Before we get started, you might want to take a look at this map of Britain so you can keep track of some of the important locations in the play. Now let's do this:
The play opens at the palace in London, where a "shaken" and exhausted King Henry IV speaks to his council about recent civil strife in England (which, by the way, he helped start by deposing and ordering the murder of King Richard in the preceding play, Richard II). Civil warfare is a drag and Henry can't wait until English soldiers stop killing each other – he's got big plans to unite his people so he can lead an English army on a Crusade to the Holy Land in hopes that God will forgive him for his past sins.
Unfortunately, Henry can't rumble with the "pagans" in Jerusalem because he's got to deal with some skirmishes at England's borders – there's been a dustup with Welsh rebels to the west and a big fracas with Scottish invaders to the north. To make matters worse, young Harry Percy (Hotspur), a courageous English nobleman and soldier, has challenged the king's authority by refusing to hand over his Scottish war prisoners. (Customarily, the king's got dibs on captives that promise to fetch a hefty ransom, so King Henry's not happy about this.) Even though Henry's ticked off about Hotspur's defiance, he gives the kid serious props for his valor and leadership on the battlefield. He also wishes his own son, wild Prince Hal (who is a major headache for King Henry) would behave more like Hotspur the war hero and less like a common degenerate.
Wild child Prince Hal, meanwhile, parties it up at his bachelor pad in London and plans a robbery with his buddies, Falstaff and Ned Poins. But then, alone on stage, Prince Hal surprises us with a shocking soliloquy. (A soliloquy's just a speech delivered by a character who's alone on stage and has a lot on his/her mind. It's a way to reveal the character's thoughts to the audience.) Hal tells us he's not really the degenerate he appears to be – he's merely acting like one so he can amaze everyone (his father and the English subjects) when he stages a dramatic "reformation," revealing himself to be an honourable, stand-up guy who's more than capable of running the country when he inherits the throne. This could get interesting, don't you think?
Later, at his castle, King Henry confronts Hotspur for being such a punk – he tells the young hothead to hand over his valuable captives, ASAP. And by the way, King Henry's not going to pay the ransom for Hotspur's brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer (whose been captured by the Welsh), because Mortimer's a traitor who recently married the daughter of the Welsh leader, Owen Glendower. So there.
Hotspur and the rest of the Percy gang (Northumberland and Worcester) are seriously bent out of shape over this. The Percys are tired of being treated like chopped liver by the guy they helped to the throne. Plus, they say, Henry's an illegitimate king. Before he stole the crown, Richard II had named Mortimer as his heir, which is probably why King Henry refuses to ransom Mortimer from the Welsh rebels. This is getting super juicy, like a Jerry Springer show.
We interrupt this program for some background information. In the preceding play, Richard II, the Percy family played a major role in helping Henry to the throne. Here's the quick and dirty version of what went down: In 1399 King Richard II exiled Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. King Henry IV) and later, when Henry's father (John of Gaunt) died, Richard took all of Gaunt's land. "No fair!" said Henry, who wasn't about to let Richard steal what was rightfully his. So, Henry returned from exile with an army to reclaim his inheritance. The Percy family backed him on this because Henry said all he really wanted was to get his family's land back, which seemed reasonable. Nobody wants a king who steals land and lunch money from the nobility, right?
But, in 1400, Henry saw a window of opportunity and just couldn't resist helping himself to the bright and sparkly crown by cornering Richard when the king returned from a trip to Ireland without protection. Come on. The crown was really shiny and cool so there's no way Henry could resist, especially since Richard was such a lousy ruler. It's likely Henry also ordered Richard's murder after he had him locked up in prison. Henry claims he didn't and that there was a "misunderstanding" between him and the guy who did the dirty work. When we catch up with King Henry in Henry IV Part 1, the guy's got some serious guilt and a ton of blood on his hands. Still, he's the king and that means he's the boss, applesauce, so the Percys better get in line, or else.
We now return to our regular scheduled program: While the Percys plot to overthrow Henry, Prince Hal takes part in a double highway robbery at Gad's Hill, where Falstaff, Peto, and Bardolph first rob the king's exchequer (treasury) and then Hal and Poins jump out of the bushes and yell "stick em' up" before robbing Falstaff of his stolen loot. Hal's a basically a juvenile delinquent. But don't go imagining him in an orange jump-suit just yet, because the story's not over.
The next night at a tavern in Eastcheap, Prince Hal hangs out with his boys, talking smack, terrorizing the wait-staff, and clowning Falstaff for acting like a scaredy cat when Hal and Poins robbed him at Gads Hill. (Falstaff is genius in this scene, so don't forget to read it.) After Hal learns from a messenger about the rebel army plotting against his dad, he and Falstaff decide to put on a skit. Falstaff plays King Henry and Hal plays himself. This goes well until Hal says, "No wait. Falstaff's totally doing it wrong. I'll play the king." This is loads of fun too – Falstaff and Hal are terrific actors and are having fun mocking authority. Though, Hal's kind of mean and cryptically promises to banish Falstaff when he becomes king. Next thing we know, the cops show up and ruin all the fun. Turns out the sheriff's looking for Falstaff, but Hal covers for him while the Falstaff the fat knight snoozes peacefully behind a screen.
In Wales, the rebel leaders (Mortimer, Glendower, Hotspur, and Worcester) meet up at Glendower's pad to solidify their plot to overthrow King Henry and split up the kingdom into three parts. (Note: check out this nifty map, which shows how they plan to divide the kingdom.) Glendower and Hotspur bicker and Hotspur ends up comparing Glendower's birth to a major case of indigestion – a huge fart. (We're not kidding.) The rebels' wives are trotted out and Mortimer's wife sings a song in Welsh, which bugs Hotspur to no end.
At his palace in London, King Henry lays into Prince Hal for being such a rotten prince and lousy son. Hal's behavior is embarrassing. And another thing, his friends are rotten losers too, unlike young Hotspur, who's a beloved war hero. King Henry wonders why can't Hal be more like Hotspur? Hal promises to redeem himself by killing Hotspur on the battlefield. OK, says the king, you can be in charge of my army. Now let's get ready to rumble.
Over at the rebel camp, Hotspur prepares to get his battle on when he receives news that his dad, Northumberland, has called in sick with a case of the sniffles and won't be joining the fight. To make things worse, Hotspur also learns that Glendower, the Welsh leader, won't be able to get his soldiers together in time to join the fight. Hotspur decides to forge ahead anyway, which is a really terrible idea. Sir Walter Blunt (the king's side-kick) appears at the rebel camp to relay the king's offer of a truce – if the rebels back down and say they're sorry, he's willing to forgive them and listen to their grievances. Hotspur says, "Hmm. I'll think about it," and relays his family's beef with the king to Blunt, who says he'll pass along the information.
Over at the king's camp, Worcester (Hotspur's uncle) whines about King Henry treating the Percy family so badly. Again, Henry offers to call a truce if the rebels back down. Hal offers another option too – he's willing to go toe-to-toe with Hotspur instead of the armies fighting each other. Winner takes all. Meanwhile, Falstaff (who's in charge of a rag-tag troop of soldiers) is alone on stage and delivers his famous soliloquy about "honor." He says honor is nothing but "air," a mere "word" that doesn't mean anything, especially if your guts are splayed out all over the place and you're too dead to enjoy it (honor, that is).
Worcester and Vernon return to the rebel camp but decide not to tell Hotspur that the king repeated his offer of peace. They're afraid Hotspur will be forgiven but the king will eventually punish them. (They're probably right.) They tell Hotspur about the prince's challenge and Hotspur gets really excited. Cut to the battle. On the fields of Shrewsbury, we see Sir Walter Blunt (who is disguised as King Henry) get stabbed in the guts by the Scottish Douglas, who thinks he's killed the king. (Clever Henry's got a bunch of his men dressed like him for protection.) Also, Hal asks to borrow Falstaff's weapon but finds a bottle of wine in its place – he chews out Falstaff for messing around at an inappropriate time.
Later, we see that Prince Hal is bleeding from battle wounds, but he's a champ and decides to stick it out on the field. Then, Douglas enters and battles with King Henry. Henry's about to get his throat slit when Prince Hal rescues his dad and redeems himself in the eyes of the king. But wait. There's more. Prince Hal then encounters Hotspur. They talk a little trash and go at it. Hal wins. Game over for Hotspur. Hal says some sweet things about "honour" over Hotspur's dead body and leaves. Falstaff, who has been playing dead nearby, hauls himself up off the ground and spots Hotspur in a pool of blood. Just in case Hotspur's been playing dead too, Falstaff stabs the corpse and then slings Hotspur's dead body over his back – he can't wait to show off his trophy to Prince Hal. When Hal later sees what Falstaff's done, he lets it go because it's so pathetic.
Fast forward to the final scene, where the king's troops dust off their hands after a job well done. The rebel army's been defeated, Hotspur's toast, and Worcester, Vernon, and Douglas have been captured. The king sentences Worcester and Vernon to death, but Prince Hal decides that brave Douglas should be set free without ransom. (Since he was so courageous when he tried to stab King Henry in the guts. We wonder what Freud would have to say about this.) The king's men have won the battle but the war's so not over – they've still got to mop the floor with Northumberland, Glendower, and Mortimer the traitor.
To be continued in Henry IV Part 2…