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The major theme of the play is rebellion and its consequences. The play concerns the civil strife and political upheaval caused by the Percies and resulting in war. King Henry IV faces the rebellion and, with the support of his sons, allies, and royal forces, comes out victorious.
Woven with the theme of rebellion is the potentially rebellious attitude of the common man. Lack of social responsibility is seen in Falstaff and his gang of robbers and also, early on in the play, Hal, the king's son. Thus, social strife and disorder are present at all levels of society.
The theme of honor, of course, underlies the entire play. It is honor that Hotspur regards as the highest virtue of man and for which he will undertake his rebellion and ultimately lose his life. The king's honor is blemished, both through his prior behavior in seizing the throne and the misbehavior of his son, but is ultimately preserved as he defeats the forces that threaten the kingdom. Falstaff also plays upon the theme of honor, both mocking and lacking the trait himself. For Hal, it will ultimately be honor which drives him to give up his dissolute life and take his stand at his father's side in defending the integrity of the kingdom.
Shakespeare is well known for mingling tragic and comic elements in his plays, and Henry IV is no exception. The main plot is extremely serious and dire in tone. King Henry IV, the protagonist, faces civil strife as well as personal problems. He feels a nagging guilt for having usurped the throne from his predecessor, Richard II. The Percies, who helped him to power, are now clamoring for their rewards and threatening rebellion. Worse, his son Hal, the heir apparent, who should be assisting him in his troubles, seems more concerned with having fun than with matters of state.
The Elizabethans greatly feared political instability, and rebellion against the crown was one of the worst imaginable of crimes. Against this backdrop of foreboding however, Shakespeare has set much humor and levity. The scenes involving Lady Percy and Lady Mortimer serve as a foil to the dark deeds their husbands are about to embark on. The scenes involving Prince Hal and his lowly companions are delightful, marked by Shakespeare's clever, comic dialogue, bombastic insults, and brain-twisting puns and word play. Falstaff, the wittiest character in the play, makes everyone laugh throughout by his actions and speech. Even at the most dire moments of battle, Falstaff is present to lighten the mood. Just as laughter and tears are present in life, so also are humor and gloom present in equal measures in this play.