Study Guide

Henry IV Part 1 Introduction

By William Shakespeare

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Henry IV Part 1 Introduction

Read the full text of Henry IV Part 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

Henry IV Part 1 is the story of Prince Hal (the future King Henry V of England), a fifteenth century wild child who carouses with criminals and commoners, helps his loser chums rob his father's treasury, and spends all his time in seedy bars. This, of course, all takes place before Prince Hal's glorious "reformation," when he transforms himself from a total disgrace into a noble leader, who helps put down a rebel uprising that threatens his father's reign, and kills the guy whose been bad-mouthing him all over England. Wow. Being a young prince is busy work, and this is just Part 1 of the story.

Written by William Shakespeare around 1597, Henry IV Part 1 is the second part of a tetralogy (four plays known as the "Henriad"). The play is preceded by Richard II and is followed by Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. Henry IV Part 1 covers major historical events (history according to Shakespeare anyway) and political figures from the beginning of Henry's reign. (Check out "Genre" for more on this.) However, some of the most notable characters and comedic moments in the play are entirely Shakespeare's invention. For audiences, the most memorable moments in the play often surround Falstaff, Shakespeare's original character, and the wild tavern scenes, which are among the most beloved and written about issues in literary history.

Shakespeare wrote the play during the latter part of Queen Elizabeth I's reign and many of its themes and concerns resonate with late sixteenth century political events, particularly the Irish rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone (1595), England's ongoing war with Spain, and the Northern Rebellion (1569). Shakespeare's portrayal of the problem of kingly succession also echoes a major concern in Elizabethan England. At the time the play was written, Queen Elizabeth I was in her 60s and had no heir to inherit the throne.

Shakespeare's sources for Henry IV Part 1 include an early play of unknown authorship called The Famous Victories of Henry V, Raphael Holinshed's history Chronicles, and Samuel Daniel's poem "The Civil Wars." A popular play, Henry IV Part 1 went through nine editions between 1597 and 1622.

What is Henry IV Part 1 About and Why Should I Care?

Why should you care about Henry IV Part 1? The real question is "Why shouldn't you care?" First, Henry IV Part 1 is the very first history play to blend rowdy comedy and historical drama. High matters of state mingled with low-brow mayhem and carousing? Nothin' wrong with that. Plus, Henry IV Part 1 introduces one of the greatest and most talked about comedic figures of all time: Falstaff, who has inspired everything from Verdi's opera to the name of a U.S. brewing company. (You know you're in for a really good time when you attend a play that's got a character with beer named after him.) The play's also the inspiration for some seriously important cult classic films, like Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight.

Still not impressed? Fine. We'll fall back on the old standard and talk about how the play's concerned with themes that are still relevant today: rebellion, power, honor, warfare, family drama, redemption, and our personal favorite, growing up. Let's focus on that last one.

When it comes down to it, Henry IV Part 1 is a coming-of-age story about Prince Hal, who's got to figure out a way to grow up in the public spotlight with a seriously judgmental father breathing down his neck. (Come on, the kid's dad has been running around saying he wishes Hal had been switched at birth by fairies and that God sent the Hal to earth just to punish the king for his past sins. That's so brutal.) While most of us have no idea what it's like to be a prince who's expected to change his wild ways and prepare to lead a country that's troubled by civil war, we all know what it's like to negotiate the pitfalls of adolescence and the pressures of outside scrutiny (whether it's under the watchful eye of hopeful parents, strict teachers, coaches, or peers).

Like Prince Hal, we've all made mistakes, and most of us also know what it's like to feel as though we've disappointed or let down those whose opinions matter the most. So, imagine all that pressure you've felt over the years and multiply it by an entire, war-torn kingdom that's pinned all its hopes and dreams for the future on you. That's a whole lot of pressure. Even if we think Prince Hal sometimes acts like a brat, we can't help but root for him. So, what do you think? Is it fair to say that Shakespeare gets this whole growing up thing? We kind of thought you'd see it our way.

Henry IV Part 1 Resources


Henry IV Biography
Biographical information about the historical King Henry's life and reign.

Prince Hal (a.k.a. King Henry V) Biography
Want to know more about the historical Prince Hal? Check out this website.

The Myth of Henry V
An interesting BBC History article on the Man and the Myth.

Shakespeare Concordance
Awesome tool for all students to look up words in any of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.

MIT's "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare"
Read Henry IV Part 1 online. Warning: There aren't any footnotes but this is good in a pinch.

Movie or TV Productions

Henry IV, Part 1, 1990
The English Shakespeare Company's production is the go-to version of Henry IV Part 1 for teachers and everyday fans of Big Willy Shakespeare. It's available from most libraries on DVD and VHS. You can also watch the whole thing on YouTube (see below for link).

Chimes at Midnight, 1965
Also known as Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight (a.k.a. Campanadas a Medianoche ) is Orson Welles's film adaptation of the Henry plays. A very cool film, but don't depend on this if you're preparing for a quiz on the play text. (Welles conflates Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Holinshed's Chronicles to paint a portrait of a "tragic" Falstaff.)

My Own Private Idaho, 1991
Gus Van Sant's homage to Shakespeare and Orson Welles. Keanu Reeves plays "Scott" (a Prince Hal figure) who spend his time with his BFF, "Mike" (played by River Phoenix), a gay street kid, prostitute, and narcoleptic. (We couldn't even begin to make that up.)

BBC, 1979
You can find the BBC's made for television productions of parts 1 and 2 in most libraries. The flashbacks to events from Richard II offer useful bits of background, especially for those who haven't read Richard II. Truth be told, the tavern scenes are a little depressing. If you're looking for more fun, check out the Royal Shakespeare Company's production.

Historical Documents

"Homily Against Rebellion and Willful Disobedience"
For a better understanding of how Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience might have approached the play's representation of rebellion, check out this authorized (by the monarch) sermon, which was read in churches on a regular basis during Queen Elizabeth's reign. Rebellion, according to the Elizabethan worldview, was a "great a sin against God."

Chronicles by Holinshed
One of Shakespeare's main sources for Henry IV Part 1 is Volume III of Holinshed's Chronicles (1587). You can check out Project Gutenberg's e-text of the 1808 edition online.

The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth
Another source for Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V is the pre-1588 play The Famous Victories of Henry V, which chronicles Hal's life during his father's reign and his own. Scenes 1-7 correspond to the action in Henry IV Part 1. Check it out here.


Battle of Shrewsbury
This totally awesome battle scene from The Chimes at Midnight is said to have influenced Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart.

Play-acting at the Boar's Head Tavern
Check out Act 2, Scene Four (from Michael Bogdanov's 1990 production) on YouTube.

Henry IV, Part 1, 1990
Watch the full 1990 movie on YouTube.


Listen to the entire play, FREE
Check out Speak-the-Speech: Universal Shakespeare Broadcasting.


Map of Britain
Totally useful map with locations of major events in the Henry plays. We suggest you print this sucker out and keep it with your copy of Henry IV Part 1.

Rebel's Map
Super nifty map that shows how the rebels plan to divide the kingdom into three parts.

Battle at Shrewsbury
Pictorial account of the battle at Shrewsbury.

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