Henry IV, Part 1 is a play that works primarily through contrasts. The key contrasts in the play relate as much to people (fathers and sons, commoners and nobles, rebels and kings) as to abstract values (honor and dishonor, legitimacy and illegitimacy, faithfulness and betrayal). Considering the importance of contrasts in the play, it’s significant that Shakespeare organizes the dramatic action around two plots with distinct central conflicts.

The first plot concerns the strained relationship between King Henry IV and his son, Prince Harry. Whereas the king expects his son to cultivate the honor necessary to legitimize himself as the Prince of Wales, Harry insists on keeping company with thieves and mountebanks. Yet Harry’s apparently misspent youth serves a larger purpose, as he plans to make a miraculous transformation. When the time is right and his country truly needs him, he will cast aside his dishonorable ways and redeem himself in the eyes of the king and the court. In the play’s first half, however, the king remains in the dark, and the relationship between father and son is tense.

Whereas the play’s first plot mainly concerns personal matters, its second plot is primarily political. This plot centers a rebellion that the Percy family is planning, in collaboration with co-conspirators from the Welsh and Scottish resistance movements. The Percys have a long history with King Henry. Without their aid, he never would have been able to win public favor and depose the former king in a bloodless coup and assume the throne himself. However, the Percys felt their efforts were betrayed when Henry later had Richard assassinated. The final straw occurs early in the play, when Henry refuses to pay the ransom to retrieve the Percys’ kinsman, Mortimer, from the clutches of the Welshman Owen Glendower.

These two plots initially remain separate and distinct. The rising action of the first plot unfolds through the Gads Hill robbery. Harry participates in this robbery by playing a trick on his mentor and friend, the enormously fat and hugely witty Sir John Falstaff. Though he does play a role in the robbery, Harry also remains withdrawn from the main action. He is more interested in manipulating his friend for the sake of his own entertainment than he is in getting money. He thus stands apart from his friends, which indicates that he’s not fully one of them and reminds the audience that he’s simply biding his time.

Meanwhile, the rising action of the second plot unfolds, starting with King Henry’s confrontation with Hotspur, who has contravened the law by refusing to hand his prisoners of war over to the king. When Hotspur realizes the king refuses to aid Mortimer because Mortimer had a better claim to the throne than Henry, Hotspur turns against the king. Alongside his father (the Earl of Northumberland) and his uncle (the Earl of Worcester), Hotspur prepares for battle. As part of his preparation, he visits Owen Glendower in Wales and conspires with the Scottish Earl of Douglas.

The two plots begin to come together through the implicit contrast between Hotspur and Prince Harry. The two young men are the same age, and they share the same name—“Hotspur” is a nickname for Harry Percy. Initially, they seem diametrically opposed. Whereas Prince Harry is a dishonorable wastrel who has accomplished nothing, Hotspur is an honorable soldier who has led several successful military missions. King Henry underscores the comparison in the play’s opening scene, where he fantasizes about having Hotspur as a son rather than Harry.

The turning point in the play comes in act 3, scene 2, which is when the play’s two plots first truly come together. On the brink of civil war, King Henry confronts his son and chastises him for his degeneracy. Deciding the time has finally come to redeem himself, Harry pledges allegiance to his father’s cause and takes up arms. At this point, as the tension between father and son is resolved, the conflict between the Monmouth house and the Percy house becomes centered on the opposition between Harry and Hotspur. No longer a dishonorable idler, Harry challenges Hotspur’s implicit claim on honor, nobility, and valor.

The opposition between Harry and Hotspur finally comes to a head when, in the midst of battle, they face each other in single combat. In this scene, which marks the play’s climax, Harry defeats Hotspur and, at last, fully assumes his rightful place as the honorable prince and cherished son. At this moment, with the resolution of the play’s second plot, we realize that Henry IV, Part 1 has really been concerned with resolving the conflict within Harry. The play’s arc is therefore most centrally focused on Harry’s rise from idle wastrel to promising prince.

The falling action involves Henry plotting the next stages in the battle, which will continue in Henry IV, Part 2.