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The complex Prince Harry is at the center of events in Henry IV, Part 1. 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 Henry IV, Part 2, 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 the defining dynamic of Henry IV, Part 1, and it opens the door for Prince Harry to become the great King Henry V in the next two plays in Shakespeare’s sequence.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV, Part 1!