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MonkeyNotes-Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
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OVERALL ANALYSES

CHARACTERS

Henry IV

The character after whom the play is named, Henry IV, is the monarch of England. The play opens with his speech in which he expresses his wish to carry out a crusade to claim the Holy Land of Jerusalem. The plan comes, in part, out of his desire to atone for his past sin of having usurped the throne from Richard II.

However, matters in the home country make his wish impossible. The Percies, who had helped him gain the throne, are threatening rebellion. To make matters worse, Henry IVís eldest son and the heir apparent to the throne, Prince Hal, is busy romping around in lowly company in local taverns. To the king, it seems like divine retribution is haunting him; having usurped the throne he is now being challenged himself, and his son seems to be following in the footsteps of Richard II, who lost the throne due to his loose conduct and weak will.

When Henry gets the news that Hotspur has won the battle at Holmedon, he immediately compares him to his son. While Hal is an embarrassment, Hotspur, despite his dispute with the king, is otherwise the ideal prince. Here the audience encounters a disappointed father rather than an impersonal monarch. Each time such comparisons are made either with Richard II or with Hotspur, Henry IV gets extremely worried for the fate of his son.

It suits Shakespeareís purpose to show Henry IV aging. Gray hair stands for dignity and also indicates the winter of life. At a time when he should be pleased at the prospect of being able to pass the crown on, Henry IV has instead grown weary of his irresponsible son. Henry's fear for his son and the crown was very much in stride with the turmoil of the age: the "virgin" Queen Elizabeth had no heir, and it was feared that problems of succession were bound to arise after her death.


Not surprisingly, the king sees disloyalty and plots everywhere. He suspects Mortimer, his defeated general, of having betrayed him. He suspects Hotspur's motivations for not turning over the captured enemy nobles. He can hardly tolerate Worcester's constant complaining and banishes him from the court. The Percies' rebellion, however, sheds light on the king's own behavior. Henry mentions that people have been taking advantage of his quiet and mild nature. Yet, he is neither mild nor calm. Furthermore, he has been guilty of the same duplicity he claims the Percies are guilty of, manipulating the will of the people through smooth and false claims.

Despite his flaws, Henry is still the king, however. The same characteristics that earned him the throne - ambition, ruthlessness, and shrewdness - will enable him to keep it. At the personal level, he will not allow the Percies to rake up the past and blackmail him, nor will he tolerate their disobedience. Instead, he will fight tooth and nail against the rebels. At the political level, England cannot be handed over to the rebels to be divided. The state is above personal conflicts, and maintaining the integrity of the kingdom supersedes any of Henry's past misdeeds.

By the play's end, Henry IV also shows himself to be a just king, offering peace and pardon to Hotspur and the rebels. However, when this move fails, he has no qualms about fighting. Reconciled with and supported by Hal, he wins the war, preserves the kingdom, and proves his worthiness to rule.

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