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Henry Bollingbroke has become King Henry IV, but is burdened by the guilt from usurping Richard II, and shame over the dissolute life led by his eldest son and heir apparent, Henry, called Prince Hal. The King longs to expiate his sins with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but as the play begins, rebels from Wales and Scotland threaten to tear England apart. Young Harry Percy, called Hotspur, son of his old ally, Northumberland, has been gloriously victorious in battle against the enemies of the King, but now will not give over his high-ranking prisoners to the crown, as chivalry demands.

While the court debates urgent matters of national security Prince Hal and his mentor in all things low, Sir John Falstaff, shoot the breeze. After Falstaff leaves, Hal and Poins, another member of Falstaff’s gang, plan a trick on the fat knight. Left alone, Hal reflects on his shameful life, but promises that he will shine the brighter, when he shows his true colors, and distances himself from Falstaff and all that Falstaff represents.

Hotspur confronts the King and refuses, again, to give up his prisoners. After the King roundly insults him, Hotspur, his father, the earl of Northumberland, and uncle, Worcester, feeling their family interests threatened, decide to rally their allies and fight.

Travelers carrying gold to the treasury approach London via a deserted road. Falstaff and his gang, alerted by Gadshill, overcome them and take the treasure. Then Hal and Poins, disguised, easily terrorize the thieves and seize their booty.

Hotspur anxiously awaits word from his allies. His wife demands that he share his troubles with her. Finally he agrees that she may journey with him to Wales.

In Eastcheap, at Mistress Quickly’s tavern, Hal and Poins wait for Falstaff to arrive and tell extravagant lies about his recent adventure, which he does, to general merriment. Then Falstaff and Hal take turns pretending to be Hal’s father, admonishing the Playboy Prince about his wild life and shady companions. The hilarity is interrupted when the news arrives that the wild Welsh leader, Owen Glendower, and the terrifying Scot, Douglas, are rallying with the Percy family, Hotspur and Northumberland, against the King. The party finally ends when a Sheriff comes to the Inn to arrest Falstaff for the robbery of the King’s gold. Hal fast-talks the Sheriff while Falstaff hides, and looks forward to the coming fighting.

Hotspur and his uncle Worcester meet with Glendower, at his castle in Wales. Hotspur’s brother-in-law, Mortimer, a renowned warrior who has married Glendower’s daughter, is also there, and they argue about how they will divide the country after they have overcome the royal forces.

In London, on the eve of civil war, the King chastises his eldest son for his dissolute life, and tries to instruct him in kingship. Hal promises his father that he will confound everyone and prove a champion. Together they go to join Hal’s exemplary younger brother, Prince  John, who is already in the field.

At the Boar’s Head Tavern Falstaff and Bardolph are whiling their days away aimlessly, as usual. Hal, in arms and on his way to fight, gives Falstaff a commission and encourages him the join in the defense of England.

Hotspur, Worcester and Douglas await the arrival of Northumberland and his forces. A letter comes saying that Lord Northumberland is ill and cannot come. This seems an almost fatal blow, but Hotspur is not dissuaded, longing for more honor, come from less favorable odds. Sir Richard Vernon, with whom the Percys are allied, reports that he’s seen the Prince of Wales ready for battle, looking surprisingly formidable. Hotspur scoffs at the idea of Hal ever being a soldier and urges the others into battle.

Falstaff is making his way towards the battle in a leisurely fashion, making money by threatening to enlist any man whom he thinks will bribe their way out. Hal and Westmoreland overtake him and angrily urge him forward.

Before the battle loyal Sir Walter Blunt parlays with the rebels. Hotspur complains of the King’s treatment of his family.

The Archbishop of York is deeply troubled about the defection of Northumberland, and also of Glendower, from the Percy forces. The civil war’s outcome now seems far less certain than it did. 

Before the battle the King confronts Worcester and Vernon, who once again state the Percy grievances. The King offers to forgive them their treason if they will withdraw their forces. The Prince of Wales steps forward and offers to save the lives of numerous of their countrymen by engaging in single combat with Hotspur, but the King rejects his offer. Falstaff reflects on the madness of risking one’s life for a mere word, for “honor”.

The implacable Worcester does not tell his colleagues of the King’s offer of clemency. He does tell Hotspur of Hal’s offer, knowing it will only further inflame his nephew.

In the battle, Douglas kills Sir Walter Blunt, who is disguised as the King.

Hal has been fighting furiously and his father urges him to retire to his tent to have his wounds dressed, but he refuses and, praising Prince John’s exemplary victories, goes back to fighting. The Douglas finds the King and, disgusted with the doubles he’s previously wasted his labor on, prepares to kill the actual King at last, but Hal returns and drives him off. Finally Hotspur and Hal face off and Hal kills Hotspur. He eulogizes the greatest warrior of the age, giving Hotspur all homage. Then he sees Falstaff, who is avoiding trouble by playing possum on the field, and briefly says farewell to his old mentor in vice. After the Prince leaves Falstaff rises up and decides to tell the world that HE killed the fearsome Hotspur. When Hal and Prince John return Falstaff coolly brazens it out, and the amused Hal says he’ll let Falstaff take the credit for the great kill.

The King, his gallant sons, and Westmoreland rejoice in their victory, and send Worcester and Vernon to their deaths. But not all of the rebels have been defeated, and at the end of the play all recommit to the on-going battle.

Synopsis by Beverly Bullock