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MonkeyNotes-Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
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THEMES

Major Theme

The major theme of the play is the civil strife against the king. It is introduced in Act I, Scene 1, with the message that Hotspur Percy has refused to hand over the prisoners of war. The Percies have been discontented with the king, who has not kept his word of rewarding them for their timely help in the overthrowing of Richard II.

This conflict links the events in this play to those of Richard II, Shakespeare's previous historical play. There, Shakespeare had Henry vow to go to the Holy Land to expiate his guilt for the part he had played in Richard's murder. At the start of 1 Henry IV, that vow to himself is not yet fulfilled and, indeed, must be put off due to border wars and the conflict with the Percies. This opening scene strengthens the sense of continuation between the two plays and logically furthers the theme of rebellion.

The Percies give vent to their anger in planning a war against the king. The situation appears dire for Henry until his son comes to his side. At the final battle at Shrewsbury, the king comes through victorious. The integrity of the kingdom is maintained and the rebels are punished for their deeds. The major role of Prince Hal in the battle is noteworthy, as he slays Hotspur, the main rebel.


Minor Themes

Along with the major theme of the civil rebellion is the equally rebellious attitude of the tavern robbers and other subjects toward the monarch. Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph, Peto, and even Prince Hal make a mockery of the king's law by robbing his subjects and laughing over their crime. They escape punishment due to the involvement of the prince, showing that corruption and rebellion are rife at all levels of society.

The theme of honor also runs throughout the play, meaning different things to different characters. Hotspur fights for honor. He is insulted when the king refuses to cater to his demand to ransom Mortimer. When Worcester proposes his plot, Hotspur is immediately ignited. This Hotspur of the North is an impatient youth, believing in violent action and the achievement of honor at all costs. Even the mortal wounds he receives hardly matter much. As he makes clear, it is his pride that has been hurt and it is his honor that has been reduced by his defeat at Hal's hands. Hotspur's upholding of honor is admirable, but his singleminded fixation on it leads to his death.

On the other hand, King Henry is deeply concerned about his sonís dishonorable conduct. Richard's lack of honor had cost him the throne, and it appears to Henry that Hal is following in his footsteps. Hal, however, redeems himself by honorably accepting his responsibility and by bravely fighting at Shrewsbury.

This theme of honor also finds a comic treatment in the subplot. Falstaff expresses his thoughts on honor at the sight of Blunt's dead body. Falstaff, as the reader is reminded, is coward not by nature but by principle. Therefore, in the name of honor, a mere word to him, he refuses to lose his life.

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