Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Nature of Honor
Though it is one of the principal themes of the play, the concept of honor is never given a consistent definition in Henry IV, Part 1. In fact, the very multiplicity of views on honor that Shakespeare explores suggests that, in the end, honor is merely a lofty reflection of an individual’s personality and conscience. In other words, honor seems to be defined less by an overarching set of guidelines and more by an individual’s personal values and goals. Thus runs the argument of Hotspur, a quick-tempered and military-minded young man. He feels that honor has to do with glory on the battlefield and with defending one’s reputation and good name against any perceived insult. For the troubled and contemplative King Henry IV, on the other hand, honor has to do with the well-being of the nation and the legitimacy of its ruler. One of the reasons Henry is troubled is that he perceives his own rebellion against Richard II, which won him the crown, to be a dishonorable act.
For the complex Prince Harry, honor seems to be associated with noble behavior, but for long stretches of time Harry is willing to sacrifice the appearance of honor for the sake of his own goals, confident that he can regain his honor at will. Harry’s conception of honor is so all-inclusive that he believes that, by killing Hotspur, Hotspur’s honor becomes his own. For the amoral rogue Falstaff, the whole idea of honor is nothing but hot air and wasted effort that does no one any good. All the major characters in the play are concerned with honor, but their opinions about the subject illuminate more about them than they do about the concept of honor.
The Legitimacy of Rulership
Because Henry IV, Part 1 is set amid political instability and violent rebellion, the play is naturally concerned with the idea of rulership. It questions what makes a ruler legitimate, which qualities are desirable in a ruler, when it is acceptable to usurp a ruler’s authority, and what the consequences of rebelling against a ruler might be. The concept of legitimate rule is deeply connected in the play with the concept of rebellion: if a ruler is illegitimate, then it is acceptable to usurp his power, as Hotspur and the Percys attempt to do with King Henry. While the criteria that make a ruler legitimate differ—legitimate rule may be attributed to the will of the people or to the will of God—on some level the crack in Henry’s power results from his own fear that his rule is illegitimate, since he illegally usurped the crown from Richard II.
The consequences of failed rulership are explored in the scenes depicting the violence of lawlessness and rebellion sweeping England—the robbery in Act II, the battle in Act V, and so forth. The qualities that are desirable in a ruler are explored through the contrast inherent in the play’s major characters: the stern and aloof Henry, the unpredictable and intelligent Harry, and the decisive and hot-tempered Hotspur. Each man offers a very different style of rulership. In the end, Shakespeare seems to endorse Harry’s ability to think his way through a situation and to manipulate others without straying too far from the dictates of conscience. In any event, Harry emerges as Shakespeare’s most impressive English king two plays later, in Henry V.
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.
Although language is seldom discussed by the characters in Henry IV, Part 1, the sheer variety of spoken language in the play suggests that one of Shakespeare’s aims with this work was to portray something of the scope of the English language. In addition to high speech and low speech, there is poetry and prose, as well as the various accents of Britain’s various locales. The varied nature of the play’s language suits the multiplicity of its settings. Shakespeare shows that he can capture the speech of common thieves on a dark night, warriors on the way to battle, and courtiers in the royal palace. Shakespeare utilizes various rhetorical and formal strategies to distinguish his various types of speech without sacrificing his unifying style: generally, for instance, well-born characters tend to speak in verse, while commoners tend to speak in prose.