Study Guide

Henry IV Part 1 Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Sun

King Henry and Prince Hal sure do like their references to celestial bodies – what's the deal? Let's take a peek at some specific moments in the play. When Prince Hal confides in the audience that he's not actually the naughty boy he appears to be, he compares himself to the "sun" and suggests that he's intentionally allowed his bad boy behavior and his low-life friends to "cloud" or "smother up" his true nature, which just happens to be dazzling, like the sun:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

The sun, of course, is a symbol commonly used by monarchs, and here, Hal puns on his status as the king's "son" who stands to inherit the crown. According to Hal, when he reveals his true "beauty" by "breaking through the foul and ugly mists," the kingdom will be stunned (in a good way) by his seeming transformation. The idea is that his future subjects will be amazed, awestruck and, therefore, more loyal and obedient, when Hal is king. This strategy reveals Hal to be a rather shrewd and crafty politician, no?

Hal's father, King Henry, uses a similar metaphor to describe his political strategy before he became king:

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder'd at;
That men would tell their children 'This is he;'

Here, King Henry claims that, by limiting his public exposure, the people "wonder'd" at him as though he were a "comet." (Wow. This guy sure thinks highly of himself, doesn't he?) A few lines later in the play, Henry also says he could exhibit a "sun-like majesty" when he finally appeared before his needy little subjects as the king (3.2.2). Throughout the whole speech, of course, Henry scolds his son for hanging with the commoners and overexposing himself in a way that's dangerous to his public image. The thing is, Henry has no idea how much he and his son share in common. Both men are hyperaware of the necessity of political strategy and controlling their images. We see a very bright future in public relations for both these guys. (Silly pun intended.) In a world where kings are challenged by rebellious subjects like, all the time, shrewd political tactics and outright manipulation are a necessity. Check out our discussion of "Quotes" on "Power" for more on this.

There's much, much more to say about this topic. As you read the play, be on the look-out for other celestial references, like when King Henry tells the rebellious Worcester to give up the rebellion and once again "move in that obedient orb" (5.1.2), or when Prince Hal tells Hotspur that "[t]wo stars [cannot] keep not their motion in one sphere" (5.4.8). Now open your book and get crackin'.



Horticulture (plants, flowers, trees, and so on) imagery pops up all over the play, so it's worth thinking about. In the king's opening speech, he vividly describes how civil warfare threatens to crush the "tender florets" that spring from English soil, planting the English countryside instead with dead bodies (1.1.1). Yikes! Later, Hotspur describes how the Percy family helped Henry depose King Richard II when they "put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, / An plant[ed] this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke" (1.3.7). By suggesting King Henry (formerly called Henry Bolingbroke) is a "thorn" and then a "canker" (an icky plant disease), Hotspur imagines England as a kind of garden that's on the cusp of ruin and decay.

Interestingly enough, this idea originated in the play Richard II, when Henry's father, John of Gaunt, referred to the corrupt King Richard II as a lousy gardener who failed to properly tend to England (R2, 2.1.) In Richard II, the realm was portrayed as a kind of fallen Eden that had been ruined by Richard's sleazy policies. OK, fine. So what? Well, we notice that the horticulture imagery in Henry IV Part 1 gestures, simultaneously, at England's vulnerability to corruption and decay and also at its capacity for regeneration and growth. So, while the play is consumed with the destruction caused by civil warfare, it never forgets that England will ultimately survive and thrive, like a garden.

Family Trees

At other times, horticultural references refer more specifically to family lineage and loyalty. When King Henry says his son, Prince Hal, is disloyal to his "blood" family and behaves as though he is "grafted" to his loser companions (3.2.1), he alludes to the seeming unnaturalness of Hal's relationship with commoners and criminals. ("Grafting" is a horticultural practice where tree tissues are fused with another tree.) Later, King Henry uses similar language when he praises Hotspur for his bravery and honor, suggesting the young man is "[a]mongst a grove, the very straightest plant" (1.1.4). Henry, of course, puns on Hotspur's familial roots in the royal House of Plantagenet. He also implies that Hotspur's a distinguished young man who stands out as the "straightest," among the rest of the conniving Percy family.

King Henry's not the only one who likes his plant metaphors. When Hotspur learns that his father won't be joining the rebel forces at the battle of Shrewsbury, he says Northumberland's absence is like a "perilous gash, a very limb lopp'd off." Here, Hotspur figures his father as one "limb" or branch on the proverbial family tree. His absence, in other words, is damaging to the rebels' cause, like a wound. We later learn that Northumberland's absence will literally be a "perilous gash" – the rebels are defeated at Shrewsbury and Hotspur is fatally wounded by Hal. There's a lot to say but the point we want to make here is this: the play's many allusions to "family trees" remind us that family relationships are very much at the heart of Henry IV Part 1. Check out our discussion of "Family" if you want to know more.

Body Mutilation

Hotspur's suggestion that his father's absence is a "perilous gash" (see above) to the rebel forces isn't the only reference to maiming. The play is full of allusions to body mutilation, both literal and figurative. Let's discuss. In the play's opening speech, King Henry describes the English soil as a mother whose body has been "bruise[d]," gouged, and "trench[ed]" by civil warfare, even as the cannibal earth feeds on the bloodied bodies of her "children" (buried English soldiers). Such violent and vivid imagery gets at the unnaturalness of civil warfare, which is imagined by Shakespeare as some seriously violent family drama.

A few lines later, we hear that 1,000 English soldiers have been "butchered" by Welsh fighters and the corpses subject to "beastly shameless transformation" at the hands of the Welshwomen (1.1.1). Here, Shakespeare refers to historical accounts (including a major source for the play, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles) of how the Welshwomen mutilated the genitals of English corpses. Gross. Literary critics tend to agree that this reference in the play registers larger fears of emasculation at the hands of rebellious forces. In other words, if England is imagined as a collective body, then warfare and rebellion threaten to weaken and enfeeble the entire kingdom.

The play's preoccupation with castration is repeated again, perhaps more comically, when Lady Percy, on two separate occasions, threatens to break her husband's "little finger" or, his "head." Hotspur is certainly worried that physical contact with his wife will make him effeminate or soft, and we talk about this more in "Gender" and "Family."

Lady Percy never castrates her husband but, in one of the last scenes of the play, Falstaff mutilates Hotspur's corpse by stabbing the body in the thigh. We can't help but notice the way Falstaff's actions recall the story of the Welshwomen's mutilation of English corpses in Act 1. Literary critics Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin suggest that, in this way, Falstaff's antics are associated with what the play imagines as a very female and emasculating threat. Makes sense to us. Given that Prince Hal, the heir to the English throne, has been lured away from his princely duties by Falstaff's topsy-turvy Eastcheap world, it's not so surprising that Falstaff would be associated with other rebellious figures that overtly threaten the kingdom's collective "body."

The Map

The rebels' map of Britain in Act 3, Scene 1 seems particularly relevant. Here, we want to argue that the map points to 1) Hotspur's incompetence as a leader and 2) the general threat his rebellion poses to the kingdom. As the rebels prepare to talk strategy, Hotspur shouts "a plague upon it! / I have forgot the map" (3.1.1). Uh oh. Glendower finds it, of course, but we're immediately struck by Hotspur's disorganization and seeming ineptitude. Hello. If the guy can't even keep track of his map, how's he supposed to pull off a rebellion and lead the country if he succeeds in deposing King Henry? In this moment, the map seems to be symbolic of the kingdom as a whole and gestures toward Hotspur's inability to manage Britain.

When Hotspur unfurls his map (after Glendower finds it for him, of course) and demonstrates how the rebels plan to divide the kingdom into three parts, we're reminded that the rebel cause is bent on division and dissection, not unity. The business with the map seems to confirm that young Percy's plans are decidedly not in the best interest of a kingdom that's moving toward unification. (This is sort of the same problem in King Lear. When Lear retires and divides his kingdom into three parts, it spells disaster with a capital D.)

Check out this picture of Queen Elizabeth I, a colonial monarch, with her feet planted atop a world globe. At the time Shakespeare wrote Henry IV Part 1 (around 1597), England was very much concerned with the unification of Britain and global expansion in general. In Shakespeare's day, maps and globes were often used as symbols of England's status as a big, giant world power, not a kingdom that's been hacked up into little bits and pieces.

In Engendering a Nation, influential literary critics Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin argue that "the rebel cause is discredited, not only or even chiefly because it defies the authority of the monarch, but because it threatens to dismember the body of the land, a threat that is graphically illustrated when the rebel leaders haggle over the map of Britain and agree finally to have the river Trent turned from its natural course in the interest of their 'bargain'" (162-163). It's no surprise, we would add, that, when Mortimer complains about the rebels' division of the kingdom, he says the land has been "gelded" (a common term for castration). See our discussion of "Body Mutilation" above."


There are frequent references to black magic in Henry IV Part 1, so let's think about some specific moments where the supernatural comes into play.

King Henry refers to the Welsh leader as "that great magician, damn'd Glendower" (1.1.3) and when Westmoreland describes how 1,000 English soldiers were "butchered" and later mutilated by the Welsh, he refers to the man as "irregular and wild" (1.1.2). Such comments establish Glendower and Wales as mysterious, foreign, and dangerous. Later, Glendower goes to great lengths to assert his mysterious power by claiming he has conjured the devil to help him defeat King Henry's forces (3.1.7) and, at his birth or, "nativity / the front of heaven was full of fiery shapes / of burning cressets" (3.1.2). Sounds kind of serious…but only for a moment. Hotspur's reaction to this turns the whole episode into a joke. Check out what Hotspur says after Glendower repeats his claim that at his birth "the heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble":

oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinch'd and vex'd
By the imprisoning of unruly wind

Hotspur demeans Glendower by comparing the man's birth to the release of uncomfortable gas, deflating, as it were, Glendower's serious attempts to shroud himself in mystery. This seems to also deflate the seriousness of the rebels' enterprise. In other words, it's not only impossible to take Glendower's claims about the supernatural seriously, it's also seems a bit hard (here anyway) to take the rebellion seriously. (Come on. The rebels are insulting each other with fart jokes, for Pete's sake.)

There are other references to black magic in the play, but they too are aligned with comic relief. When Falstaff convenes with his thieving crew at Gads Hill just before the double robbery, he curses Poins for hiding his horse.

[…] I have
forsworn his company hourly any time this two and
twenty years, and yet I am bewitched with the
rogue's company. If the rascal hath not given me
medicines to make me love him, I'll be hanged; it
could not be else: I have drunk medicines. Poins!

Here, it seems we're not supposed to take seriously Falstaff's claims that Poins has "bewitched" or given him "medicines to make [Falstaff] love him." This is a highly comedic moment and Falstaff is making fun of himself for feeling such affection for a rascal like Poins. This also seems to make light of what might otherwise be considered a serious situation as the thieves prepare to rob the king's exchequer (treasury). The teasing and light pranking make the whole thing seem a bit harmless, wouldn't you say?

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