Henry IV, Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act I, scene iii

Summary Act I, scene iii

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.