William Shakespeare

Henry IV

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Henry IV Summary

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Written in or slightly before 1597, William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV concerns King Henry IV’s struggle to keep control of the English throne, having usurped it from Richard II. The play was later appended by a second part, which is less canonical, concerning the end and aftermath of Henry IV’s reign. Centered on questions of loyalty, treachery, the precarity of power, the failures of the royalist system, and the fate of the individual, Henry IV is one of the most famous works of English literature.

Henry IV begins as the eponymous king learns that Mortimer, one of his top-ranked commanders, has conceded a battle to the Welsh leader Glyndwr. This bad news is tempered somewhat by a simultaneous victory in commander Hotspur’s battle against Douglas in Scotland, but Henry is furious to learn that the commander refuses to send back the people who have been taken as prisoners, since they are a major source of ransom income. Henry demands Hotspur send the prisoners, threatening to punish him. Hotspur replies by telling his father, Northumberland, that he will never submit them. Worcester counsels Hotspur that it is a smarter idea to give over the prisoners but also to form a covert alliance with Douglas and Glyndwr to create an army that can usurp Henry IV.

Next, the play introduces Prince Harry, Hal for short, the prodigal son of Henry who is also an incorrigible thief. Hal squanders his time in bars with the English proletariat, especially Falstaff, an overweight nobleman. In Act I, Hal is party to a robbery just to feel what it’s like to rob someone. At the scene’s end, he delivers a soliloquy, expressing that he is only living this life temporarily, fully intending to be King someday.

Shepherded by Falstaff, the thieves commit their robbery. Hal and a robber named Poins trick the thieves by stealing the money from Falstaff himself. The following night at the bar, Falstaff retells a humorous story in which he fought with a number of men before being overwhelmed and robbed. Hal reveals that he and the robbers were the ones whom Falstaff fought. Falstaff responds by claiming that he had always known who robbed him but did not wish to hurt Hal because he is the Prince of Wales.

Hotspur’s rebels unite Glyndwr and Douglas, thereby forming an alliance with the kingdoms of Wales and Scotland. Joining with the Archbishop of York, they build an army at Shrewsbury. Hotspur spars with Glyndwr because he applies rules of mysticism to the reality of life. They also argue about how they will divide the spoils of war, particularly the land. Hotspur desires England, while Douglas and Glyndwr want Scotland and Wales, respectively.

King Henry summons Hal to his throne room and begs him to improve his behavior. Hal obliquely agrees. Henry tells Hal that the rebels are in Shrewsbury, giving Hal a military position to prepare for war against Hotspur. Hal humorously gives Falstaff a military post even though he is too fat for combat. Once mobilized at Shrewsbury, Henry offers to pardon the rebels if they dissolve their army. His agent, Worcester, doesn’t think Henry is being honest, and secretly ignores his command to deliver the message. Hotspur feels there is no choice but to fight. Glyndwr is late to the army, so its size is diminished. Northumberland becomes sick, unable to galvanize his troops. Hotspur proceeds with the battle anyway.

To protect himself, Henry dresses other soldiers to look like him. Douglas kills a number of them before finding Henry. They begin fighting, but Hal appears and saves Henry, chasing Douglas away. Henry tells Hal that he regrets ever doubting him. Hal finds Hotspur. They verbally spar and then begin physical combat. Falstaff appears and cheers Hal on. Hal kills Hotspur; Douglas appears and fights Falstaff, who falls down, seeming to have died. Hal remarks that he is happy to have killed Hotspur but sad that Falstaff has died. Once Hal leaves, Falstaff reanimates and stabs Hotspur’s corpse, taking credit for the kill. Hal is irritated at Falstaff but puts the issue aside.

After the rest of the leaders are either captured or killed, Henry is victorious. He gives Worcester and Vernon death sentences for ignoring his command to deliver his pardon offer to Hotspur. Hal pardons Douglas and gives him back his freedom, knowing that it will help him gain control of Scotland in the future. Henry divides his remaining army into two, one intended to besiege York, the other Glyndwr.

After a host of miscommunications, verbal spars, and treacheries, Henry emerges as a virtuous figure rightly rewarded with victory in the battle. Centering his story on the trope of English supremacy, Shakespeare casts the events of Henry IV as somewhat deterministic, in the sense that an individual’s outcomes are contingent on his moral behavior even when other agents intentionally or unintentionally distort his intentions or message.