Henry IV was published as 2 plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. But we’ll do them both together in one post. Life is short. Shakespeare is long.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted:
HENRY IV, 1: Same as The Lion King: Princes have to grow up. Also, hakuna matata.
HENRY IV, 2: Prince Hal’s movin’ on up. MORAL: Don’t forget the little people who got you where you are.
What happens in Henry IV
(King of England from 1399-1413)
As you might recall from Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke is now King Henry IV of an unstable England full of civil unrest, sheep, and short people whose life expectancy is 48. Some of the civil unrest involves Hotspur, a hot-to-spur-his-horse-into-battle nobleman who is none too impressed with King Henry and eventually leads a revolt against him.
King Henry’s oldest son, Henry (nickname Hal) spends most of his time in the taverns of London with his disreputable friends, including Falstaff (you remember him from The Merry Wives of Windsor). There is a subplot where Falstaff is cheap and has a drinking problem, and it is foreshadowed that Hal will be a complete chode in Part 2.
King Henry calls Hal back to court now that civil war is underway for real. Hal and Falstaff roleplay the conversation between frat-boyish Hal and his stodgy father. Hal’s snarky comments about his own friends give Falstaff food for thought.
Hostpur makes an alliance with King Henry’s other enemies (I haven’t used the word “enemy” this much since the Great Friendship Pin Unrest of 3rd Grade. It’s oddly satisfying).
Hal returns to his father, who sends him off at the head of an army to meet Hotspur. On the way, Hal encounters Falstaff leading a few disorganized “soldiers” he took bribes from.
The King offers to pardon Hotspur if he will back down, but one of Hotspur’s allies keeps the message from him.
There is a battle between the Henry side and the Hotspur side.
Falstaff is afraid to die in battle and wonders why all the fuss about honor. “Can Honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is Honour? A word. What is that word, Honour? Air.”
Hal fights well, saves his father’s life, and kills Hotspur.
Falstaff fakes his own death on the battlefield and then claims he was the one who killed Hotspur.
King Henry’s side wins the battle. On to Part 2.
Hotspur’s father mistakenly hears that Hotspur actually won the battle. He organizes the rebels to oppose King Henry’s forces (officially led by Prince John, the King’s second son, Prince Hal being not terrible on the battlefield but in general a disappointing frat boy with no sense of responsibility). But when the news about Hotspur’s death finally arrives, Hotspur’s mother and his widow persuade his father to give up what is clearly a lost cause.
Falstaff returns to London and collects praise after taking credit for killing Hotspur. He promptly gets arrested for his debts to the Boar’s Head Tavern and gets into a fight with the police. He convinces the tavern owner, Mistress Quickly, to give him a loan (we don’t normally do subplots or side characters on the Shakespeare TLDR, but Mistress Quickly). During the celebratory drinking (with his girlfriend, Doll Tearsheet, and you know that name means something NSFW), Falstaff speaks ill of his old friend Prince Hal, who is there in disguise. They get into an argument.
Falstaff gets summoned back to the war, where he acts morally questionable and tries to spend other people’s money.
Prince John engages in some political shadiness to get the rebels arrested. That’s the end of the English civil war.
Back in London, King Henry is very ill. Prince Hal arrives at his sleeping father’s side, thinks he (Henry) is dead, assumes he (Hal) is the king now, and leaves the room with the crown. The king wakes up and gets angry, but they make up.
The king dies. Prince Hal is now King Henry V.
Falstaff goes to London, expecting to get a cushy appointment now that Hal is in charge. But Henry makes a cold public speech where he denies knowing Falstaff. His good friend. Just denies knowing him. Total about-face. He banishes Falstaff and the other lowlifes from coming within ten miles of his court. He says, “Presume not that I am the thing I was, for God doth know—so shall the world perceive—that I have turned away my former self.” Thusly have rich boys turned their backs on their embarrassing college years and congealed into pillars of society since time began.
There is talk about a coming war with France, which sets us up for what happens in Henry V.