Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
1 Henry IV explores many different sides of a few major themes. Its primary technique for this multifaceted exploration is one of simple contrast. The differences between Harry and Hotspur make a statement on different perceptions of honor, just as the differences between the Boar’s Head Tavern and the royal palace make a statement on the breadth of England’s class differences. In utilizing contrast as a major thematic device, the play creates a motif of doubles, in which characters, actions, and scenes are often repeated in varied form throughout the play. For instance, Falstaff and the king act as doubles in that both are father figures for Harry. Harry and Hotspur act as doubles in that both are potential successors to Henry IV. Falstaff’s comical robbery in Act II, scene ii serves as a kind of lower-class double to the nobles’ Battle of Shrewsbury, exploring the consequences of rebellion against the law.
As befits the play’s general multiplicity of ideas, Shakespeare is preoccupied throughout much of 1 Henry IV with the contrasts and relationships of the different cultures native to the British Isles and united under the rule of the king. Accents, folk traditions, and geographies are discussed and analyzed, particularly through the use of Welsh characters such as Glyndwr and Scottish characters such as the Douglas. Shakespeare also rehearses the various stereotypes surrounding each character type, portraying Glyndwr as an ominous magician and the Douglas as a hotheaded warrior.
A strong current of magic runs throughout the play, which is primarily a result of the inclusion of the wizardly Glyndwr. Magic has very little to do with the plot, but it is discussed by different characters with uncommon frequency throughout the play. As with the subject of honor, a character’s opinion about the existence of magic tends to say more about the character than it does about the subject itself. The pragmatic and overconfident Hotspur, for instance, expresses contempt for belief in the black arts, repeatedly mocking Glyndwr for claiming to have magical powers. The sensuous and narcissistic Glyndwr, by contrast, seems to give full credence to the idea of magic and to the idea that he is a magician—credence that says more about Glyndwr’s own propensity for self-aggrandizement than about the reality of magic itself.
More main ideas from Henry IV, Part 1