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Because the play is named for him, Henry IV is often stated to be the protagonist of the play. However, he first appears in Act III. He is portrayed as a tired and sick King worn by the troubles of ruling England, a country torn by civil wars. He is also tortured by the fact that he also had been a rebel and had been responsible for Richard II’s death. Though he is the enemy of Northumberland, York, Mowbray, and others, he has people like Westmoreland and Warwick beside him. He appears to be very much concerned about the welfare of England and about the character of his son and heir. He is weary and sick throughout. He suggests a sick nation. In particular, Henry IV makes his strongest appeal as a grief-stricken father of a son and heir whom he believes to be unfaithful and undisciplined.
In the end we see the picture of a reformed young Henry who justifies himself by acts and not by promises.
Hal is the real protagonist of the play. He is the one who experiences inner conflict and resolves it. The King is a static and absent character. Hal must deal with his desire to be irresponsible and libertine; at the beginning, he allows himself these freedoms because he knows that once he is King he will have to be responsible and somber. Thus, when the play ends, he has made the transformation and he has turned away from his earlier ways. Hal’s antagonist is the way of life at the Boar’s Head Tavern.
The Archbishop of York, Richard Scroop, is the King’s antagonist. Scroop owes his position to Richard II. He can never forget the fact that Henry IV was responsible for the execution of his brother. York has become powerful enough to raise a large army against the King and is the determined leader of the rebels in the northern parts.
The climax of the play takes place in Act IV, scene 2. Prince John arrives to settle the articles of grievance given by York. Hal vows that “These griefs shall be with speed redressed.” If the rebel leaders accept his assurance, he continues, “let the armies be disbanded at once and peace and friendship restored.” York is quick to believe Hal, and his close associate Lord Hastings remains optimistic. They brush aside Mowbray’s counsel to be patient and accept the Prince’s words blindly. Hastings promptly orders a captain to report the news to the rebel troops: “Let them have pay and part.” Prince John also orders the royal troops dispersed. When the troops are gone, Westmoreland places Hastings, Mowbray, and York under arrest for treason. The Prince declares that he will keep up his promise of setting the articles of grievances, but the three traitors must receive the punishment, which awaits all traitors. He orders them executed. Hal has shown that he has the responsibility and power to be King.
In the last Act of the play, we see a completely reformed Prince who surprises others by his magnanimity and dedication to duty. He becomes the ideal heir to the throne and embraces order and justice. The Lord Chief Justice of England is given a chance to bring law and order to the state. Preparations are made for the rejection of Falstaff. Order is being restored at all levels of society.