Study Guide

Henry IV Part 1 Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Principles

    While "honour" is perhaps the play's most important theme, it's also the most difficult concept to pin down. In the mouths of various characters, the definition of honor ranges from being synonymous with an individual's courage on the battlefield to a mere "word" used in an attempt to elevate the physical horrors of warfare to something more lofty and intangible. From Henry IV Part 1's beginning, Hotspur is praised as the very embodiment of honor, while Prince Hal is marked by the "stain" of "dishonour." This allows the play to consider the kind of behavior that makes one a good leader and a strong king. In this way, honor is closely related to the theme of "Power."

    Questions About Principles

    1. Why does the play present so many conflicting ideas about honor? Does Henry IV Part 1 ever settle on one particular concept? Why or why not? What kind of evidence would you use to support your answer?
    2. What does King Henry mean when he says Hotspur is the "theme of honour's tongue"? Why does he think his son, Prince Hal is "dishonourable"?
    3. How does Falstaff define "honour"? How are his ideas different from that of other characters in the play?
    4. How do you define honor? Is it different or similar to any of the ideas in the play? Do you think it's important for political leaders to have honor? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Henry IV Part 1 suggests that "honour" is a noble and necessary attribute for all successful leaders and monarchs.

    In Shakespeare's play, "honour" is revealed to be a thin concept that some men use in a fruitless attempt to elevate the gruesome realities of warfare to something noble.

  • Power

    Henry IV Part 1 offers an elaborate meditation on kingship. As a monarch who has usurped the throne and alienated his most important allies, King Henry must figure out a way to maintain power while the rebels challenge the legitimacy of his reign. The play also considers the qualities and characteristics that make one a good leader by examining the younger generation. By contrasting the calculating and manipulative Prince Hal to his courageous and valiant foil, Hotspur, Shakespeare explores the relationship between principles and monarchy. The play's dramatization of the crisis of succession would have also resonated with an important Elizabethan political issue – at the time Henry IV Part 1 was written, Queen Elizabeth I had no children and no heir.

    Questions About Power

    1. Why does the Percy family challenge King Henry's power? Do they have multiple motives? If so, are they compatible? Are the Percys right to challenge the king? Why or why not?
    2. What qualities does Hotspur have that would make him a good king? Does he seem better suited to lead a country than Prince Hal? Why or why not?
    3. Why does Prince Hal say that he's going to stage a dramatic "reformation"? What does his plan suggest about his character? About his ability to lead a country?
    4. Why does Douglas ask King Henry if he's a "counterfeit" when he confronts the monarch on the battlefield? What does this suggest about the play's notion of kingship?

    Chew on This

    While the play initially establishes Hotspur as a talented young leader who would be a desirable king, it ultimately suggests that Prince Hal's cunning and charisma make him a more suitable leader than young Percy.

    In Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare rebelliously portrays kingship as a kind of "role" that can be "played" by anyone with the right demeanor and costume.

  • Warfare

    Throughout Henry IV Part 1 we're reminded that civil war is a family affair, one that threatens to tear apart the collective kingdom. The play begins and ends with portrayals of warfare and promises that civil strife will continue in the sequel, Henry IV Part 2. In the play, war is largely associated with masculinity and honor. For Prince Hal especially, the battlefield is a place for redemption and transformation. While several members of the nobility attempt to elevate the physical horrors of war to something lofty and noble, the play also gives voice (via Falstaff) to the idea that the violence of warfare is meaningless and hollow.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Why does King Henry want to lead his country on a crusade in Jerusalem? What's he trying to accomplish?
    2. What is Hotspur's attitude toward warfare? What do his ideas about battle tell us about his character?
    3. The play begins and ends with the violence of war. Why do you think Shakespeare chose to structure his play in this way?
    4. How does Falstaff behave on the battlefield at Shrewsbury? Why does Hal get angry with him? Is Hal right to be upset?

    Chew on This

    In Henry IV Part 1 warfare is an exclusively masculine realm with no room for women or effeminacy.

    In Shakespeare's play, warfare is portrayed as a family affair in order to demonstrate the unnaturalness of civil war.

  • Family

    Family relations are at the heart of Henry IV Part 1. Shakespeare is particularly concerned with father-son relationships between Hal and King Henry, Hal and his surrogate father-figure, (Falstaff), and Northumberland and Hotspur. On the one hand, the meditation on family relations offers a way for the play to humanize the historical figures Shakespeare makes into characters of political intrigue. Yet, the play also reminds us that civil war and the struggle for the crown is a family affair. Male relationships dominate the play, but Henry IV Part 1 also takes a look at husbands and wives. As it contrasts the relationships between the Percys and the Mortimers, it explores Elizabethan notions of gender and sexuality.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does King Henry say he wishes Hotspur were his son? Why focus so much attention on a family relationship in a political play about rebellion and power?
    2. Aside from Prince Hal's tumultuous relationship with King Henry, what other father-son relationships are examined in the play?
    3. How would you characterize the relationship between Lady Percy and Hotspur? Is Hotspur cruel? Teasingly affectionate? How would you stage their intimate moments? How do these moments compare to scenes that portray the Mortimers?
    4. There aren't any literal mothers in the play (what's up with that?), but Henry IV Part 1 does compare English soil to a cannibal mother in Act 1, Scene 1. Why is that?

    Chew on This

    In Henry IV Part 1, the tumultuous relationship between King Henry and Prince Hal dramatizes, on a small, intimate scale, the civil rebellion that threatens to destroy England.

    Northumberland's abandonment of his son, Hotspur, at a crucial moment in the play suggests that parents cannot always be trusted to care for and protect their children.

  • Art and Culture

    Henry IV Part 1 makes several self-conscious references to the workings of Elizabethan theater. Most notably, the wild impromptu skit at the Boar's Head tavern presents a "play-within-a-play" that offers an opportunity for Shakespeare to explore the relationship between rebellion and the stage. Because it's a space where Prince Hal can practice being "king," the tavern is also a kind of training ground or important rehearsal space for the young man who will inherit the throne. Frequent play-acting and character impersonation throughout Henry IV Part 1 give voice to the notion that "kingship" is just another "role" to be played. The play's concern with meta-theatricality aligns it with other important works, including Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What kinds of play-acting do we see characters participate in throughout the play?
    2. Why do Hal and Falstaff put on an impromptu skit at the Boar's Head Tavern?
    3. What does Falstaff focus on when he plays the role of "Prince Hal" during the tavern skit? Is he interested in accurately portraying the "prince"? Or, does he have a different agenda?
    4. How does Shakespeare draw our attention to the fact that we are an audience as we watch (or read) the play? What's the larger purpose of this technique?

    Chew on This

    By portraying a play-within-a-play at the Boar's Head Tavern, Shakespeare highlights the relationship between the theater and rebellion.

    Henry IV Part 1 explores the relationship between theatricality and leadership – ultimately, the play suggests that kingship is merely a "role" that can be "played" by anyone with acting skills and the right "costume."

  • Rules and Order

    The play's concern with "Rules and Order" is closely linked the theme of "Power." In Henry IV Part 1, two stories of rebellion and disorder run parallel – the story of Prince Hal's "teenage" rebellion against his father and the rebel uprising led by the Percy family. While the play makes clear the gravity of both threats to stability in Britain, it often deflates the seriousness of civil and familial disobedience with comedic episodes and parody. Rebellion is frequently associated with effeminacy and women and should be considered along side "Gender." Shakespeare's also interested in the relationship between theater and rebellion.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Why does Hotspur refuse to hand over his war prisoners to the king? What's the king's response to this?
    2. Why does King Henry admire Hotspur and disprove of Hal? Aren't both young men rebellious toward the king? What's the difference between them, if any?
    3. Is rebellion ever justifiable in the play? Why or why not?
    4. Why do the Percys want to overthrow the king?

    Chew on This

    Although the play depicts rebellion as a serious threat to the kingdom, disorder and unruliness are often portrayed as comical and ridiculous.

    In Henry IV Part 1, female characters are always associated with rebellion and disorder, which suggests that women are a threat to stability.

  • Gender

    Henry IV Part 1 offers an interesting meditation on gender. For the most part, the play is concerned with masculinity and honor and relations between men – fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, brothers, cousins, male colleagues, and so on. Given that the play's main story line is one of primogeniture (how the prince will inherit the crown from his father), this is unsurprising. The play's three female characters are marginally significant but the play goes out of its way to dramatize and examine relations between husbands and wives. In Henry IV Part 1 women are always linked with rebellion and are frequently viewed as threats to masculinity.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why is Hotspur so angry at the "certain lord" who appears on the battlefield to collect the war prisoners?
    2. How many female characters appear in the play? What kinds of roles do they play? Do they influence the plot? What's their function?
    3. What does Lady Percy reveal about her relationship with her husband when she complains about being neglected? What does this suggest about Hotspur's relationship to masculinity?
    4. What does Mortimer do after he's captured by the Welsh? Why doesn't he fight at the battle at Shrewsbury?

    Chew on This

    In the play, marriage is portrayed as an institution that can make men soft and weak, limiting their ability to fight in battle.

    For Hotspur, masculinity is intricately linked to courage and honor, which can only be gained on the field of battle – a space that primarily excludes women.

  • Language and Communication

    For Shakespeare, the mastery of languages, speech, and rhetoric is closely aligned with authority and control. Early on, Henry IV Part 1 establishes freedom of speech as a powerful tool of rebellion and resistance to authority, especially for Hotspur. Yet, it becomes clear throughout the play that Hal's capacity for language acquisition establishes him as a man fit to rule, whereas Hotspur's lack of rhetorical control and disdain for foreign speech reveals him to be an unfit leader. At times, language is associated with manipulation, deceit, and effeminacy, but, as in all Shakespeare's work, language is ultimately synonymous with power. The play also famously portrays a broad spectrum of language as it covers various regional and class dialects spoken in England and Britain

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What does Prince Hal mean when he says he can drink with the commoners in "their own language"?
    2. Why does Hotspur insist that he'll scream the name "Mortimer" in King Henry's ear?
    3. In the play, Hotspur claims that women can't keep secrets. We know that's a load of bull, but is this true in the play? Why does the play seem to go out of its way to establish a link between women and unruly speech?
    4. In Act 2, Scene 1, Shakespeare dramatizes a rather distinct conversation between two Carriers. What do they talk about? What's the larger function of this scene in terms of its relationship to the play's ideas about language and speech?

    Chew on This

    In Henry IV Part 1, one's ability to master and control language and speech is a marker of one's ability to lead and govern the kingdom.

    Henry IV Part 1 is interested in Britain's linguistic diversity and portrays various regional and class dialects.