In the rebels’ base camp in Shrewsbury (in the west of England, near the Welsh border), Hotspur, Worcester, and the Douglas are discussing their strategy of attack when a messenger arrives bearing bad news. Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, is very sick and has decided not to lead his troops to Hotspur—or to send them at all. Worcester is deeply disturbed by this news, since not only will Northumberland’s absence seriously weaken the rebel forces, but it will also betray to the world that the rebels are divided among themselves. Hotspur, however, quickly manages to convince himself that all is well and bounces back optimistically.
Another messenger arrives, Sir Richard Vernon, who is a relative of the Percys. Vernon has information that Henry’s forces, commanded by the Earl of Westmoreland and Henry’s younger son, Prince John, are marching toward Shrewsbury with seven thousand men. Moreover, the king himself and the Prince of Wales—Harry—are also approaching with still more forces. Vernon has seen Harry bearing himself regally in his armor: he strikes all who see him as an excellent horseman and an awe-inspiring young soldier. Unintimidated, Hotspur expresses a wish to meet Harry in single combat to the death.
But Vernon has still more bad news: Glyndwr has sent word from Wales that he will not be able to assemble his forces within the allotted fourteen days. This development is very alarming to both Worcester and the Douglas, since the battle will clearly occur before Glyndwr can arrive. Hotspur, however, refuses to let anything sway his confidence: even if they must die, they will die merrily. The -Douglas, recovering from the alarming news, claims to have no fear of death at all, and the men continue to plan their battle.
Meanwhile, on the road near Coventry—in southeastern England, east of London—Falstaff and his men are marching west toward their rendezvous with Henry at Bridgnorth. Falstaff sends Bardolph to buy some wine, and, while Bardolph is gone, Falstaff talks aloud about his methods for finding his unit of foot soldiers. Falstaff proves a very corrupt military captain, which is not surprising. Instead of using his power of impressment (that is, the power to draft soldiers) to draft the best fighters available into his division, he has instead targeted wealthy merchants and farmers who want to stay home. These individuals are willing to bribe Falstaff in order to get out of the service. As a result, Falstaff has made a good deal of money for himself, but his troops consist only of ragtag souls willing to let themselves be hired as soldiers: kleptomaniac house servants, youngest sons with no inheritance, and bankrupt laborers. They are mostly undernourished, untrustworthy, and unimpressive.
While Falstaff waits for Bardolph to return, Harry and Henry’s ally, the Earl of Westmoreland, comes down the road and take him by surprise. Westmoreland casts a dubious eye upon Falstaff’s conscripts, but Falstaff cheerfully tells him that they are good enough for cannon fodder. Harry warns Falstaff that he must hurry, for Hotspur and the Percy allies are already preparing to fight, and Henry has already made camp at Bridgnorth. The group hurries westward to meet Henry.
Just as the play builds in drama to Harry’s vow to redeem himself in Act III, scene ii, it now builds toward resolution: the Battle of Shrewsbury (which occurs in Act V). The course that the play must take from here, however, is already becoming clear: the cascade of bad news that pours in on the Percys in Act IV, scene i seems to indicate the beginning of the end. Abandoned by their allies one by one, the rebels—already the underdogs against the entrenched power and divine right of King Henry—are seeing their chances for victory worsen by the minute.
We get a sense of the Percys’ poor prospects for victory from Worcester’s reaction to the developments. Throughout the play, he has shown himself to be the mastermind behind the Percys’ schemes and to be a sounder judge of character and policy than his impulsive nephew. Against Worcester’s pragmatic assessment of the situation, Hotspur’s rather maniacal and desperate insistence on optimism begins to look unrealistic. Hotspur even begins to sound a bit absurd, as, in response to the news that his father will not be bringing his troops, he declares that Northumberland’s absence is “[a] perilous gash, a very limb lopped off. / And yet, in faith, it is not” (IV.i.43–44). With characteristic rashness, he leaps to a conclusion without thinking it through or justifying it. Furthermore, he proves as resolved in his decisions to act as in his opinions. Intoxicated by the prospect of approaching war and in fierce denial about the weakened chances of his side, Hotspur departs with a sort of mad cheerfulness, declaring, “Come, let us take a muster speedily. / Doomsday is near: die all, die merrily” (IV.i.134–135).
While the laconic Douglas, who seems to pride himself on his fearlessness and his few words, agrees with Hotspur’s baseless self-confidence, Worcester is more thoughtful and, thus, more concerned about the situation. He realizes that other leaders upon whose help the Percys depend may believe that Northumberland is staying away out of fear and lack of trust. It would be disastrous, Worcester notes, if fear on the part of other rebel forces were to “breed a kind of question in our cause” (IV.i.68). Worcester realizes that if the rebels fail to present a united front, they may find their supporters slipping away in a disastrous chain reaction. Indeed, with Vernon’s announcement that Glyndwr will not be able to bring his troops until it is too late, the chain reaction seems to have begun. Whether Glyndwr has decided to hold back because he has heard of Northumberland’s decision or because of some superstition, it is clear that the fortunes of war are turning against the Percys.
This scene also continues the symbolic establishment of Harry and Hotspur as opposites. Through Vernon’s report, Shakespeare presents the newly reformed Prince Harry, making good on his promises to his father. Vernon’s famous description of Harry shows us a deft, handsome, and thoroughly impressive young warrior-prince, “[a]s full of spirit as the month of May, / And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer; / Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls” (IV.i.102–104). When Vernon compares Harry to “feathered Mercury” (the Roman messenger god, who wore winged sandals and a winged hat) and an “angel” riding Pegasus (the famous winged horse of Greek mythology), Hotspur cuts him off abruptly, unable to stomach hearing about his illustrious rival (IV.i.107–110).
With this language, Shakespeare makes it clear that Harry has at last come to challenge Hotspur for his glory: the images of divine warriors and particularly the emphasis on “noble horsemanship” have been attributed to Hotspur in the past (IV.i.111). (Hotspur’s nickname itself suggests a fiery-tempered, impatient horseman.) Like Harry, Hotspur knows now that he must challenge Harry, since only one of them can claim the honor that they both want. His statement that “Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse, / Meet and ne’er part till one drop down a corpse” (IV.i.123–124) echoes Harry’s earlier declaration that “[t]he land is burning, Percy stands on high, / And either we or they must lower lie” (III.iii.187–188).
I think it should have been called Sir Jack, First Part, as Falstaff towers over everybody else in King Henry IV, Part 1. See my blog on the play:
Most Shakespeare plays have a jester, who is able to perceive certain things better than the "noble" person. There are other elements that make Falstaff more interesting, such as the juxtaposition of "fortune," class, or perhaps simply initiative.