1603, James I, the son of the executed Mary, protested his mother’s wrongful death and gained the throne. He began the Stuart dynasty that retained control of the English throne for about eighty years. The Stuart monarchy ruled the territories possessed by both England and Scotland. After Scotland lost this family connection with the English throne, it resumed its battle for independence from England.

Elizabethan history plays

Queen Elizabeth, despite the power struggle that preceded her rule, managed to unite England as no monarch had before her. When a 1570 papal decree excommunicated Elizabeth I from the Catholic Church, her subjects rallied around her in opposing the placement of Mary Stuart on the throne. Elizabeth’s advancement of England’s commercial profits overseas further strengthened this feeling of national unity. The climate proved perfect for the birth of the history play.

Because such productions took their characters and scenes from the pages of English history, their popularity was virtually assured. The nature of the historical productions enhanced the importance of the royal dynasty and the transfer of royal power. This question of inheriting the throne proved to be of vital interest to the people of England. Most critics agree that Shakespeare addresses this interest best in his two cycles of history plays. His Henry IV, Part 1 is perhaps his supreme achievement in this regard. The popularity of such productions in Shakespeare’s time was due partly to a unique aspect of Elizabeth’s rule. Known as the “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth would remain unmarried and childless, insisting that England was her only spouse. Questions and speculation about the eventual successor to the throne after Elizabeth’s death were thus fairly common.

Corruption from abroad

For the Elizabethans, increased trade mearit increased contact with foreign influences. While these new markets provided the English with exciting goods such as new clothing and spices, they also exposed England to what moralists would call foreign corruption. Contemporaries of Shakespeare such as John Marston and Thomas Middleton wrote plays that centered on Italian debauchery and styles of murder. Other angry Englishmen condemned the French for introducing vanity in dress. Foreign influence in general was credited for bringing cosmetics, tobacco, gambling, wine, and a variety of other vices to the English shores.

Shakespeare himself seems to touch on these issues in Henry IV, Part 1. His character Hotspur shows no tolerance for a fawning member of Henry’s court who comes to the battlefield to deliver a message from the king. His contempt for the man, who is “perfumed like a milliner,” exemplifies the general dislike of those who took too many pains in primping themselves (Henry IV, 1.3.36).

Fathers and sons

To Elizabethan parents, a child’s first duty was loving obedience. At the same time, new thoughts of individual freedom were gaining ground. Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, had defied the Catholic Church by marrying her mother Anne Boleyn, an act that boldly gave precedence to individual preference over established rules. Outside court, people strayed more willingly from their social class. In England a noblewoman might marry a commoner, whereas in other countries, such as Germany, social conventions remained fixed in this regard. People in these other countries insisted that proper marriages required husband and wife to be of equal social rank.

Perhaps the wildness of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s play reflects, to some degree, the greater tendency to experiment and satisfy personal whims in Elizabethan England. Certainly Hal was not the only wayward son in Elizabethan drama. The playwright Ben Jonson, in Every Man in His Humour, includes a father’s considerations of how to deal with his son’s wildness. He resolves “not to stop his journey; / Nor practice any violent means to stay / The unbridled course of youth in him” (Johnson, Every Man in His Humour, 1.2. 122-24). Shakespeare’s King Henry IV seems to adopt a similar stance with Prince Hal, although his son’s misbehavior pains him.

Reception of the play

First staged, scholars believe, in 1597, Henry IV, Part 1 enjoyed continued popularity among playgoers until 1642, when the government closed theaters during the political upheaval of the civil wars. After the monarchy was restored and the theaters were reopened in 1660, Henry IV became one of the first plays to resurface. Performances occurred in 1660 and periodically thereafter, with the play again enjoying popularity. Public approval, however, faded in the second half of the 1800s during Queen Victoria’s reign. The proper English audiences of this period took offense at the rogue Falstaff s coarse and bawdy brand of humor. Interest in the play revived with a superior production in 1896 and has persisted ever since.

For More Information

Earle, Peter. The Life and Times of Henry V. 1972. Reprint, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.

Johnson, Ben. Every Man in His Humour. 1601. Reprint, London: Methuen, 1986.

Kay, Dennis. Shakespeare: His Life, Work, and Era. New York: William Morrow, 1992.

Loxton, Howard. Pilgrimage to Canterbury. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV, Part 1. In The Oxford Shakespeare. Edited by David Bevington. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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