Henry IV, Part 1
Study Questions & Essay Topics
1. 1 Henry IV is in many ways a study of contrasting characters, including Harry, Hotspur, Falstaff, and King Henry. Does the play have a single protagonist or many characters of equal importance? Why is the play named after King Henry?
2. 1 Henry IV explores the qualities of a king and how a king ought to bear himself in relation to other people. Consider the various candidates for kingship in the play (King Henry IV himself, Prince Harry, Hotspur) and discuss what qualities the main contenders would bring to bear on kingship. Do these qualities help the eventual winners defeat the losers, or is it merely a question of luck?
3. The play contains many instances of symmetry, in which scenes or even people seem to be slightly altered reflections of other scenes or people. Look for scenes where you think that a previous event is being repeated or transformed or for characters who are explicitly contrasted or compared. Which scenes or characters are these? Why might Shakespeare use this technique?
4. 1 Henry IV mixes prose and poetry to an extraordinary degree. Consider the places in which the two modes occur in the play. Why did Shakespeare choose to write his play this way? Do you think that some of the characters “demand” to speak in prose or in poetry? How would the character of Falstaff, for instance, be different if he spoke in iambic pentameter or that of King Henry if he always spoke in prose? Can you see Harry’s shifts from poetry to prose and back again as an indication of changes in his frame of mind, his environment, or his ambitions over the course of the play?
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Many critics see in 1 Henry IV a complicated pattern of displacement. Hotspur displaces Harry in his father’s eyes, for instance, and Harry must win back the place he has lost (by killing Hotspur). Similarly, Falstaff has displaced King Henry IV as Harry’s father figure. What choices lead to these displacements? Why do you think Shakespeare created them? How (and why) are they resolved—if they are resolved?
2. Many critics have found Falstaff more fascinating than any other character in the play. The critic Harold Bloom, for instance, takes a cue from Hegel in claiming that Falstaff and Hamlet are Shakespeare’s two most intelligent characters: they are, as Hegel claims, “free artists of themselves,” self-aware beings who invent themselves through their own self-descriptions; in fact, they are “men made out of words.” What do you think Bloom means by this? Consider the way in which Falstaff uses words, humor, and punning not only to negotiate the world around him, but also to constantly describe and redescribe himself. What is the impression of Falstaff that we ultimately come away with, and where (or with whom) does it originate?
3. Think about Act II, scene iv, in which Hotspur is confronted by his wife about his plans for the rebellion. What does this scene tell us about Hotspur’s character? What does it tell us about Renaissance marriage and the role of women in general? How does Shakespeare connect this analysis to the forward motion of his plot?