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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
Though it is one of the principal themes of the play,
the concept of honor is never given a consistent definition in
IV. 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.
1 Henry IV 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
One of the characteristics that sets
IV 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
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
1 Henry IV, 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry IV, Part 1!