Understanding the Themes in Henry IV through Play Comparison

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

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

Henry IV is divided into two parts, but understanding the second segment is tough without considering the first. This is called a ‘play comparison tool’, without which some major themes in the story will go unnoticed. Although the characters are almost the same, Shakespeare shows a different side of all characters in each part.

Leather bound books of Shakespeare's plays
Without play comparison, it is nearly impossible to understand Henry IV, part II.
(Image: Bruce Amos/Shutterstock)

Henry IV is a well-known historical play, written in two parts. Shakespeare gives his audience a full story that can be perceived by putting the two parts next to one another. Thus, the best way to comprehend Henry IV is through an approach known as ‘the play comparison tool’. Although both parts of the play feature the same characters, they behave and react in unusual ways. Shakespeare signals the changes at the beginning of the play.

Learn more about Politics as Theater in Henry IV, Part I.

The Theme of Honor in Henry IV, Part II

The character of Hotspur was the embodiment of courage and honor in part I, but he was killed in the end. Even though Hal overcame one of his major struggles through this death, the virtues Hotspur represented also died with him. Shakespeare shows the death of honor through an initial act, where Hal’s younger brother, Prince John of Lancaster, tries to end the rebellion.

John, Duke of Bedford, praying before St George
Prince John of Lancaster, who sacrificed honor for political reasons. (Image: Bedford Master/Public domain)

John talks to the Archbishop, who is on the rebels’ side, and promises him that if they retreat, he will honor all the grievances put forth by the rebels. He swears upon his soul that ‘these griefs shall be with speed redress’d’, and that he will also withdraw his army. However, as soon as the Archbishop calls the army back, John imprisons them all. He argues that he did not promise not to arrest the rebels and that he has done nothing against his word. Hotspur, despite being an incompetent leader, would rather die than to slay his honor and break a promise. Honor is dead, but the law needs to survive.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s Theater and Stagecraft.

Lord Chief Justice and Theme of Order

Lord Chief Justice first appears in part I, encountering Falstaff. He has imprisoned Hal for a short while because the prince apparently struck him in an argument about the prince’s tavern friends! What can resemble law and order better than a lord of the realm who imprisons a prince? Indeed, in part I Henry IV himself embodied law and order, but now he is fighting an ailment, and Shakespeare shows the audience that the king will be gone by the end of the play. Hence, a new character must replace him.

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

Chief Justice encounters Falstaff again, and Falstaff’s reaction depicts his grave change from part I: He thoroughly ignores the Lord, pretending he is deaf and blind. This may look childish, and it is meant to. Falstaff has childish characteristics from the beginning, but in part II they are associated with the signals of imminent death. Even though Chief Justice believes Hal does not like him, Hal chooses to have him on his side.

A scene From Act V, Scene 5 of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2
Hal banishes Falstaff from his life and walks away. (Image: Robert Smirke/CC BY-SA/Public domain)

At the end of the play, when Hal wears the crown and becomes King Henry V, he has Chief Justice by his side, and he banishes Falstaff.

Learn more about The Drama of Ideas in Henry V.

Act Two, Scene Four in Both Parts

This act is a lengthy and fundamental scene in part one, which shows how Hal and Falstaff’s relationship will evolve. They take turns impersonating the king and the prince, in the tavern. In part two, Shakespeare brings the exact same meeting to the exact same place. Both occur in act two, scene four. However, in the second meeting, Hal is by Falstaff’s side.

Most of the scene in part two orients around Falstaff’s interaction with his mistress – a working girl in the tavern, called Doll. Hal and his friend, Poins, eavesdrop on the couple’s conversation. Do they sneer when Doll asks Falstaff when he is going to stop playing around and ‘begin to patch up thine old body for heaven’? Such a question in such an important scene conveys one message: Falstaff should get ready for death.

Hal and Poins enter the scene around the end to confront Falstaff after he has insulted the prince in front of his tavern company. The same act that was once regarded as humorous is now offending and challenges Falstaff. He, however, argues that he did it so that the foul would not love Hal. It is an obvious excuse and does not change either what Hal feels towards Falstaff, or the fate awaiting this fat old knight.

Without these comparisons, reading the second part of the play can be confusing. Henry IV is a whole divided into two parts. Thus, without knowing the first half, the second half will not convey what it is meant to.

Common Questions about the Themes in Henry IV

Q: Does Hotspur die in Henry IV?

Yes. Hotspur is killed near the end of Henry IV, part I. His absence in part II resembles the honor theme in Henry IV. With him gone, all his virtues are gone as well.

Q: What is the theme of Henry IV?

One of the main themes in Henry IV is Hal’s growth into a king, including the contrasts he faces and overcomes. Rules and order alongside power shape another fundamental theme.

Q: What genre is Henry IV?

Henry IV is a history play. Shakespeare shows his views on kingship in the political themes of Henry IV, and of life in the contrasts he depicts.

Q: Who was Henry V’s brother?

Prince John of Lancaster is Harry’s younger brother. His appearance in part II of the play shows how lack of honor is a primary theme in Henry IV when he immediately breaks his promise to the rebels and even the Archbishop.

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