I . . .
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry.
In the royal palace of London, King Henry IV of England speaks with his counselors. Worn out by the recent civil wars that have wracked his country, Henry looks forward to a project he has been planning for a long time: joining in the Crusades. He plans to lead a military expedition to Jerusalem, the Holy Land, to join in the battle between the Islamic peoples who currently occupy it and the European armies who are trying to seize it for the sake of Christianity.
However, news from two separate borders of Henry’s kingdom almost immediately changes his plans: skirmishes have broken out between the English forces on one side and Scottish and Welsh rebels on the other. The king’s trusted advisor, the Earl of West-moreland, relays the bad news that Edmund Mortimer, an English military leader, has lost a battle against a band of guerrilla fighters in Wales, who are led by the powerful and mysterious Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr. Glyndwr has captured Mortimer, and the rebels have slaughtered one thousand of Mortimer’s soldiers. Moreover, the Welsh women, following their traditions, have mutilated the -soldiers’ corpses.
From the other English border, Westmoreland adds, he has just received information that young Harry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, another of the king’s best military men, is currently engaged in heated battle with Archibald, also known as the Douglas, the leader of a large band of Scottish rebels. King Henry has been previously told about this development, it turns out, and already possesses an update about the outcome: young Hotspur has defeated the -Douglas and his army of ten thousand and has taken prisoner several important figures among the Scotsmen, including the Douglas’s own son Mordake, Earl of Fife. King Henry is pleased at the news and cannot help comparing Hotspur’s achievements with the idleness of his son, Prince Harry: Harry is the same age as Hotspur, but he has not won any military glory. Indeed, Harry’s dishonorable behavior makes King Henry ashamed; he wishes that Hotspur were his son instead.
Hotspur, however, is behaving very strangely: he has sent word to King Henry that he plans to send only one of his prisoners (Mordake) to the king and retain the rest. This action flouts standard procedure, as the king has an automatic right to all noble prisoners captured in battle. Westmoreland suggests that Hotspur’s rebellious act comes at the prompting of his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, who is known to be hostile to the king. The angered Henry concurs and says that he has sent for Hotspur, demanding that he come and explain himself. Henry decides that the Crusades project will have to be put off and that he will hold court the next Wednesday at Windsor Castle to hear what Hotspur has to say.
The plot of 1 Henry IV is an outgrowth of dramatic historical events from England’s past. King Henry’s opening remark that “[t]hose opposèd eyes / Which . . . / . . . / Did lately meet in the intestine shock / And furious close of civil butchery” will no longer spill English blood on English soil refers to the recent power struggle between various English nobles (I.i.9–13). Shakespeare would have expected his audience to know the events to which Henry refers. Indeed, Shakespeare himself had dramatized them in one of his earlier plays, Richard II: as a result of a civil war in England, Henry managed to win the crown from Richard II, the previous king. Henry is now haunted by the violence that he used to gain the crown, and he must fight another civil war to stay in power.
Henry is already worn down by a vague sense of guilt and by uneasiness about the legitimacy of his seat on the throne. Henry has blood on his hands, since he had Richard murdered after overthrowing him. Henry bears himself regally, but he is so concerned about the recent unrest in his country that he is “shaken” and “wan with care,” or pale with worry (I.i.1). Although he is not very old at the play’s opening, life has already fatigued him noticeably.
Through other characters’ discussions, this scene also introduces Hotspur, a young man the same age as Prince Harry and something of a foil (a character whose emotions or attitudes contrast with, and thereby accentuate, those of another character) for him. Though they have the same given name (Henry), Hotspur and Harry are as different as night and day. Hotspur is bold, quick-tempered, and loves battle; Westmoreland and King Henry talk about his remarkable accomplishment in defeating the Earl of Douglas. Harry, on the other hand, appears to be lazy, cowardly, and self-indulgent.
The comparison that King Henry makes between Hotspur and Harry is the first of many such comparisons that occur as the balance of power and honor shifts between the two young men. King Henry believes that Hotspur is “the theme of honour’s tongue” but that “riot and dishonour stain the brow / Of my young Harry,” that is, Prince Harry (I.i.80–84). Henry even wishes that Hotspur were his real son, since Hotspur is the one who seems to behave in a truly princely fashion. Harry eventually realizes the value of Hotspur’s qualities too, and he strives to match and surpass them as he grows into his princely role.
Finally, the scene introduces us to some of the interesting cast of characters who later fight against Henry’s forces. Some of these figures are not English at all but instead lead native rebel bands from the countries bordering England, over which English rulers hold only tenuous control. Reports are made of the fearless Archibald, Earl of Douglas, a powerful Scottish leader who fought Hotspur near the northern border of England. Also discussed is “the irregular and wild” Owain Glyndwr, leader of a band of native guerrilla fighters in Wales (I.i.40). The English associate Glyndwr with the mysterious, dark sorcery native to Wales and conceive of him as a magician. The “beastly shameless transformation” that the Welsh women perform upon the bodies of the dead Englishmen—presumably a ritual castration or a related rite—is thought to be a kind of voodoo or mysterious native magic (I.i.42–46). This sort of nervous interest in the oppressed native cultures of Britain is a running motif throughout the play.