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When the play opens, military news interrupts the aging
King Henry’s plans to lead a crusade. The Welsh rebel Glyndˆwr
has defeated King Henry’s army in the South, and the young Harry Percy
(nicknamed Hotspur), who is supposedly loyal to King Henry, is refusing
to send to the king the soldiers whom he has captured in the North.
King Henry summons Hotspur back to the royal court so that he can
explain his actions.
Meanwhile, King Henry’s son, Prince Harry, sits drinking
in a bar with criminals and highwaymen. King Henry is very disappointed
in his son; it is common knowledge that Harry, the heir to the throne,
conducts himself in a manner unbefitting royalty. He spends most
of his time in taverns on the seedy side of London, hanging around
with vagrants and other shady characters. Harry’s closest friend
among the crew of rascals is Falstaff, a sort of substitute father
figure. Falstaff is a worldly and fat old man who steals and lies
for a living. Falstaff is also an extraordinarily witty person who
lives with great gusto. Harry claims that his spending time with these
men is actually part of a scheme on his part to impress the public
when he eventually changes his ways and adopts a more noble personality.
Falstaff’s friend Poins arrives at the inn and announces
that he has plotted the robbery of a group of wealthy travelers.
Although Harry initially refuses to participate, Poins explains
to him in private that he is actually playing a practical joke on
Falstaff. Poins’s plan is to hide before the robbery occurs, pretending
to ditch Falstaff. After the robbery, Poins and Harry will rob
Falstaff and then make fun of him when he tells the story of being
robbed, which he will almost certainly fabricate.
Hotspur arrives at King Henry’s court and details the
reasons that his family is frustrated with the king: the Percys
were instrumental in helping Henry overthrow his predecessor, but
Henry has failed to repay the favor. After King Henry leaves, Hotspur’s
family members explain to Hotspur their plan to build an alliance
to overthrow the king.
Harry and Poins, meanwhile, successfully carry out their
plan to dupe Falstaff and have a great deal of fun at his expense.
As they are all drinking back at the tavern, however, a messenger
arrives for Harry. Harry’s father has received news of the civil
war that is brewing and has sent for his son; Harry is to return
to the royal court the next day.
Although the Percys have gathered a formidable group
of allies around them—leaders of large rebel armies from Scotland
and Wales as well as powerful English nobles and clergymen who have grievances
against King Henry—the alliance has begun to falter. Several key
figures announce that they will not join in the effort to overthrow
the king, and the danger that these defectors might alert King Henry
of the rebellion necessitates going to war at once.
Heeding his father’s request, Harry returns to the palace.
King Henry expresses his deep sorrow and anger at his son’s behavior
and implies that Hotspur’s valor might actually give him more right
to the throne than Prince Harry’s royal birth. Harry decides that
it is time to reform, and he vows that he will abandon his wild
ways and vanquish Hotspur in battle in order to reclaim his good
name. Drafting his tavern friends to fight in King Henry’s army,
Harry accompanies his father to the battlefront.
The civil war is decided in a great battle at Shrewsbury.
Harry boldly saves his father’s life in battle and finally wins
back his father’s approval and affection. Harry also challenges
and defeats Hotspur in single combat. King Henry’s forces win, and
most of the leaders of the Percy family are put to death. Falstaff
manages to survive the battle by avoiding any actual fighting.
Powerful rebel forces remain in Britain, however, so
King Henry must send his sons and his forces to the far reaches
of his kingdom to deal with them. When the play ends, the ultimate
outcome of the war has not yet been determined; one battle has been
won, but another remains to be fought (Shakespeare’s sequel to this
2 Henry IV, begins
1 Henry IV leaves
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV, Part 1!