Henry IV, Part 1
Act I, scene iii
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold —
To be so pestered with a popinjay! —.
Hotspur has answered the summons of King Henry and has come to see him at Windsor Castle in order to explain his refusal to hand over the prisoners he captured in Scotland. Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, and his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, accompany him.
Henry, angry at Hotspur’s rebellious refusal to deliver the prisoners to him, speaks to Hotspur in threatening language. When Worcester, already hostile toward Henry, reacts rudely, Henry orders him out of the room. Hotspur and Northumberland now try to explain that Hotspur’s refusal to return the captives was not meant as an act of rebellion. The very moment that Hotspur’s battle against the Scots ended, it seems, a prissy and effeminate courtier arrived with Henry’s demands for the prisoners. Wounded, tired, and angry, Hotspur refused and insulted the foolish messenger in the heat of the moment.
But Henry’s anger is not soothed. Hotspur still refuses to hand over the prisoners—unless the king pays the ransom that the Welsh rebels demand for the release of Hotspur’s brother-in-law, Lord Mortimer, who was captured after the Welsh defeated his army. Henry refuses, calling Mortimer a traitor. He has learned that -Mortimer recently married the daughter of the Welsh rebel Glyndwr and believes that Mortimer lost his battle with Glyndwr on purpose. Hotspur denies this charge against his kinsman, but Henry calls him a liar. He forbids Hotspur to mention Mortimer’s name ever again and demands he return the prisoners instantly or face retribution.
After Henry and his attendants leave the room, Worcester returns to his brother and nephew, and Hotspur unleashes an enraged speech. He alleges that Henry may have ulterior motives for refusing to ransom Mortimer: before he was deposed, Richard II, Henry’s predecessor, had named Mortimer heir to the throne. Since Henry obtained his crown by deposing Richard illegally, -Mortimer’s claim to the kingdom might be better than Henry’s own. Hotspur is also bitter because his own family members helped Henry overthrow Richard in the first place, and they were instrumental in Henry’s rise to power. Hotspur is thus angry that Henry seems to have forgotten the debt he owes to the Percy family.
Worcester and Northumberland have some trouble getting Hotspur to quiet down, but finally Worcester succeeds in explaining that he has already formulated a cunning (and complicated) plan. He says that the Percys must seek an alliance with the rebel forces in both Scotland and Wales and all the powerful English nobles who are dissatisfied with Henry. For now, Hotspur is to return to Scotland, give all his prisoners back to their people without demanding ransom, and establish an alliance with the Douglas, the leader of the Scottish rebellion. Northumberland is to seek the support of the Archbishop of York, who is unhappy because Henry executed his brother for conspiring against the king’s life. Worcester, meanwhile, will go to Wales to discuss strategy with Mortimer and Glyndwr.
Hotspur’s dialogue in this scene is typical of his speeches throughout the play: he is a very eloquent speaker and can use words powerfully, but he has a hard time keeping his temper and is always interrupting others. The difficulty Northumberland and Worcester have in getting him to be quiet so that they can discuss their conspiracy indicates that Hotspur’s impatience, which helps win him glory on the battlefield, may cause him difficulty in his personal interactions. It also suggests that while he is a brave fighter, he is a bad strategist, since his rashness makes him prone to alienate even his own allies.
Hotspur’s military, aggressive, masculine nature is behind his contempt for the effeminate messenger who chattered at Hotspur like a “popinjay” after Hotspur’s victory (I.iii.49). Based on the account that he gives to Henry, it seems that Hotspur reacted to the prissy courtier not only with scorn but also with an unreasonable anger (since he is using his reaction to the messenger as an excuse, however, he may be exaggerating the extent of his anger). In line with his soldierly existence, Hotspur is highly concerned with honor, which he demonstrates in his rants about his eagerness to face down Henry. His often-quoted words
By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
. . .
And pluck up drownèd honour by the locks
emphasize not only that he is perpetually ready to face any danger in pursuit of glory but also that he has a very tangible conception of honor. Whereas Falstaff sees honor only as an abstract and therefore useless entity (“What is honour? A word. What is in that word ‘honour’? . . . Air” [V.i.133–134]), Hotspur sees it as a physical object to be “pluck[ed] up,” a buried treasure at “the bottom of the deep.”
But a comment by Worcester suggests the shallowness of this value system. Realizing that Hotspur is not paying attention to the important plan he is trying to explain, Worcester says of Hotspur: “He apprehends a world of figures here, / But not the form of what he should attend” (I.iii.207–208). Hotspur’s tendency to chase after ideals instead of thinking practically is a serious flaw in his ability to perform as a strategist and soldier. Harry, in contrast, possesses the ability to hold back and think things through, as he demonstrates in his manipulation of his tavern friends.
This scene also provides a window into the moral ambiguities at the center of the play. Many readers and critics feel that there is no clear-cut good or bad side in this and the other Henry plays. It remains ambiguous whether the Percys have a legitimate grievance, or if the king is right in dismissing their claims as the excuses of power-hungry rebels. Even the bare facts behind the coalitions are difficult or impossible to confirm. To some extent, the setup of the play urges identification with the side in power (King Henry and his allies). But the richness of the play derives from the ambiguous and mixed motives that drive its action and so many of its characters.