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Henry IV, Part 1
William Shakespeare



In this scene at court you see King Henry's policies being frustrated and his authority snubbed; you witness his despair over Prince Hal and his admiration for Hotspur.

LINES 1-33

In the palace in London, King Henry meets with his lord counselors to discuss the current political crisis.

The country is obviously torn up by internal fighting for power. Henry describes this, feelingly, for his counselors. He wants to establish peace and order in the kingdom, to have his subjects "march all one way," but instead there's war and uncertainty. He explains that he is going to take the warring nobles on a crusade to the Holy Land, to stop them from fighting at home.

NOTE: Crusades were medieval religious wars fought by European Christians against Muslims in the Holy Land. The men who went on the crusades hoped to win salvation, honor, or riches during the long campaigns. By the sixteenth century crusades were also used by kings as a strategy to divert attention from domestic trouble, by focusing their subjects' attention on foreign problems.

The struggle to achieve his political aims is apparently wearing out Henry. He's "shaken" and "wan," anxious and tired when you first see him. Shakespeare doesn't tell you why the king is under such a great strain, but his original audience would already have known the causes of the civil uprisings as well as you know the causes of the American Civil War. King Henry IV is a usurper- a criminal, a thief who stole the crown. Henry and his supporters forced the rightful king of England, Richard II, to resign his crown only one year before this play begins. The civil rebellions may simply be a fight for political power, such as accompanies any change in leadership.

Shakespeare's audience would have believed that God is punishing Henry by bringing anarchy and rebellion to England. No matter how good a ruler Henry might be, only two things will bring peace to England: 1. Henry can pay for his sin by going on a crusade to Jerusalem; or 2. he can hold onto the crown long enough to pass it on to his son, Prince Hal. But the domestic crisis in England is keeping him from going to Jerusalem. Soon you will find out what the problem is with his son.

NOTE: Throughout the play images of violence, disorder, and disease will appear. They're signs that Henry hasn't been forgiven yet. Shakespeare won't let you forget Henry's unpaid-for crime.

LINES 34-62

Westmoreland, the king's chief counselor, steps forward to report on a meeting that took place the previous night. We were discussing the crusade, Westmoreland says cautiously when a messenger from the west suddenly burst into the room with grave news: Lord Mortimer had lost a battle in Wales against the "irregular and wild" Owen Glendower, and Mortimer was taken prisoner.

Henry immediately cancels the crusade. Will it ever take place? You will see his anxiety turn into frustration and then rage.

Westmoreland has even more unwelcome news: another messenger had brought word that young Harry Percy, "Hotspur," was fighting a bloody battle in the north; its outcome was still unknown.

LINES 63-76

Henry gestures to a travel-stained lord, Sir Walter Blunt, who has just brought the king an updated report: Hotspur won the battle, taking several Scottish lords prisoner. "And is not this an honorable spoil? / A gallant prize?" Henry eagerly asks Westmoreland (obviously Henry admires Hotspur). Westmoreland agrees that it's a victory worthy of a prince.

LINES 77-110

The news of Hotspur's victory then makes the king turn sad, because his own son wasn't there. Hotspur, Henry says, is "the theme of honor's tongue," while Prince Hal's reputation is stained with "riot and dishonor." Henry doesn't have only political rebellion to worry about- his own son rebels against him. Henry wishes Hotspur and Hal could exchange places, so that Hotspur would be the next king of England.

But Henry is as angry with Hotspur as he is proud of him. Hotspur disobeyed a direct order to send his prisoners to the king. He writes that he'll send Henry only one prisoner, who happens to be of royal blood. Westmoreland suggests that Hotspur's uncle Worcester may be responsible for this disobedience, because Worcester is "malevolent to you in all aspects."

Hotspur is, after all, behaving according to the law of arms, but Henry is reacting as though his authority has been flouted.

NOTE: The law of arms stated that the victor in a battle could keep all prisoners of war, except for prisoners of royal blood; these had to be sent to the king.

Henry impatiently dismisses his counselors, having ordered Hotspur to court to explain his behavior. This incident with the Scottish prisoners has now set up a conflict between King Henry and Hotspur's family, the Percies. Watch for it to flare up soon.


In this scene set in Prince Hal's apartment in London, Falstaff and Hal talk about crime and punishment, and a robbery is planned. Remember, this is the world Hal comes to to escape from life in his father's court. You've heard about Hal's bad reputation; compare that with how he appears in person. You'll also now meet his favorite companion, Sir John Falstaff.

LINES 1-73

Many stage directors begin this scene with Falstaff asleep, snoring loudly, showing you a vivid emblem of sloth, the vice of idleness. How unlike our first glimpse of King Henry! The king was tired and anxious, but awake, making speeches and political decisions. The sleeping Falstaff, belly spilling over his belt, is the very image of good health and irresponsibility.

Hal wakes up Falstaff. "Now, Hal," the old knight bellows, "what time of day is it, lad?" The prince hoots with laughter. Why should you want to know the time, he asks Falstaff, when you spend all of it in a drunken oblivion, aroused only by more wine, women, and the chance of stealing more wallets?

NOTE: Look at the images of time in Scene 1- the sense of urgency, the racing messengers, the rapidly dated news bulletins. Time is a precious commodity at court. But now here's Falstaff, gloriously wasting time. This is just one of many ways he rejects the conventions of law and order.

Now thoroughly awakened by Hal's scolding, Falstaff daydreams about his lucky future, when his friend Prince Hal will be King Henry V of England. Falstaff cheerfully admits that, at present, he's a thief, with a bad reputation and even worse prospects- the gallows. (In Shakespeare's time the penalty for stealing was hanging.) "Will you make thieves respectable when you are king?" wonders Falstaff. Hal promises to raise Falstaff's social status- as high as the hangman's noose. "Do thou not," Falstaff begs, "when thou art King, hang a thief." Hal promises to make Falstaff his chief hangman.

Falstaff hopes Hal will behave on the throne of England the same way he behaves in the tavern. King Henry, you know, also thinks Hal will behave that way- that's why he's so worried about Hal. But maybe they're selling him short. Does Hal say anything in this scene that implies that he will disregard justice? Every time Falstaff asks him to allow criminals to escape punishment, Hal upholds English law, and intends to go on hanging thieves.

Falstaff never lets Hal forget that one day he will rule England. Phrases like "when thou art king" and "were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent" must irritate Hal. They're reminders that Hal can't spend all his life in the tavern, unless he's willing to disregard the responsibilities of kingship. You've just seen how weighty his father's responsibilities are. Now Shakespeare makes you curious to see whether Hal will be able to bear the burden when his time comes.

LINES 74-107

Falstaff becomes depressed, convinced he can never escape hanging. He puts on a mock-religious attitude, acting like a Puritan, and solemnly promises to repent his evil ways. Hal, Falstaff announces sternly, you have corrupted me. Before I knew you, I was virtuous. But now I am wicked, and I must reform.

Throughout the play, whenever he becomes depressed Falstaff will look into his past and see only virtue and slenderness. He dislikes the present, with its fears and poverty. He's afraid of the gallows, of the hard realities of his life, and so he escapes into fantasy. He idealizes his own past.

Although Falstaff's claim that the young prince corrupted him is preposterous, Hal doesn't get angry. He cleverly uses Falstaff's own words to trap him. "Where shall we take a purse tomorrow?" Hal slyly suggests. Falstaff instantly leaps to the bait. The prince rocks with laughter: "I see a good amendment of life in thee," he cries, "from praying to purse-taking." Insulted, Falstaff defends himself. He argues that because thieving is his true calling in life, it isn't a sin for him to steal wallets.

Why, then, did Falstaff swear he must repent and give up his current life-style? Falstaff's bad debts to innkeepers and prostitutes are a continual reminder that he's failed to make money from his vocation. He thinks repentance might make him rich; but then again, so might a stolen wallet, fat with gold!

NOTE: Compare this to King Henry's situation for a moment. In taking the crown from King Richard II, Henry committed a criminal act, a sin. Now he feels sorry about it and wants to repent. He thinks the crusade will wash away his sin. But if you apply Falstaff's logic to Henry's situation, then the deposition wasn't illegal or sinful. Henry simply followed his vocation as a good politician by governing England. Why, then, does he feel such a compelling need to repent? Perhaps Henry isn't truly living up to his vocation. The continual uprisings and lawbreaking in the country are a constant reminder to Henry that he's not doing his job adequately. The nobles' rebellion, about to start in Scene 3, is kindled by Henry's failure to pay back his debts to his former supporters.

Now think about Prince Hal. He and Falstaff joke easily, but Hal never forgets to remind Falstaff how many times he's paid for Falstaff's entertainments. Hal is generous to his friends, you discover, but he also makes sure they don't abuse his generosity.

Falstaff is a mirror for both Henry and Hal. Shakespeare is holding up that mirror, asking you to look into it. But he doesn't tell you how to judge what you're seeing- he only wants you to notice how complex life is. There are no simple explanations for people's behavior in a good play- or in life.

LINES 108-162

A thief named Poins enters, and tells Hal and "Monsieur Remorse" (Poins has obviously heard Falstaff's repentance act before) of a plot to rob merchants passing by Gad's Hill (a crossroads thirty miles from London) in the morning. He promises to fill their pockets full of crowns.

NOTE: A "crown" is an Elizabethan gold coin; it's also the symbol of kingship. Shakespeare puns on this double meaning throughout the play.

Falstaff joins Poins' plot eagerly, but Hal refuses- "Who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, by my faith." Falstaff dares him to, on pain of dishonor. Hal refuses. Falstaff threatens to become a traitor when Hal is king. "I care not," replies Hal. Falstaff tries to awaken Hal's honor and loyalty, but Hal doesn't seem tempted by such lofty ideals. This sets him in contrast to Hotspur, who, you've been told, is "the theme of honor's tongue."

This is the first time that the issue of how Hal will treat Falstaff later is brought up. Notice that although Hal gives Falstaff specific answers, Falstaff never takes Hal's warnings seriously.

Poins promises Falstaff to convince Hal to join the plot, and Falstaff goes cheerfully off to get drunk.

LINES 163-199

Poins has a trick planned, designed to make a fool of Falstaff, but he needs Hal's help to make it work. They'll disguise themselves and rob the robbers. Hal considers the plan coolly. What if they recognize us? he asks. Poins says he has special suits for disguises. What if they fight back? wonders Hal. Poins reassures him: Don't worry, they're all cowards. Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill (the members of the thieving gang) will run away, and Falstaff will fight only as long as he thinks he has to. Hal finally agrees to this plan, and arranges to meet Poins the next day. Poins leaves.

NOTE: What are you to think of a Prince of Wales who steals money, even for fun? Readers have suggested several possible motives: 1. Hal wants to make a fool of Falstaff; 2. Falstaff, a robber himself couldn't report the robbery, so Hal would be safe from recrimination from the court, and from scandal; 3. stealing from a thief is more like a form of rough justice, than like a real crime; or 4. Hal is acting out a family pattern of stealing crowns. Notice that Hal needed only a little reassurance that he wouldn't get caught (like Henry's getting popular support for his usurpation) in order to turn thief.

LINES 200-222

Alone, Hal switches from prose to courtly verse. He tells you a secret: His "loose behavior" is only a disguise. He has deliberately earned a bad reputation for himself, but he has his reformation planned. He shrewdly realizes that if he counterfeits villainy now, he'll look even better when his true self shines through.

NOTE: Hal's sudden revelation has bothered many readers. They think he's being coldhearted and calculating, disloyal to his friends. (These readers often think the same about King Henry!) Other readers see Hal more heroically, as a true student of kingship, who understands that he must put some distance between himself and his surroundings in order to observe them, to learn about the people and country he'll one day have to govern. Think about how modern politicians emphasize any experiences that prove they are truly "of the people." Even though Hal doesn't have to be elected to his job, he still seems to understand instinctively how to gain popular support.


In Act I, Scene i, you saw King Henry consulting with his loyal advisers. Now you see him quarreling with his most troublesome subjects, the Percies. They have met to discuss Hotspur's refusal to surrender his Scottish prisoners.

NOTE: The Percies (Northumberland, Worcester, and Hotspur) were Henry's first and greatest supporters in his campaign against King Richard II. Because Henry was penniless when he returned from exile, he offered to repay the Percies for their help with power when he became king. So far Henry hasn't paid back his debts to the Percies, and they've decided that Henry never intended to. They see him as a scheming politician, using his friends and then casting them away when they're no longer useful.

The quarrel in this scene takes the form of three deliberate challenges to Henry's authority. Obviously, the Percies are up to something. The only Percy not involved in the conspiracy at this point is Hotspur- he's the innocent bait for Henry. -

LINES 1-21

Henry is threatening to use his royal power against the Percies if they continue to disobey him. Worcester reminds Henry that the Percies gave him the very power he's now trying to use against them. Henry doesn't want to be reminded of this, however, and banishes Worcester from the court.

Notice how Henry's opening lines (lines 1-9) echo Hal's closing words in the previous scene. Hal promised that he will "imitate the sun"; Henry is promising to act like a royal lion, "Mighty and to be feared." Hal will lawfully inherit the crown, and so he has a right to use royal imagery. Henry, on the other hand, was placed on the throne with the Percies' help, and Worcester is here questioning Henry's right to use royal authority.

Worcester's image of making Henry "portly" with power may remind you of Falstaff's "portly" body. Henry's crown gives him stature and makes him a figure of authority; Falstaff's belly makes him physically imposing but also a figure of fun.

LINES 21-78

The quarrel resumes over whether or not Hotspur intended to send his Scottish prisoners to Henry. Northumberland defends Hotspur's disobedience by insisting that exaggerated rumors were spread by his detractors. Hotspur blames the king's messenger for bringing him a false report.

Once again you're being asked to question the accuracy of news and reputations. The Percies are using unverifiable reports as a way to challenge Henry's authority. Hotspur's speech about the messenger (lines 30-71) offers a good example of their strategy.

Hotspur reconstructs the end of the Scottish battle. He says he was bleeding and exhausted, leaning on his sword to keep from collapsing, when the neatly dressed messenger rode up. The messenger was bathed in perfume to cover up the nauseating smell of the dead bodies, and chattered about the unpleasantness of war. This "popinjay" (parrot) lord made Hotspur so impatient and angry

To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds

that Hotspur could only answer the cowardly lord's questions "neglectingly" and "indirectly."

Henry's loyal follower, Sir Walter Blunt, is embarrassed by this description and suggests that Henry might be better off if he forgot the entire incident. After what you've seen of Henry's character, it's hard to believe he'd send such a prissy lord as his representative to a battlefield. Could the story have been made up?

Nothing Hotspur says sounds rehearsed: The images flow from his memory on a flood of indignation. But perhaps Worcester invented this story in order to discredit Henry's image.

LINES 79-128

All through this scene Henry has been cold and angry, or scared. Now you discover why he's reacting so badly to the Percies- they're forcing him to make a bargain over the Scottish prisoners, which is a great insult to his royal status. They've made Henry an offer they know he can't possibly agree to: Hotspur will yield his prisoners only if Henry agrees to pay Glendower to free Mortimer. Glendower, however, is one of Henry's greatest enemies, and Henry has no reason to want to save Mortimer (who is King Richard's designated heir). To make matters worse, Mortimer has married Glendower's daughter, and Hotspur is married to Mortimer's sister.

Henry believes that Mortimer is a traitor, and purposely lost the battle in Wales to Glendower. He flatly refuses the Percies' proposal. "Shall we buy treason?" the king asks in disbelief. Hotspur bursts out in a passionate defense of Mortimer's military prowess and accuses Henry of slander.

Henry turns white with fury and calls Hotspur a liar. He issues a curt order for Hotspur to deliver his prisoners immediately, and rushes from the room. Is this the behavior of a slick politician- getting in the final word before slamming the door politely- or of a man driven into a corner, having no place else to run? The part probably could be played either way. Continue to study Henry's words and actions, to decide how you'd play it.

LINES 129-151

Hotspur reacts to Henry's insult like a spoiled child being punished: "An if the Devil come and roar for them, / I will not send them." Northumberland restrains his hot-headed son from rushing after the king to deliver this message in person.

Typically, Hotspur overreacts to insult by going to extremes. He swears he'll start a campaign to overthrow Henry- "this unthankful King"- and place Mortimer on the throne. He's willing to overthrow the government to save a personal code of honor. Think about people you know who behave like Hotspur in an argument. Would you trust them in leadership roles?

Now that Henry is gone, Worcester baits Hotspur into joining a conspiracy to rebel against the king. He and Northumberland have already planned this coup. The first part of their scheme was to alienate Hotspur and Henry. So far their plan has worked perfectly.

LINES 152-196

Worcester (who returned after the king left) tells Hotspur that Mortimer is Richard's designated heir. Hotspur idealizes Richard, calling him a "sweet lovely rose" whereas Henry is a "thorn" in their sides. Hotspur's romanticism of Richard's reign is similar to Falstaff's idealization of youth. Hotspur doesn't notice the irony of idealizing Richard; the Percies rebelled against Richard to place Henry on the throne.

Worcester plays upon Hotspur's most vulnerable feature, his sense of honor. Worcester reminds Hotspur that their family has been blamed for Richard's death- not Henry. As a result, their family honor has been badly tarnished.

Hotspur fumes at this rankling thought. He calls his relatives hangmen, and scoffs at them for being "fooled, discarded, and shook off" by Henry since the deposition. (Remember that Hal has offered to make Falstaff his royal hangman. Will he turn his back on Falstaff as Henry seems to have turned his back on the Percies?) Hotspur urges his family to restore their "banished honors" before Henry has time to get them out of his way.

LINES 197-218

Worcester tells Hotspur that he has some deep and dangerous matters to discuss. Hotspur can't resist- danger and honor are his vocation.

Hotspur's imagination becomes inflamed thinking of the honor to be won by rebelling against Henry. He sees himself grappling with honor and danger, diving to the bottom of the sea or leaping to the moon to rescue "bright honor." These images are your first real indications that Hotspur's honor is his goddess, to whom he's totally committed. The language is energetic, with extremely physical images. Hotspur seems to draw his power from the very idea of honor.

LINES 219-270

Worcester and Northumberland have a hard time quieting Hotspur long enough to reveal their conspiracy plan. His father calls him a "wasp-stung and impatient fool," and many readers find this restless intensity one of Hotspur's most attractive features. It's certainly the one that causes him the most trouble. Northumberland fears that Hotspur will destroy their careful planning.

Hotspur calls Henry a "vile politician" and a "king of smiles." It shows how much he dislikes court politics, where calculation and cunning govern men's lives. Even today you hear political candidates claim that they hate playing the games that professional politicians play. Do you think it's possible for idealists to succeed in politics?

LINES 271-320

Hotspur finally agrees to listen to his uncle's plan. The Percies are going to join forces with Glendower, Mortimer, the Archbishop of York, and Douglas (the Scottish general whom Hotspur just defeated). They'll wait for the right opportunity and then strike against the king.

Hotspur is sure it will be a noble plot because of the caliber of the conspirators. He's willing to abide by the decisions of others, unlike Hal, who cautiously questioned each detail of the plot Poins proposed to him. Hotspur may be rebelling for honor, but notice that the elder Percies aren't concerned about redeeming their honor- they're more afraid that Henry will kill them, partly so he won't have to be reminded of how he came to wear the crown, and partly so he won't have to share his power with them. The Percies' rebellion, then, is motivated by fear and a desire for honor; it has nothing to do with politics or the good of England.

The Percies are a very tightly knit family. They're tightening a knot around Henry's crown, like a noose. Hotspur can barely wait for the royal "sport" to begin.

NOTE: Notice how the balance of justice has just swung into reverse, against Henry. Readers tend to find three different explanations for the Percy uprising:

1. Shakespeare's audience would have said that it was part of Henry's due punishment for deposing and murdering a rightful king. He's being punished with a copy of his own crime, and nothing he can do will stop it. Peace and order will return to England only when a rightful king wears the crown once more.

2. Some readers take a broad philosophical view and say that the rebellion is an inevitable consequence of the deposition, because history always repeats itself.

3. Others say that the rebellion resulted from the one major flaw in Henry's political campaign to become king: He depended on powerful lords and made them promises he never intended to keep. If you look at the Percies' motives, their conspiracy becomes a selfish bid for power by a group of dissatisfied lords who just want to share the power they helped to create. It has nothing to do with justice.


In this scene two carriers talk about the condition of England, and two thieves prepare the robbery at Gad's Hill.

LINES 1-47

Act I closed with Hotspur's rousing cry for action. As Act II opens a scruffy fellow is yawning and peering through the darkness with a lantern. It's sometime between two and four o'clock in the morning, in the stableyard of a hotel near Gad's Hill. Two carriers (deliverymen) are preparing to take men and goods to London. One carrier calls for the stable boy to help them. The stable boy calls back, "Anon, anon!" but he never appears. The two carriers complain about how badly the hotel has run down since its previous owner died.

2. Car.: This house is turned upside down since Robin Ostler died.

1. Car.: Poor fellow never joyed since the price of oats rose. It was the death of him.

NOTE: This scene seems to have little to do with Shakespeare's plot, but if you listen closely to the carriers' conversation you'll realize that the domestic disorder of the "house" (hotel) mirrors the political and social disorder of Henry's England, and the two "houses" that are trying to govern England- the king's family and the Percies. It also shows that the troubles at the head of the kingdom have trickled down to affect every level of society.

The hotel rooms stink and are infested with fleas that sting the guests. England, too, is infested- with thieves and traitors. The rebels feel stung by Henry's policies (see Act I, Scene iii, lines 245-246).

Robin Ostler died of poverty after prices rose. King Richard died partly because he overtaxed his subjects.

Notice the images of commerce and speed in this scene. At the hotel there are horses to harness, guests to awaken, journeys to take, business deals to make, and accounts to settle. Think about Henry's urgency to go on a crusade, to settle his account with God. The Percies have horses to spur, men to awaken to their cause, and debts to square with King Henry and Prince Hal.

Gadshill, a member of Poins' gang, enters the scene and tries to trick the carriers into giving him the lantern. The trick fails, but Gadshill succeeds in finding out that they're going to London that day, by way of Gad's Hill. Gadshill calls for the chamberlain (room attendant), who appears as the carriers depart.

LINES 48-97

You discover that the chamberlain is an informer who relays information to Gadshill about the hotel guests- who they are, where they're going, and how much money they are carrying.

Notice how the chamberlain's speedy entrance contrasts with the stable boy's reluctance to help the carriers with their horses. It almost seems that only thieves can command attention and respect in Henry's England. The honest, hardworking carriers are ignored by the hotel servants; the hotel guests are tricked and set up to be robbed by the thieves. This is another example of the disorder afflicting England.

Much of the dialogue in this scene is difficult to follow because it's written in Elizabethan slang. Basically, Gadshill is making a comparison between two kinds of thieves: those who rob for "sport" (like Prince Hal, and perhaps Hotspur), and those who rob for a living and prey on the commonwealth (like Falstaff and the rebels). Then Gadshill changes his mind and decides that all thieves are alike. Keep that in mind as you watch Hal taking part in the Gad's Hill robbery.

Gadshill promises as a "true man" to pay the chamberlain for his information out of the robbery spoils. But the chamberlain would rather seal the bargain as a "false thief," because the word of honor of a thief is traditionally supposed to be stronger than the promises of honest men.

NOTE: Here the opposition between "true man" and "false thief" echoes King Henry's broken promises to the Percies. A thief is by definition a dishonest man; his intentions may be questioned, as well as his loyalty. Gadshill is lying when he says he's a "true man" because he's a thief. The chamberlain wishes him to swear truthfully, as he is a "false thief." King Henry is a thief who claims to be a true king, and he was disloyal to both King Richard and the Percies.


The robberies committed in this scene are the tavern world's moral counterpart to the rebellions at court. Both Falstaff and Hotspur try to steal "crowns" and fail. Hal successfully steals "crowns," just as his father succeeded in stealing Richard's "crown."

It's four o'clock in the morning and robbery is being committed at Gad's Hill. Remember that Hal agreed to participate only because he and Poins intend to play a practical joke on Falstaff, by robbing him of the stolen money. The double robbery gives you a chance to examine the definitions of honor and cowardice in the play: Is it nobler to fight a battle until the bitter end, or to run away when you realize you're overpowered and bound to lose? This will become an important issue during the battle of Shrewsbury in Act V.

LINES 1-46

You've already heard Poins predict, in Act I, Scene ii, that Falstaff will behave like a coward during the robbery. If Falstaff fights "longer than he sees reason, I'll forswear arms," Poins declared then, implying that a man is honorable only if he fights until the battle's end, regardless of who is winning. But there's another point of view, which says that honor is one thing, but saving your life is another, and it's better to live in dishonor than die for the sake of a good reputation.

NOTE: For centuries readers have been arguing over whether or not Falstaff behaves like a coward in this scene. Some readers see the fat knight quivering with fear and roaring for mercy as he runs away from the buckram-suited robbers, and call him an absolute coward. Other readers are more sympathetic to Falstaff, and see him struggling to maintain his dignity in the face of what he sees as grave danger- he's willing to lose the stolen money but not his life. Look at the evidence for both sides of this argument, and decide for yourself.

As the scene begins, Poins and Hal seem determined to get as many laughs as possible at Falstaff's expense. They hide his horse, and then hide themselves to watch the "fat-kidneyed rascal" struggle uphill on foot. When Falstaff enters, he's cursing Poins and Hal for removing his horse:

Eight yards of uneven ground is threescore and
ten miles afoot with me, and the stony-hearted
villains know it well enough. A plague upon it
when thieves cannot be true one to another!

Some readers see Falstaff's speech as positive proof that he's terrified of being alone in the middle of the night, and he insults his friends only to give himself confidence. The longer he's left alone, the more frantic his calls for help and oaths against Poins become. When Hal finally appears, Falstaff covers up his fear with jokes.

Falstaff's defenders point out that the old knight would be too terrified to speak if he were really afraid. Having guessed that Poins hid his horse, Falstaff is merely angry and disheartened to discover that his best friends aren't loyal to him or mindful of his old age and obesity. Any fear Falstaff might show is natural, a simple instinct for self-preservation. After all, who wouldn't be nervous, stranded on a dangerous, unlit road famous for highway robbery? When Hal appears, Falstaff firmly demands an explanation for the prank, insults the prince, and jokes about his weight. A true coward wouldn't have the self-possession to recover that quickly.

Notice that Falstaff is deserted by his friends just before the robbery. King Henry has just been deserted by his former allies, the Percies. Perhaps Hotspur would do well to place less faith in his co-conspirators, in such a world of shaky loyalties.

LINES 48-78

Gadshill arrives and warns the thieves that the travelers are approaching. They put on disguises, take their battle positions, and wait. Peto wonders how many travelers they'll be up against.

Gadshill: Some eight or ten.
Falstaff: Zounds, will they not rob us?
Prince: What, a coward, Sir John Paunch?
Falstaff: Indeed, I am not John of Gaunt,
your grandfather, but yet no coward...

Falstaff's detractors refer to literary tradition to support their view of Falstaff as a coward. One literary device used in comedy, they say, is that any character who claims he's not a coward is soon proved to be one. There's no reason to think that Falstaff is any different.

Falstaff's defenders remember that he's an old military captain who would be practical and weigh the odds of winning a battle when his troops are outnumbered. This shows Falstaff to be a cautious leader, concerned for his troops' safety. Keep this feature in mind when you see the real battle in Act V.

LINES 79-91

Poins and Hal hide and put on their disguises. The travelers arrive meanwhile, and the rest of the thieves rob them. What does Falstaff do?

Some readers imagine Falstaff standing cowardly on the sidelines, shouting encouragement to the real thieves and insults to their victims. They say he doesn't actually take part in the robbery.

Other readers point to Shakespeare's stage direction in the text, which simply says, "Here they rob them and bind them." There's no indication that Falstaff lets his friends do all the work. They say he participates in the robbery along with Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill.

LINES 92-110

The thieves divide their loot. Falstaff accuses Hal and Poins, who he thinks have slipped away, of being cowards. Then Hal and Poins (disguised) emerge from hiding and attack the thieves. All but Falstaff run away at once; Falstaff strikes a few blows and then runs away, leaving the money on the ground.

Poins' prediction has come true. But is this proof that Falstaff is a coward? Hal announces, just in case anyone missed the point, that the thieves "are all scattered and possessed with fear." Poins shakes his head and laughs at Falstaff, "How the fat rogue roared!" You have to admit that Falstaff certainly seems to be behaving like a coward now, but you could also say that he's behaving as any self-respecting criminal would if he were caught in the act- running away to avoid arrest and hanging. He isn't a coward if he's a practical man determined to escape the gallows.

Still, the thieves did run away, like a losing army afraid to hang around for an honorable surrender. Do only thieves act this way? Watch as the Percies' rebellion progresses: Some of them, too, will defect the minute their side seems to be losing. Where will that leave the "honorable thief" Hotspur? Will he, like Falstaff, run to save his life?

Even though he runs away, Falstaff manages to do his country some service at Gad's Hill. Hal says he "lards the lean earth as he walks," sweating from exertion or fear. (The Elizabethans thought perspiration was melting body fat.) The fat knight, therefore, feeds England. Later you'll see Hotspur feeding the worms at Shrewsbury with his lifeless body.

NOTE: What are you to think of a prince who robs people, even if it's just in fun? Some readers say that Hal's joke is morally indefensible because it sets a bad example for his future subjects; others excuse Hal's behavior on the grounds that the people he robs are themselves thieves.

The Prince of Wales does play a mean practical joke on a fat old man. Falstaff may complain of losing his breath, but he never stops talking. At the scene's beginning he swears he can't move another inch without dying of exhaustion, but by the end of the scene he's running away like a young man. Hal's joke doesn't seem to have harmed anything more serious than Falstaff's dignity.

Notice that Hal takes command of the thieves, even though he's never committed highway robbery before. Not only do the thieves unquestioningly accept his authority, but his plan works perfectly, and the prince gets what he came to Gad's Hill for: "argument for a week, laughter for a month, and a good jest forever." This shows him to be a good leader, and a man who knows how to get what he wants. Knowing this, you may take him more seriously than his father does.


The last time you saw Hotspur he was passionately riding off to start the rebellion against King Henry. Now you see another side of him, at home, reading a letter and talking with his wife.

LINES 1-35

The Percies have obviously been gathering support for their rebellion. Everything is going according to plan: Glendower, Mortimer, the Archbishop of York, and Douglas have agreed to meet them on the ninth of next month, ready to march against the king.

But Hotspur is reading aloud a letter from one lord who doesn't think the Percies have a very good chance of winning, and refuses to join the conspiracy. He offers reasonable excuses: The allies can't be trusted, the timing for the march isn't the best, and he fears they underestimate the power and size of the king's army.

Hotspur is furious; he doesn't think these are very good reasons at all. Hotspur has no patience for men who think twice about consequences. Think about Hal's careful questioning of Poins in Act I, Scene ii. Hal wouldn't join in the robbery until he was satisfied that there was no chance of getting into trouble or having the plan fail. Do you believe it's cowardly to be cautious before you undertake a dangerous action? Some people are cautious to make sure they won't get hurt; others are cautious to make sure they will succeed. Hal believes in safety and in winning; Hotspur, however, believes mostly in sticking with a cause.

Hotspur calls this lord a "frosty-spirited rogue," in other words, a wet blanket. He doesn't stop to think if any of the lord's objections might contain truth. (You'll see, in fact, in Act IV, that every one of the objections comes true.) But Hotspur's code of honor won't allow him to doubt his cause or distrust his allies.

No one, not even a hero, likes to think he's about to do something foolish. As the lord's warning begins to sink in, Hotspur rants and mocks him with increasing impatience and fury:

...By the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was
laid; our friends true and constant: a good plot,
good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent
plot, very good friends...

Notice the repetitions in Hotspur's speech. Is Hotspur genuinely amazed that anyone would disagree with him? Does his self-confidence sound forced to you? The code of honor says he must be brave and loyal at any cost. What if Hotspur is scared and can't admit it? Haven't you seen people trapped by the need to appear "macho"? All that Hotspur seems worried about is that Henry might be told of the conspiracy, and the rebels will thus lose the element of surprise. Hotspur can't look back; he realizes that war is now inevitable. He does take one precaution- he speeds his departure. As his wife enters, Hotspur is calling for his horse.

LINES 36-124

Lady Percy shows you the other side of Hotspur's courage. Hotspur won't tell her what's wrong, but she knows something is happening, something dangerous, because Hotspur can't eat, and on the few occasions he can fall asleep he has nightmares. She says he spends all day by himself, brooding. Is he carefully planning his battle strategies, a young man thoroughly engaged in a great project? Or are these the symptoms of anxiety and fear?

Hotspur doesn't want to listen to his wife's catalogue of the symptoms he can't admit to having. On stage, the actor playing Hotspur might stare ahead, thinking about the rebellion, not listening to her loving expression of concern. As soon as she's finished, he starts calling for his horse again. She calls him a parrot, and says he's "mad-headed" and full of "spleen" (sullen and moody). She's charming and gentle with him, but the prince of honor refuses to tell his own wife about the rebellion. Honor requires that he doesn't betray his friends or seem like a coward, even to his wife.

But the young man underneath the shining armor seems very worried indeed. He knows what kinds of risks he's taking. In his sleep he's been remembering every military strategy he's ever devised, listing weapons, counting the dead- "all the currents of a heady fight" float through his unconscious mind.

Neither the lord's cautious warning nor his wife's loving appeals can keep Hotspur from carrying on the crusade against Henry. "We must have bloody noses and cracked crowns [heads]" he cries. Honor spurs him on. He cannot or will not listen to second opinions; his safety isn't important. But from now on Hotspur will systematically be stripped of his illusions about honor, until he lies dead on the battlefield. You'll have to decide whether it was worth it.


This scene in the Eastcheap tavern consists of four major parts: 1. Hal and Francis; 2. Falstaff's "incomprehensible lies"; 3. the tavern play; and 4. the Sheriff. -

LINES 1-113

While waiting for Falstaff and the thieves to return to Eastcheap, Hal tells Poins that he spent fifteen minutes in the cellar of the tavern talking to the drawers (waiters). He's learned their slang and is now "sworn brother" to them all. The drawers have crowned Hal the "king of courtesy" (the most gallant knight), and swear their allegiance to him when he becomes king of England.

Hal finds this funny, but he also finds it honorable: "I tell thee, Ned," laughs the prince, "thou hast lost much honor that thou wert not with me in this action." Is Hal joking about honor at the expense of the drawers (as he laughed at Falstaff at Gad's Hill)? Or does his laughter disguise a serious purpose? What kind of honor can Hal expect to win in a tavern cellar? It's not the kind of honor Hotspur intends to win in battle, although it may make Hal famous throughout Eastcheap. Hotspur's honor is bound up in military fame and glory. Hal's honor in the tavern seems to be part of his education in kingship: He's learning about the men he'll one day have to rule.

To prove how well he knows the drawers, Hal decides to play a trick on one of them, Francis. If we stand in different rooms and call Francis at the same time, Hal predicts to Poins, he'll end up caught in the middle, unable to decide which caller to serve. The trick works exactly as Hal predicts. Poins and the prince have a good laugh over the unfortunate drawer's behavior.

NOTE: Notice the imagery of time in this episode. All Hal's questions to Francis relate to time- how long his apprenticeship will last, how old he is, when he gets paid. His last question is, "What time is it?" And Francis answers, "Anon, anon," soon. Perhaps Hal is wondering how much longer he can stay in the tavern world before he has to return to the court.

If you look at Hal's practical joke from a personal point of view, as many readers do, you can say that Hal is behaving like a bully, heartlessly toying with another person. You can say that Hal is being devious, too, because he can't openly ask people about themselves.

But you can also look at the practical joke as a mirror image of Hal's situation. Like Francis, Hal is pulled in two directions at once. Francis is unable to distinguish which caller is more important, so he gets stuck in the middle. Hal is being pulled in opposite directions by Falstaff in the tavern world and by his father in the court world. If Hal is consciously creating this mirror image, he's taking a good look at his own situation and laughing at its absurdity. All Francis could do was to tell his tormentors "soon." All you've heard Hal say so far is that he'll decide which world he belongs in, soon.

Hal laughs at Francis for knowing "fewer words than a parrot." Calling Francis a parrot reminds Hal of Hotspur. (Remember that Hotspur called the king's messenger a parrot, and Lady Percy has just called Hotspur a parrot.) Hal muses that life in Hotspur's house must be very boring, as boring as Francis' life of waiting on tables. Hal imagines Hotspur and his wife having only one topic of conversation at the breakfast table: war. "I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the North," says Hal- implying that he will be, someday. He cynically imagines Hotspur killing six or seven dozen men before breakfast and then, an hour later, calling it a "trifle." Hal has never met Hotspur, but we can see from this how their attitudes toward war differ: Hotspur lives only for military honor, while Hal thinks that's too narrow a life-style. Thinking about the single-minded Hotspur makes Hal yearn for the robust, contradictory Falstaff.

LINES 114-376

Hal and Poins have just baited the wordless Francis; now they'll bait the wordy Falstaff as the second part of their robbery trick begins.

You just heard Hotspur in Act II, Scene iii, calling for bloody noses and cracked crowns. Falstaff delivers some of them now.

Falstaff's entrance on stage (with Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill) is a moment of pure drama. Picture the fat knight and his crew in torn and bloody clothes, groaning from the wounds they sustained at Gad's Hill; notice how their swords are hacked and how they gasp for breath.

Falstaff is so short of breath as he enters that at first he sounds almost like Francis, with only two phrases in his head: "A plague of all cowards." and "Give me a cup of sack [sherry]." His voice is weak as he curses the evilness of the world and mutters about vengeance and virtue.

Hal asks him what's wrong, with an innocent air.

"A king's son!" bellows Falstaff. "If I do not beat thee out of thy kingdom with a dagger of lath.... You Prince of Wales." Falstaff threatens to banish Hal from England with a prop sword. At the end of this scene, however, you'll see Hal promise to banish Falstaff.

Falstaff accuses Poins and Hal of cowardice and disloyalty, charging them with the very insults they used against him in Act II, Scene ii. Falstaff asks Hal and Poins if they dare to call running away the "backing of your friends." Notice that he's beginning to sound like Hotspur did when he was reading the cowardly lord's letter.

Hal pretends he doesn't know what Falstaff is talking about. And Falstaff's "incomprehensible lies" begin. They're epic in scope, the stuff of legends. Poins has predicted Falstaff's behavior perfectly, as you will see.

Falstaff launches heroically into his account of the battle of Gad's Hill. Although shamefully deserted by Hal and Poins, Falstaff says, he and his men stole the sum of 1000 pounds; then they were robbed of the money by 100 men. Falstaff claims he escaped only by a miracle. He shows Hal and Poins his bloody clothes and hacked sword as proof. Hal and Poins are amazed at the extravagance of his performance. (You can think of this as a parody of Hotspur and his description of the king's messenger in Act I, Scene iii.) On stage Falstaff usually acts out his brave fight against an ever-changing number of thieves. Toward the end, 52 men set upon Falstaff at once. If I'm lying, declares Falstaff, "I am a bunch of radish!"

Hal casually asks Falstaff if he killed any of the thieves. Falstaff sighs and admits he "peppered two of them... two rogues in buckram suits... if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse" The numbers of men in buckram multiply rapidly now: 2, 4, 7, 9, 11... "O monstrous!" cries Hal, "Eleven buckram men grown out of two!"

Right when Falstaff looks and sounds his most heroic, Hal stops his lies cold, with the truth: "These lies are like their father that begets them- gross as a mountain, open, palpable." "Art thou mad?" demands Falstaff, "Is not the truth the truth?"

NOTE: One of the main themes of the play is how people deceive themselves and others with lies and false reports that they swear are true. Elsewhere in the play the report is almost always believed by the hearer, but here, nobody is fooled by Falstaff's lies.

Hal and Falstaff call each other names. (Look at their imagery: Falstaff calls Hal various shrunken objects, such as a "starveling"; Hal calls Falstaff all sorts of gigantic objects, including a "huge hill of flesh." Hal finds Falstaff's lies disgusting, and Falstaff thinks he's beaten Hal. The two men are at a critical moment in their friendship, jockeying for power over one another. The rest of this scene defines their status toward each other.

Hal at last tells Falstaff the truth about the trick. He's furious at Falstaff for pretending to be wounded in a great battle. (Keep this in mind later, when Falstaff fakes death at Shrewsbury.) Hal challenges Falstaff to get out of the verbal trap he's built for himself.

By this time Falstaff, can appear either cowed or pleased with his cleverness. He pauses and then announces, "By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye." His audience is stunned. Falstaff continues, all innocence, to explain why he ran away like a coward: I knew it was you, Hal. Like a lion (a kingly image) I can tell the true prince, by instinct, from the false thief.

A messenger arrives at the tavern with news: Hal is told of the Percy rebellion and ordered to report to his father the next morning; his time in the tavern world is up. Falstaff asks Hal if he's horribly afraid or thrilled at the prospect of fighting his father's enemies. Some readers see this as Falstaff playing the old soldier, coaching a young and inexperienced one. Others believe Falstaff is proving to be a coward once more, by imagining what he'd do in Hal's place.

LINES 377-487

Falstaff and Hal agree to rehearse Hal's upcoming interview with Henry. Falstaff plays the king, choosing a three-legged stool for his throne, a cushion for his crown, and the hacked-up sword for his scepter. Hal sees the comic absurdity of these props:

Thy state is taken for a joined-stool, thy golden
sceptre for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich
crown for a pitiful bald crown.

Here is the crown imagery in its most ironic form. Hal, the future king of England, clearly recognizes the difference between the majesty of true kingship and its travesty at the hands of Falstaff. The crown of England becomes a bald head, a threadbare cushion, and worst of all a fake. You can also see this as a commentary on the state of kingship whenever the king is a thief.

Falstaff relishes this chance to do some real acting. He cleverly invents props, finds makeup in the bleary-eyed effect of drinking sack, and chooses a suitably tragic tone of voice, something he could have gotten out of the sixteenth-century theater repertory- a parody of a king in a ranting tragedy.

NOTE: Notice how sharply this brings forward your image of Henry as a usurper and a clever politician. Falstaff shows you a king who's floundering in circumstances beyond his control, making do with whatever is at hand, inventing strategies on the spot. Falstaff shows you a politician who knows how to adjust his tone of voice to suit his audience, and carefully watches for the effects he has on them.

Falstaff sits on the joint-stool throne, and addresses Hal. His entire speech is a parody of what Henry will in Act III Scene ii. He takes a highly moral attitude toward the wayward young prince and is shocked at the company Hal keeps. He warns Hal that he's wasting his precious youth, and wonders why Hal, who seems to be his son, has such a bad reputation. This question raises a moral question about Hal's youthful rebellion: When the King of England is a thief, will his son be one, too? Falstaff is able to guess exactly what Henry will say; it shouldn't be hard, since it's the same argument fathers have always had with their sons. They're afraid their sons won't live up to their high expectations, and scared that their own faults will show up in their sons.

Now Falstaff starts to play with Hal. "Henry" tells Hal that he's noticed just one virtuous man in his company, a "goodly portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent." Keep him, urges "Henry," and banish all the rest of your friends. Falstaff probably suspects that Hal may leave him behind after the real interview the next day. He's indirectly begging Hal not to leave him behind later when the reformation comes.

Hal now demands that they exchange roles. "Depose me?" asks "Henry" in mock horror. If you make a better king than I do, he retorts, hang me upside down. This is a central action of the play: the deposition of one king in order to place a "better" king on the throne. The penalty for proving to be a false king- a traitor- is hanging. It's ironic that Falstaff should call Hal's taking up the crown a deposition: Hal is the only candidate for kingship in the play who won't have to steal the crown to wear it.

As "king," Hal calls Falstaff every offensive name he can think of, referring to his obesity, thieving, vanity, drunkenness, and cunning. Hal demands to know what worth Falstaff has. This is the same sort of vicious, negative attitude that the Percies take toward King Henry- seeing him as only the cunning, pompous politician.

Falstaff pretends not to know to whom Hal is referring. "That villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-beared Satan," Hal replies coldly. Falstaff defends himself, pleading the vices of old age and claiming the license of knighthood. No, insists Falstaff, banish everyone else, but "banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!" Hal replies simply, "I do, I will."

NOTE: These lines have astonished readers for years. Some say it proves absolutely that Hal is no better than his hard-hearted, calculating politician of a father, that Hal has been using Falstaff badly. Other readers prefer to see Hal as the future king who must cast aside the immorality Falstaff represents, no matter how attractive he is as a companion. They say that if Falstaff is shocked, then it's his own fault for believing that Hal could ever be like him and still be a true prince.

At the end of Henry IV, Part 2, the newly crowned King Henry V will do exactly what he's promised here, and banish Falstaff from his presence.

LINES 488-558

As Hal speaks his fateful words, a knocking is heard offstage. It's a symbol that reality is about to take over. The pressures and responsibilities of the court are calling, and Hal's apprenticeship with Falstaff is over.

Bardolph answers the door and returns with the news that a sheriff and one of the carriers wish to search the house, to look for the stolen Gad's Hill money. Falstaff begs Hal not to betray him, not yet anyway. "Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit," Falstaff counsels, as he hides behind a curtain.

Hal, however, surprisingly lies and tells the sheriff that Falstaff isn't there. He's no idealist; he's willing to lie if it serves a practical purpose. In spite of his recent harsh words, he must still feel affection for Falstaff, and so he saves him.

The fate Falstaff has always tried to avoid just came knocking at the door; in the face of grave danger, Falstaff hid. When Hal pulls back the curtain, Falstaff is snoring just as he was at the opening of Act I, Scene ii. Notice that he hides like a coward, but falls asleep like a man sure of his friends, with complete confidence in Hal. Just for good measure, Hal picks Falstaff's pocket. The practical joker in him still lives.

The tavern world has just come full circle, beginning and ending with Falstaff's snores. The next lines Prince Hal speaks look forward to the court. He promises that he will give Falstaff a military command, a company of foot soldiers (to get even with him for the "incomprehensible lies," perhaps). He promises to repay the stolen money with interest, and, with all his accounts settled, he leaves for his father's court.

THE STORY, continued


ECC [Henry IV, Part 1 Contents] []
[William Shakespeare - King Henry VI: Part 1 - Familiar quotes]

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