Themes, Motifs, and Symbols in Henry IV Part 1

Adolescence & Coming of Age

Prince Hal enjoys his youthful life stealing and spending much of his time with his fellow robbers. However, he also knows that he must become the responsible leader that his father, King Henry, wants him to be. He plans to be mature and impress those who did not believe he can be a responsible king. After he has a conversation with his father, the king, he starts to become more mature which is where Henry IV Part 1 ends.

Family Relationships

Family relationships are generally important to keep track of in all parts of the Henriad due to the Principle of Legitimacy which plays an important role in the ever-shifting tides of politics.
A prevalent family relationship is that between a father and his son. These relationships exist between King Henry IV and Prince Hal as well as Northumberland and Hotspur. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare has created a parallel between these two relationships. Despite the fact that Hotspur and Prince Hal are complete foils of each other it becomes clear that Northumberland shares the same sentiments regarding Hotspur as Henry does regarding Hal. It may even be possible that each father wants the other's son. King Henry is ashamed of Prince Hal's affinity for the Boar's Head Tavern Crew as well as his lack of noble stature. Northumberland is irritated by his son's impulsiveness and temper. When the king's forces battle the rebels, Prince Hal, who never had such a close relationship with his father, comes to save his father from Douglas. This shows there is a much stronger relationship between Prince Hal and King Henry.

Prince Hal fighting Hotspur
Prince Hal fighting Hotspur

The idea of courage is important during the play. Some characters, like Hotspur, live for honor, yet some, like Falstaff, do not care at all for honor. Hotspur even dies for this honor, while Falstaff prefers to live. Hotspur first introduces the idea of honor. It is what motivates him and by leading a rebellion against the king, he believes this will continue his honor. This is shown by his speech in 1.3.199-206, in which he declares that "drowned honor" must be plucked up from the bottom of the deep. This means that he feels that honor has been disgraced by the king's rule and he want to fix it. On the royal side there is no direct mention of honor. The king’s motivates his son to convey the idea that it is time for the young man to behave honorably and help to defeat the rebels. The need to uphold the honor is what leads the men on both sides into battle. No one can back down and still retain honor. Falstaff, however, mocks the concept of honor. For him, honor is just a meaningless word. It has no practical use, and is certainly not worth sacrificing one's life for (5.1).

Loyalty & Betrayal

There are several instances where loyalty and betrayal are presented within the play. An example of betrayal is when Falstaff takes credit for killing Hotspur, as well as when Hotspur's father Northumberland is supposedly sick when his son is entering battle. Which is interesting because he then tries to get his son to stop by abandoning him then talking to him. This proves his father doesn't communicate with his son often. Loyalty however, could be the manner in which the Prince treats his mentor Falstaff as well as the loyalty of the Prince to his father at this time of crises.

Duty & Good Time

Hal fulfills his duty and pursues a good time. When Hal is at the tavern, he is enjoying himself doing all these improper activities like robbing. However, he also is a prince. After he talks to his father, he goes alongside his father to battle. Hotspur has always fulfilled his duties and just before he dies, he thinks what that has gotten him; he is still going to die. This theme also goes with honor because to fulfill honor one must do one duty. Hotspur even says "O Harry, thou has robbed me of my youth./ I better brook the loss of brittle life/ Than those hast won of me" (5.4.78-80). This quote shows that even though Hotspur has fulfilled all his duties, all his hard work is gone in moments. Prince Hal has a new type of leadership because he has learned form his father, Hotspur, and Falstaff and this quote shows how Hotspur does not understand the new leadership of Prince Hal.

Power of Men Over Women

When Lady Percy (Kate) asks Hotspur what is troubling him, He does not confide in her because she is a woman. Falstaff also tries to take advantage of the hostess later on by falsely accusing her of robbing from him, saying "Go to, you are a woman, go" (Shakespeare 3.3.65). Falstaff also is part of this theme when he insults the Hostess just because she was "bothering" him. He called her "neither fish or flesh" (3:3:135). Falstaff even said that other than that the Hostess is a woman she is also a beast. He thinks he is better than the Hostess because she is a women and he is a man.

Generosity and Modesty

It is possible say that Prince Hal was modest because he allowed Falstaff to take the credit for killing Hotspur. Now if you compared that to the king you would see that the king would have never done anything like that; he wanted all that fame. Note that even though Hotspur is the foil to Falstaff, they both share the same trait of greed for honor, even though Falstaff does this to continue being around Prince Hal rather than the glory. Falstaff is the one who wants the credit for killing Hotspur and the King obviously would never have done what Prince Hal did for Falstaff.

Legitimacy of Kingship

This theme is present throughout the play, but never really seems that obvious. The whole entire play is actually about this idea, as the two sides are constantly trying to prove how they should be the rightful king. King Henry even feels that it is necessary to prove his legitimacy to his own son when talking to him (Act 3, Scene 2). Henry feels as though he has a right to rebel against his king if he feels he is behaving unjustly. It is also important to consider the fact that Henry thought God was punishing him as well, with an unruly son and his other sins. The rebels on the other hand think that Henry IV is not legitimate and constantly list their grievances against the king. However, had they actually won, their reign would not have been any more legitimate.

The Sun

Both King Henry and Prince Hal make constant remarks comparing themselves to celestial bodies. Prince Hal remarks to the audience in his first soliloquy that he is very similar to the sun and simply allows for his low life friend to shroud him in their own bodies forming “clouds”, which he can later break through and stun the entire kingdom. King Henry relates himself to a comet instead of the sun, saying he was so successful “By being seldom seen, I could not stir/But like a comet I was wonder’d at;/That men would tell their children ‘This is he;’”(Act 3 Scene 2.2). This is a strategy pretty much the opposite of Hal’s. However, they both are trying to control their image in the light of the public eye and utilizing shrewd political tactics, and certainly manipulating the public.


The play takes an interesting stance on Gender. The main focus of the play is on primogeniture, and thus focuses mostly on males. This leads to a lot of talk about honor, masculinity, fighting and so on. The few female characters actually in the play do not really serve significant roles, but still dramatizes the relations between husband and wife.


Shakespeare himself is a master of language and considers it an idea very close to authority and control. Hotspur can be heard giving elegant soliloquies or rallying troops, making him a man fit to rule. Hotspur on the other hand is unable to motivate his troops before battle, is hot headed, very impulsive and even speaks about his hatred for foreign languages. This all leads to the belief of him being an unfit ruler, as language is important for manipulation and deceit and synonymous with power.


Doubles are utilized by Shakespeare to show contrast throughout the play. These comparisons can be seen between Hal and Hotspur and their different perceptions of honor and the Boar’s Head Tavern and the Royal Palace to show the difference of class in England. Since this idea is repeated so much throughout the play, it forms a motif, where certain ideas and characters are always reappearing to provide contrast. More examples for doubles would be Falstaff and King Henry, as they both try to be father figures for Hal.