Henry IV Part 1

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The Right to be King Theme Analysis

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The Right to be King Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Henry IV Part 1, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Right to be King Theme Icon

As a history play, Henry IV Part 1’s plot covers a specific historical struggle for the English throne. In this sense, it asks a limited question about the right to be king: do King Henry and Prince Hal or do Hotspur and the rebels have the most legitimate right to rule England? Over the course of the play, each side lays out its case as a complicated series of historical claims, victories, and inheritances: King Henry explains his case to Prince Hal at great length in Act 3 scene 2 when Hal makes peace with his father. Hotspur, in turn, explains his case often, ranting about “this canker, Bolingbroke” (King Henry’s name before he took the throne) to Worcester and Northumberland and elaborating his own family’s right to King Henry’s glory.

Yet, as a piece of literature, Shakespeare’s play also asks deep, universal questions about the right to the throne and about what makes a good king. Although it was historically accurate that King Henry, Prince Hal (Henry Prince of Wales), and Hotspur (Henry Percy) shared a name, Shakespeare uses this fact to the play’s literary advantage: the three Henrys each illustrate a different way of being king and the contrast between them prompts the audience to consider what qualities are best embodied by a monarch. King Henry is sober, wise, and deeply aware of the cost of warfare. He tries hard to temper Hotspur’s warmongering ferocity with attempts to negotiate peace. Hotspur is impressively courageous, but the negative parts of his character end up cancelling out the positive ones: he is so proud it makes him foolhardy, and he rages into battle, underestimates Prince Hal, and winds up killed by play’s end. Of the three Henrys, Prince Hal ultimately seems the most agile ruler. Even when he acts like a light-hearted teenager, Hal remains a keen reader of human character, an unpretentious friend to Englishmen of every class, and a persuasive orator. Later, when he abandons his partying antics before the Battle of Shrewsbury, his mature intelligence shines even brighter. He ultimately shows himself to be every inch the brilliant, eloquent king that will be featured in Henry V.

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The Right to be King Quotes in Henry IV Part 1

Below you will find the important quotes in Henry IV Part 1 related to the theme of The Right to be King.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile places...
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master.

Related Characters: King Henry IV (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.5-16
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the play, England has just finished a great civil war. Out of the civil war, Henry IV has emerged victorious, cementing his status as the unquestioned monarch of England. Henry IV's victory in the civil war is crucial, because it establishes him as the strongest force in the land, and therefore, presumably, the man most deserving of the title of monarch.

But Henry IV does more than simply boast of his own military might. Rather, he frames his victory in the civil war as a victory for England as a whole. Cleverly, Henry presents himself as reinforcing the natural order of life, preventing his country's "children" from killing one another. In such a way, Henry plays the part of a kindly, loving father, implicitly accusing all his rivals to the throne of upsetting the natural order and causing undue bloodshed. (Henry's rhetorical maneuvers are crucial, because his own status as a monarch is rather questionable, since he began his career by overthrowing Richard II.)


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…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 honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishnor 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!

Related Characters: King Henry IV (speaker), Prince Hal (Henry, Prince of Wales), Hotspur (Henry Percy), Northumberland
Page Number: 1.1.77-88
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, King Henry IV criticizes his own child, who shares a first name with the child of Lord Northumberland: Henry. Half-seriously, half-jokingly, Henry IV wishes that his and Northumberland's children had been switched at birth: his own child is a disobedient youth, while Northumberland's child is proud and honorable.

Little does Henry IV that his child, Prince Hal, will grow up to be arguably the greatest of all English monarchs, Henry V. For now, though, Hal appears to be a disgrace to his family--he spends all his time goofing around and getting drunk. Henry IV is understandably upset that his child isn't a more accomplished leader, because he's thinking about his own legacy as a monarch; he needs a suitable male heir to ensure that his "line" will endure.

Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Hotspur (Henry Percy) (speaker), King Henry IV, Northumberland
Page Number: 1.3.164-170
Explanation and Analysis:

Hotspur confirms his status as an uncontrollable "loose cannon." Hotspur has just had a tense argument with Henry IV, the king. Now alone with his father, Northumberland, Hotspur continues to criticize the king, faulting him for being "forgetful" (forgetting how Hotspur's family helped him gain the crown) and traitorous. Hotspur is old enough to know that Henry IV has risen to power by killing the former king, Richard II. Hotspur even faults his own father for allowing himself to be humiliatingly "subordinate" to such a monarch.

In short, Hotspur isn't much of a politician, let alone a rhetorician. His speech is full of elaborate mixed metaphors and angry declarations. Hotspur's behavior illustrates what Henry IV is up against: a nation of unruly citizens who don't trust their new king.

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

…the King hath sent to know
The nature of your griefs; and whereupon
You conjure them from the breast of civil peace
Such bold hostility, teaching his duteous land
Audacious cruelty. If that the King
Have any way your good deserts forgot,
Which he confesseth to be manifold,
He bids you name your griefs; and with all speed
You shall have your desires with interest,
And pardon absolute for yourself and these
Herein misled by your suggestion.

Related Characters: Sir Walter Blunt (speaker), Hotspur (Henry Percy), King Henry IV, Earl of Worcester, Earl of Douglas, Sir Richard Vernon
Page Number: 4.3.47-57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry IV sends a messenger to Hotspur and his followers, who by this point in the text have instigated a full-out rebellion against the king. Henry asks Hotspur to reconsider his actions--he promises to forgive Hotspur for his act of rebellion and pay Hotspur's peers well if they declare their loyalty to him. In short, Henry IV is trying to avoid a bloody war--but too late.

Henry IV's actions show that he's generally a good king, and prefers peace to bloodshed, even if it's "honorable" bloodshed. If he were as volatile as Hotspur, he certainly never would have offered any kind of apology or reparations, but would have immediately launched into battle. At the same time, were he as agile as Prince Hal, Henry might have been able to use rhetorical skill and timing in a better way, to actually prevent war.

Disgraced me in my happy victories,
Sought to entrap me by intelligence,
Rated mine uncle from the council board,
In rage dismissed my father from the court,
Broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong,
And in conclusion drove us to seek out
This head of safety, and withal to pry
Into his title, the which we find
Too indirect for long continuance.

Related Characters: Hotspur (Henry Percy) (speaker), King Henry IV
Page Number: 4.3.104-112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hotspur responds to Henry IV's peace offerings. Instead of submitting to Henry IV's authority, as Henry had hoped, Hotspur reiterates his hatred for the king: he explains that Henry IV has always mistreated Hotspur and Hotspur's family, sneakily breaking his promises to them in order to ascend to the throne. Now, Hotspur aims to defeat Henry and claim the throne of England for himself.

Hotspur's response proves that it was perhaps a bad idea for Henry IV to offer Hotspur peace so late in the game. By this point in the text, Hotspur's mind is made up: he thinks he has to follow through with his plan to fight Henry to the death. Therefore, sending a messenger to offer truce accomplishes nothing. Furthermore, the peace messenger only makes Hotspur angrier, and sends the message that Henry IV is frightened and desperate. Hotspur takes an obvious pleasure in listing his "beefs" with Henry IV, and in fact puffs up his own courage and confidence in the very act of rejecting Henry's offer.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

These things, indeed, you have articulate,
Proclaim’d at market-crosses, read in churches,
To face the garment of rebellion
With some fine colour that may please the eye
Of fickle changelings and poor discontents,
Which gape and rub the elbow at the news
Of hurly-burly innovation:
And never yet did insurrection want
Such water-colours to impaint his cause

Related Characters: King Henry IV (speaker), Earl of Worcester
Page Number: 5.1.73-81
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry IV comes to negotiate with the Earl of Worcester, one of the rebellious aristocrats who have allied with Hotspur. Henry IV asks Worcester why he's rebelling, and Worcester "paints a picture" of Henry IV's traitorous behavior: as Worcester sees it Henry has caused the rebellion by provoking Hotspur's family for so many years. Henry's response to Worcester is interesting: instead of acknowledging that Worcester has a point, he just dismisses Worcester's points as a sob story. He essentially says that Hotspur is just greedy to be king, and so has concocted this story of grievances and declared it all over the country in order to make his grab for the throne seem sympathetic and legitimate.

The passage reinforces the fact that Henry IV has seriously underestimated his own actions. Even now, he refuses to believe that he's mistreated his aristocrats in rising to the throne, suggesting that Henry believes in his own inherent right to rule--a serious flaw for a monarch, particularly one who himself only became king by overthrowing the previous ruler. Furthermore, Henry IV doesn't use his conversation with Worcester as an opportunity to negotiate at all--he just makes Worcester madder by refusing to accept Worcester's point of view. Henry IV is, in short, out of touch with his own followers--and that's why some of these followers have banded together against him.

Act 5, Scene 4 Quotes

I fear thou art another counterfeit;
And yet, in faith, thou bear’st thee like a king:
But mine I’m sure thou art, whoe’er thou be,
And thus I win thee.

Related Characters: Earl of Douglas (speaker)
Page Number: 5.4.35-38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry IV faces off against the Earl of Douglas, one of the rebels. On the battlefield that day, at least one man (Sir Walter Blunt) has already pretended to be the real king, thus protecting Henry's life. (The warriors are so covered with armor that it's easy to disguise one's identity.) Douglas here worries that Henry IV is another impostor--someone pretending to be the monarch in order to protect the "real" Henry IV.

The passage is an important encapsulation of the ambiguities of kingship in the play. In one sense, it suggests that the only thing that really makes a king are appearances and external trappings--a crown, royal armor, etc. Thus any king at all could be a "counterfeit," and Henry's only right to the throne is the fact that he was strong enough to take it by force. But Douglas also admits that Henry bears himself "like a king," suggesting that there is something inherently royal about true monarchs. This connects to the idea of "divine right," or the belief that kings are naturally chosen by God to rule, and something in their very blood makes them royal and different from other men.

Act 5, Scene 5 Quotes

Ill-spirited Worcester, did not we send grace,
Pardon, and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary,
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain today,
A noble earl, and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.

Related Characters: King Henry IV (speaker), Earl of Worcester
Page Number: 5.5.2-10
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the battle, Henry IV and his troops have won, and the Earl of Worcester has been captured. Henry IV is surprised to learn that Worcester hasn't passed on his offer of peace to the other rebels--Worcester deliberately concealed the opportunity for a truce from Hotspur and the others. Henry IV points out that Worcester could have prevented mass slaughter if he'd just told the truth "like a Christian" instead of thinking only of himself.

Henry IV's observation is right, but wrong. Henry is smart enough to respect the power of language and communication--because Worcester refused to pass along the message, many innocent people died. And yet Henry can't see that he himself also could have avoided a rebellion. If he'd been more attentive to his people and his followers, he could have nipped it in the bud.