The Main Characters in Henry IV, Part 1

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

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

Shakespeare’s characters usually symbolize definitions or ways of life. The main characters in Henry IV, Part 1, are no exception. They embody struggles, traits, and in some cases, history. Read on to see how each character is created.

A painting of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, Scene iv: Falstaff enacts the part of the king.
Falstaff was one of the main characters in Henry IV.
(Image: Johann Heinrich Ramberg / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Henry IV is a play built around character contrasts and personalities. Shakespeare conveys his desired messages through all the elements in the play, including the characters. The main characters in Henry IV each represent an important theme, and their contrast helps distinguish their reality. In the story of King Henry V and the challenges he had to overcome to become a true king, there are bold symbolic characters, whose life or death tells stories, too.

Learn more about The Tools for a Lifetime of Shakespeare.

King Henry IV

King Henry IV is the one who overthrew his own cousin, Richard II, to seize the crown. He embodies the law, but paradoxically, he gained his position by being an outlaw. He does not have a very close relationship with his son, Harry. Thus, Falstaff, who embodies everything that Henry is not, becomes Harry’s father–figure. In multiple acts of the play, he advises Harry the way a father should, yet, he is not a good role-model for a king.

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

Once, when he is advising his son for kingship, he confesses that politics is a game where you need to know very well how to act.

Henry IV statue in Paris
King Henry IV gained the throne through being an outlaw. (Image: NeydtStock/Shutterstock)

Prince Harry

Prince Harry, son of King Henry IV, is the link between many contrasts and occurrences. He is called Hal or Prince Hal as well. First, he is introduced as an irresponsible young man who does not understand kingship, its values, and difficulties. He spends more time in taverns than in the court, helps rob travelers at night, and his father is not content with his ways. He once even likens his son to Richard II: ‘unworthy of the crown’.

However, he is different from what he looks like. When he talks to Falstaff of Henry IV, he shows how well he understands politics, knows how to act, and can make sacrifices to reach a goal. Much of the story is about how he grows into a king.

Learn more about The Drama of Ideas in Henry V.

Sir John Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff is perhaps one of the most important characters in Henry IV: a knight that is not worthy of his title. He spends so much time with Hal and influences him in different ways. Play-wise, he is Hal’s father-figure. There are many conversations between Falstaff and Prince Hal, all of which point out decisions that Hal has to make and dilemmas in the way of kingship. He symbolizes fun and carefreeness and is at the other end of a character contrast with Henry IV.

Statue of Falstaff
Falstaff was a fat man who spent most of his time in taverns. (Image: Ralph Wyllie/Shutterstock)

Falstaff is a fat old knight famous for his enormous appetite, sense of humor, tavern trips, and extreme cowardice. He is more than 60 years old, but it is fun to spend time with him. As he is usually in the world of fun, the tavern, Hal also spends much time there. When Prince Harry decided to leave his childish desires for fun behind and accept the stern duty of kingship, Falstaff dies an off-stage death. There was neither any place for fun in Hal’s life anymore nor for Falstaff on stage.

Hotspur

Hotspur comes from the Percy family, one of the noble families leading in rebellion. He is gallant, bold, and eager to defeat Hal and prove his superiority. He bluntly sneers at Hal’s lack of manhood and looks for opportunities to show the world he is the great king that his father believes. Hotspur is Hal’s brother-figure.

Even though bravery was an essential characteristic for a king in the Middle Ages, Hotspur was too bold for a king. He lacked insight into political issues and practical considerations. Hotspur was killed by Prince Hal, and Hal stands at one scene between his body and Falstaff’s. They are the two ends of another character contrast: courage and cowardice. Hal kills both and needs to make a balance to become a trustworthy leader.

The Rebels against the King

At the same time that Hal is struggling with the rebel inside him, King Henry IV is facing the rebellion of some nobles: Hotspur and his father, Northumberland, the Welsh king Owen Glendower, and the Scottish lord Douglas.

Learn more about Henry IV, Part 2-Contrast and Complexity.

Importance of Juxtaposition

Shakespeare puts characters on the scene purposefully. Where one end of contrast exists, the other end cannot be. Thus, there is no act where King Henry IV and Falstaff are present on stage at the same time. When Hal overcomes the two big challenges of choosing between court and tavern and finding the right courage, the bodies of those who symbolized the themes are dead on his sides.

Each character in Shakespeare’s plays is crafted to show certain aspects of life or themes. The other literary elements put the characters in the right place to convey the right meaning. The main characters of Henry IV all carried the same responsibility in terms of meaning and told the story’s different aspects to give a thorough view to the audience.

Common Questions about the Main Characters in Henry IV:

Q: Who is Prince Hal in Henry IV?

Prince Hal is the son of King Henry IV. He later becomes King Henry V, but even before that, he is one of the main characters in Henry IV.

Q: Who kills Hotspur?

Prince Harry, or Hal, kills Hotspur. They are both among the main characters in Henry IV.

Q: Is Falstaff a knight?

Yes, he is a knight, but he does not look or act like one. Yet, he is one of the main characters in Henry IV.

Q: Why is Falstaff so popular?

Falstaff, the main character in Henry IV, is a likable, witty old man, and spending time with him is indeed enjoyable. Thus, Hal spends much time with him in the taverns.

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