Character Contrast in Shakespeare’s Henry IV

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Connor Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Character contrast is a vital tool for Shakespeare to convey his messages, especially in Henry IV. King Henry IV, Sir Falstaff, Hotspur, and Prince Harry are all involved in shaping the character contrast in Henry IV. One of them, however, is the link that connects the contrasting ends of the spectrum. Read on to recognize this core character.

A character portraying William Shakespeare holding theatrical masks in either hand.
In his play Henry IV, Shakespeare relied on character contrasts to demonstrate moral principles. (Image: iofoto/Shutterstock)

Shakespeare uses numerous literary tools to convey the message of his plays. Henry IV is no exception, and character contrast in Henry IV is a vital tool. Without finding the contrasts, it is unlikely to perceive what Shakespeare really wanted to say. The core of the story is the contrast between King Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff. The boundary-crossing figure here is a young Henry V, who connects the two worlds at the ends of the contrast.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s Theater and Stagecraft.

The Core Character Contrast in Henry IV

One of the leading messages Shakespeare aims to convey in Henry IV is that to reach manhood, one must willingly leave childhood and fun behind. He has portrayed childhood and its irresponsible fun-seeking in Sir John Falstaff, who does not look like a knight enough. Some even doubt how he became a knight in the first place.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The other side of the character contrast spectrum is King Henry IV himself: A strong man who can rule, play the role in political games, and take. Hal needs to decide which side of the contrast he goes with.

A drawing of Henry IV Part 1 act II_scene 4
Falstaff is one end of a main character contrast in the play. (Image: scan Google Books; painting Robert Smirke/Public domain)

Shakespeare uses character contrast in Henry IV consciously and skillfully. To show this contrast, Falstaff does not appear in the court scenes, the same way that Henry IV does not appear in the tavern scenes. He does not even bring Henry IV and Falstaff on stage at the same time. When Hal becomes King Henry V, Falstaff no longer appears in the play, and even his death is reported by somebody else. Thus, juxtaposition on stage is also a fundamental tool to show contrast.

The Character of King Henry IV

King Henry IV symbolizes order, rule, and law in the play. He had to fight to gain kingship, as the true king was Richard II, his cousin. Thus, there is a contrast to this character. He became the embodiment of law through being an outlaw in the first place. Shakespeare questions kingship through this story.

Medallion of Henri IV le Grand with Marie de Medici
The character forming the contrast with Falstaff is Henry IV (Image: a40757/Shutterstock)

Henry IV is embarrassed with Hal’s behavior, and even compares him to Richard II, saying he is unworthy of the crown. At one act, he advises his son on kingship qualities and reveals to him that the best skill to possess is ‘acting.’ Throughout the play, Hal proves that he is a talented actor, especially when facing Falstaff a few times.

Learn more about Richard II-History and Kingship.

The Character of Falstaff

As mentioned, Falstaff is a knight who does not act and look like one. He believes he is a true friend to Hal, but he misleads the prince. This witty fat man spends much time in the taverns, and Hal goes with him. He embodies fun, and that is the reason he dies in the play when Hal finally chooses to be a responsible king. There is no place for fun in King Henry V’s life.

The Character of Hal

Hal is the boundary-crossing figure, connecting the world of Falstaff with the world of Henry IV. He spends much time in taverns with Falstaff, he helps rob travelers at night, and he does not seem to understand his profound responsibility. Nevertheless, an essential point in Shakespeare’s works is the distinction between appearance and reality.

In different parts of the play, Hal shows his real personality, which is an impressive, courageous, inspiring, and smart man who understands politics and knows very well how to play roles. Still, he has to choose between Falstaff and his father, the king, the two sides of the contrast. Whom does he choose in the end? King Henry IV. This choice is made after King Henry IV and Falstaff are both dead, showing the difficulty of making this decision, and sacrificing fun for duty.

Learn more about The Drama of Ideas in Henry V.

The Other Important Character Contrast in Henry IV

At an important scene, Hal stands victorious between two dead bodies. One is Falstaff, whose death shows all the childhood and fun in Hal’s life is now gone. But who is the other dead body?

Hotspur, or Percy, was the most admirable, noble, and courageous of the rebels opposing King Henry in this play. Percy is the son of Northumberland and tries to prove his superiority over Hal. However, he is too courageous and not how a king should really be. He is brought at one end of a vital contrast with Falstaff: courage. As much as Hotspur is known for courage, Falstaff is known as a coward. Hal stands between these two, to show that he needs to make a balance to be a courageous king.

Common Questions about Character Contrast in Henry IV

Q: What is the name of the king in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV Part I?

King Henry IV’s son, who will eventually become King Henry V, is called Harry, but in the play, we usually see him with the name Hal. He is the link between character contrasts in Henry IV.

Q: What is the theme of Henry IV?

In Henry IV, two stories of rebellion and disorder run parallel and form two important character contrasts in Henry IV: the story of Prince Hal’s ‘boyhood’ rebellion against his father and the rebel uprising led by the Percy family, alongside Falstaff’s influence on Hal.

Q: Who is Northumberland in Henry IV?

Northumberland is one of the main rebels against the king, a member of the Percy family, and the father of Hotspur. Hotspur shapes the vital character contrasts in Henry IV.

Q: Why is Falstaff important?

Falstaff embodies the childish fun-seeking of Hal and is in fact one side of character contrast in Henry IV. Hal has to leave him behind to finally become the man who can rule.

Keep Reading
Discovering the Meaning Behind Scenes & Words: Key Tools in Understanding Shakespeare
Deconstructing Genius: Shakespeare’s Techniques
Stagecraft & Participation: Key Tools in Understanding Shakespeare