Henry IV Part 1

A young English prince learns to forgo his life of leisure and accept the responsibilities of the crown.

I’ll so offend to make offence a skill, Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Prince Hal, Act 1, Scene 2

King Henry IV is desperate to assert his legitimacy to the English crown having deposed his cousin, Richard II.

He faces, political opposition, the constant threat of rebellion, and all- out war, but his deepest concerns are closer to home. His son and heir, Prince Henry (Hal), leads an undignified life, shirking responsibility and frequenting taverns with his friend, the loveable drunkard, Sir John Falstaff.

Making amends with his father, Hal proves his worth in the battle of Shrewsbury, killing the defector Hotspur and helping ensure his father’s success. But victory in one battle does not ensure King Henry’s stability and this play paves the way for a sequel where the struggles of the royal family continue, punctuated liberally with the misadventures of Falstaff.

Henry IV Part 1 and 2 are the central plays of Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy. They are well-known for featuring Shakespeare’s finest comedic triumph, the lovable and tragic rogue Falstaff, and charting the origin story of England’s greatest war hero, Henry V.

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David Whitney as King Henry and Matthew Moore as Prince Hal (2013)

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John Bell as Falstaff (2013)


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I’ll so offend to make offence a skill
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Prince Hal, Act 1, Scene 2

King Henry IV of England is aging and guilt-ridden.. Weary from years of civil unrest and seeking atonement and legitimacy after the deposition of his cousin Richard II, he plans to lead an expedition to Jerusalem to join a crusade to claim the Holy Land in the name of Christianity. Henry announces, however, that this will have to be postponed because England is under attack from forces closer to home.

On the Welsh border King Henry’s forces have been defeated, and the loyal Mortimer is imprisoned and held for ransom by the Welsh Rebel, Owen Glendower. While to the north, English forces led by Henry (Hotspur) Percy have won a gallant victory. The bravery and skill of Hotspur puts the King in mind of the apparent failures of his own son, Prince Henry (or ‘Hal’ as he is known) and he admits he is envious of Hotspur’s father, Lord Northumberland. However, King Henry is simultaneously furious with Hotspur’s refusal to hand over the Scottish prisoners taken during the battle. These are very valuable prisoners on account of the ransom they could attract.

Meanwhile Prince Hal, the heir to the English throne, spends his days drinking and carousing among some of London’s most unsavoury characters, to the extreme disappointment of his father. Chief among them is the lazy, drunk, cunning professional criminal Sir John Falstaff. Hal seems to relish this nihilistic high-life, but alone on stage he tells the audience he is cleverly biding his time until his “glittering reformation” (Act 1, Scene 2).

When King Henry confronts Hotspur and Northumberland about the Scottish prisoners, Hotspur becomes enraged at the suggestion that his brother-in-law, Mortimer, is in-fact a traitor and therefore there will be no ransom paid to free him from Glendower. King Henry, however, still demands that Hotspur release the Scottish prisoners to him so he can claim the ransom for them. Hotspur is furious that Henry seems to have forgotten the once strong allegiance between the Percy family and the Throne, and the key role they played in overthrowing Richard II. Hotspur’s uncle, The Earl of Worcester, takes advantage of Hotspur’s anger to propose an insurrection. Worcester suggests that The Percies should in fact join forces with the Scottish and the Welsh, and together with powerful English nobles who are also dissatisfied with King Henry, raise an army to claim the throne.

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Henry 4 (2013)

Famous lines

No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood...

King Henry, Act 1, Scene 1

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Historical background

It is easy for us to forget that for Shakespeare and his audience this story and these characters were not ancient history.

Fast facts

Henry IV was the first ever English King who spoke English as his first language.

This was probably due to the fact that he was a usurping King and not raised as an immediate heir to the throne.

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Debatable points

Did Shakespeare fall out with Falstaff?

Falstaff was a huge hit with Elizabethan audiences, but it seems he had a much rockier relationship with his creator.

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Prince Hal and Shakespeare's 'New' Men.

John Bell on Henry IV

It is easy for a young actor to identify with these aspects of Hal – the resentful teenager rebelling against an autocratic father yet desperately seeking his approval; what amounts to a sibling rivalry with the show pony Hotspur, and the desire to escape the close confines of stuffy respectability and sow a few wild oats. It seems to be the destined path for many a Prince of Wales.

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