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Henry IV, Part 1 /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Henry IV, Part 1

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of 1 Henry IV, for example, you will find the words therefor (i.e., for that purpose), marry (a mild oath, originally an oath “by the Virgin Mary”), an (i.e., if), jerkin (i.e., a close-fitting jacket), and zounds (an oath “by Christ’s wounds”). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In 1 Henry IV, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of 1 Henry IV, for example, the word sullen has the meaning of “dull,” close is used where we would say “struggle,” surprised where we would say “captured,” and riot where we would say “dissipation, loose living.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, history, and background mythology. In 1 Henry IV, within the larger world of early-fifteenth-century England and Wales that the play creates, Shakespeare uses one set of words to construct Henry IV’s court and the stately houses and courtly battleground confrontations of Henry’s time, and he uses a second set of words to construct the lower-class world of thieves, vintners, hostesses, hostlers, and setters who frequent the taverns of Eastcheap and the inns along “the London road.” The courtly world of Henry IV and his allies and enemies is built through references to “Plantagenet,” to “revolted Percy,” and to “Richard that dead is”; to “swift Severn,” to “Holmedon,” and to “the sepulcher of Christ”; to “new broils . . . commenced in stronds afar remote,” to the “furious close of civil butchery,” and to “the detested blot of murderous subornation.” This is the world inhabited by Henry IV, Hotspur, Northumberland, and Worcester—and, when he chooses, by Prince Hal. The tavern world of Falstaff and his fellows is created through references to Moorditch, Gad’s Hill, and Eastcheap, to sack, to bawds, to leaping-houses, to buff jerkins and robes of durance, and to Phoebus and Diana. This also is Prince Hal’s world, so long as he chooses to be a part of it. The words that create these two language worlds will become increasingly familiar to you as you read further into the play.

From Hugh Alley, A caveat for the city of London (1598).
From Hugh Alley, A caveat for the city of London (1598).

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of a play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Look first for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”) or places the subject between the two parts of a verb (e.g., instead of “We will go” we find “Will we go”). In 1 Henry IV, we find an inverted subject-verb construction in King Henry’s “Find we a time” (1.1.2) as well as in his “a power of English shall we levy” (1.1.22). Prince Hal’s “Yet herein will I imitate the sun” (1.2.204) is another example of inverted subject and verb.

Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him” we might find “Him I hit”). King Henry’s “two-and-twenty knights / Balked in their own blood, did Sir Walter see” (1.1.68–69) is an example of such an inversion (the normal order would be “Sir Walter did see two-and-twenty knights balked in their own blood”). Another example is King Henry’s “The prisoners / Which he in this adventure hath surprised / To his own use he keeps” (1.1.91–93), where the normal order would be “He keeps to his own use the prisoners which he hath surprised in this adventure.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, King Henry’s “The edge of war, like an ill-sheathèd knife, / No more shall cut his master” (1.1.17–18); here the phrase “like an ill-sheathèd knife” separates the subject (“The edge of war”) from its verb (“shall cut”). Or take Prince Hal’s lines: “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes” (1.2.220–21), where the normal construction “My reformation shall show more goodly” is interrupted by the phrase “glitt’ring o’er my fault.” Hotspur uses a similar construction when he says “I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold, / To be so pestered with a popinjay, / Out of my grief and my impatience / Answered neglectingly I know not what” (1.3.50–53), where the basic sentence elements (“I answered neglectingly”) are separated by several interrupting phrases. In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“the edge of war shall cut,” “my reformation shall show,” “I answered neglectingly”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Locating and, if necessary, rearranging words that “belong together” is especially helpful in passages that separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions—a structure that is used frequently in 1 Henry IV. When King Henry describes the civil strife that has just ended and the hoped-for crusade to the Holy Land, he uses such an interrupted construction:

                                         Those opposéd eyes,

Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,

All of one nature, of one substance bred,

Did lately meet in the intestine shock

And furious close of civil butchery,

Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,

March all one way. . . .                      (1.1.9–15)

Here the basic sentence elements (“Those opposed eyes which did lately meet in civil butchery shall now march all one way”) are interrupted by phrases and figures of speech that characterize the formal rhetoric of King Henry. Hotspur uses an interrupted construction (as well as a verb-object inversion) when attacking his father and his uncle for their past and present behaviors:

But shall it be that you that set the crown

Upon the head of this forgetful man

And for his sake wear the detested blot

Of murderous subornation—shall it be

That you a world of curses undergo,

Being the agents or base second means,

The cords, the ladder, or the hangman rather?


Here the basic sentence elements (“But shall it be that you undergo a world of curses”) are interrupted by details that catch the audience up in Hotspur’s narrative of the past, reminding the audience of a story that they would have known from Shakespeare’s Richard II and giving the audience Hotspur’s perspective on that story. The sentence structure forces the audience to attend to the narrative details while listening for the sentence’s completion. In 1 Henry IV as in many other of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, for instance), long interrupted sentences are used frequently, sometimes to catch the audience up in the narrative and sometimes as a characterizing device.

In some of his plays (again, Hamlet is a good example), rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until much subordinate material has already been given. This kind of delaying structure is rarely used in 1 Henry IV—though we do find it in such speeches as Prince Hal’s “Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day” (1.2.7–13), where a “normally constructed” English sentence would have begun with the basic sentence elements (“I see no reason . . .”).

More often in 1 Henry IV, we find very long sentences where the basic sentence elements are distributed over several lines as detail piles on detail. King Henry, Prince Hal, and Hotspur all use such sentences, though each speaks sentences constructed in ways that characterize the particular speaker. An example of such a sentence appears in King Henry’s opening speech:

                                                     Therefore, friends,

As far as to the sepulcher of Christ—

Whose soldier now, under whose blessèd cross

We are impressèd and engaged to fight—

Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,

Whose arms were molded in their mothers’ womb

To chase these pagans in those holy fields

Over whose acres walked those blessèd feet

Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed

For our advantage on the bitter cross.


Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In his later plays, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In 1 Henry IV omissions are extremely rare and seem to be used to affect the tone of the speech or for the sake of speech rhythm. For example, in King Henry’s “But let him from my thoughts” (1.1.90) the omission of the word “go” creates a regular iambic pentameter line and perhaps conveys some of the intensity of the king’s feelings. A similar rhythmic and tonal effect is created in Hotspur’s “I will not send them. I will after straight / And tell him so” (1.3.128–29), where “after straight” is used in place of “go after him straightway” (i.e., immediately).

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings, or—as is usually the case in I Henry IV—on a single word that has more than one meaning. In 1 Henry IV 1.2.18–22, for example, Falstaff plays on four different meanings of the word “grace” in a dialogue exchange with Prince Hal, first addressing him by the title “thy Grace,” then arguing that this is an inaccurate title, since “grace thou wilt have none” (where “grace” means both “virtue” and “God’s grace”); this series of puns concludes with Falstaff’s claim that Hal will have “not so much” grace “as will serve to be a prologue to an egg and butter”—where a “grace” is a short prayer before a meal. A few lines later, Falstaff puns again, saying to Hal, “let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal” (1.2.28–31)—where “under whose countenance we steal” means both “beneath whose face we move stealthily” and “under whose protection we commit theft.”

Hotspur is another character in 1 Henry IV whose language sometimes employs puns. When, for example, Hotspur defends the behavior of Mortimer, claiming that Mortimer’s many wounds received in the battle prove that he is no traitor, Hotspur says, “Never did bare and rotten policy / Color her working with such deadly wounds” (1.3.111–12), where the verb “color” means (1) misrepresent and (2) paint, as with a cosmetic (with the verb “color” referring literally to Mortimer’s staining himself with blood). Because of the presence in 1 Henry IV of Falstaff and Hotspur, this play, although a history, uses puns frequently. Thus the language needs to be listened to carefully if one is to catch all its meanings.

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. In the opening lines of 1 Henry IV,

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,

Find we a time for frighted peace to pant

And breathe short-winded accents of new broils

To be commenced in strands afar remote.

No more the thirsty entrance of this soil

Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood,


metaphoric language is used to describe the horrors of the civil war just ended. The first metaphor (in lines 2–3) presents peace as a hunted animal trying to catch its breath; the second (in lines 5–6) pictures England, with its blood-stained soil, as a mother whose lips are red with the blood of her own children.

Later in the play, Worcester uses metaphoric language when he tells Hotspur about the highly secret information Worcester is about to reveal:

And now I will unclasp a secret book,

And to your quick-conceiving discontents

I’ll read you matter deep and dangerous. . . .


Here the telling of information is imaged as the opening of, and reading from, a clandestine book that contains dangerous material.

Hotspur responds to Worcester’s language with metaphoric language of his own. He declares himself ready to seek for honor no matter what the danger; his declaration takes the form of a metaphor in which honor is a heroine in need of a hero’s rescue:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap

To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon,

Or dive into the bottom of the deep,

Where fathom line could never touch the ground,

And pluck up drownèd honor by the locks. . . .


In 1 Henry IV, metaphor is most often used—as it is here in Hotspur’s speech—to lift a character’s rhetoric to a “high style,” demonstrating his linguistic powers, his control over language. Thus this play differs from many of Shakespeare’s plays in which metaphor is used when the idea being conveyed is hard to express, or when a character seems to find an emotion beyond normal expression. In such plays, the speaker is given metaphorical language that helps to carry the idea or the feeling to his or her listener—and to the audience.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We need to learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, in 1 Henry IV 2.4.389–400, Falstaff says to Prince Hal, as they stage their rehearsal of Hal’s visit to King Henry, “This chair shall be my state,” it is clear that Falstaff here takes his seat; when Hal responds, “Here is my leg,” one knows from the language of the time that this means that Hal here makes an elaborate bow. At several places in 1 Henry IV, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. When, in 3.1.220–76, Glendower says to Mortimer, “She bids you on the wanton rushes lay you down / And rest your gentle head upon her lap,” Mortimer’s response, “With all my heart I’ll sit and hear her sing,” suggests that at some point Mortimer sits down and perhaps rests his head in his wife’s lap. Hotspur’s order to his own wife, which follows immediately (“Come, Kate, thou art perfect in lying down. / Come, quick, quick, that I may lay my head in thy lap”), probably indicates that Hotspur and his wife also sit; Lady Percy’s response, “Go, you giddy goose,” casts some doubt on whether she does in fact obey him, but her remark a few lines later, “Lie still, you thief, and hear the lady sing in Welsh,” makes the stage action fairly clear. But there is no hint in the dialogue about when any of the husbands and wives stand. Thus the director and the actors—and we as readers—must choose the moment for Hotspur, for example, to stand, and must decide whether or not his wife stands at the same time or whether he walks off and leaves her sitting—decisions that may have a large impact on our response to these characters. (Because the dialogue in this scene gives so little direction, we have chosen not to insert stage directions for the characters’ movements.)

Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like 5.4, with its series of sword fights, deaths, and mock deaths—a scene in which imagined stage action vitally affects our response to the play.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.