At the core of Henry IV Part 1 is the thematic concern of family, particularly that of fathers and sons. Shakespeare contrasts the familial dynamics of King Henry and his son Prince Hal, Hal and his fatherly surrogate, Falstaff, and then Northumberland and his son and heir, Hotspur. Shakespeare brings to these historical characters a sense of familiarity by focusing on domestic relationships, humanizing these historical characters and adding a layer to the play’s exploration of court, monarchy and rule. Furthermore, Shakespeare blends this motif into the questioning of matters of state and hereditary inheritance, illustrating the extent to which civil war and the struggle for the throne is an intrinsic part to what notions of family represent to a monarchy.
In the opening passage of the play, King Henry speaks of the civil war as an unnatural assault and a family affair. Metaphorically, he describes the English soil as a cannibalistic mother devouring her own children through battle:
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood…
Act 1, Scene 1
King Henry laments the unruliness of his own son, as if punishment sent by God for past sins (perhaps those pertaining particularly to his usurping of Richard II):
I know not whether God will have it so,
For some displeasing service I have done…
Act 3, Scene 2
He uses the term “grafted” to describe Prince Hal’s connection to his friends and the particularly undesirable Falstaff, and subsequent rejection of his more important blood relations.
Conversely, Prince Hal speaks of the paternal surrogacy that Falstaff has offered, given that he has stood as a guide and mentor, albeit one more concerned with a boozing-rebellion against courtly and familial responsibilities:
Do thou stand for my father, and examine me upon the particulars of my life...
Act 2, Scene 4
Honour and Principles
Honour is perhaps one of the most discussed of Shakespeare’s thematic explorations in Henry IV Part 1. However, true to form, Shakespeare makes it almost impossible for his audience to draw any solid conclusions in the way he presents not only contrasting perspectives, but often inconsistent behaviour in his characters when It comes to honour.
Honour is perhaps more reflective of individual values and goals in the play, rather than standing as one specific notion or over-arching guideline or set of rules governing all of the play’s characters. Nevertheless, the concept of honour is widely explored and from the perspective of King Henry himself, honour describes the legitimacy of a nation’s ruler, the power of the state, and the expectations applied to an heir.
For Hotspur, a more hot-headed concept is applicable in which battlefields, bravery and decisive action represent honour as a conceit. Prince Hal’s interpretation is perhaps more aligned with accepted ideas of noble behaviour and courtly expectations, all of which figure largely in his journey as he heads towards his personal reformation.
Falstaff has undoubtedly the most openly cynical view of honour. In his famous catechism, the disreputable knight questions the qualities of honour, refusing to elevate it to anything above a mere “word”, produced by air, and therefore empty of both importance and impact:
Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning!
Act 5, Scene 1
Prince Hal uses the idea of honour to draw a contrast between himself and his foil, Hotspur, illustrating the great difference in what the two have accumulated as a result of their behaviour. Hotspur has many “mutitudes” of “honour”, unlike Hal who has so far sought to garner only “shame” and disrespect:
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled!
Act 3, Scene 2
The first mention in the play of the word honour is in King Henry’s description of Hotspur in regards to his bravery and boldness on the battlefield. King Henry literally expresses, not for the last time, his envy that his son does not display the same qualities and seems almost to wish they had been switched at birth!
Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour's tongue
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry.
Act 1, Scene 1
Power, Warfare, and the Legitimacy of Leadership
Hereditary title, shifting alliances, civil war, political rebellion and the legitimacy of kingship drive the major plot points of Henry IV Part 1. Shakespeare presents an all-encompassing thematic exploration of power and warfare through this historical tale, and in tracing the key concerns of this chapter in English monarchy, he allows us a detailed and fascinating dramatisation of family and individuals under the pressures of ruling a nation.
After usurping the throne of Richard II, King Henry is faced with a fractured kingdom and is forced into questioning his own legitimacy to the throne, as rebellions rise up to challenge his rule. Whilst trying to maintain his seat of power, Hotspur and the Percies position themselves for a challenge to the throne, laying out their own criteria for what defines (and what does not define) appropriate and legitimate leadership.
Principles of rulership and monarchy are also brought into sharp focus as Shakespeare pits the calculative powers of Prince Hal in violent opposition to his brave and valiant foil, Hotspur. Furthermore, Shakespeare examines the notion of leadership and shifting powers as the younger generation of men come forth to challenge established rulers. Leadership is questioned, familial legitimacy and hereditary is outlined, expectations are set, and veritable power is brandished by all.
The two great powerful families of the play clash when King Henry threatens the Percies in response to their challenge to his authority. Worcester tries to remind King Henry that the Percy family in fact played an integral role in helping him to claim the throne:
Our house, my sovereign liege, little deserves
The scourge of greatness to be used on it;
And that same greatness too which our own hands
Have holp to make so portly.
Act 1, Scene 3
In one of Prince Hal’s most important passages, he reveals to the audience his ‘act’, biding his time with Falstaff and the rabble until like the sun (a play on ‘son’), he will reform and take his true position as the rightful heir to the English throne:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun...
Act 1, Scene 2
True to the calculating nature of Hal, he confesses that his wild abandon is nothing more than a build to a dramatic revelation of himself as the ideal future leader in time to come. Often referred to as a true Machiavellian in spirit and strategy, this speech shows Prince Hal’s agility in manoeuvring power for his own purposes and ultimately for the good of the crown.
King Henry reveals to his son that his strategy for gaining power in the past has involved creating a ‘kingly’ persona to be “wonder’d at”, revealing himself as a man with much “humility” empowered by carefully strategised allegiances with the common man:
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;'
Others would say 'Where, which is Bolingbroke?'
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress'd myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths
Act 3, Scene 2
What is also revealed in this speech is a strategic similarity between father and son, given that the audience is privy to Hal’s same contriving as his father, King Henry. Prince Hal will soon reveal the same qualities in himself as his father once did.
Language and Communication
One of the great achievements of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 is its seamless contrasting between the language of the noblemen and that of the play’s commoners. Covering an array of manner and expression within both verse and prose, the play explores a multiplicity of setting and culture, also representing the richness of the British Isles and a celebration of all its differentiation in class and diversity. Henry IV Part 1 shows Shakespeare’s mastery of language, speech and rhetoric, and is often aligned with power and control.
In the mouth of Prince Hal for example, language acts as verbal passport, deftly taking him between the high language of the noblemen and the dialect of the more ‘common’ characters. As Hal expresses to his father, the ability to speak to commoners and kings alike offers a great deal of power. For Hotspur, on the other hand, the established freedom of speech earlier in the play becomes a powerful tool of rebellion and resistance, but perhaps his lack of acquisition in contrast to the great capacity of Hal reveals a difference between ultimate leadership ability.
Furthermore, as one of the most celebrated wordsmiths in literary history, Falstaff is very much a creature of language and accomplished rhetoric, punning and freestyling with impressive word play, both astute and bawdy as he leads conversations and poses arguments with a robust fervour in a constant state of self-creation.
One might consider that Shakespeare was perhaps consciously aiming to portray the scope of the English language itself in offering his characters and settings such specific accents, language traits and various colours and tones of the English tongue.
Hotspur refuses to be silenced, typical of his hot-headedness and running aptly in line with the play’s notion that language has an intrinsic tie to power, speech and rebellion. It is Hotspur’s mouthing-off that reminds us of the important concept that in this world, those who have control of language have all the power. This is further supported later as Northumberland scolds Hotspur for talking too much, like a "woman" in a foul "mood" (Act 1, Scene 3):
Nay, I will; that's flat:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll holla 'Mortimer!'
I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
Act 1, Scene 3
Hal reveals his immense capacity for dialect acquisition, claiming that over a drink and within fifteen minutes, he is able to blend and adapt to any situation, setting and person. It is here, once again, that perhaps his eventual leadership quality is to be based on his ability to represent all walks of life, to hear all voice and to lead all people. This provides great contrast to the much looser tongue of Hotspur:
Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers; and can call them all by their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis.
They take it already upon their salvation, that though I be but the prince of Wales, yet I am king of courtesy; and tell me flatly I am no proud Jack, like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy, by the Lord, so they call me, and when I am king of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap. They call drinking deep, dyeing scarlet; and when you breathe in your watering, they cry 'hem!' and bid you play it off. To conclude, I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life.
Act 2, Scene 4
In this passage, Falstaff is at his best, using a dazzling array of puns and word play as he insists that he and his crew refer to themselves as “squires of the night’s body” and “minions of the moon”, rather than common thieves:
Indeed, you come near me now, Hal; for we that takepurses go by the moon and the seven stars, and notby Phoebus, […]
Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night's body be called thieves of the day's beauty: let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government,
being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.
Act 1, Scene 2