Henry IV, Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act I, scene i

Summary Act I, scene i

Through other characters’ discussions, this scene also introduces Hotspur, a young man the same age as Prince Harry and something of a foil (a character whose emotions or attitudes contrast with, and thereby accentuate, those of another character) for him. Though they have the same given name (Henry), Hotspur and Harry are as different as night and day. Hotspur is bold, quick-tempered, and loves battle; Westmoreland and King Henry talk about his remarkable accomplishment in defeating the Earl of Douglas. Harry, on the other hand, appears to be lazy, cowardly, and self-indulgent.

The comparison that King Henry makes between Hotspur and Harry is the first of many such comparisons that occur as the balance of power and honor shifts between the two young men. King Henry believes that Hotspur is “the theme of honour’s tongue” but that “riot and dishonour stain the brow / Of my young Harry,” that is, Prince Harry (I.i.80–84). Henry even wishes that Hotspur were his real son, since Hotspur is the one who seems to behave in a truly princely fashion. Harry eventually realizes the value of Hotspur’s qualities too, and he strives to match and surpass them as he grows into his princely role.

Finally, the scene introduces us to some of the interesting cast of characters who later fight against Henry’s forces. Some of these figures are not English at all but instead lead native rebel bands from the countries bordering England, over which English rulers hold only tenuous control. Reports are made of the fearless Archibald, Earl of Douglas, a powerful Scottish leader who fought Hotspur near the northern border of England. Also discussed is “the irregular and wild” Owain Glyndwr, leader of a band of native guerrilla fighters in Wales (I.i.40). The English associate Glyndwr with the mysterious, dark sorcery native to Wales and conceive of him as a magician. The “beastly shameless transformation” that the Welsh women perform upon the bodies of the dead Englishmen—presumably a ritual castration or a related rite—is thought to be a kind of voodoo or mysterious native magic (I.i.42–46). This sort of nervous interest in the oppressed native cultures of Britain is a running motif throughout the play.