Written in 1596, Henry IV part 1 is one of William Shakespeare’s ten history plays; it is the second one in what today is known as Shakespeare’s “second tetralogy.” Made up of five acts, it portrays historic and political events that occurred in England around the years 1402 and 1403; concretely, the events that lead to the Battle of Shrewsbury. Even though the play was written almost 200 years after the events it portrays, Shakespeare did not miss the chance to address current political issues such as the matter of succession. At the time Henry IV part 1 was written, queen Elizabeth I was 63 years old and the play’s dramatization of kingly succession depicted through the character of Hal, would have unnerved more than one member in the play’s audience.

Honour, in different perspectives and conceptions, is one of the most recurrent concepts throughout Henry IV part 1. On one hand, prince Hal, the rebellious heir to the throne who has lost his credibility due to his questionable doings, vindicates himself and his honour through his participation in the battle at Shrewsbury and his combat with Hotspur. On the other hand, at the beginning of act five, Falstaff contemplates the meaning of honour and decides it is but a trifle and not worth dying for. Finally, Hotspur exhibits a rather reckless bravery which will, eventually, lead him to his doom. According to Norman Council, in his book When Honour’s at the Stake, “Shakespeare gives the play its basic form and defines the action of the principal characters by reference to the idea of honor.” This concept is indeed what drives the actions of the play’s three main characters. Falstaff knows and understands the meaning of honor and it is by means of this knowledge that he chooses to discard it from his way of living and to define it as a “mere scutcheon” (V.1.139). His thoughts are reflected through the next actions he performs in the play. In order to get himself some money, he accepts bribes from men who don’t want to fight and assembles an army of poor men and former prisoners, even when he knows this will result in the loss of many of those men’s lives. Later on, in the battlefield he hands Hal a bottle of liquor instead of a pistol thus showing that “he prefers sack, let alone life, before honor.” (Council 41) Contrary to Falstaff, volatile Hotspur embodies a completely different notion of honour. Braveness and impetuosity are one of Hotspur’s main traits, which make king Henry wish Hotspur was his son instead of Prince Hal. Yet, his flaws will eventually deem him as unfit for ruling and cause his demise. Dissatisfied with the king, he involves himself in a plot to overthrow “this ingrate and cankered Bolingbroke,” (1.3.137) and he is willing to take it to the last consequences. In Henry IV part 1, Hotspur stands for “the excess… of the military spirit, for honor exaggerated.” (Zeeveld 250) Finally, in prince Hal’s character we may observe how “the spring and direction of the action is toward a vindication of his honor, which must be made to exceed that of Hotspur.” (Zeeveld 251). Hal is fully aware of his duties and responsibilities as heir to the throne and yet he forswears this at his honor’s expense. However, in act 1, he reveals himself to the audience alleging that he is playing but a part and when he is ready to claim his place as king, he will seem like a far better man. The moment to accept his duties and responsibilities comes at the battle in Shrewsbury fighting alongside and defending his father and facing Hotspur. Through these actions, prince Hal achieves three things: he redeems his bad reputation, undermines Hotspur’s honor, and demonstrates his ability to reign. Through the characters of Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff, Shakespeare presents and develops three different and conflicting ideas of honor that inherently drive the character’s actions and the play’s plot. Being such an intangible concept, the play doesn’t quite seem to settle with any of those definitions. Perhaps because the question has neither wrong nor right answers, but it seems to depend entirely on whose perspective one contemplates honor from.

While the play is indeed called Henry IV part 1, the audience gets to see very little of the king’s presence and this occurs because the main focus is on prince Hal, which is, in my opinion, what makes the play moderately engaging. Falstaff and his complete lack of regard towards honor give the play a much needed light hearted comedy. These two characters as well as the contrast of settings in which the play takes place (castles and taverns with a final convergence in the battlefield) are a way of showing that a country’s life and decisions that will affect it do not only occur in the secluded, highest spheres of its society, but everywhere. The former is also worthy of studying and contemplating. While not my favourite Shakespeare play, so far, the depth of its characters and motivations as well as the way it approaches English history make Henry IV part I a good, if not different form of entertainment.