Eight key moments in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I

Hotspur (Trevor White) in a duel to death with Hal (Alex Hassell) in Henry IV Part 1, 2014
Hotpsur (Trevor White) in a fight to the death with Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) in Gregory Doran's 2014 production
Photo by Kwame Lestrade © RSC – Image Licensing

1. Henry IV abandons his crusade to tackle civil strife at home (Act 1, Scene 1) 

Henry IV abandons his intended crusade to the Holy Land when he learns that his forces have been defeated by Welsh rebels lead by Owen Glendower. Meanwhile the Earl of Northumberland’s son Harry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, has defeated Scottish insurgents and taken many prisoners. Henry wishes that his son, Harry, was more like the brave Harry ‘Hotspur’ and spent less time indulging in dissolute pastimes. However, Henry is displeased by Hotspur’s haughty behaviour in sending him just one noble prisoner so he summons him to explain in person. 

2. Crime and distraction in a London tavern (Act 1, Scene 2)

 In stark contrast to the formality of Henry IV’s court, the ‘fat knight’ Falstaff’s realm consists of petty criminals and tavern lowlifes. Falstaff banters in a fatherly way with ‘Hal’, Henry IV’s son. One of Falstaff’s cronies, Poins, tells them that he is planning to rob a party of travelling pilgrims and wealthy traders the following morning. Hal refuses to take part in the robbery but is persuaded by Poins to join him in a scam where they disguise themselves and steal the booty from Falstaff, Bardolph and Peto after they have robbed the travellers. Once alone, Hal reveals that he is only pretending to be base and that he is hiding his real character to make his eventual ‘reformation’ the greater. He is deceiving his family and friends but remains conscious of his status and obligations.

 3. Hotspur and the King clash over prisoners and Mortimer’s ransom (Act 1, Scene 3)

 Hotspur obeys Henry IV’s summons to appear at court and is accompanied by his father, the Earl of Northumberland and his uncle, the Earl of Worcester. The king is not swayed by Hotspur’s explanation that a dandyish courtier caught him at a bad moment when he was battle-weary and that is why he was churlish about handing over the prisoners. Henry is angry that Hotspur is retaining the prisoners until he, the King, ransoms Mortimer, Hotspur’s brother-in-law, from Owen Glendower. Henry regards Mortimer as a traitor because the latter has married Glendower’s daughter so refuses to ransom him, ordering Hotspur to deliver the prisoners immediately. After Henry leaves, Hotspur’s rage explodes and he refuses to hand over the prisoners. He accuses Henry of being ungrateful to his family who helped to make him king. The Earl of Worcester tells Hotspur of a plan to join with the Scottish and Welsh rebels against Henry but Hotspur is initially too passionate to listen. Eventually, he is advised by his uncle to release his Scottish prisoners without ransom and become their ally. The Earl of Northumberland will apply to the Archbishop of York for assistance while the Earl of Worcester will contact Glendower and Mortimer in Wales.

 4. Falstaff and Hal play the king (Act 2, Scene 4)

 In the tavern, Hal and Poins tease the young bartender, Francis by calling out his name repeatedly. Falstaff and his party arrive and complain that they were attacked after the robbery. Falstaff’s exaggerated account is ridiculous but when Hal reveals that Poins and himself were the ‘robbers’, Falstaff shamefacedly claims that knew it was them all along. A message arrives from the king summoning Hal to the court because Hotspur with his Welsh and Scottish allies has rebelled but Falstaff rudely sends the messenger packing. Falstaff and Hal act out an imaginary scene between the King and his wayward son. Initially, Falstaff plays the chastising father and tells his ‘son’ that he should banish all the others but always keep ‘Falstaff’ by him. They swap roles and Hal ‘becomes’ the king and verbally abuses Falstaff.

 5. Glendower, Hotspur and Mortimer plan to divide the kingdom (Act 3, Scene 1)

 Glendower hosts a meeting of the rebels in Wales but Hotspur is exasperated by his boasts about his magical powers and nativity. Hotspur, Mortimer and Glendower examine a map showing the potential division of the kingdom after Henry’s defeat. Hotspur quibbles that his share is not fair and threatens to divert the course of the River Trent to make his portion more profitable. Glendower refuses to respond to Hotspur’s provocations. Hotspur and Mortimer’s wives bid farewell to their husbands. Mortimer, Hotspur and the Earl of Worcester set off to meet the Earl of Northumberland and the Scottish forces at Shrewsbury. Glendower agrees to join them in a fortnight.

 6. Henry and his son have a frank conversation (Act 3, Scene 2)

 In private the King expresses his disappointment at Harry’s irresponsibility, which has forced his brother, Prince John, to fulfil many of Harry’s obligations. Harry replies that he has not been as badly behaved as is reported. The King argues that Harry’s behaviour is like that of Richard II and wishes that Harry would display some of Hotspur’s virtues. Harry promises his father that he is worthy and the King places him in charge of the royal forces. They agree to meet with their forces in 12 days at Bridgnorth.

 7. Hotspur remains optimistic in the face of adversity (Act 4, Scene 1)

 Before the battle of Shrewsbury, Hotspur receives news that his father, the Earl of Northumberland, is sick and cannot send his forces but that he should proceed into battle because the King knows about the rebels intentions. Hotspur remains optimistic even when Vernon tells him that the Westmorland and Prince John are marching towards them with 7,000 men and will be joined shortly by the King and Prince Henry’s forces. Hotspur declares that he would love to fight Prince Henry(Hal) in single combat. Vernon also reveals that Glendower’s men are not ready to join the rebel forces. Undeterred, Hotspur urges everyone into battle.

 8. Hal proves his mettle by saving his father and killing Hotpsur (Act 5, Scene 3)

Prince Henry (Hal) has been slightly injured in battle so his father, the King, urges him to seek respite but he refuses. The leader of the Scots, Douglas, discovers the King on his own but he is unsure whether it really is the King or a double used to confuse the enemy. Hal drives off Douglas and saves his father. When Hotspur enters the scene, Falstaff pretends to be dead. Hal encounters Hotspur, they fight and he kills him. Hal sees the ‘dead’ body’ of Falstaff but pushes on further into the battle. Once alone, Falstaff sits up and decides to claim he has killed Hotspur, so he stabs the bodybut is interrupted by Hal and his brother, Prince John. Falstaff explains that Hotspur came back to life after Hal left so he fought him and killed him. The two brothers are unconvinced by this tall tale but they leave at the signal that the rebels are retreating and the King is victorious.




You may also like