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Henry IV, Part 1 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?
The simplest answer is that the play is named after King Henry because he is the king. All of Shakespeare’s history plays are named after the person sitting on the throne during the time that they take place. Moreover, the play is concerned with detailing, in broad strokes, the reign of King Henry IV. Henry, however, is not the main character, and his actions are generally secondary to the plot. Henry IV, Part 1 does not really revolve around a particular protagonist but instead makes its thematic arguments by exploring the contrasts between its four major and many minor characters.
If a single major character must be chosen, the likeliest candidate is Harry, whose mind is most nearly at the center of the play’s focus. Given, too, that Harry emerges in the next two plays as the heroic King Henry V, the most glorified figure in all of Shakespeare’s histories, it is probably feasible to read Henry IV, Part 1, at least in part, as a kind of prelude to Harry’s more mature adventures.
Henry IV, Part 1 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?
King Henry possesses a certain regal grace. He believes that by remaining strong and keeping himself aloof from the common people, he will command respect and authority. By contrast, Prince Harry has spent a great deal of his time fraternizing with commoners, both to lower the expectations he must face and to get to know the mind of England’s people for the time when he is their ruler. Both Henry and Harry are intelligent and patient and able to detach themselves from a situation in order to think a plan through. By contrast, Hotspur is rash, crude, impatient, and violent. His main qualities as a king would be his capacity for swift and decisive action and his commitment to personal honor. Shakespeare certainly disqualifies Hotspur from being a viable candidate for the throne by portraying his inability to exercise diplomacy and his frequent thoughtless mistakes and blunders. Henry and Harry, however, both make impressive leaders—especially Harry, who later becomes the greatest ruler in all of Shakespeare’s histories.
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?
There are innumerable instances of symmetry in the play, including Hotspur’s and his uncle’s similar complaints about Henry IV in Act 4, Scene 3 and Act 5, Scene 1, respectively; the contrast between Harry and Hotspur, who act as son figures to Henry IV; the contrast between Henry and Falstaff, who act as father figures to Harry; the set of high noblemen at the top of the play’s social hierarchy and the set of low commoners at the bottom of it; and so on. Shakespeare uses this technique largely as an instrument of contrast, whereby a single thematic idea can be explored from two opposed perspectives, such as Harry and Hotspur’s contrasting ideas of honor.
Henry IV, Part 1 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?
The multiplicity and variety of the English language used throughout Henry IV, Part 1 is one of its most interesting motifs, and the prose/poetry contrast is generally used as a technique to help Shakespeare capture the broad range of dialogic style he has incorporated into his play. In general, the play’s fast-paced, rough-hewn prose is the language of commoners, while its elegant, courtly poetry is the language of the nobility. If Falstaff spoke in iambic pentameter, he would lose the sense of freewheeling vulgarity that clings to him, and if the king were to speak in prose, he would lose his sense of regal stateliness. Generally, Harry speaks in prose around his common friends and uses poetry increasingly as he makes the transition into the regal prince of the play’s conclusion.
Read more about Shakespeare’s use of both prose and verse in Hamlet.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV, Part 1!