William Shakespeare composed Henry IV, Part 1
during or before 1597. It is the second play in a tetralogy known as Shakespeare’s Henriad, which contains, in order, Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2;
and Henry V
. The play takes place over roughly a year, beginning with the battle at Homildon in Northumberland between Hotspur and Douglas in 1402, and extending through the battle at Shrewsbury in 1403. From its inception, the play was hugely successful among a wide public audience, many of whom were illiterate. It is often considered the best of Shakespeare’s Henriad plays.
The play begins in the midst of the tumultuous reign of the former Henry Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV. He hopes to launch a crusade over the Holy Land to establish a stronger kingship, but is preoccupied with battles with Wales and Scotland. At the same time, he has come into conflict with the Percy family, which helped him rise to the throne. He also spars with the Earl of March, Edmund Mortimer, the man whom the former king, Richard II, chose to be his heir. Additionally, King Henry is troubled by his son, Hal, the Prince of Wales – the man who will one day become Henry V. Hal has shirked his royal duties to frequent bars with lowlifes and his charismatic best friend, Sir John Falstaff.
Most of the play rotates between three distinct groups of characters, which ultimately converge at the decisive Battle of Shrewsbury. The first group includes King Henry and his advisors; the second is a group of rebels led by Thomas Percy, including his nephew, “Hotspur,” and Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland. The third, most central group includes Prince Hal and his friends, Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto, and Poins. This group provides much of the play’s comic relief.
At the beginning of the play, the king expresses anger at Hotspur for refusing to release a group of prisoners kept after an attempt to intimidate the Scots at Homeldon. In exchange, Hotspur wants the king to buy out his wife’s brother, Edmund Mortimer, from his Welsh captor, Owen Glendower. King Henry refuses, questioning Mortimer’s loyalty. Mortimer and the Percys unite in an attempt to depose King Henry.
The play shifts to Hal’s group as they are engaged in one of their hedonistic drinking rituals. Hal loves Falstaff, but delights in making fun of his cluelessness and dishonesty. He joins a scheme invented by Poins, in which they dress up as bandits and rob Falstaff and several other friends of their own stolen loot. Later, Hal delights in hearing Falstaff’s dishonest recap of the robbery, then reveals himself to be the robber and returns his money. In the background, Hal expresses certainty that his days of carelessness and fun will soon end, and he will return to the kingdom as Henry’s heir. He intends to quickly transform his public persona from a lowbrow drunk to a nobleman, and thus shock the royal courts into respecting him.
Soon, the revolt attempted by Mortimer and the Percys creates the occasion for Hal to prove himself. Hal returns to Henry and they reconcile before Henry gives him a high post in the army. Hal promises to kill Hotspur and thus affirm his rightful place in the kingdom. He orders Falstaff, a knight, to lead a group of soldiers to Shrewsbury, where the battle will be staged. At Shrewsbury, Henry’s troops outnumber the rebels. Hotspur leads his forces wildly into battle. Prince Hal and Hotspur finally meet, and Hal kills Hotspur in one-on-one combat. During their fight, Falstaff feigns death in order to escape Douglas. When Hal’s victory becomes clear, Falstaff surges to life, stabs Hotspur, and claims responsibility for his death. Hal knowingly gives Falstaff the credit. Feeling guilty, Falstaff pledges to live a noble life thereafter.
The end of the play takes place in the wake of the battle in Shrewsbury. Hotspur’s death has disheartened the remaining rebels and secured Henry’s victory. Henry delights in the opportunity to execute Thomas Percy, who used to be one of his closest friends but became his worst enemy. Hal, having taken Douglas prisoner with the intent to execute him as well, demonstrates mercy worthy of a king by letting Douglas go without demanding a ransom. Nevertheless, the war is set to continue at a future battle against the Archbishop of York, the Earl of Northumberland, Mortimer, and Glendower. The play ends in anticipation of this battle, which takes place in Henry IV, Part 2