Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Henry IV, Part 1 explores many different sides of a few major themes, and Shakespeare’s primary technique for this multifaceted exploration is one of simple contrast. The differences between Harry and Hotspur make a statement on different perceptions of honor, just as the differences between the Boar’s Head Tavern and the royal palace make a statement on the breadth of England’s class differences. In utilizing contrast as a major plot device, the play creates a motif of doubles, in which characters, actions, and scenes are often repeated in varied form throughout the play. For instance, Falstaff and the king act as doubles in that both are father figures for Harry. Harry and Hotspur act as doubles in that both are potential successors to Henry IV. Falstaff’s comical robbery in act 2, scene 2 serves as a kind of lower-class double to the nobles’ Battle of Shrewsbury, exploring the consequences of rebellion against the law.

Read more about the motif of doubles in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.


Closely related to the motif of doubles is that of counterfeits—which is to say, of false doubles. The notion of the counterfeit arises frequently in the play, and in different forms. Prince Harry and Falstaff become counterfeits of nobility when they play-act the roles of king and prince. Falstaff also plays dead during the battle in act 5, effectively becoming a counterfeit corpse. More significantly, Prince Harry’s life as an idler makes him a counterfeit commoner, since he secretly knows he will one day cast aside his friends and fully assume his place among the nobility. Falstaff insinuates as much when he tells Harry: “Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit. Thou art essentially made without seeming so” (2.4.510–12). In other words, Harry is a true piece of gold, though he seems a counterfeit. Later, in act 5, the Earl of Douglas learns that there are several “counterfeit” kings on the battlefield, and he kills several of them. When he comes upon the real Henry, he asks, “What art thou / That counterfeit’st the person of a king?” (5.4.27–28). Douglas’s assumption that Henry is a fake relates to the larger question about the legitimacy of Henry’s rule.

High and Low Language

One of the characteristics that sets Henry IV, Part 1 apart from many of Shakespeare’s other plays is the ease with which it transitions between scenes populated by nobility and scenes populated by commoners. One result of these transitions is that the play encompasses many different languages and manners of expression. From the Welsh and Irish not understood by the English characters to the bartenders’ coarse language Harry picks up and uses to insinuate himself in their society, these languages display the extremely diverse cast of characters that populates Shakespeare’s stage. But even more significant is the fact that knowledge of these languages and the ability to transition between them proves to be an invaluable tool. Harry makes friends quickly with the bartenders precisely because, unlike his father, he is able to emulate them and speak their language, leaving courtly diction behind. Harry demonstrates that he is not restricted to only one kind of language when he eloquently declares his loyalty to his father; his ability to speak to commoners and kings alike gives him a great deal of power.