Shakespeare's Henry IV: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Edward Zipperer

Eddie has an MFA in English from Georgia College where he has taught scriptwriting, English 101, English 102, and World Literature since 2007.

William Shakespeare's historical play ''Henry IV'' recounts the life of England's King Henry IV and the transformation of his son, Prince Harry (Hal), into a heroic king. Explore the plot of the play, review key quotes from each act, and study an analysis of the characters. Updated: 02/07/2022

Henry IV Summary and Analysis

Part One

Shakespeare's historical play Henry IV Part One is not really about King Henry IV at all. It is about his son Prince Harry (known as Hal) and his coming-of-age story. Prince Hal is not only the protagonist of the play, but he is also the play's most dynamic character, meaning that he undergoes a change of character as a result of the conflict of the play.

The play begins with King Henry IV being informed by his ally Westmoreland of the brave and valiant actions of the young Henry Percy (nicknamed Hotspur), son of the Earl of Northumberland. The king is so impressed with Hotspur that he compares him to his own son, Prince Hal, and wishes that Hotspur were his son instead! Specifically, he wishes that a fairy had switched them in their cribs when they were babies:

O, that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

In cradle-clothes our children where they lay…

We get a good sense what King Henry IV is talking about when we actually meet Prince Hal and his friends, specifically, the friend he is most in the company of: Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's greatest creations - a character who throughout the course of both Henry IV plays is seen committing all seven of the deadly sins, yet somehow remaining likeable to the audience.

In our first glimpse of Prince Hal, he decides to take part in a robbery with Falstaff and his other friends, Poins and Bardolph. There's more though: Hal then decides - in disguise - to team up with Poins in order to double cross the other robbers and make off with their loot. Hal agrees to this plan not for the money- as he seems to have no shortness of money or credit. He agrees purely for the enjoyment of embarrassing Falstaff. Poins lays out the case by saying:

The virtue of this jest will be the

incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will

tell us when we meet at supper.

Once Prince Hal's prodigal nature has been fully displayed, he explains to the audience in his first soliloquy that he understands how badly he's behaving, and that he even has a reason for it. The idea is if he sets a low bar for himself by behaving like a reckless loser, everyone will be that much more impressed when he accomplishes something:

By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;

And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

This twist in the plot has a similar effect on the audience. After several pages of Hal stringing along Falstaff and then agreeing to be part of a robbery, it is shocking to discover that he is more than a spoiled, libertine prince. He is shrewd and calculating. At this point, his promises are merely words, but by the end of part one, he will deliver on them.

Meanwhile, back at the court, King Henry IV rebukes Hotspur in person. Although Hotspur has valiantly and bravely fought for the king, he has insulted the king by withholding prisoners from him. Hotspur demands that the king pay a ransom to free his brother-in-law, Mortimer, but the king refuses, calling Mortimer a traitor for his foolishness. When the king exits, we get our first look at the true character of Hotspur. He flies off the handle with an enraged speech:

An if the devil come and roar for them,

I will not send them. I will after straight

And tell him so, for I will ease my heart,

Albeit I make a hazard of my head.

Northumberland and Worcester (his uncle) try to calm Hotspur, but he'll have none of it. He rages on for several pages until Worcester enlists him in the Earl of Douglas and Glendower's rebellion. This is another major turn in the plot because we now know that a large army is being assembled toward the purpose of rebelling against King Henry IV. We see also that Hotspur is rash and, unlike Prince Hal, is neither shrewd nor calculating. Instead, he is impetuous and prideful. Prince Hal is at least aware of his own faults, while Hotspur seems largely oblivious to his.

At the Boar's Head Tavern, Hal is informed of the coming civil war, and, after some humorous role-playing where Falstaff pretends to be the king chiding Hal for his behavior, Hal heads home to face his father. Henry IV is hard on his son and gives him a hard time in a very long speech (62 lines!) for being spoiled, hanging out with fools and destroying his reputation. Hal answers simply, in one and a half lines with the vow, I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself.

After this, the rest of the play is focused on the war, and Hal - living up to the promise he made in Act I - becomes the hero of the war. He saves his father who is losing in one-on-one combat to the Earl of Douglas, who has already killed several men disguised as the king. Douglas flees, and Hal's victory is his first heroic war act. While he's on a roll, Hal challenges Hotspur to one-on-one combat. It is important to note that even though Hal does this, he shows great respect toward Hotspur, saying:

I do not think a braver gentleman,

More active-valiant, or more valiant-young,

More daring or more bold, is now alive

To grace this latter age with noble deeds.

Hotspur, on the other hand, has no respect for Prince Hal:

Never did I hear

Of any Prince so wild a liberty.

But be he as he will, yet once ere night

I will embrace him with a soldier's arm,

That he shall shrink under my courtesy.

In the end, Hal kills Hotspur in combat. Before dying, Hotspur mourns the honor he has lost and the honor that Hal has gained. The audience sees that the Act V version of Hal has now committed the actions that the Hal of Act I promised. With the death of Hotspur, Hal's promise is fulfilled.

Part Two

Henry IV Part Two picks up where the first part left off. Lord Bardolph (not to be confused with the Bardolph of Hal's gang) brings false news to Northumberland that Prince Hal has been killed in battle by Hotspur. Then, Morton enters, and Northumberland can tell by the look on Morton's face what has really happened. Hotspur is the one who has actually been killed in battle. After hearing that the insurrection is still gaining power under the Archbishop of York, Northumberland prepares to seek revenge for the loss of his son.

The next scene of the play shows us that Falstaff has not changed his naughty ways at all. He speaks with the Chief Justice, and the audience is treated to some important exposition, or backstory. First, we find out that the Chief Justice has at some point arrested Prince Hal for 'striking him about Bardolph.' Then, we discover that Falstaff has been forgiven for the robbery heist from Henry IV Part One. The reason he has been forgiven is that he has taken credit for killing Hotspur at Shrewsbury, and word of his valiant (but completely untrue) deed has spread. The Chief Justice informs him Your day's service at Shrewsbury hath a little gilded over your night's exploit on Gad's-hill.

Meanwhile, Lady Percy, Hotspur's widow, rebukes Northumberland for not sending his troops to help Hotspur in Henry IV Part One. She tells Northumberland that he should flee to Scotland rather than joining the Archbishop's rebellion, and he agrees.

Prince John of Lancaster, brother to Prince Hal, meets with the Archbishop of York and Mowbray on the battlefield to supposedly negotiate an end to the rebellion. He asks the Archbishop to air his grievances with the king so they can work toward peace. The Archbishop obliges, but Prince John has a lethal surprise in store: the leaders of the rebellion are promptly arrested and sent to be executed. When they question Prince John's honor, he replies,

I promised you redress of these same grievances

Whereof you did complain, which, by mine honor,

I will perform with a most Christian care.

But for you, rebels, look to taste the due

Meet for rebellion and such acts as yours.

When a now very sick Henry IV is brought news by Westmoreland that Prince John has ended the rebellion, he has a fit of illness and asks, Wherefore should these good news make me sick? The King is put to bed, and his crown is laid on a pillow next to him. When Prince Hal shows up, he goes in to see his unconscious father. While he's there, he sees the crown and curses it for all the trouble it has caused his father: Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow Being so troublesome a bedfellow? O, Polished perturbation! Then, noticing that his father has stopped breathing, Hal takes the crown and leaves the room.

When the not-actually-dead-yet King Henry awakes, he finds out that Hal has taken the crown and becomes livid. He asks, Is he so hasty that he doth suppose my sleep my death? When Hal re-enters, he is rebuked by his father for the very last time. King Henry accuses Hal of 'stealing that which after some few hours were thine without offense.' Hal assures him that he does not lust after the crown and that he considers it a burden, and the king forgives him.

When Henry IV actually does die, the Chief Justice who arrested Hal (now King Henry V) is worried about what punishment he shall receive for disciplining the young man who is now king. But Hal surprises him by thanking him for what he's done. Instead of punishing him, Henry declares him an important and trusted advisor, stating, My voice shall sound as you do prompt my ear.

In the final act of the play, Pistol brings news to Falstaff that Henry IV has died and that Hal is to become King Henry V. Falstaff is overjoyed to hear this news. He promises everyone around him high positions and declares, I know the young King is sick for me. Let us take any man's horses, the laws of England are at my commandment!

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