William Shakespeare
The First Part of King Henry the Fourth IV

Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: I enjoyed the humor in this play greatly and found much great language.

Per Bevington: This is the second of the tetralogy starting with Richard II (see notes regarding sources also with that play's summary).  Principal source was the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed's "Chronicles". Many of the deviations from other historical accounts derive from Daniel's "The First Four Books of the Civil Wars" (1595): the more youthful Hotspur, his being killed by Hal, etc. Other sources include Stow's "The Chronicles of England" and "The Annals of England"; the play by Tarlton or Rowley called "The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth"; the anonymous play "Thomas of Woodstock"; "A Mirror for Magistrates", etc...

Historically the play extends from c. 1400 to Battle of Shrewsbury (1403)

Themes/Events: Scots & Welsh rebellion; the Percys fight initially with the king but later ally with the Scots and Owen Glendower of Wales against the king; Hotspur's heroism but imperfect qualities: poor listener, scorn for members of the court and for music, his insensitivity [he is portrayed as a man of the same age as Hal]; Falstaff as a foil to Hotspur regarding honor; role of Falstaff in Prince Hal's coming of age; relationships between fathers and sons (H4/H5, Percy/Hotspur; peripheral role of women (Kate, Mortimer's Welsh wife, Mistress Quickly).

Note: It is helpful to review the history of The Hundred's Year War, for example at the Encyclopedia Britannica webiste, and the lineage of English kings.


Act I

Act I Scene 1

The Royal Court [c. 1400, c. a year later than at the end of Richard II]. King Henry IV ("H4", formerly Henry Plantagenet of Bolingbroke, D of Hereford, a Lancastrian king) confers with his counselor & kinsman Earl of Westmorland and with Sir Walter Blunt and others. H4 has wanted to make a trip to the Holy Land, to purge his sins incurred by Richard's slaying, but has been prevented by rebellions taking place in his lands. 

Westmorland informs him that Lord Mortimer, leading the men of Herefordshire, has been captured with heavy losses by the rebellious Welsh led by Owen Glendower. [This Edmund Mortimer is called the Earl of March in the play and Hotspur's brother-in-law; Shakespeare thus combines (1) the historical Edmund Mortimer who was Hotspur's brother-in-law, who married Glendower's daughter, who was imprisoned, and who died in 1409, with (2) Edmund Mortimer's nephew Edmund Mortimer the 5th E of March, who made a claim to the throne and died 1425.] The king's troops led by Harry Percy (Henry Percy, "Hotspur") have fought the rebellious Scots led by Archibald Douglas Earl of Douglas at Holmedon in Northumberland. Blunt has added that that Douglas has been defeated by the noble Hotspur. Douglas was not captured, but several rebellious nobles were, including the royal descendent Mordake (son of the E of Albany and grandson of King Robert II of Scotland). 

The king envies the heroism of Hotspur and compares his own disappointing Harry ("Prince Henry", "Prince Hal", or "Hal", Henry of Monmouth, the Prince of Wales and future Henry V) to him, wondering if they might have been exchanged at birth by a fairy. But he is also bothered to hear that Hotspur was not willing to give up his prisoners, other than Mordake, to the king. Westmorland attributes this to Hotspur's uncle E of Worcester (younger brother to Hotspur's father Henry Percy E of Northumberland), whom he regards as malevolent to H4. H4 has called Hotspur to answer for this insubordinate attitude.

Act I Scene 2

London. Prince Hal drinks with Sir John Falstaff. The very rotund Falstaff candidly discusses how he makes his living by stealing purses by night, thereby serving as one of "Diana's foresters". Hal has paid his bar bill at the tavern many times. Falstaff jokingly wonders if, when Hal is king, he will hang thieves. Hal suggests he will have Falstaff act as judge. Falstaff has been recently chastised by a man of the council for acting as a bad influence on the prince. Falstaff knows he must reform, but continues with further plans to take more purses and argues that it is his vocation. 

Ned (Edward) Poins joins them to discuss the planned upcoming robbery of travelers at Gad's Hill. Falstaff wants Hal to join them, but he refuses. Poins, alone with Hal, suggests an elaborate prank he and Hal can play on Falstaff and his men Peto, Bardolph, and Gadshill: they will rob Falstaff et al of the money they have just robbed. Hal decides to go along with this, but to himself comments that he is deliberately playing a role and will eventually break out of it and be all the more admired for it.

Act I Scene 3

The court [historically at Windsor]. H4 meets with Hotspur, Northumberland, and Worcester. He is angry and impatient and chastises them for their insubordination. Worcester is incensed and angrily replies, after which the king angrily sends him away. Northumberland claims Hotspur intended to give up the prisoners all along. Hotspur amplifies on this, saying he merely was angered on the battlefield by the effeminate and perfumed lord of the court who came to him, complaining that the bodies were carried past him, and pestering him, causing Hotspur to answer impulsively. Blunt seems satisfied with this answer, but H4 is still angered that Hotspur refuses to relinquish the prisoners unless H4 ransoms Hotspur's brother-in-law Mortimer from Glendower. H4 assert that Mortimer has subsequently married Glendower's daughter (unnamed) and is thereby a traitor, saying "on the barren mountains let him starve". Hotspur defends Mortimer, reminding H4 how valiantly Mortimer fought and was wounded in hand-to-hand against Glendower on the banks of the Severn. H4 calls Hotspur a liar, then dismisses Northumberland and demands to hear no more of Mortimer.

Left alone, the Percys confer. Hotspur vows to join Mortimer and fight on his side against the ungrateful king. Worcester observes that the king's resistance in ransoming Mortimer is partly a result that Mortimer had been named by Richard II as the heir to the throne before starting his Irish expedition. Hotspur is amazed to hear this and is angry that the king H4 they helped to power is now treating them so ungratefully. He fears the chronicles will not speak of the Percy family favorably, since they helped to bring in H4 over Richard II and then themselves were discarded. Worcester has a plan, but must first overcome Hotspur's impetuousness and poor listening skills--he rants on about hounding the king, etc. Hotspur recounts how the Percy family helped H4 return from exile to England at Ravenspurgh. 

Worcester wants Hotspur to give his Scots prisoners including Mordake back to the Douglas, forming an alliance with him, while Northumberland will form an alliance with the Archbishop of York (Richard Scroop, who resents his own brother Stephen Scroop's execution by H4 at Bristol), while he will ally with Glendower and Mortimer in Wales. Hotspur eagerly joins the plot and looks forward to having his revenge on H4.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Innyard on London-Canterbury Road, 2 AM. A hostler helps two carriers prepare to make their journeys. Gadshill, who is arranging the robbery, arrives--the others view him suspiciously. Chamberlain, who is allied with Gadshill, informs him what travelers are on the road and what wealth they carry. They talk of St. Nicholas, reputed patron saint of thieves. 

Act I I Scene 2

Highway, near Gad's Hill. Poins has made off with Falstaff's horse, leaving Falstaff annoyed to be left on foot. Gadshill tells them to get their vizards (masks) on, as their victims are coming. Poins and Hal arrange to stand guard somewhat removed from the main lane. The travelers arrive and Falstaff et al rob them and tie them up. Differently disguised, Hal and Poins then arrive and rob them. 

Act I I Scene 3

Hotspur's estate [historically in Northumberland]. Hotspur reads a letter from Richard Scroop, indicating he feels the plot is unwise and that they lack adequate forces. Hotspur is contemptuous of this cautionary advice. 

Kate (Lady Percy, Hotspur's wife, historically named Elizabeth) wants to know where his is going but he refuses to tell her despite her loving entreaty. She suspects he is going to join her brother Mortimer, but he remains close-lipped, since she is a woman and presumably therefore cannot be fully trusted.

Act I I Scene 4

A tavern in Eastcheap, London [perhaps the Boar's Head]. Prince Hal and Poins are delighted at pulling off the robbery of Falstaff. Hal brags about his drinking skills. He teases the drawer (waiter who serves the drinks) named Francis, who always answers "anon, anon". 

Falstaff arrives. Hal envisions himself as the noble warrior Hotspur. Falstaff calls him a rogue and coward for leaving them when the robbery was to be done. He gives a highly exaggerated and inconsistent account of how many men attacked them and how valiantly though unsuccessfully he fought them off. Hal tells him at last it was he and Poins that robbed them. Falstaff, not missing a beat, tells him he knew all along it was he and that he went along with it because he knew he could not kill the heir apparent. He wants the money divided. The Hostess (Mistress Quickly) tells the Prince that a nobleman (Sir John Bracy) has come from his father asking for him, but Hal will not see him.

Peto says that Falstaff hacked his sword with his dagger to make it look like he had fought hard, and Bardolph (who has a red nose) says he had them tickle their noses with spear grass to make them bleed. Falstaff and Hal exchange further banter. Bracy wants Hal to appear at court in the morning to discuss the rebellion of Glendower, Mortimer, Hotspur, Worcester, Douglas, Northumberland, Mordake, etc. Falstaff asks Hal if he is afraid, and he denies it. 

He and Falstaff play act, with Falstaff first acting as H4 and Hal as himself, examining how Hal wastes his youth with bad company, but how virtuous is his friend Falstaff. Then Hal plays the king, and tells the men of a devil haunting them disguised as a fat man, "that reverend Vice, that gray Iniquity". Falstaff playfully defends himself against these accusations, pleading that he not be banished from Hal's company.

Bardolph announces the arrival of the sheriff. Falstaff hides behind a tapestry. The sheriff announces a hue and cry, i.e., an outcry calling for the pursuit of a felon, saying that one of the robbers was Falstaff. Hal gives his word that Falstaff is not there, but will appear to him tomorrow. The sheriff is satisfied and leaves. Falstaff is sleeping and Hal searches his pockets, finding various tavern receipts, etc. Hal resolves to bail out his friend from this predicament and will procure Falstaff a command of an infantry for in the upcoming battles. 

Act III

Act III Scene 1

Wales, in Glendower's residence. Hotspur goes over the partitioning of the land they hope to win with his allies Glendower, Mortimer, & Worcester. Glendower brags how the heavens gave many dramatic signs at his own birth, but Hotspur is rudely and tactlessly disbelieving. Glendower tries to further speak of his magic abilities, but again Hotspur is contemptuous of his skills and belittles his fighting prowess. 

They proceed to the map and the division of the lands. The Archdeacon of Bangor has suggested the following: West of the Severn River (i.e., Wales) goes to Glendower, North of the Trent goes to Hotspur, and Mortimer gets the rest (i.e., east of the Severn and south of the Trent). They will set out to meet up with the Scots and Northumberland in Shrewsbury, though Glendower cannot be ready for 2 weeks. Hotspur however is not satisfied with how the Trent divides the land, since by curving northward as it progresses east, it cuts him out of Lincolnshire. He is argumentative and further insulting to Glendower, for example about his English skills. Glendower says he can sing in English as well as Hotspur, but Hotspur is contemptuous of music and poetry. Finally Glendower seems to relent and Hotspur is indifferent to the concession.

After Glendower leaves, Mortimer chastises Hotspur for being so rude to Glendower, but Hotspur just makes further contemptuous comments. Worcester also cautions Hotspur to be more diplomatic, saying that he shows haughtiness, a defect of manners and of self-control. 

Mortimer greets his Welsh wife lovingly. She speaks no English, but is concerned for her husband. With her father Glendower translating, he tenderly addresses her and vows to learn her language someday. She wants him to lay his head on her lap and she will sing a Welsh song to him. Glendower calls for musicians to this effect. Hotspur lays his head in Kate's lap temporarily, but is cruelly and pointlessly contemptuous of Mortimer's wife's singing. He wants Kate to be able to swear like a lady, not a commoner. The men leave.

Act II I Scene 2

The royal court (historically Westminster). H4 meets with Prince Henry. H4 wonders if the errant Prince is some form of vengeance against his own misdeeds. He chastises Prince for the poor company he keeps. Prince acknowledges his poor behavior and hopes for his father's pardon. H4 recalls Prince has been dismissed from his position at the Council, now replaced by his brother Prince John, and is alienated from the members of the court. He tells of his own techniques in acquiring his popularity with the people over R2, emphasizing that he made himself seldom seen (like a comet) and not common or vulgar in the people's eyes, dressed himself in humility (unlike R2), kept himself fresh and not overexposed, and by this was regarded with respect. Prince promises to be more himself. 

H4 says Hotspur has more interest in the state than the Prince, though they are said to be the same age [historically Hotspur was 23 years older], and reminds Prince of Hotspur's heroic deeds, though now a rebel, along with Percy and the others. H4 suspects Prince would as likely fight against the king under Percy's pay. But Prince denies this and pledges to redeem himself against the rebels particularly Hotspur.

Blunt arrives and informs them that the Scots and the English rebels met at Shrewsbury. Westmorland and John have already set out with troops, and Hal will march through Gloucestershire and meet up with H4 at Bridgnorth.

Act II I Scene 3

Same tavern in Eastcheap. Falstaff holds forth with Bardolph, asking him to sing a bawdy song and cheer him up. Falstaff pledges to amend his ways and again jokes about Bardolph's red nose as like an igniis fatuus (will o the wisp), etc. 

Mistress Quickly ("Hostess") enters and Falstaff wants to know who has picked his pocket while he slept (see 2.4), calling her a liar and implying she knows. She denies knowledge of it and accuses him of trying to get out of paying his bill. 

Hal enters, and Falstaff continues to abuse Quickly. He worms out of what he has said in the past about Hal, and says he fears the king as a lion but not the lion's whelp. Hal is incensed that Falstaff has accused the honest Quickly. Learning that Hal picked his pocket, Falstaff "forgives" Quickly and makes weak amends. Hal has paid the victims of the robbery and tells Falstaff he has secured an infantry to lead, though Falstaff would have preferred a cavalry. Hal sends Bardolph with letters to Prince John and to Westmorland, and asks Falstaff to meet with him the next afternoon to learn more about his assignment.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Rebel camp near Shrewsbury [historically 1403]. Hotspur praises the bravery of the Scot leader Douglas to his face--Worcester is also present. A messenger arrives with news that Hotspur's father Northumberland is quite sick and cannot join in the fight. Hotspur knows this endangers their whole enterprise, yet his father suggests he continue with the plan. Hotspur concludes that the effort should not depend on any one person. Worcester worries that Northumberland's absence will be construed by some as a withdrawal of support. But Hotspur sees greater opportunity for personal glory as a result.

Sir Richard Vernon, also a rebel, arrives to say that Westmorland is nearing along with John, and that the king and Prince Henry are coming, praising the latter "as full of spirit as the month of May". Hotspur will not hear of this praise, and is eager to fight Prince and the others. He wishes Glendower were there, however, and Vernon says Glendower is further delayed beyond the expected 14 days. Hotspur defiantly looks forward to the battle, though knowing that fighting the king's larger numbers may be their doomsday.

Act IV Scene 2 Public road near Coventry. Falstaff asks Bardolph to get him some sack before they camp at Sutton Coldfield (near Coventry). To himself he admits that he has misused the king's funds in gathering troops, his troops consisting of ragged men, revolted tapsters, castoffs, in fact mostly prisoners. They will steal more linen from the hedges along the way. Prince and Westmorland come upon him, and Falstaff is surprised they are not already at Shrewsbury. They comment on Falstaff's pitiful infantry, but Falstaff says the men will serve as "Food for powder" [cannon fodder] as well as any.

Act IV Scene 3

Rebel camp near Shrewsbury. Hotspur and Douglas want to fight the king that night, but Worcester and Vernon advise they wait. Douglas suggests Vernon delays out of fear. Vernon wonders why they seem so unaware of the danger they face, the weariness of their newly arrived troops, the imbalance of the forces, etc.

Sir Walter Blunt arrives for a parley. The king wishes to know the nature of their grievances and wishes to meet their wishes. Hotspur again enters a long recitation of how the king was ungrateful to the Percy family after their assistance in bringing him to power. Hotspur concludes that H4 is not entitled to the title of king. Hotspur tells Blunt they will give him a final answer in the morning. 

Act IV Scene 4

York, the Archbishop's Palace. The Archbishop (Richard Scroop) sends Sir Michael with letters to Thomas Mowbray (son of the previously exiled and now deceased Duke of Norfolk found in the play Richard II), to another Scroop, and to others [perhaps to Hotspur]. The Archbishop fears the outcome of the upcoming battle and learns from Michael that, in addition to Northumberland's and Glendower's absence, Mortimer is also unable to come. 

Act V

Act V Scene 1

The king's camp near Shrewsbury. Worcester and Vernon come to parley with the king. Worcester expresses regret that the king has left them no course but to rebel, again reciting the offenses to the Percy family and the ingratitude the king showed. He reminds H4 that he claimed he was not seeking the throne and used the Percys to achieve his own ambitions over R2. H4 suggests these are thin excuses for their rebellion. Prince Henry praises Hotspur for his bravery and valor, and offers to fight him in single combat, but the king declines this. Instead he offers grace and pardon if the rebels desist, otherwise dread correction. Prince knows they will not accept the offer. 

Falstaff asks Hal to help him if he sees him downed during battle. He soliloquizes on the emptiness of honor.

Act V Scene 2

Near the rebel camp. Worcester tells Vernon that Hotspur must not hear of the king's liberal offer--Vernon reluctantly acquiesces. W. knows that the king will always suspect them and treat them like oxen being fatted just before the kill, that the young Hotspur may be forgiven for his youthful indiscretions but not the older Worcester and his brother, who were the instigators.

Hotspur and Douglas join them, and indeed they are not told of the king's generous offer, only that the king is prepared for battle. Douglas calls them to arms. Vernon tells how the modest Prince challenged Hotspur to single combat and praises Prince, speaking of him as England's sweet hope. A messenger arrives with letters [?from Scroop] which Hotspur says he does not have time to read. He is ready to fight and to die.

Act V Scene 3

Shrewsbury field. Alarums. Blunt, dressed as the king, encounters Douglas, who has already killed Lord Stafford, who was also dressed as the king. Douglas kills Blunt, and tells Hotspur he has killed the king--but Hotspur informs him he was only a decoy. 

Falstaff enters alone and finds Blunt's body. His own men are almost all dead. Hal enters and wants Falstaff's sword, but discovers only the bottle of sack in its case. 

Act V Scene 4

Same. Prince John, H4, and Prince Henry pause in battle--Prince Henry is wounded but refuses to withdraw from fighting. Prince Henry admires the courage shown by Prince John. Douglas enters and Prince Henry protects H4 from him, fighting him until Douglas flees. H4 says that Prince has redeemed himself. After H4 leaves, Hotspur arrives fights Prince. Falstaff arrives and fights with Douglas, then falls down as if dead. Prince kills Hotspur, and bids farewell to him, covering his mangled face. 

Prince spots Falstaff lying on the ground--Falstaff makes a rapid recovery from his counterfeiting of death, saying "The better part of valor is discretion." He tries to claim he killed Hotspur, and Hal cheerfully goes along with the ruse. The day is theirs. Falstaff promises to leave off drink.

Act V Scene 5

Same. H4 confronts the captured Worcester, knowing he did not tell Hotspur of his offer. He orders Worcester and Vernon to be executed. Douglas is also captured but Prince wants him freed without ransom because of the valor he showed in battle. H4 sends John on to York to engage Northumberland and the Archbishop in battle, while he and Prince will go to Wales to fight Glendower and Mortimer.