|While 1 Henry IV takes place amid a background of war, political unrest, and a fight over who will be king, the heart of the story lies in the relationship between a father and son, and the struggles each faces to understand the other. In the face of a rebellious faction of nobles who are threatening the stability of his reign, King Henry wishes that his son, Hal, would stand with him in honor and help defend the throne. Hal, however, seems more interested in carousing with tavern friends than stepping into his father’s shoes.
King Henry’s frustrations are only increased by his observations of a young man nicknamed Hotspur, who is son of the rebel Northumberland. Although Hotspur is fighting against Henry, the King admires Hotspur’s honor, bravery, and military spirit. In 1.1.77-89, King Henry compares the two sons:
Yea, there thou mak’st me sad, and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of Honor’s tongue,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride;
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine “Percy,” his “Plantagenet”!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
In this comparison of the two sons, Hal and Hotspur become foils, or opposites, of each other, with Hotspur seeming to be the better of the two.
Meanwhile, Hal has found a surrogate father in the character of his tavern friend Falstaff. Despite Falstaff’s moral failings, Hal and Falstaff have a mutual appreciation for each other founded upon practical jokes and playful banter. In the midst of discord with his real father, Hal sees the possibility of a different sort of life in the surrogate father of Falstaff.
Two roads are presented to Hal: one of honor that follows in his father’s footsteps and leads him to take up the throne of England, and one of riotous carousing and irresponsibility which Falstaff represents. Which will Hal choose? In a soliloquy that Hal delivers in 1.2, we are privy to his private thoughts:
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes; …
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Hal proves true to his word. By the end of the play, Hotspur’s stubborn, impulsive and hot-tempered nature get the better of him, while Hal, to the surprise of his father, proves himself to be brave, resolute, and true. In Hal’s own time, he makes the decision to take up the mantle that has been passed to him. Father and son reunite and work together to retain the throne.
Next: Sir John Falstaff