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Scene Summaries With Notes
Act I, Scene 1
The play opens with King Henry IV in council with Westmoreland and others advisors. Henry announces his plans for a crusade to the Holy Land, which he hopes will unite England, which has been suffering terrible civil unrest in the year that he has been king.
But England has other troubles; she is also fighting border wars with Scotland and Wales. Westmoreland informs Henry that the English have lost against the Welsh, and that the enemy chief, Glendower, holds the English commander, Mortimer, captive. The news forces Henry to postpone his intended crusade.
Westmoreland then tells Henry that the English army led by Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, had been fighting the Scots at Holmedon and that the outcome is uncertain. Henry informs Westmoreland that he has learned from Sir Walter Blunt that Hotspur has defeated the Scots and captured their leader, Douglas, and a number of important nobles.
When Westmoreland praises Hotspur, the king reflects that his own son, Henry, nicknamed Hal, has been neglecting his princely duties towards the state. Henry envies the Earl of Northumberland for having a son like Hotspur. But he also questions Hotspur's pride, for the young hero has refused to turn over the bulk of his prisoners to the king. Westmoreland replies that Hotspur must have been influenced by his uncle, Worcester, who is unfriendly to the crown. Henry, sensing trouble, orders that a meeting be arranged at Windsor and that the Percies be summoned there.
The very opening scene establishes a link with Shakespeare's earlier history, Richard II. Henry is presented as a weary, tired man who plans to lead crusades and reclaim the Holy Land of Jerusalem. This is a way of salvaging his guilty conscience for having murdered Richard II and usurped the throne.
After almost twelve months of rule, Henry is now facing trouble from the nobility. In his plot to seize the crown, Henry had received much assistance from the Percies. The Percies are displeased with Henry, however, especially Worcester, who had expected fat rewards in return for his help to Henry. Now that his nephew Hotspur has won at Holmedon, Worcester encourages him to defy the king. Hence, Hotspur refuses to hand over the prisoners of war. As Westmoreland aptly observes:
“This is his uncle’s teaching. This is Worcester, Malevolent to you in all aspects, Which makes him prune himself, and bristle up The crest of youth against your dignity.” (95-8)
Here, the conflicting issue between the Percies and Henry is introduced. This conflict will later on evolve into a full-blown rebellion.
The dissatisfied Percies cannot be ignored, and Henry has to take firm steps in dealing with them. So he calls an urgent meeting at Windsor and summons the Percies. The seriousness of the matter is well brought out. Richard II's prophecy as told to Northumberland rings out loud, clear, and true:
“And he shall think that thou, which knowest the way To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again, Being ne’er so little urged, another way To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.” (Richard II, V, i, 62-5)
At this crucial juncture, the audience is told that Henry’s son, Prince Hal, the heir apparent, is neglecting his duties. Henry is upset at all this and wishes that his son was responsible towards the nation. It should be noted here that the Shakespearean audience would see Hal as a punishment for Henry’s past sins. King Henry is in a tight spot indeed. On the one hand is the threat of a rebellion, and on the other hand is personal guilt, sorrow, and insecurity.