The ruling king of England. Henry is not actually all that old, but at the time the play opens, he has been worn down prematurely by worries. He nurses guilty feelings about having won his throne through a civil war that deposed the former king, Richard II. In addition, his reign has not brought an end to the internal strife in England, which erupts into an even bigger civil war in this play. Finally, he is vexed by the irresponsible antics of his eldest son, Prince Harry. Regal, proud, and somewhat aloof, King Henry is not the main character of the play that bears his name but, rather, its historical focus. He gives the play a center of power and a sense of stability, though his actions and emotions are largely secondary to the plot.
King Henry IV’s son, who will eventually become King Henry V. Harry’s title is Prince of Wales, but all of his friends call him Hal; he is also sometimes called Harry Monmouth. Though Harry spends all his time hanging around highwaymen, robbers, and whores, he has secret plans to transform himself into a noble prince, and his regal qualities emerge as the play unfolds. Harry is the closest thing the play has to a protagonist: his complex and impressive mind is generally at the center of the play, though Shakespeare is often somewhat ambiguous about how we are meant to understand this simultaneously deceitful and heroic young prince.
The son and heir of the Earl of Northumberland and the nephew of the Earl of Worcester. Hotspur’s real name is Henry Percy (he is also called Harry or Percy), but he has earned his nickname from his fierceness in battle and hastiness of action. Hotspur is a member of the powerful Percy family of the North, which helped bring King Henry IV to power but now feels that the king has forgotten his debt to them. In Shakespeare’s account, Hotspur is the same age as Prince Harry and becomes his archrival. Quick-tempered and impatient, Hotspur is obsessed with the idea of honor and glory to the exclusion of all other qualities.
A fat old man between the ages of about fifty and sixty-five who hangs around in taverns on the wrong side of London and makes his living as a thief, highwayman, and mooch. Falstaff is Prince Harry’s closest friend and seems to act as a sort of mentor to him, instructing him in the practices of criminals and vagabonds. He is the only one of the bunch who can match Harry’s quick wit pun for pun.
A nobleman and military leader who is a close companion and valuable ally of King Henry IV.
The younger son of King Henry and the younger brother of Prince Harry. John proves himself wise and valiant in battle, despite his youth.
A loyal and trusted ally of the king and a valuable warrior.
Hotspur’s uncle. Shrewd and manipulative, Worcester is the mastermind behind the Percy rebellion.
Hotspur’s father. Northumberland conspires and raises troops on the Percy side, but he claims that he is sick before the Battle of Shrewsbury and does not actually bring his troops into the fray.
The Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr’s son-in-law. Mortimer is a conflation of two separate historical figures: Mortimer and the Earl of March. For Shakespeare’s purposes, Mortimer matters because he had a strong claim to the throne of England before King Henry overthrew the previous king, Richard II.
The leader of the Welsh rebels and the father of Lady Mortimer (most editions of 1 Henry IV refer to him as Owen Glendower). Glyndwr joins with the Percys in their insurrection against King Henry. Well-read, educated in England, and very capable in battle, he is also steeped in the traditional lore of Wales and claims to be able to command great magic. He is mysterious and superstitious and sometimes acts according to prophecies and omens.
The leader of the large army of Scottish rebels against King Henry. Usually called “The Douglas” (a traditional way of referring to a Scottish clan chief), the deadly and fearless Douglas fights on the side of the Percys.
A relative and ally of the Earl of Worcester.
The archbishop, whose given name is Richard Scrope, has a grievance against King Henry and thus conspires on the side of the Percys.
Criminals and highwaymen. Poins, Bardolph, and Peto are friends of Falstaff and Prince Harry who drink with them in the Boar’s Head Tavern, accompany them in highway robbery, and go with them to war.
Another highwayman friend of Harry, Falstaff, and the rest. Gadshill seems to be nicknamed after the place on the London road—called Gad’s Hill—where he has set up many robberies.
Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, a seedy dive in Eastcheap, London, where Falstaff and his friends go to drink.