The True Prince Study Guide

Published October 2002 by Alfred A. Knopfthetrueprince
Reading level: 6th-10th grades 340 pages

$15.95 (hard cover) ISBN # 0-375-81433-7
$5.99 (soft cover) ISBN # 0-440-41940-9

The story:

Gaining competence as an actor in one of London’s premier theater companies proves to be a mixed blessing for Richard Malory (of The Playmaker, 2000). Audiences may appreciate him more, but his fellow actor Kit Glover, a.k.a. “the best boy player in London,” likes him less–is it mere envy, or is something else troubling Kit? There’s plenty of trouble to go around, for the Company’s landlord has closed their theater, and they are forced to find another stage on which to present Will Shakespeare’s new play, Henry IV.

These irritations, small and large, take on a serious color as Richard begins to suspect that Kit has fallen in with bad company. In spite of his reluctance to become involved, some mysterious appearances and disappearances draw him into a plot that could cost him a great deal–perhaps even his life.


A treat for sophisticated readers . . . The plot twists are ingenious; the style evokes the Elizabethan period without overwhelming the story; suspense is maintained despite the book’s length.
Horn Book

Cheaney’s vivid imagery allows us to experience the everyday lives of some of the world’s most famous thespians, set against the backdrop of 16th-century England. From daily rehearsals to company rivalries, backstage mayhem to back alley murder, we have the best seats in the house as we follow our talented narrator through his apprenticeship.

Older readers with a developing interest in matters Shakespearean will particularly delight in the genesis of the Globe, the premiere staging of Henry IV, and Cheaney’s fanciful realization of the “displeasing play” to which the Bard cryptically alludes in the epilogue . . .
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

At its heart, this is about how the theater thrives and how a good play is like life, and fittingly the language of the story sparkles. “Spoken words, things of shaped and polished air that flash but once, then flicker away’ are the currency of Shakespeare’s plays and of Cheaney’s prose.
Kirkus Reviews

Turbulent action, engaging characters, vivid period details, and a gripping denouement make this a worthy successor to the first book and inspire hopes for more to come.
School Library Journal

. . . only the dourest reader would pass up this breathless scramble of 16th-century LondonPublishers Weekly

The True Prince was a joy to read, tense and touching and wise.
Karen Cushman, Newberry medallist


THEMES: Rivalry and friendship; over-achieving and perfectionism, reputation and honor.

PRE-READING ACTIVITY: If time permits, watch the 1989 version of Henry V, directed by and starring Kenneth Branaugh. If time only permits watching the first half, that will be enough to introduce some of the characters who appeared in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV (parts one and two): Falstaff, his page, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly and Prince Hal, who went on to become King Henry V. Branaugh uses short scenes from Henry IV as flashbacks. The movie itself will require some introduction for students to understand what’s going on in the first act, but once underway its narrative dash and verve draws in viewers.


  • Do you know anyone who must be the best at anything he or she does? What difficulties do you have with this person?
  • Why do you think Kit’s acting ability deteriorates so badly? Are there inside stresses, or outside stresses, or both?
  • How did his background contribute to his character and personality? Explain his attraction to Peregrine Penny.
  • How does Richard develop as a person during the course of this story? What prejudices and attitudes stand in his way? Who helps him most?
  • Who is the hero of this story? Why?
  • What is bothering Richard when he talks to Shakespeare? Does the conversation help?
  • What is the significance of the title, The True Prince?
  • In the last chapter, what does Kit mean when he says he wishes to keep his name?




“Honor” is a recurring theme in the book, as it is in both parts of Henry IV. But what is it? In the play, Hotspur defines it as winning fame for self and family, mainly through physical courage. For Falstaff it’s “a word” that could cause one to end up dead. For King Henry it’s loyalty and duty, and to Hal it’s living up to the image one has created of oneself. With this in mind, write an essay briefly explaining how Penny, Tewkesbury, Richard and Kit view honor, then how you would define it.

In the end, Kit goes to jail. Though hardly a resume enhancement, a prison term in those days did not necessarily ruin one’s future. Ben Jonson, who saw more of the inside of a cell than he wanted to, nevertheless enjoyed a distinguished career as a poet and playwright. Given Kit’s personality and gifts, what should he do when he gets out of jail at age 19? Write a short narrative speculating on his future career.

Orson Wells as Falstaff


Shakespeare wrote ten plays about the English monarchy, called Histories. Eight of these form an unbroken succession of kings: Richard II, Henry IV (two parts), Henry V, Henry VI (three parts), and Richard III. Since the Henry IV plays occur in a specific context, both dramatic and historical, they’re not as easy to teach as self-contained plays like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. Also, the “video support” is lacking–no big budget movies. Henry V, portraying the exploits of Hal as King, has been filmed by Laurence Olivier in 1945 and Kenneth Branaugh in 1989–both well worth seeing, but with only a peripheral relevance to this story. Orson Welles produced a conflated version of Henry IV and V called Chimes at Midnight, but it’s hard to find and very expensive to buy.

However, Henry IV introduced one of the best known figures in the history of English drama, a character so outsized (in more ways than one) that he’s added an adjective to the language. Young people should at least be introduced to Falstaff, even though his character is, as we say today, problematic. He takes advantage of his friends, boasts in his cowardice, accepts bribes from draft-dodgers, conscripts the poor and the sick to serve as cannon fodder, and shamelessly claims credit for feats he didn’t do. Yet his friends honestly loved him. (See the touching “memorial service” at Mistress Quickly’s tavern in Branaugh’s Henry V.) So have theater-goers ever since.

Why? A character study of Falstaff using key scenes from the plays is a worthwhile class project. In Part One, look at Act II, Scene 4; III, 3; and V, 2 and 4. In Part Two, see Act II, Scenes 1 and 4; III, 2; and V, 3 and 5. Divide the class in groups and assign a scene (or two of the shorter scenes) to each. Each group determines the qualities of the character shown in the scene, then all present their findings and try to form a composite picture. Look up the definition of “falstaffian” in a dictionary. How does it fall short of the real character?


  • Use the following class activities to explore other relevant themes.

    The relationship between Hal and his father is as old as time: beneath the king’s disappointment (“Why don’t you grow up and take some responsibility?”) simmers the prince’s resentment (“Yeah, whatever”). Hal is a young man in process. Compare his behavior in Act II, Scene 4 and Act III, Scene 2 (Part One). The first is the famous tavern scene, where Hal and Falstaff take turns playing father and son. The second is the actual confrontation between Hal and his father, which shows the young man moving from denial to deference. The tavern scene is great fun to read. The other is more difficult, given the long-windedness of the King. Break it down into sections and have the students write a paraphrase of the conversation, then discuss how the king and prince settle their differences. Or do they?
  • Everyone, from the hospital board of trustees to the school homecoming committee, knows it’s not easy to work on a common project when everyone has different motives and goals. So the parties to Percy’s rebellion discover, to their frustration and eventually their doom. Act III, Scene 1 of Part One shows the mystic Glendower and the skeptical Hotspur plotting their rebellion while Mortimer tries to keep the peace between them. Read the scene, and discover where the danger signals are: What hints are there that the rebellion is doomed to failure? What are the weaknesses each leader betrays?
  • How does Hal really feel about Falstaff? Every student of the play must make up his own mind. Contrast their first encounter in Part One (Act I, Scene 3) with their last in part Two (Act V, Scene 5). Assign parts for the last scene and read it twice, presupposing a different attitude for Hal each time: in the first he’s cold and distant, meaning every word exactly as it sounds. In the second he is secretly reluctant, but acting as duty demands. Discuss which is the more realistic, dramatic, or valuable interpretation (and notice how much room Shakespeare allows for interpretation!).



Certain terms applied to the Elizabethan underworld are used in The True Prince, but not defined. Look at coney catcher (p. 171), gull (p. 97) and cutpurse (p. 192) and determine their meaning from the context.

Other words had certain meanings in Shakespeare’s time that no longer apply. Find mystery (p. 60), points (p. 69), Egyptian (p. 110), necessary (p. 96), and table book (pp. 42, 283) and define them in context.

“Power words” in the text to add to your vocabulary are catechism, condescending, petulantly, nefarious, advocate, ploy.


Research the actual history of Henry IV and list ways that Shakespeare deviated from the facts. For instance, Hotspur was much older at the time of the Percy Rebellion than Shakespeare presents him. Why do you suppose he was depicted by Shakespeare as someone closer to Hal’s age? What other changes did Shakespeare make, and why do you think he made them?

Elizabeth I does not appear in The True Prince, but her presence looms large outside the action. Common citizens adored her, poets and playwrights strove to please her, and nobles at court jockeyed and maneuvered for her favor. See pp. 115 and 279 of The True Prince for two views of the situation at court. Then research Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, and Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley (that’s two people, not four!). Contrast their characters and find out what happened to them.

Justice Shallow in Henry IV, Part Two is representative of many country squires in Shakespeare’s time. It’s true that Shallow is foolish and naïve, but he’s also gentle and hospitable. Act V, Scene 1 and V, 3 present a slice of English country life during this period. Research rural life in Elizabeth’s time and list the events of a typical day for someone like Shallow.


“Honor is a mere scutcheon!” Falstaff famously exclaims in 1 Henry IV, Act V, scene 2. A “scutcheon” is an emblem representing a family, typically displayed at funerals. As one of England’s oldest titled clans, the Percy family had several emblems. Their battle shield was simple, in order to be easily recognized: five yellow diamonds strung horizontally across a dark blue background. Their battle-cry, as Shakespeare records in 1 Henry IV, was “Esperance and Percy!” The family motto was “Esperance en Dieu,” or “Hope in God” (The Percys originally came from Normandy, which explains the French). Design a coat of arms and choose a motto that reflects your family character and heritage.

To Peregrine Penny, a promise is only “Spoken words, things of shaped and polished air that flash but once, then flicker away” (p. 42). Draw this idea, then contrast with a symbolic representation of what you think a promise is.

“The New Robin Hood” became a folk hero to the people of London, much like the old Robin Hood. Do folk heroes exist today? Write a short ballad (or at least a refrain) praising the exploits of a popular musician, actor, or sports figure who might qualify for folk-hero status.