As Stu considers thoughts on producing 1 Henry IV, he thinks of youth comparing one’s place among peers, such as who is on the honor role, and notes Hal is compared, by the king, his father, to the valiant Hotspur. Indeed Shakespeare contemplates "honor" in this play, which Stu has the optimism to consider still relevant to our world, though my associations of honor with relationships (John Edwards high moral condemnation of Bill Clinton’s fitness to govern), military (Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch reconfigured as America’s valiant warriors), or personal integrity (jeez!) provide a pretty bleak landscape for the relevance of honor in our cynical world.
Nonetheless, I have always found Hotspur a hugely compelling figure in this play. Yes, Falstaff is the Comic Hero (for a purist, an impossible term, in that “hero” is confined to tragedy), and I am encouraged by Stu’s distinction of “funny” (farcical) from witty and darkly humorous (comic). And, yes, Hal is the prodigal son or the pragmatic apprentice or, even, the Machiavel, and One Henry is his story.
But the Honorable Hotspur emerges for me from three passages. First, we are given a grace note to him before he is ever before us. King Henry receives dispatches from Wales where wild Glendower has captured Mortimer, and Welsh women have performed bestial deeds on the slain English soldiers (Holinshed says the bodies were castrated, but there is no report that nuns were raped or babies were thrown out of incubators in the twentieth century mode of demonizing the enemy). There is also news from the contentious north where gallant Hotspur has defeated the “ever-valiant and approved” Douglas (I am puzzled as to why the Douglas gets such good press throughout the play, even when he runs away from battle at Shrewsbury, but as a Scottish-surnamed American, who am I to complain?). In a personal moment apart from his public persona, Henry reveals his envy of Hotspur’s father, Northumberland:
Yea…thou…mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honor’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride,
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be prov’d
That some night-tripping fairy had exchang’d
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry and he mine. (I.i.77-90; my italics)
Holy thesis sentence! There is the whole play—the King’s distress with his son, Hotspur’s honor, Falstaff (riot), and Hal’s “stain.” Hotspur is “sweet Fortune’s minion,” indeed. This orients “honor” to chivalric romance, as opposed to Fate, wyrd, that governs honor for the tragic hero Beowulf, but Hotspur still has a tragic flaw (pace, A. C. Bradley) as Henry asks “What think you, coz,/ Of this young Percy’s pride?”
Skip over for the moment the marvelously funny account of Hotspur refusing his prisoners to the “popinjay” courtier, and look at his credo itself:
By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fadom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities,
But out upon this half-fac’d fellowship! (I.iii.201-08)
The truth is Hotspur is swept away by his chivalric posture. His poetic imagery is overwhelming, but it simplifies the world in Hotspur’s imagination. His father Northumberland and his uncle Worcester discuss that Mortimer has a legitimate claim to Richard II’s throne, and Hotspur is surprised. He hasn’t bothered reading his history, but suddenly he convinces himself to rebel in Richard’s name, a convenient “honorable” cause (though in Richard II, Hotspur was on the other side). Thus, we see Hotspur’s weakness. The chivalric ideal is nostalgic. England has ceased to be a single kind of place. Depose Richard and the result is not just a conscience-troubled Henry or quarrelsome Northumberland who remembers Carlisle’s analysis of the consequences of a precedent-setting rebellion, but a cold, glittering, practical Hal, genuinely aware of the new conditions and a master parodist Falstaff, exposing the way the great have now become the vulnerable and pretentious. Hotspur is a brilliant fool, romantically anachronistic in Hal’s England, lit by nostalgia for chivalric contests and an enthusiasm that is mostly quixotic.
And at Shrewsbury, this comes home. The rebel forces have mostly chickened out; even Hotspur’s father has contracted the “blue flu” so he is not in the field. The Douglas says “Talk not of dying, I am out of fear of death or death’s hand,” choosing common sense (or in Honor’s terminology “cowardice”), but Hotspur shouts Honor’s war cry: “Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily.” This is the occasion to apply Hal’s “I do, I will” to Hotspur’s impetuousness.
As the battle approaches, Hotspur has been tricked by Hal’s wanton image to underestimate him:
“Never did I hear
Of any prince so wild a liberty.
But be he as he will, yet once ere night
I will embrace him with a soldier’s arm
That he shall shrink under my courtesy” (V.ii.70-4),
and finally another war cry (slogan or slogorne from slaugh-ghairm, which poor Browning thought was an instrument called the slug-horn that we blue-painted Scots blew before battle):
“Now Esperance! Percy! And set on.
Sound all the lofty instruments of war,
And by that music let us all embrace,
For, heaven to earth, some of us never shall
A second time do such courtesy” (V.ii.96-100).
Courtesy, the code of chivalric honor, is nearly Hotspur’s last word. Falstaff, seeing the slain nobleman Sir Walter Blunt who sacrificed himself as a decoy for his sovereign, offers an epitaph: “Sir Walter Blunt! There’s honor for you!...I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so; if not, honor comes unlook’d for, and there’s an end” (V.iii.32-3, 58-61). At last (literally), Hotspur confronts Harry Monmouth, still having faith in the finite determinism of honor, a conception that rival achievement of honor is mutually exclusive. Hotspur’s utters a last assertion of ego: “would to God/ Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!” and falls.
At the end, Hotspur is a pathetic hero—and I use my terms carefully: “pathetic” rather than tragic because there is a pathos in the self-sacrifice of one whose time has passed, yet “hero” because he has challenged the pure laws of the universe, Hal’s multifaceted political realism, without recognizing his is an anachronistic code. Most sadly, Hotspur at last recognizes he is not of this post-Richard II world:
"O Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me.
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.
But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop." (V.iv.77-83)
Even in death, “I better brook the loss of brittle life,” Hotspur is the alliterating chivalric poet before he is the warrior. Fool means “victim” here, as Romeo’s “I am fortune’s fool.” Derek Traversi notes that Hotspur’s conception of honor is tragically affirmed by death. My conclusion is here we see the defeat of illusion, Hotspur’s wonderfully rich self-deceptions, by realism, and his final clear vision echoes Mercutio’s “Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
Another romantic hero, John Dryden’s Antony in All for Love: or, the World Well Lost, similarly recognizes the passing of the Romantic world to the crass, mercantile realism of Octavius Caesar:
“’Tis time the world
Should have a lord, and know whom to obey.
We two have kept its homage in suspense,
And bent the globe, on whose each side we trod,
Till it was dinted inwards. Let him walk
Alone upon’t; I’m weary of my part.” (All for Love, V.i.280-85)
What is the mode of this play? It is, of course, grouped among the “history plays” in the Folio, but this tells us nothing other than Shakespeare is chronicling the birth of a nation, and “history play” is an envelope in which we find different modes—comedy, tragedy, a little satire, part of the Henriad epic—arranged. Hotspur, with romantic rather than political character, denies realism and believes Northumberland’s absence will lend “a larger dare to our great enterprise” (IV.i.78), “to push against a kingdom, with his help/ We shall o’erturn it topsy-turvy down” (IV.i.81-2). Though Falstaff challenges stolid civil order, Hotspur’s very different challenge to political authority would be suggestive of a mode of comedy. Henry is senex; Falstaff is a tricky servant; but Hal, not Hotspur, is more the instrument of restored harmony and represents the cycle of ascendant younger generation that traditionally concludes comedy. Or Falstaff is miles gloriosis, is Lord of Misrule, is Vice, is disruption (though I want Stu’s “dark” moments, too). Thus, Hotspur, really, belongs in another play, and so he dies, and the golden romantic, chivalric code dies with him.