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Theatre / Henry IV, Part 1

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As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
"And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off."
Hal, I.ii

A history play by William Shakespeare. It is the first in a duology, the second being Henry IV, Part 2. It actually also relates to two other Shakespearean plays— Richard II (which it follows) and Henry V (which it precedes).

Following the events in Richard II, Henry Bolingroke, now King Henry IV, wishes to wage a crusade to cleanse himself of the sin of Richard's death. It is not to be, as some of his former allies plot to overthrow him— chief among them the Percy family, whose son Harry (known as "Hotspur") is one of the greatest warriors in England.

Looming war isn't King Henry's only problem, though. His son, Prince Harry (known as "Hal"), is a seeming good-for-nothing lout who surrounds himself with drunkards and rogues and rejects the royal life, preferring to play pranks and chase women. Hal's best friend is the old, fat, wily Sir John Falstaff, a bombastic drunk who provides much of the play's comedy.

As King Henry and the Percy family wage a tense political battle, Hal and Falstaff get themselves into a number of comic situations. It is during one of these that Hal reveals his plot to the audience — he is playing the part of the foolish prince so that people will not expect much of him; that way, when he finally reveals himself as the great thinker and fighter he is, he will look much better by comparison.

Eventually, the political tensions come to a head and the two sides face off in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Hotspur leads his forces boldly into fray; Hal swears his loyalty and love to his father and joins the fight; Henry IV has a number of his soldiers dress as him to confuse the enemy; and Falstaff reaps profit from draft dodgers. At last, Hal and Hotspur meet in single combat, and Hal prevails.

The play winds down with another comic scene with Falstaff (who tries to convince Hal he killed Hotspur), King Henry orders his enemies executed, and Hal generously pardons one of the soldiers from the opposing side. But wait! All is not well. The Archbishop of York and the Earl of Northumberland, along with a number of other nobles, have joined forces and still plot against Henry IV and Hal. To Be Continued in Henry IV, Part 2.

A perennially popular play, this has been adapted to film many times. Orson Welles' experimental Chimes at Midnight combines the two parts with bits from Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, without changing any lines, the action now centering on Falstaff instead of Prince Hal. In 2010, a production of Henry IV at The Globe was filmed for DVD with Roger Allam as Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Hal. Allam won an Olivier Award for his performance. In 2012, it was the second production in the BBC's four-part series The Hollow Crown, with Jeremy Irons as Henry, Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, and Joe Armstrong as Hotspur.

This play provides examples of:

  • Agent Scully: Hotspur plays this role to his Welsh ally Glendower:
    Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
    Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man.
    But will they come when you do call for them?
  • A God Am I: Glendower pretty much believes he has superpowers and a deal with Satan. He dies off stage with little more than a passing reference to his illness.
  • Antagonist in Mourning: Hal, for Hotspur.
  • Artistic Licence: Shakespeare refers to Edmund Mortimer as the Earl of March. But the historical Edmund Mortimer in this play was never Earl of March; that position was held by his paternal nephew, who also was named Edmund Mortimer.
  • The Atoner: King Henry is obsessed with launching a crusade to expiate his guilt in the death of Richard II.
  • Balkanize Me: Glendower, Hotspur, and Mortimer plan to do this to England. Glendower gets all the land along the Severn, Mortimer gets the south of England up to the river Trent, and Percy gets the north of England. The scene also includes Percy arguing that the border between his and Mortimer's lands excludes valuable land sitting on the opposite side of a bend in the river, and thus he wants his territory redrawn.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Hotspur and Lady Percy.
  • Big Eater: Falstaff, of course. One of his (many) failings is gluttony.
  • Big Fun: Falstaff again. He loves to revel, drink, and play pranks, and several characters comment on his massive size—he's truly "larger than life."
  • Blatant Lies: Falstaff claims he killed Percy. To be more precise, he makes this claim to Prince Hal, the man who Falstaff saw actually kill Percy.
  • Blood Knight: Hotspur who, unlike the mischief making prince, loves to fight. His ally Douglas fits the bill, too, with most productions showing him being downright gleeful during the battle.
  • Body Double: In the battle at the end of Part 1, the king has several. Symbolism ensues.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Falstaff is one in temperament but not big on the whole fighting thing. Hotspur has some of these traits, and the historical Hotspur at least was very much like the insane Richard IV in Blackadder, played by BRIAN BLESSED.
  • Brave Scot: Douglas, whose valor impresses Hal so much that he's set free, rather than held for ransom or sent off for execution.
  • Breakout Character: Falstaff. In the play proper, he's Hal's Bumbling Sidekick, but his wit, and surprising depth has made him one of Shakespeare's most beloved and analyzed characters. In terms of spoken lines, he's second only to Hamlet himself.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer:
    • Glendower believes he can summon demons, perform magic, and that heaven and earth shook on his arrival. He's also single-handedly pushing the English out of Wales.
    • Hotspur is quick to anger and rants so hard that often his allies have to interrupt him. At one point, his hot-blooded ranting even stops him from entering the action he loves because he's too busy fighting a battle in his imagination. But, of course, he's the best warrior among the English.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: Played with by Falstaff and Hal as they each pretend to be the king, praising themselves and slandering each other.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Henry's path to the throne and the subsequent problems that caused make him feel unsure sitting there.
    Henry IV: Heavy is the head that wears the Crown.
  • Character Development: Invoked by Hal. Depending on how the director and actor choose to play it, Hal can be a static character who enacts a duplicitous plan over the course of the play, as revealed in his monologue in the first act; the plan mimics character development in the eyes of the other characters.
  • The Chessmaster: Hal, so great that he tricks even his father into thinking he's a fool.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Glendower spends the strategy meeting promising to use magic and demons to drive out the English forces. Yet, at the same time, he's doing something right.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: The gist of King Henry's criticism of Hal — the Prince has been born with great privilege and stands to inherit a kingdom; he should behave in such a way to show himself worthy of it. This actually puts Henry in direct contrast to his predecessor, Richard II, in that he does not count on divine right to guarantee the support of his people. If the king acts like a fool, he will be treated like a fool.
  • Coming of Age Story: You can read this play as one of these for Prince Hal, or you can read it as Prince Hal tricking everyone into thinking it's one of these.
  • Cowardly Lion: Implied Trope with Falstaff; Poins suggests he is capable of fighting, but only if he sees reason - and most of the time, he doesn't.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Hotspur.
    Glendower: Thrice from the banks of Wye and sandy-bottomed Severn have I sent him bootless home and weather-beaten back.
    Hotspur: Home without boots, and in foul weather too! How scapes he agues, in the devil's name?
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Hotspur. The play ends with Henry dividing his forces to deal with the rest of the rebels.
  • Deconstructed Trope: Falstaff repeatedly calls the concept of honor into question, concluding all it does is get people pointlessly killed. "Give me life", indeed.
  • Duel to the Death: Hal offers to fight Hotspur in lieu of the two armies meeting. While the armies meet anyway, Hal and Hotspur have their duel in the end.
  • Exact Words: The Agent Scully speech.
  • Finishing Each Other's Sentences: Hal finishes Hotspur's Dying Speech.
    Hotspur: No, Percy, thou art dust
    And food for—
    Hal: For worms, brave Percy.
  • Foil: Hotspur to Hal and Falstaff to King Henry.
  • Gaslighting: Falstaff does a comic version in his speech after the attack on Gad's Hill. As he tells the story of how he bravely repelled bandits, he keeps increasing the number of crooks that he fought; when Hal chimes in and points out the incongruity, Falstaff declares that he never said such a thing, always claiming that the last number he said was the right one before promptly making it even higher. No one in the room believes him, but they let him keep going because it's so funny.
  • Give Me a Sword: At the battle of Shrewsbury, Hal asks for Falstaff's sword and gets a bottle of wine instead. He's not pleased.
  • Groin Attack: Implied in a conversation between Hotspur and Kate. Hotspur is mocking Kate and making a lot of puns, prompting Kate to say:
    Come, come, you paraquito , answer me
    Directly to this question that I ask.
    In faith, I'll break thy little finger , Harry,
    An if thou will not tell me all things true.
  • Hollywood History: Rampant.
    • Hal in reality wasn't nearly as much of a scamp as he is in the play.
    • The confrontation between Hal and Hotspur never happened. However, in a case of Real Life exceeding fiction in awesomeness, Hal survived taking an arrow to the face during the Battle of Shrewsbury.
    • Owain Glyndwr was a Christian who was cheated out of his lands and declared a traitor by a friend of King Henry causing him to take up arms and declare independence. Owen Glendower believes that he is a warlock. That said, the real Glyndwr often invoked Merlinic prophecy and mystical imagery, as seen in Tripartite Indenture, which carved up England and Wales. Whether he actually believe his own hype is another matter entirely.
    • Harry Percy is an actual historical figure, but was a full generation older than Hal (indeed, he was three years older than King Henry), so the kind of comparison made here wouldn't have been sensible.
    • Lady Percy was actually named Elizabeth, not Kate. Shakespeare just really liked the name Kate.
    • Falstaff was originally named after John Oldcastle, a historical figure who was friends with Hal, but the comparisons pretty much end there. The historical Oldcastle even ended up leading a rebellion against the king as part of a Lollard conspiracy.
  • Honor Before Reason: Hotspur. Oh so much.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Doll Tearsheet. She plays more of a part in Part 2, but she often appears in Part 1 too, especially if the two parts are being performed back to back.
  • Hot-Blooded: Hotspur, probably where he got his nickname.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: Hal's eulogy to Hotspur says as much.
    For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!
    Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
    When that this body did contain a spirit,
    A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
    But now two paces of the vilest earth
    Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
    Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
  • I Am Spartacus: During the big battle, several low-level soldiers wear uniforms that look like King Henry's, to throw off Hotspur and his allies. It does succeed in causing confusion, but Douglas and Hotspur aren't deterred.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Henry believes Hal is this, and isn't shy about telling him so.
  • Inflationary Dialogue: Falstaff, in the aftermath of the Gad's Hill robbery. Lampshaded by an amused Hal.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: One of Shakespeare's most famous: the teenage Hal, prince of England, and the elderly Falstaff, a fat drunk and wastrel. It's never explained how they met or became such good friends.
  • Karma Houdini: The Scottish Earl of Douglas. The play starts with Hotspur having just defeated Douglas in battle, but because Douglas is such a bold warrior Hotspur recruits him to his own side rather than punishing him. Then at the play's end, when Hotspur has been killed and Douglas is taken prisoner, King Henry decides to make a show of his mercy by setting the Scotsman free rather than executing or imprisoning him.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Hotspur. Hal finishes it for him.
  • Knew It All Along: At one point, Hal rallies his friends to play a trick on Falstaff by dressing up as bandits and pretending to rob him. Falstaff, being a Dirty Coward, immediately surrenders and hides, but when he's telling the story later, he brags about how he bravely repelled the bandits and easily fought them off. When Hal reveals the truth, Falstaff doesn't even hesitate to invoke this trope: he says that the only reason he "surrendered" was because he knew it was the young prince the whole time and didn't want to hurt him. Hal himself doesn't buy this obvious lie, but finds Falstaff's quick wit so funny that he lets the matter go.
  • Language of Love: Mortimer speaks English and his wife only speaks Welsh, but they end up happy enough.
  • Large Ham: It's nearly contractually required to play Falstaff this way. Hotspur is an immensely hammy character as well.
  • Lawful Stupid: Hotspur.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Hotspur. Douglas, too, who is almost as Hot-Blooded as him.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Invoked by Hal.
  • Lovable Coward: Falstaff. He has a speech justifying his flight based on how 'insubstanial' honor is.
    Falstaff: 'Tis not due yet: I would be loth to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if Honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can Honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is Honour? a word. What is that word, Honour? Air. A trim reckoning! — Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. Is it sensible then? Yes, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it: therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere 'scutcheon, and so ends my catechism.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Hotspur prepares to ride away from home on urgent business, and isn't all that eager to tell his wife what's the matter. Hence the following exchange:
    Lady Percy: What is it carries you away?
    Hotspur: Why, my horse, my love, my horse.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Falstaff loves to brag of his boldness, but doesn't even try to back it up.
  • Mirror Character: Hal and Hotspur are shown to be equal in ability, but while Hal has the royal lineage, he wastes the opportunity. Hotspur, who would be a brilliant choice, has no blood claim to the throne whatsoever, and they both must defeat their equal in each other to prove their claim to it.
  • Modest Royalty: Prince Hal acts in this manner, to the point everyone treats him like their best bud. Subverted in the fact Hal intends to shed this attitude like a snake shedding its skin upon his ascension.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Fits Falstaff to a T: he's a greedy, lecherous slob who makes no pretense of being anything else, nor does he want to be, because he loves every minute of being Sir John Falstaff.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Initially, Falstaff was "Sir John Oldcastle", an actual historical figure who was burned at the stake for Lollardy, but Oldcastle's descendants complained, so Shakespeare substituted in the name of a knight who lived two generations after the play took place and was accused of cowardice. (This character appears briefly in 1 Henry VI, where his name is usually rendered as "Fastolfe" by modern editors) A few remnants of the original name survive in the play—e.g., at one point Hal calls Falstaff "my old lad of the castle".
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Prince Hal pretends to be a party animal, so that when he "reforms" people will think even more highly of him.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. Not surprising, given that it's based on Real Life.
    • There are four Henrys: King Henry IV, his son Henry (Prince Hal), Henry Percy (Northumberland), and his son Henry (Harry "Hotspur"). This is remarked on and used as a point of comparison in-story (Henry wishes Hal had been traded for Hotspur, for instance) and is used for lots of symbolism out-of-story.
    • There's a Bardolph and an unrelated Lord Bardolph.
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Hotspur is so admired by so many for his bearing and ideals and martial glory that the king himself wishes he were the true prince instead of his own son. Then he co-leads a rebellion...
  • Polly Wants a Microphone: Hotspur threatens to "have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it" to King Henry.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Henry gives his son a royal tongue-lashing.
  • Rebel Prince: Hal. Or invoked by Hal.
  • Royal Favorite: Falstaff starts as an inseparable companion of the young Prince Hal. However after Hal becomes King Henry V, he rejects Falstaff when he tries to fall back into his favor again, due to Falstaff's disreputable lifestyle.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: King Henry's refusal to ransom Mortimer under the fear that he might lead a rebellion eventually causes Hotspur to lead a rebellion of his own.
  • Serial Escalation: Played for Laughs in the scene where Falstaff recounts the tale of driving off bandits who attacked him (the "bandits" were actually Hal and his friends playing a joke on the drunk). As Falstaff tells the story, he keeps increasing the number of crooks, much to Hal's amusement.
  • Shadow Archetype: Hotspur to Hal. They even have the same name (but different nicknames).
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Hal is cynical, Hotspur is idealistic. Only one survives.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Henry IV's name is in the title, but, as readers and playgoers have attested for centuries, it's Falstaff's play.
  • Succession Crisis: There is a succession crisis in full swing as the play begins; King Henry knows his claim to the throne is sketchy, as Richard II's heir presumptive (and chosen successor) at his death was his distant cousin Edmund Mortimer.note  As the play opens, Edmund's uncle, also called Edmund Mortimer, is being held prisoner by Glendower, and when Hotspur pleads with Henry to pay the ransom Glendower has demanded, the king's refusal on the reasoning that Mortimer will lead a rebellion if he is freed leads to the Percy family aligning themselves with the Mortimers, and getting Glendower on board into the bargain.
  • Switched at Birth: Henry wishes out loud that Hal and Hotspur had been switched at birth.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Hotspur, who antagonizes an important ally over his mystical beliefs, tries to launch an attack when half of his army is absent, and, unlike everyone else in the play, honestly believes in chivalry and that they have the right to the throne, as opposed to it just being a power grab by his allies.
    • This runs in the Percy family. Worcester hears the king's generous peace terms and then outright lies to the other commanders about it so that they will expect no mercy and fight. Hotspur doesn't wait for Northumberland's reinforcements, attacks the royal army, is defeated, and Worcester is sent off to be executed.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Falstaff is never without his sack, a cheap, fortified wine.
  • Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking...: Hotspur repeatedly points out that he's a man of action, not pretty speeching. Even his "rousing speech" before the battle gets interrupted...twice. Contrasting this is Hal, who claims he is "so proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life," an ability that would serve the prince well when he became Henry V.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Worcester thinks King Henry is this, as the Percys were among those who joined him in exile, and assisted him in seizing the throne. After everything they had done for him, they're outraged when he demands they surrender valuable Scottish hostages to him.
  • Villainous Valour: Douglas has this in spades; not only is he eager and enthusiastic to fight, he reacts to the I Am Spartacus plan by declaring that the King can send as many fakes as he wants; Douglas will kill every last one of them until he finds the real deal. And he lives up to that promise. His bravery and fighting abilities are enough to even impress Hal and earn his respect.
    Another King! They grow like hydras' heads. I am the Douglas, fatal to all those that wear those colors on them.
  • Warrior Prince: Hal at the end..
  • We Have Reserves: Invoked by Falstaff ("food for powder, food for powder") when Hal catches him recruiting people who have no business being on a battlefield. Hal is not amused.
  • Wham Line: "I do. I will."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Sir Edmund Mortimer has two scenes and then never shows up again, despite being the prospective king, should Glendower and Percy manage to kill the Lancasters. In real life, Mortimer died between the events of Part 1 and Part 2
  • What's Up, King Dude?: King Henry chides Hal for being too accessible to the commonfolk — a monarch should make himself scarce so that when he appears, the people will value his presence more and show him the appropriate respect.
  • Why Are You Not My Son?: Hal's deviant behavior upsets his father so much that Henry IV tells him to his face he wishes the valiant, honorable Hotspur were his son instead, even if he is a rebel and the king's enemy. Even if Hal's wayward ways are part of a Batman Gambit long-game, that's gotta smart a bit.
  • Worthy Opponent: Hal seems to view Hotspur this way. The feeling is not reciprocated.
  • Younger Than They Look: Many productions will play up Henry IV's infirmity by making him gaunt and geriatric throughout even Part 1. It's worth noting that while the real king was poorly in later life, during the events of this play, he would have been around 37 years old. He was a contemporary of the historical Hotspur, not a domineering quasi-father figure, and the actual Henry of Monmouth was barely of age, fighting at Shrewsbury at 16.