The complex Prince Harry is at the center of events in 1 Henry IV. As the only character to move between the grave, serious world of King Henry and Hotspur and the rollicking, comical world of Falstaff and the Boar’s Head Tavern, Harry serves as a bridge uniting the play’s two major plotlines. An initially disreputable prince who eventually wins back his honor and the king’s esteem, Harry undergoes the greatest dramatic development in the play, deliberately transforming himself from the wastrel he pretends to be into a noble leader. Additionally, as the character whose sense of honor and leadership Shakespeare most directly endorses, Harry is, at least by implication, the moral focus of the play.
Harry is nevertheless a complicated character and one whose real nature is very difficult to pin down. As the play opens, Harry has been idling away his time with Falstaff and earning the displeasure of both his father and England as a whole. He then surprises everyone by declaring that his dissolute lifestyle is all an act: he is simply trying to lower the expectations that surround him so that, when he must, he can emerge as his true, heroic self, shock the whole country, and win the people’s love and his father’s admiration. Harry is clearly intelligent and already capable of the psychological machinations required of kings.
But the heavy measure of deceit involved in his plan seems to call his honor into question, and his treatment of Falstaff further sullies his name: though there seems to be real affection between the prince and the roguish knight, Harry is quite capable of tormenting and humiliating his friend (and, when he becomes king in 2 Henry IV, of disowning him altogether). Shakespeare seems to include these aspects of Harry’s character in order to illustrate that Falstaff’s selfish bragging does not fool Harry and to show that Harry is capable of making the difficult personal choices that a king must make in order to rule a nation well. In any case, Harry’s emergence here as a heroic young prince is probably 1 Henry IV’s defining dynamic, and it opens the door for Prince Harry to become the great King Henry V in the next two plays in Shakespeare’s sequence.
Old, fat, lazy, selfish, dishonest, corrupt, thieving, manipulative, boastful, and lecherous, Falstaff is, despite his many negative qualities, perhaps the most popular of all of Shakespeare’s comic characters. Though he is technically a knight, Falstaff’s lifestyle clearly renders him incompatible with the ideals of courtly chivalry that one typically associates with knighthood. For instance, Falstaff is willing to commit robbery for the money and entertainment of it. As Falstaff himself notes at some length, honor is useless to him: “Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. . . . What is honour? A word” (V.i.130–133). He perceives honor as a mere “word,” an abstract concept that has no relevance to practical matters. Nevertheless, though Falstaff mocks honor by linking it to violence, to which it is intimately connected throughout the play, he remains endearing and likable to Shakespeare’s audiences. Two reasons that Falstaff retains this esteem are that he plays his scoundrel’s role with such gusto and that he never enjoys enough success to become a real villain; even his highway robbery ends in humiliation for him.
Falstaff seems to scorn morality largely because he has such a hearty appetite for life and finds the niceties of courtesy and honor useless when there are jokes to be told and feasts to be eaten. Largely a creature of words, Falstaff has earned the admiration of some Shakespearean scholars because of the self-creation he achieves through language: Falstaff is constantly creating a myth of Falstaff, and this myth defines his identity even when it is visibly revealed to be false. A master of punning and wordplay, Falstaff provides most of the comedy in the play (just as he does in 2 Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V). He redeems himself largely through his real affection for Prince Harry, whom, despite everything, he seems to regard as a real friend. This affection makes Harry’s decision, foreshadowed in 1 Henry IV, to abandon Falstaff when he becomes king (in 2 Henry IV) seem all the more harsh.
The title character of 1 Henry IV appears in Richard II as the ambitious, energetic, and capable Bolingbroke, who seizes the throne from the inept Richard II after likely arranging his murder. Though Henry is not yet truly an old man in 1 Henry IV, his worries about his crumbling kingdom, guilt over his uprising against Richard II, and the vagaries of his son’s behavior have diluted his earlier energy and strength. Henry remains stern, aloof, and resolute, but he is no longer the force of nature he appears to be in Richard II. Henry’s trouble stems from his own uneasy conscience and his uncertainty about the legitimacy of his rule. After all, he himself is a murderer who has illegally usurped the throne from Richard II. Therefore, it is difficult to blame Hotspur and the Percys for wanting to usurp his throne for themselves. Furthermore, it is unclear how Henry’s kingship is any more legitimate than that of Richard II. Henry thus lacks the moral legitimacy that every effective ruler needs.
With these concerns lurking at the back of his reign, Henry is unable to rule as the magnificent leader his son Harry will become. Throughout the play he retains his tight, tenuous hold on the throne, and he never loses his majesty. But with an ethical sense clouded by his own sense of compromised honor, it is clear that Henry can never be a great king or anything more than a caretaker to the throne that awaits Henry V.
I think it should have been called Sir Jack, First Part, as Falstaff towers over everybody else in King Henry IV, Part 1. See my blog on the play:
Most Shakespeare plays have a jester, who is able to perceive certain things better than the "noble" person. There are other elements that make Falstaff more interesting, such as the juxtaposition of "fortune," class, or perhaps simply initiative.