Language is a pretty important marker of identity in Henry IV Part 1, especially when it comes to leadership ability. Generally speaking, prose is spoken by the commoners, while poetry (iambic pentameter) is reserved for the nobility. Prince Hal, however, is a character that easily slips in and out of both, which coincides with his ability to thrive in both worlds. He's crafty like that. At court and on the battlefield, Hal speaks in prose like his father and other important political figures. With his criminal friends and the commoners, however, he gets down with the language of the lower classes. In fact, Hal's so good (scary good) at this that he brags about being able to "drink with any tinker in his own language" (2.4.2).
What does this suggest about Hal? Well, his linguistic dexterity (mad language skills) gestures toward his ability to get to know and govern people from all walks of life (nobles, bartenders, tinkers, etc.), which is an especially important ability for a (future) monarch who must figure out a way to maintain power and the allegiance of his subjects.
Hotspur, on the other hand, speaks bluntly, without thinking, and is often accused of being a "wasp-stung and impatient fool […] Tying [his] ear to no tongue but [his] own!" (1.3.8). (Don't get us wrong, the guy's speeches are amazing – they're just a little out of control, like his personality. Hotspur tends to speak, and act, without much thought or deliberation throughout the play. He can't stand the sound of foreign languages (like "Welsh" and "Irish") and his family warns him over and over and over that his speech has the effect of alienating his colleagues. This, Shakespeare suggests, is a terrible trait for anyone who wants to govern a kingdom as diverse as Britain. Hotspur may be a terrific warrior who eats other soldiers for breakfast, but his lack of control over his speech suggests he's not fit to rule. You disagree? Good. Check out our "Quotes" for "Language and Communication" if you want some ammunition for a different argument.
Much like a character's speech, actions are pretty significant in the play. Hotspur's actions, like his speech, are impetuous – he tends to be a "leaps before he thinks" kind of guy, which gets him into a whole lot of trouble. Let's think about some specific examples. When Hotspur's preparing for battle against the king's forces and learns that his father and Glendower won't be joining the fight, he decides to forge ahead, despite being ridiculously outnumbered. He also ignores the advice of his relatives and colleagues as he fixates on obtaining glory on the battlefield. Hotspur's boldness and courage may be a great quality for a warrior who needs to get pumped up for battle, but the play seems to suggest that it's not such a great quality for a monarch.
Prince Hal, on the other hand, lacks Hotspur's fiery boldness, but what he does have is patience and the capacity for careful deliberation and planning. Take, for example, his master plan to stage a dramatic "reformation" by transforming his wild child persona into that of an "honourable" war hero. Hal may lie, cheat, steal, and carouse with a rowdy crowd at the beginning of the play but all of these actions are carefully and perfectly orchestrated events. Scary and manipulative? Yes. Shrewd and successful? You bet. That's why Hal comes out on top at the end of the play.
Don't worry, we haven't forgotten about Falstaff. He eats, drinks, "whores," steals, lies, and cheats in between naps. And, even when he goes to war, he carries around a bottle of sack (sweet wine) in place of a pistol. Let's not forget that when he finds himself in jam at the battle at Shrewsbury, he falls down and plays dead. Can you believe this guy? He also stabs Hotspur's corpse and claims the body as a trophy (yuck), even after Hal tells him that he (Hal) killed Hotspur. What does all of this suggest about Falstaff? He's unscrupulous, selfish, and cowardly. He's willing to do anything to save his hide, a reminder that we shouldn't get too sentimental about his character when Hal treats him cruelly and promises to "banish" him from his life (which he does do in Henry IV Part 2). Falstaff is also full of life, exuberant, and loads of fun to watch. Even as he disgusts us, he draws us in (just like he draws in Prince Hal) to the action of the play.
Since most characters in the play are based on historical figures, names are less symbolic in Henry IV Part 1 than other works. But, there are some figures whose names reveal much about their characters. "Mistress Quickly," for example, recalls the kind of brief sexual encounter one might experience in an Elizabethan brothel or tavern, which is where the character works. (Shakespeare is famous for assigning crude names like "Mistress Overdone" and "Doll Tearsheet" as obvious markers of identity.) Although the hostess is married in this play (Shakespeare later kills off her husband so she can party with the other singles), her name hints that she's been around the block, a few times. Mistress Quickly, like her name, helps create the raucous world of the tavern, which is so appealing to Prince Hal and audiences.
"Hotspur" (Harry Percy) is the actual nickname of the historical figure and Shakespeare capitalizes on this in his play. Young Percy is known for his "hot" and fiery temper and his bold behavior, which, Shakespeare suggests, makes him courageous and admirable, but is also responsible for his downfall and death.
Shakespeare also uses the historical Prince Henry's various nicknames as a way to illustrate the nature of his fictional character. Ever notice how, in the play, Prince Henry is called "Hal" by his Eastcheap companions, but, at court, he's referred to as "Harry"? The nicknames, one casual and the other a bit more formal, help distinguish the Prince as a man who literally switches roles as he slides in and out of the worlds of the court and battlefield and the world of Eastcheap.