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Henry IV, Part I: General Introduction

Henry IV, Part I has been called Shakespeare's greatest history play. Its flawlessly constructed characters and overt political message have been the subjects of countless scholarly books. Two worlds collide in the play: the world of the recently elected King Henry IV and his advisors, and the world of thieving revelers who spend their days at the pub in Eastcheap. Bridging the gap between the two is Hal, the King's son, who travels in the company of Falstaff and the other commoners at the Boar's Head Tavern, but who really does so as part of his unique and unorthodox plan to prepare for the throne. Although the title of the play is Henry IV, he is but a minor character in the drama. King Henry's primary role in the play is to illustrate the fate of one who takes a crown that is not rightfully his by divine ordinance. King Henry is politically shrewd; in this respect he is the antithesis of his predecessor, Richard II. King Henry has all the characteristics of a great Machiavellian despot, and were this enough, he would be the consummate ruler and have a peaceful reign. But, unfortunately, Henry IV comes to the throne as a usurper and an illegitimate monarch. He does not have the Divine Right of Kings and, moreover, he is responsible for the death of God's anointed Richard. Because of these factors, Henry's ability to rule is diminished, and instability plagues England.

Prince Hal is the true focus and hero of the drama. While the colorful Falstaff and valiant Hotspur are entertaining in their own right, they exist to highlight Hal's strengths. Falstaff, a cowardly man with little ambition, lives in the world that Hal must experience if he is to understand his future subjects. After his first on-stage meeting with Falstaff, Hal makes his view of the rotund petty criminal and his cohorts very clear: "I know you all, and will awhile uphold/The unyok'd humour of your idleness" (2.2). The cowardly Falstaff represents the level of society that is full of fainthearted miscreants, and their collective lack of morals and honour contribute to the decay of society.

Hotspur also serves as a catalyst for Hal's actions. The climax of Hal's preparation for the throne comes when he embraces his fate as rival to Hotspur and fights him on the battlefield. The temperamental Hotspur, renowned for his bravery but flawed in his excessive commitment to honour, represents the level of society packed with self-righteous hotheads who will throw the country into chaos in the self-centered pursuit of their lofty ideals. The issue of honour is indeed of great importance throughout 1 Henry IV, and through a study of the many facets of honour presented in the play, our overall understanding of the drama will be enhanced.

In King Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare presents three distinct concepts of honour through the characters Hotspur, Falstaff, and Prince Hal. Although Hotspur's obsession with honour and Falstaff's apparent lack of honour deserve examination for their own sake, it becomes evident that their primary function in the play is to show how Prince Hal balances the two extremes and creates his own complex concept of honour which enables him to become the perfect example of a valiant man.

The first glimpse into Hotspur's concept of honour comes in the form of praise from the king himself, declaring Hotspur to be "the theme of honour's tongue" (1.1.83). Indeed, Hotspur is committed to honour. The pursuit of this grand ideal consumes all his energy and shapes his every thought. But throughout the course of the play we see that this obligation to honour is detrimental and obsessive. The king's words remain true, but the irony of those words becomes increasingly apparent as we begin to see how irrational is Hotspur's concept of honour. The moments Hotspur shares with his wife, Lady Percy, illustrate clearly his excessive passion for honour. His preoccupation with his chivalric duties has made him unable to think of or discuss anything other than

... sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners' ransom, and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight. (2.3.52-56)
Lady Percy sees that Hotspur's fixation prevents him from sleeping, and she is worried. She asks why 'have I this fortnight been/A banish'd woman from my Harry's bed', and she begs him to tell her what weighs so heavily on his mind. But Hotspur completely ignores these concerns expressed by his wife. Instead, he begins to speak to a servant that has just passed by about more pressing military matters:
What ho! Is Gilliams with the packet gone? ...
Hath Butler brought those horses from the sheriff? (2.3.66-67)
When he does finally acknowledge Lady Percy, it is only to tell her that:
... This is no world
To play with mammets and to tilt with lips.
We must have bloody noses, and crack'd crowns,
And pass them current too. (2.3.92-95)
Hotspur's obsession with honour clouds his judgement and he becomes 'drunk with choler' (1.3.129). So offended is he at the dishonourable action of the king in refusing to ransom Mortimer that he will not listen to reason. His father, Northumberland, responds to his outburst:
Why, what a wasp-stung and impatient fool
Art thou, to break into this woman's mood,
Tying thine ear to no tongue but thine own! (1.3.236-238)
Unable to focus on anything but his desire to perform the 'honourable' deed, Hotspur hastens his own destruction at Shrewsbury, not willing to postpone the battle with the king's forces until he is better prepared. Once again we see 'A harebrained Hotspur, govern'd by a spleen'(5.2.19) who sees the potential for honourable action where others would see impending doom:
Hotspur: I rather of his absence make this use:
It lends a lustre and more great opinion,
A larger dare to out great enterprise,
Than if the earl were here. (4.1.76-79)
Although there are obvious flaws in Hotspur's concept of honour, Shakespeare does present a nobility to his honour that is admirable even to Prince Hal, who proclaims "This earth, that bears thee dead/Bears not alive so stout a gentleman" (5.3.92-93). Hotspur is brave and fair and his intense code of honour is not formed out of the desire for power. Hotspur explains his pursuit of honour in the following passage:
O gentleman, the time of life is short!
If life did ride upon a dial's point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.
And if we live, we live to tread on kings;
If die, brave death, when princes die with us!
Now for our consciences, the arms are fair,
When the intent of bearing them is just. (5.2.81-88)

We might conclude that Hotspur would embody ideal honour if he were not so obsessive in his pursuit of it, or if he did not love honour for its own sake and the glory it brings. Shakespeare was no doubt drawing on a common belief about honour popular in his day, based on Aristotelian ideas but clearly defined in Ashley's essay On Honour: "Virtue consists in action; the reward of that action is honour; to pursue more honour than virtuous action or to pursue honour for its own sake is a vice." (Norman Council, When Honour's at the Stake, 50). Ashley says that, not only does true honour defend the realm and enlarge dominions, it must also nourish the arts and cherish learning (Shalvi, 34). We see Hotspur achieve only one of the many facets of what makes up honour -- military glory. 'He has no use for love, music, humour, poetry, or colourful characters like Glendower.' (Council, 76) He would rather have his bitch-hound howl in Irish than hear a song sung by Mortimer's wife. Hotspur's immoderate concept of honour is crucial to our understanding of Shakespeare's view of what constitutes ideal honour, for when we analyze the concept of honour embraced by Prince Hal, Shakespeare's ideal honourable man, we will better understand his belief that not needing to be seen as honourable is a necessary facet of true honour.

If Hotspur functions as a symbol of irrational honour, then Falstaff, with his complete lack of regard for the whole concept of honour, functions as a sharp contrast. It is obvious when we first encounter Falstaff in the tavern that he totally rejects the standard actions of an honourable man. He is a thief and is not ashamed to admit it:

Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal. 'Tis no sin
For a man to labour in his vocation.' (4.2.107-108)
Falstaff is concerned with self-preservation and has difficulty understanding how others could place honour before their own lives:
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. (5.1.130)
His lack of honour is shown repeatedly during the battle at Shrewsbury. Falstaff is a corpulent man and the code of honour considered physical appetites a danger to a soldier's valor. (Council, 41) And Whetstone, in his Honourable Reputation of a Souldier remarks that 'When the body is stuffed with delicates, the mind is dull, and desirous of ease, which is the undoer of a Souldier...'. Another illustration of Falstaff's disregard for honour comes when he feigns death upon being challenged to fight by Douglas. But what clearly proves Falstaff is the antithesis of the honourable man is his decision to take credit for the killing of Hotspur:
... and I will swear I killed him ... nobody
sees me. Therefore, sirrah, with a new wound in
your thigh, come you along with me. (5.3.125-129)
Although Falstaff has no use for the common code of honour, he will go to great lengths to look honourable in the eyes of others. He does not want to give up any pleasure or risk potential bodily harm in obtaining honour, yet he does not consider himself to be a coward:
Hal: What, a coward, Sir John Paunch?
Falstaff: indeed, I am not John of Gaunt, your
grandfather; but yet no coward, Hal. (2.2.65-67)
He believes he is simply being sensible in his rejection of honour, utilizing his right to live and be merry. To Falstaff, honour is a nuisance, an overrated necessity for pretentious fools who, in their vain pursuit of lofty ideals would rather die than be average cowards -- all utter nonsense to the practical Falstaff:
Give me life!
Which if I can save, so; if not, honour comes unlook'd for,
and there's an end. (5.3.159-161)
Like Hotspur's idolatry of honour, Falstaff's view of honour as a 'mere scutcheon' is vital to illustrate properly Prince Hal's superior view of honour. If Falstaff were just a little less cowardly -- if he rejected honour like Hal does, only when it is foolhardy, and if this rejection was born out of common sense instead of fear and selfishness -- then his dislike of honour would be understandable and acceptable. But still the audience is left with the need for a balanced concept of honour, one that combines the virtuous actions of Hotspur with the pragmatism of Falstaff. This desired equilibrium is realized through Prince Hal.

Hal represents the well-rounded man, able to find honour in a tavern as well as on a battlefield. He possesses an instinctual honour that is moderate and reasonable. 'Hal seems by comparison [to Hotspur] to be rational, clear-headed, and flexible, capable of fierceness and determination when these qualities are called for, but not in a state of perpetual aggression' (Paris, 76). Hal consorting with the Boar's Head crowd serves two purposes. First, it shows that Hal values the honour found in everyday experiences and associations with the common folk of the realm:

I have sounded the very brass-string of humility.
Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers, and can call them all by their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis ... and when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.(2.4.6-10)
Hal knows that there is great honour and virtue in being understood and respected by the poor people in the tavern. He realizes that his ability to relate to the men while he is their drinking buddy will enable the men to relate to Hal better if the time comes when he must lead them into battle. Furthermore, Hal can maintain a rapport with the Boar's Head crowd without lowering his own definite and innate honourable standards by participating in any criminal activity. He proclaims to Falstaff, 'Who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, by my faith.' (1.2.141) Hal is comparable to the monks in the Abbey of Theleme, described by the French author Francois Rabelais, who says the monks should surely be allowed to do as they will, since it is certain that they will act honourably. (Shalvi, 64) Second, Hal's fraternizing with Falstaff and his companions is also a reaction to Hotspur's strict, pointless code of honour. Hal finds the rigid, honour-bound universe of Hotspur deplorable and destructive:
I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the
North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen
of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his
wife, 'Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.' (2.4.103-107)
Instead of searching for people to challenge to duels or engaging in fights that end in certain death, Hal looks for honour in another way -- through his association with Falstaff. When Hal finally does 'pay the debt he never promised' (1.2.215) and discards his seemingly dishonourable facade to let his true, virtuous self show, he will be a more admired and therefore more successful ruler, and he will not have used Hotspur's code of honour to achieve his goal. This is Hal's initial plan, but his outlook changes when he confronts King Henry in Act II. Hal sees the pain he is inflicting upon his father (who thinks that 'riot and dishonour stain the brow' of his son) and realizes that he must not wait until he becomes ruler to go through his noble change, but be vindicated immediately in his father's eyes:
And God forgive them that so much have sway'd
Your malesty's good thoughts away from me.
I will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favours in a bloody mask..'(3.2.131-136)
Now that Hal has made the decision to use honour to achieve the important goal of helping his father, his princely, virtuous characteristics show in all their glory. His chivalry shines through as he challenges Hotspur to a single combat:
Yet this before my father's majesty -
I am content that he shall take the odds
Of his great name and estimation,
And will, to save the blood on either side,
Try fortune with him in a single fight. (5.1.96-100)
Even Sir Richard Vernon, his enemy, has to praise Hal's challenge as being born not out of the need for glory, but out of the desire to save the blood on either side: "I never in my life/Did hear a challenge urg'd more modestly" (5.2.51-54). Although the challenge is not taken up, Hal and Hotspur inevitably meet on the battlefield. Hotspur is arrogant, underestimating Halls abilities, but the Prince assures 'all the budding honours on thy crest/I'll crop to make a garland for my head'. (5.3.71-73) Hal is not embittered by Hotspur's insult. In fact, when he does defeat Hotspur, Hal praises him for being a valiant gentleman. With the statement that Hotspur is food for worms'(5.3.87), Hal is not gloating or being callous; he is summarizing his feelings toward Hotspur's obsessive honour -- his vain pursuit of glory that has resulted in his destruction. The fact that Hal allows Falstaff to take credit for the killing of Hotspur is, in itself, proof enough that Hal is not concerned with personal gain:
This is the strangest fellow, brother John.
come, bring your luggage nobly on your back.
For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have. (5.3.155-158)
Hal does not succumb to the code of honour he finds so repugnant. He has succeeded in his mission to crush the rebellion started by Hotspur and has behaved honourably throughout the ordeal, but he wants no glory for himself. He is the ideal of moderation and propriety and his honour is the true moral worth of the magnanimous man, which combines chivalry and justice. (Shalvi, 119) Hal's ability to see the importance of valour at the appropriate time, and the practicality in not perpetually pursuing honour is a combination of the best aspects of the views on honour embraced by Hotspur and Falstaff. Hal proves he possesses a laudable level-headedness by embracing a multidimensional concept of honour, and it is because of this very practical virtue that Prince Hal becomes a well-loved and respected ruler, able to relate to every subject in his kingdom.


Council, Norman. When honour's at the stake: ideas of honour in Shakespeare's plays. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973.
Desai, R.W. Falstaff: A Study of his Role in Shakespeare's History Plays. Delhi: Doaba House, 1976.
Paris, Bernard J. Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare. Ontario: Associated Press, 1991.
Shalvi, Alice. The Relationship of Renaissance Concepts of Honour to Shakespeare's Problem Plays. Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1972.

How to cite this article:

Mabillard, Amanda. Henry IV, Part 1: General Commentary Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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King Henry and Prince Hal. From The story of English kings, according to Shakespeare by J.J. Burns.