At the center of Henry IV, Part 1 (which is called “Part 1” because it has a sequel, “Part 2”) are several family relationships—primarily pairs of fathers and sons, but also brothers, husbands and wives, and uncles and nephews. King Henry and his son, Prince Hal, form one major father-son pair. When the play opens, Henry is in despair because Hal lives a dissolute life. Henry himself has won (rather than inherited) the throne of England; Hal’s way of living can be seen as calling into public question Henry’s and his family’s right to the throne. In seeming contrast to the king and prince are the father-son pair of Hotspur (Lord Henry Percy) and his father, the earl of Northumberland. Hotspur accomplishes deeds that “a prince can boast of ”—as Henry is reminded—and Henry openly envies Northumberland “his Harry,” wishing that it could be proved that the two sons had been exchanged in their cradles so that Henry could be rid of Hal and could claim the gallant Hotspur as his own.
In the meantime, Hal himself has entered into a quasi-father-son relationship with a disreputable knight, Sir John Falstaff. Much of the action of the play can be seen as the interactions of these pairs of fathers and sons. The fathers, Henry and Northumberland (along with Northumberland’s brother, Worcester), fight for control of England while Henry and Falstaff seem to fight for Hal’s love and loyalty. At the same time, the sons Hal and Hotspur fight for the place of honor in the eyes of the English nobility.
Another strand of action centers on a different set of family relationships. Hotspur’s stand against King Henry, engineered by his uncle Worcester and colluded in by Hotspur’s father, focuses on Hotspur’s brother-in-law, Mortimer. As this play presents English history, this is the Mortimer whom Richard II had proclaimed heir to the throne. Mortimer has led “the men of Herefordshire” to fight against the great Welsh magician Owen Glendower, has been defeated and captured, and has married Glendower’s daughter. King Henry has declared Mortimer’s defeat a defection and, because Mortimer is now his captor’s son-in-law, has pronounced Mortimer a traitor whom Henry will not ransom. Hotspur, in declaring war on England’s king, sees himself as fighting for the honor and rescue of his wife’s brother.
This play’s highlighting of family patterns and family struggles is most clear in such scenes as 2.4 and 3.2, the two father-son scenes in mid-play. The first, parodic scene is staged in the tavern when Falstaff and Hal pretend to be father and son, followed by the second scene played out in earnest between King Henry and Prince Hal. Between these two scenes comes 3.1, the remarkable domestic scene in Wales, where Mortimer, the supposed heir to the throne, and Hotspur, valiant leader of rebel forces, are presented primarily as husbands and brothers-in-law and where Owen Glendower, legendary wizard and military commander, is presented as doting father and concerned father-in-law.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that several of the important details that, in the play, bring father-son and other family relationships into prominence are Shakespeare’s own creations—are not found, that is, in the chronicles of English history that provide the play’s historical narrative. To mention only a few examples: Hal’s offer to fight Hotspur in single combat, Hal’s rescue of his father in battle, and Hal’s final battle with Hotspur—none of these appear in the chronicles. (The fact that Hal and Hotspur are presented in the play as being the same age, when, in fact, Hotspur was older than King Henry himself, may not be a change that Shakespeare himself made, but may instead indicate that Shakespeare was here following Samuel Daniel’s Civil Wars  rather than Holinshed’s Chronicles.) Second, the domestic scene in Wales depends upon major changes of chronicle material. In the chronicles, the meeting to divide the kingdom and to draw up the indentures was not attended by the rebel lords but was conducted by their representatives, and it did not take place at Glendower’s home but at the residence of the archbishop of Bangor. Thus the presentation of the rebel lords in a family setting required a significant rewriting of history.
Such rewriting and the play’s resulting focus on family relationships have two important effects. First, they pull us into the play: Henry, Hal, and Hotspur are not so much distant historical figures as they are persons caught up in relationships and struggles that resemble family situations even today. Second, the play’s focus on the family reminds us that the wars for control of England, Scotland, and Wales in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were basically family struggles. When the oldest son of King Edward III died prematurely, leaving behind an infant son to inherit the kingdom (as Richard II) at Edward III’s death, the stage was set for the bloody centuries that followed, as brothers, cousins, and nephews fought each other to win and retain the tantalizing prize of the crown.
After you have read the play, we invite you to read “Henry IV, Part 1: A Modern Perspective,” by Professor Alexander Leggatt of the University of Toronto. You will also find a brief discussion of Sir John Falstaff and his historical model, Sir John Oldcastle.