Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Hangman

Characters in Henry IV, Part 1 frequently reference execution by hanging as well as the figure of the hangman. In many cases, these references appear in the form of common phrases and figures of speech, such as “I’ll be hanged” (2.1.2) or “I’ll see thee hanged” (2.1.44). Those phrases are spoken at the top of act 2 by the two carriers, who speak a rougher form of English in which such grim idioms are to be expected. Yet these idioms are also appropriate in that they indicate the stakes of the scenes to come, in which the thieves from the Boar’s Head Tavern will attack and steal from a band of travelers. Anyone who engages in such activity is risking their neck—literally. As such, these and the many other references to execution by hanging aren’t just idiomatic; they also articulate real danger. The danger of the hangman is also symbolic for the drama as a whole. In a play where both lowly taverns and royal courts are full of traitors and thieves, the figure of the hangman looms large. Even the king himself may be considered a traitor to his country and a thief of the Crown.

The Sun

As the official emblem of the king of England, the sun symbolizes the king and his reign. King Henry invokes the image of sunlight when he criticizes the behavior of his predecessor, Richard II, who shone too brightly too much of the time. Had he remained mostly shrouded in the obscurity of cloud cover, the people would have marveled more at his “sunlike majesty” (3.2.81). By contrast, Henry acted more kingly by reserving his radiance for rare occasions. Harry echoes Henry’s language of sunlight and cloud cover in his famous soliloquy at the end of act 2, scene 2. There, he likens his youthful immaturity to the obscurity of clouds, from which he will emerge, radiant and royal, when the time is right. By “imitat[ing] the sun” in this way, he will transform from an idle rogue to a princely hero, and so redeem himself to his father and the people of England (1.2.204). Significantly, Harry’s plan for self-redemption suggests a link to Christ, who, according to doctrine, will similarly return at the right time to shine brightly in dark days. In this regard, the sun symbolizes both the son (Harry) and the Son (Christ).


Horses are a powerful symbol of nobility, valor, and military might. In early modern England, humans depended on horses for travel, communications, and war. But those most closely associated with horses were the knights, who fought for personal honor and the protection of the realm. From the play’s beginning, Hotspur is the poster child for the valorous knight who bravely rides his horse into battle. In act 2, scene 3, he explicitly references the symbolic importance of his horse, saying, “That roan shall be my throne” (2.3.75). In other words, he will ride the roan horse to a victory that will allow him to capture the throne and realize the full scope of his nobility. However, Harry challenges Hotspur’s confidence when, after his miraculous self-transformation, he arms himself and mounts his horse. In his account of this moment, Vernon invests Harry with mythical significance. He compares the prince to “feathered Mercury” prepared to command “a fiery Pegasus / And witch the world with noble horsemanship” (4.1.112–16). At the play’s end, horses help determine the outcome of the Battle at Shrewsbury. The rebels’ horses are both exhausted and diminished in number, signaling their inevitable defeat.