Module B: King Henry IV Breakdown - Critical Study of Literature

King Henry IV, Part 1 context, concepts and cheatsheet with Katriel Tan!

English Team

English Team

Katriel Tan and Marko Beocanin

Trust me, I know how difficult Module B: Critical Study of Literature can be! Even I personally found King Henry IV to be the hardest text to write about in HSC English Advanced, but with a little bit of work, it can become easier to tackle! This article will break down Module B, the contextual foundation of the play, and also give you a little bit of a boost in some conceptual understandings surrounding the characters. Along the way I’ll give you my personal tips to gaining a better grasp of the module - I promise this article will be super super helpful, it’s everything I learnt the hard way during the HSC!

So let’s get right into it!

King Henry IV through the lens of the Module B Rubric

Module B or ‘Critical Study of Literature’ is honestly exactly what it says it is - an extremely close analysis of a text. Every little detail in this text becomes incredibly important as you put together ideas surrounding the construction of the text and the value it holds in the literary canon. The module description does require a little bit of deciphering, so let’s break it down to the most important bits together!

(Remember - as I have noted in other articles, THIS MODULE DESCRIPTION IS SO IMPORTANT! Many essay questions are just manipulations of the syllabus, so having a good understanding of the module can be a lifesaver!)

“In this module, students develop detailed analytical and critical knowledge, understanding and appreciation of a substantial literary text. Through increasingly informed and personal responses to the text in its entirety, students understand the distinctive qualities of the text, notions of textual integrity and significance.”

Key things to note from this introduction - informed and personal, distinctive qualities, textual integrity, significance. I’ll be honest, when I first wrote a King Henry essay, it didn’t do very well at all! I realised it was because my essay wasn’t ‘informed’ or ‘personal’. What does this even mean, you may be asking? Well, my essay was based on simplistic ideas that weren’t complex or deep enough because of a simple fact - I hadn’t gone out of my way to do further readings or truly research the context. Being ‘informed’ in Module B is incredibly important, you gain so much from reading critics on characters and concepts in King Henry or finding tensions in the context the text was set in - this is what makes your essay richer and more nuanced. And in Module B, this is exactly what they are looking for. Formulating a ‘personal’ stance comes from being ‘informed’ - trust me here, King Henry actually gets so much more interesting after reading a couple of critics! ILY BLOOM. (Bloom is a critic that writes some really crazy stuff about Falstaff - I personally despised writing about Falstaff but after reading Bloom, Falstaff became so much more fun! This actually happened to me with most of the characters - I really recommend taking a look at the range of critic readings that cover literally any detail of King Henry you could think of!)

The term ‘distinctive qualities’ was actually my personal favourite to see as an essay question, because KING HENRY HAS SO MANY!!! Think metatheatre (play extempore), setting transposition (court, tavern, battlefield), celestial imagery, natural imagery, comedic subplot, a dramatised and emotionally volatile character (Hotspur), parallel plots, character foils…etc! If it seems special to Shakespeare - it’s probably distinctive! This is also a clear link to the construction and composition of the text!

‘Textual integrity and significance’ is always one of the most convoluted concepts to understand in Module B - yet one of the most important. Textual integrity refers to the unity and cohesion of the text in relation to its overall purpose. This means asking yourself - What are the specific textual features that hold King Henry IV as a play together? What are the aspects of the text that are crucial to its construction? Significance is about the value of the text across contextual landscapes - why was it an important text in the Elizabethan Era and why is it still an important text in our modern context? For example, something common to talk about is King Henry IV’s impact on political commentary - perhaps the play proves to be an enduring text as it reflects how in modern realpolitik, the most successful style of leadership is exemplified by a politically expedient approach: creating a performative public image that hides one’s self-interested ambitions.

There are many ways King Henry IV is significant - and it’s important to prove it through basically all of your essays in Module B (even if it’s not specifically in the question!). This is also a clear link to the reception of the text (how it is received and engaged with)!

Read the Ultimate Guide to Textual Integrity written by our English team here for a more detailed breakdown.

“Students have opportunities to appreciate and express views about the aesthetic and imaginative aspects of the text by composing creative and critical texts of their own.”

Key things to note from this part of the rubric - ‘aesthetic and imaginative aspects’. Like many of the key terms from the rubric, this phrase overlaps greatly with another important concept discussed earlier before - ‘distinctive qualities’. Many distinctive qualities are part of the ‘aesthetic’ of Shakespeare’s play - as they evoke interest and construct more potent and vivid meanings for the reader. There are also plenty of ‘imaginative’ aspects in the play - these being things that Shakespeare may have created that go beyond reality, for example, making the age gap between Hotspur and Hal a lot smaller than the gap between the two individuals the characters are based on in real life, transposing between different imaginative settings or creating an overly exaggerated character (Hotspur). These imaginative aspects are deliberate choices made by Shakespeare that contribute to the purpose of his play.

Whenever you get a ‘module-based’ question - don’t freak out! Many of the concepts interlink, overlap and relate to one another. With practice it becomes easy to shift and adapt the same ideas to all of the module concepts!‍

Looking for King Henry IV, Part 1 exemplar essays? Come check this out!

Context: The Very Basics

Like I said before, doing some deep research into context can really help you out in creating a more multidimensional response that wows your marker. But, to give you a little nudge…here are some of the main influences on Shakespeare’s play, King Henry IV, that I personally found useful:

1. Queen Elizabeth has no heir! Shakespeare speaks to the anxieties and social inertia surrounding the instability created by this. Think King Henry’s subversion of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and the general underlying purpose of questioning what makes a ‘successful’ leader. Shakespeare exposes the inherent deficiencies of traditional notions of leadership.

2. The Elizabethan Era is a shifting political landscape. There is an ideological transition from medieval concepts such as honour to Renaissance moral relativism and realpolitik! Think the parallel construction of political and comical plots or Shakespeare’s condemnation of archaic honour as Hotspur’s fatal hubris.

3. Machiavellianism. Period. In the most basic way possible, the concept describes an expedient, manipulative and duplicitous approach to gaining power over individuals. Think, well..everyone’s fave Hal :) Shakespeare signifies the political success of Hal’s adoption of multifarious identities, highlighting that perhaps facades are necessary in a pragmatic ascension to power.

NOTE: As we now know, Module B is a very personal and opinion based module - many of the statements I made and will make are of my own accord, and are not facts or the only way to approach an idea. I actually encourage you to make your own opinions and perspectives after soaking up a range of different approaches to the concepts!

There are actually SOSOSOSO many other pieces of context you can draw from - and it’s incredibly important to inform yourself on the political, literary, and socio-contextual era through extra reading and research! Even the ones I have outlined have so much more depth!!

My King Henry IV Character Cheatsheet

Let’s remember here, that whilst the four characters I am about to discuss are incredibly important, the other characters in the play are just as useful!!! This is Module B - a close analysis, so having a good understanding of all the characters and some quotes adds great nuance to your essays! You shouldn’t neglect them! Anyways, let me show you my character cheatsheet that I used to simplify the characters and make them easier to formulate arguments around in the HSC. It’s a bit chaotic - but it made the text so much better for me and gave me a bit of a laugh instead of making me cry!

AGAIN! Please keep in mind my note from before about how these are my own opinions and my own approaches! This is definitely not ‘correct’ or the only ‘right’ thing!! These are how I took the characters - I know many friends who took the characters in completely opposite ways and did just as well! This is just to give you some guidance! Also if something has ** around it - it is a little critic snippet from some of the readings I did that I liked and thought were handy!


Keywords: Illegitimacy + Internal Disorder

Contextual Application: Queen Elizabeth I’s Lack of an Heir, Messed up the Divine Right of Kings, Religion Heavy

Problematic Vibes: He has a moral conflict between his externally pious facade and deeply disturbed conscience. → He is aware of his flaws! #self-awareking

Play Flow: Opening monologue conveys civil unrest caused by his usurpation → He’s super guilty about it, always tries to prove his political and ecclesiastical authority through shows of religious piety like his beloved crusade → However, he wonders whether God is punishing him through his son Hal → His morally displaced self results in an inability to legitimise a recognisable appearance of authority!

So what?: Thus, through Henry’s ostentatious political perspective, Shakespeare exposes the inherent deficiencies of traditional notions of leadership by elucidating their contingent nature in the face of realpolitik, urging modern audiences to question the motives of contemporary political actors.

*ULRICI describes him as a king with “inward capacity to rule” but no “outward right to take control.” *

Like Project Academy’s style? Come enrol in classes with us!


Keywords: Virtue to Vice, Dramatic, Excessive Marital Ethic, Chivalric

Contextual Application: Shifting political landscape, Medieval devotion to honour is a product of atavistic ideology → no place in realpolitik

Problematic Vibes: Hotspur’s antiquated and flawed obsession with honour reflects how an emotionally volatile style of leadership attached to stringent chivalric codes consequentially results in the agitation of increased instability and lack of control!!

Play Flow: Hotspur x Honour, blindly devoted to the concept → even his uncle chastises him, reflects his belligerent character → He fights with Glendower in the rebel camp, if the man stirs up internal conflict between his allies it shows that whilst he has a vivacious personal ambition he lacks diplomatic tact…guess who doesn’t lack it though?!? (Answer: Hal) CAN BE A FOIL LINK → He neglects the welfare and responsibility of his own men and romanticises war, disregarding morality in an attempt to form a grandiose identity.

So what?: Shakespeare uses Hotspur to express the complex idea that individuals must moderate their pursuit of honour to avoid a lack of introspection, demonstrating the incompatibility of archaic moral codes amidst a shifting political landscape.

*BLOOM describes him as a “vaunting spirit in the illusory age of chivalry” *


Keywords: Aristotelian mean, performativity, drama queen

Contextual Application: Machiavellianism + Shift to realpolitik

Problematic? Vibes: Uses a fake rise from disorder to make him look virtuous and is so completely aware of his manipulative actions!

Play Flow: Has a profligate reputation in the Tavern because he hangs around Falstaff → But his soliloquy shows us that he has an innate understanding of his real position as prince → His reformed transformation will be emphasised as virtuous → So many instances of performativity → His approach is shown to work as even a rebel affirms his astounding transformation → In the Battle of Shrewsbury he illuminates his dramatic finale from his own rise from instability, letting go of Falstaff.

So what?: Hal embodies the complex idea that individuals must moderate honour and personal desires through the pragmatic use of illusive performativity and signifies the political success of Hal’s adoption of multifarious identities and reformation, highlighting the necessity of facades in balancing honour and personal desires within leadership.

*GREENBLATT describes the play to “confirm the Machiavellian hypothesis that princely power originates in force and fraud even as they draw their audience toward an acceptance of that power” *


Keywords: Comedic/Introspective Subplot, Lowkey Speaks Facts

Contextual Application: Renaissance moral relativism, Realism

Problematic? Vibes: I like writing about him more as an introspective and idea-raising character. Morally apathetic → but encourages an inquiry into greed-driven intentions and the true significance of honour.

Play Flow: Falstaff subverts strict ideals of honour and morality, envisioning an anarchic world where thieves are considered loyal subjects who are skilled → He’s just generally cynical of everything, undermines the significance of honour constantly → Merges the comic and political plots through rhetoric → But his claimed hatred towards honour is ironically conflicted, as he admits he lowkey wants honour → Paradoxical desire and contempt of honour.

So what?: Falstaff as such, provides a parallel introspective philosophical quandary on the significance of honour, revealing the inherent desire of this abstraction held even by individuals with an insubstantial conception.

*ULRICI states the purpose of comical construction is “to parody the hollow pathos of political history, and to tear it from its state robes and parade, in order to exhibit it in its true state” *

So, there you have it! A breakdown of King Henry IV and Critical Study of Literature! I know it can be hard but keep pushing, you got this! Read up on context and dive into some critics! I hope this helps you out in your next essay! Take it from me, I too thought it wasn’t possible to ever understand what was going on in this module and text - BUT YOU CAN DO THIS!

Read More:

Maximise Your Chances Of Coming First At School

Trial any Project Academy course for 3 weeks.

NSW's Top 1% Tutors

Unlimited Tutorials

NSW's Most Effective Courses

Access to Project's iPad

Access to Exclusive Resources

Access to Project's Study Space