William Shakespeare is likely the most influential writer in the English language. The son of a mildly successful glove-maker, Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in northern England. He married in 1582 and had three children. Around 1590, at the height of the English Renaissance, he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Both public and critical success quickly followed. Shakespeare’s career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and he was a favorite of both monarchs. James granted Shakespeare and his company the greatest possible compliment by making them the king’s players.
Shakespeare died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two, the author of numerous sonnets and 38 remarkable plays, some of which were not only inarguably brilliant, but so influential as to effect the course of literature and culture ever after. From time to time controversies flare up about whether Shakespeare, a man of middling education and stature, could possibly be the author of such incredible literature. Many theories are forwarded, offering the credit of authorship to such diverse figures as Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, or the Earl of Oxford. But in the absence of definitive proof that Shakespeare is not the author of the work credited to him, Shakespeare will continue to be assessed as one of the preeminent artists the human race has ever produced.
1 Henry IV is one of Shakespeare’s so-called history plays; it forms the second part of a tetralogy, or four-part series, which deals with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. (The play which comes before it is Richard II; it is followed by 2 Henry IV–that is, Henry IV Part 2–and Henry V.) The play was probably composed in the years 1596-1597.
Set around the years 1400-1403, the action of 1 Henry IV takes place two centuries before Shakespeare’s own time. In general, it follows real events and uses historical people, although Shakespeare significantly alters or invents history where it suits him. For instance, the historical Hotspur was not the same age as Prince Hal, and Shakespeare’s Mortimer is a conflation of two different historical people. The play refers importantly back to the history covered in its “prequel,” Richard II, and a quick review of the events of that work might prove helpful in understanding its characters’ motivations.
Among Shakespeare’s most famous creations is Falstaff, Prince Hal’s fat, aged, and criminally degenerate mentor and friend. His wit is legendary and irreverent. Falstaff has many historical precedents: he owes much to archetypes like the figure of Vice from the medieval morality plays and Gluttony from the “seven deadly sins” pageants; the arrogant soldier (miles gloriosus) from classical Roman comedy; and the Lord of Misrule from folk festival tradition (see the Norton Anthology). But ultimately he is a unique creation, second among Shakespearean characters only to Hamlet as an object of critical interest.
The play mixes history and comedy innovatively, moving from “high” scenes of kings and battles to “low” scenes of ruffians in taverns and engaged in robberies. Its larger themes include the nature of kingship, honor, and loyalty; its great strengths include a remarkable richness and variety of texture, a fascinatingly ambiguous take on history and on political motivations, and a new kind of characterization, as found in the inimitable Falstaff.
King Henry IV, the aging king of England, is very disappointed in his son: everybody in the land knows that Prince Hal, the heir to the throne, spends most of his time in taverns on the seedy side of London, hanging around with highwaymen and vagrants. His closest friend among the rascally crew is Falstaff, a sort of substitute father figure; a worldly, fat old man who steals and lies for a living, Falstaff is also an extraordinarily witty person, who lives with great gusto.
Trouble is brewing in England. A discontented family of noblemen, the Percys, starts to plan a rebellion against the King. This family, which helped King Henry rise to power, is angry because they feel the King has forgotten his debts to them. The Percy forces are headed by young Harry Percy, called Hotspur. Hotspur is a youth of Prince Hal’s own age, but is as widely respected for his bravery in battle as Hal is scorned and despised for his idle tavern life.
The Percys gather a formidable set of allies around them: leaders of large rebel armies from Scotland and Wales, as well as powerful English nobles and clergymen who have grievances against King Henry. The King has no choice but to go to war. Severely rebuked by his father, Prince Hal decides it is time to reform, and vows that he will abandon his wild ways and will vanquish Hotspur in battle in order to reclaim his good name. Drafting his tavern friends to fight in the King’s army, Hal accompanies his father to the battlefront.
The civil war is decided in a great battle at Shrewsbury. Prince Hal boldly saves his father’s life in battle, and finally wins back his father’s approval and affection. Hal also challenges and defeats Hotspur in single combat. The King’s forces win, and most of the leaders of the Percy family are put to death. Even Falstaff manages to survive the battle by avoiding any actual fighting.
Powerful rebel forces remain in Britain, however, so King Henry must send out his sons and his forces to the far reaches of his kingdom to deal with them. When the play ends, the ultimate outcome of the war has not yet been resolved; one battle has been won, but another remains to be fought.
Special Note: – One of the greatest challenges in reading Shakespeare’s history plays is keeping track of all the names and relationships between people: the plays are crammed with major and minor players. And some of these people seem to have several names. That’s because aristocratic characters in Shakespeare are sometimes referred to by the name of the piece of land they hold title to, as well as by their family or given name, or their nickname.
To compound matters in 1 Henry IV, all three of the main characters are named Henry! Fortunately, the names they usually go by are distinct. This guide aims to help you identify and place these and other major figures. Note that the spelling of some characters’ names may vary, depending on the particular edition that you are reading.
Also, note that in 1 Henry IV, there are a lot of different factions, but everyone pretty much falls on one of two sides at any given moment: that of King Henry IV, or that of the rebellion led by the Percy family.
Four Central Characters:
King Henry IV – The ruling King of England. He is not actually all that old, but at the time this play opens, he has been worn down before his time by worries: he won his throne through a civil war that deposed the former King (Richard II), and he nurses guilty feelings about that. Also, there has continued to be internal strife, which erupts in this play into an even bigger civil war. Finally, he’s vexed by the irresponsible antics of his eldest son, Prince Hal.
Prince Hal – His real name is Henry (eventually, he will become King Henry V), and his title is “Prince of Wales,” but all of the prince’s friends call him Hal. He is also sometimes called “Harry” (usually by his father, King Henry, as in III.ii) or “Harry Monmouth” (as by Hotspur in V.v). Hal is a young man, but he is also the heir to the throne of England, and it upsets his father the king that Hal spends all his time hanging around on the bad side of London, wasting his time with highwaymen, robbers and whores. The rumors of his behavior are worse than the behavior actually is, but the behavior is bad enough. Hal has secret plans to transform himself into a “real” prince, and his regal qualities emerge as the play unfolds.
Hotspur – The real name of the son and heir of the Earl of Northumberland is Henry Percy, but he’s earned the name “Hotspur” because of his fierceness in battle and his hastiness of action. Sometimes he is also called “Harry” (as by his wife in II.iii), “Percy,” or “Harry Percy” (as in V.v). Hotspur is a member of the powerful Percy family of the north, a family that brought King Henry IV to power but now feels that the king has forgotten his debt to them. Hotspur’s uncle is the Earl of Worcester; he is married to Lady Percy, a.k.a. Kate, with whom he has certain communication problems. In Shakespeare’s account, he is the same age as Prince Hal, and becomes his archrival.
Sir John Falstaff – Falstaff is (in simplest terms) a fat old man, between the ages of about fifty and sixty-five, who hangs around in taverns on the wrong side of London and makes his living as a thief, highwayman, and mooch. He is Prince Hal’s closest friend, and seems to act as a sort of mentor to him, instructing him in the practices of criminals and vagabonds. He is the only one of the bunch who can match Hal’s quick wit, pun for pun. When Hal goes off to fight in his father’s wars, he brings Falstaff and the others with him. The figure of Falstaff fascinates critics; some, like Harold Bloom, equate him with Hamlet in the brilliance of his characterization.
Others, on Henry IV’s Side (Loyalists to the King):
Earl of Westmoreland – A nobleman and military leader who is a close companion and valuable ally of King Henry IV. Be sure not to confuse him with the Earl of Worcester, Hotspur’s uncle, who fights on the opposite side.
Lord John of Lancaster – This is the younger son of King Henry and the younger brother of Prince Hal. He proves himself wise and valiant in battle, despite his youth.
On Hotspur’s Side (the Percy Rebellion):
Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland – Northumberland is Hotspur’s father (that’s why they share the same name, Henry Percy). He conspires and raises troops on the Percy side, but he gets “sick” before the battle of Shrewsbury and does not actually bring his troops into the fray.
Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March – Mortimer is Hotspur’s brother-in-law (that is, the brother of his wife), and son-in-law to the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower. He is a conflation of two different historical figures, but for Shakespeare’s purposes, he matters because he had a strong claim to the throne of England before King Henry overthrew the last king, Richard II.
Owen Glendower – The leader of the Welsh rebels, he joins with the Percys in their insurrection against King Henry. Glendower is the father of Mortimer’s wife–Lady Mortimer, a beautiful Welshwoman who does not speak any English. Well- read, educated in England, and very capable in battle, he is also steeped in the traditional lore of Wales and claims to be able to command great magic. He is mysterious and superstitious, and sometimes acts according to prophecies and omens.
Archibald, Earl of Douglas – Usually called “The Douglas” (a traditional way of referring to a Scottish clan chief, at least in Shakespeare’s universe), he is the leader of the large army of Scottish rebels against King Henry, and fights with the Percys. A deadly and fearless fighter, he kills Sir Walter Blunt and nearly succeeds in killing both Falstaff and King Henry himself. He is the father of Mordake, whom Hotspur captures and then releases early in the play.
Sir Richard Vernon – A relative and ally of the Earl of Worcester, who helps him lead his troops and who is executed with him at the end of the play.
The Archbishop of York – York (whose given name is Richard Scroop), he has a grievance against King Henry and conspires on the side of the Percys.
Ned Poins, Peto, Bardolph – Criminals and highwaymen, these are friends of Falstaff and of Prince Hal, who drink with them in the Boar’s Head Tavern, accompany them in highway robbery, and come with them to the war.
Gadshill – Another highwayman friend of Hal, Falstaff and the rest. Gadshill seems to be nicknamed after the place on the London road–called Gad’s Hill–where he has set up many robberies. Some texts also refer to this place as “Gadshill,” instead of “Gad’s Hill.” Don’t get confused–the person and the place are separate entities.
Mistress Quickly – Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, a seedy dive in Eastcheap, London. Her name has vaguely obscene connotations in Renaissance English.