Henry IV, Part 1

by: William Shakespeare

Act IV, scenes i–ii

Summary Act IV, scenes i–ii

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).