Henry IV, Part 1
Act II, scene iv
At his family home (Warkworth Castle, in the far north of England), Hotspur reads a letter that has just arrived from a nobleman. Hotspur has asked the nobleman for support in the rebellion that the Percy family is planning against Henry. But the letter relays a refusal, saying that the Percy plot is not planned out well enough and that its allies are not strong or reliable enough to face so great a foe as Henry. Hotspur becomes very angry at the letter writer and disdains the writer’s cowardice. He is concerned, however, that the writer will decide to reveal the plot to Henry, so he decides that he must set out that night to join his allies and start the rebellion.
Hotspur’s wife, Lady Percy (also called Kate), comes in to speak to her husband. When Hotspur tells her that he will be leaving the castle within two hours, she becomes upset. She points out that for the past two weeks Hotspur has not eaten properly, slept well, or made love to her. Furthermore, he keeps on breaking out into a sweat in the middle of the night and crying out, babbling in his sleep about guns, cannons, prisoners, and soldiers. Lady Percy thinks that it is time Hotspur explained exactly what he’s been planning.
Hotspur, however, ignores Lady Percy, instead instructing his servant to get his horse ready. Enraged, Lady Percy stops pleading and starts demanding answers. She suspects that Hotspur’s machinations all have something to do with her brother, Lord Mortimer, and his claim to the throne. She threatens to break Hotspur’s “little finger” (a euphemism for his penis) if he does not tell her what is going on (II.iv.79).
Hotspur abruptly turns on Lady Percy and angrily insults her, saying that he does not love her and that this is no world for womanly thoughts or for love. Instead, he declares, there must be war and fighting. He will not tell her what he is doing because he believes that women cannot be trusted, and she won’t be able to reveal what she does not know. He concedes only that he will send for her, and that she may follow him on horseback the next day. Though -dissatisfied, Lady Percy cannot get any more information from her belligerent husband.
Although this scene seems short and incidental, it is a telling portrait of gender and domestic life in the Renaissance. Hotspur’s obsession with strategy and war make him a bad husband; he appears to think of his wife only as a sideline to his life as a fighter. Lady Percy reveals the emotional deficiency of the valiant Hotspur and provides a glimpse of the marital relations of the Elizabethan era. Neither husband nor wife is shy of alluding to sex, or a lack thereof. Renaissance women were considered to have a right to sexual pleasure from their husbands. Lady Percy has her sexual needs in mind when she complains that Hotspur has “given my treasures and my rights of thee / To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy” (II.iv.39–40).
Despite this apparent liberation, Renaissance ideas of gender fell far short of promoting equal opportunity for men and women. Hotspur’s refusal to confide in his wife is not unusual, nor is his belief that women cannot keep a secret. His words to Lady Percy—“constant you are, / But yet a woman”—demonstrate how he allows the stereotype that women are gossipmongers to outweigh his knowledge that Lady Percy herself is of a “constant” nature (II.iv.99–100). Hotspur’s extreme machismo often endows him with a disturbingly violent perspective on the world, as when he bursts out: “This is no world / To play with maumets [dolls] and to tilt with lips [to kiss]. / We must have bloody noses and cracked crowns” (II.iv.82–84). In his thirst for war, Hotspur does not even admit love into his worldview; he is a knight without chivalry.
For her part, Lady Percy has few options: she can only accept whatever confidence her husband chooses to give her. For instance, when Hotspur asks whether his plan to let her follow him the next day will content her, she answers bitterly, “It must, of force” (II.iv.109). Here and throughout the Shakespearean tetralogy that deals with the English House of Lancaster, women generally have very little power. Both the dynamics of emotional attachment and the reshufflings of power occur solely among the male characters.
Though Hotspur’s marriage is not really important to the overall plot of the play, Shakespeare still moves the plot forward considerably during this look into domestic life. By opening the scene with Hotspur reading the letter and concluding it with Hotspur preparing to leave for the rebellion, Shakespeare takes the civil war from its planning phase to the verge of actuality. Furthermore, by intertwining Lady Percy’s complaints with observations about Hotspur’s sleeplessness and preoccupation with war, we see not only Hotspur’s treatment of his wife but also the extent of his obsession with the rebellion. Thus, in an extremely short scene, Shakespeare offers us a much deeper insight into Hotspur’s character and also conveys the sense that the rebellion has undergone extensive planning and preparation. In this way, Shakespeare keeps the action moving forward without sacrificing the developing character studies at the heart of the play.