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. 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 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. For Hotspur, who has dedicated himself to a successful military career, 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. As for Falstaff, the whole idea of honor is nothing but hot air and wasted effort that does no one any good.

For Prince Harry, honor is more complex and seems to be bound up more with political performance than with personal attributes. He spends his youth associating with common thieves and mountebanks, allowing himself to be perceived as ignoble and lacking in honor. But as Harry announces in his soliloquy at the end of act 1, scene 2, his dishonorable nature is but a ruse. Like a mask that hides his true identity, he will cast his dishonorable behavior off at the right moment and reveal his intrinsic honor. This is precisely what he does in act 3, scene 2, where he pledges his allegiance to his father, saying: “I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, / Be more myself” (3.2.94–95). By casting off the idleness of the past, joining his father in battle, and defeating his rival, Harry becomes the honorable prince he always intended to be. Yet even at the end of the play, it isn’t perfectly clear how sincere Harry’s miraculous conversion is. Does he really mean it, or is it all part of a political performance?

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. The criteria for what makes a ruler legitimate differ. For example, legitimate rule may be attributed to the will of the people or to the will of God. But 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 2, the battle in act 5, 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.

Debt and Repayment

The language of debt and repayment appears frequently in Henry IV, Part 1. There are, of course, several literal debts in the play. For instance, Falstaff is sorely indebted to the hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, which he resolutely refuses to repay. But the more important debts are the figurative ones, principal among which is the debt of gratitude the Percy family believes the king owes them. The Percys played a crucial role in helping Henry ascend to the throne, but they believe he has failed to repay them adequately. He has broken his oaths, and his refusal to bring Mortimer back from Wales is the last straw. It is this unpaid debt Hotspur references when he convinces Northumberland and Worcester to turn against the king and join the rebellion: Henry must be made “to answer all the debt he owes to you” (1.3.189).

Prince Harry is also linked to the language of debt and repayment, though in a more complex and abstract way. Consider the ending of his soliloquy in the first act, when he announces his plan to reform himself and set aside his idleness when the time is right: “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will” (1.2.223–24). The phrase “redeeming time” has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it’s linked to Christian morality and the notion of redemption. That is, Harry will redeem himself in the eyes of the public after presenting himself as such a degenerate. On the other hand, the word “redeem” also has a financial connotation, meaning either to repay a stock or else to return an item in exchange for payment. In this sense, Harry will repay his father and the public for his shameful behavior, and in exchange for settling this social and political debt he’ll earn everyone’s favor. This language of redemption shows up at several other key moments in the play, symbolically linking all human relationships, whether personal or political, to a financial economy of debt and exchange.