Yesterday, we introduced the four men who appear on stage as The First Part of Henry the Fourth begins. While the choice of characters is interesting, the king’s first words are interesting, too: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care” (I.i.1). This is NOT a king who is at the height of his powers. At the end of Richard the Second, Henry had proclaimed “a voyage to the Holy Land” (RII V.vi.49), to “the sepulcher of Christ” (I.i.19) in Jerusalem, and that plan (at least for the first 40 lines) is still in place.
But Westmoreland brings news that Edmund Mortimer, a supporter of Bolingbroke’s in his usurpation of Richard’s throne, has been captured by the Welsh rebel, “the irregular and wild Glendower” (I.i.40), who now holds Mortimer in ransom. The news isn’t all bad, though: “the gallant Hotspur” (I.i.52), another of Henry’s supporters, has defeated has won against the Scottish rebellion and has taken prisoners of his own.
To this news, King Henry can only bemoan the fact that Hotspur is a better man and warrior than his own son:
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blessed 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 proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
So we get the first hints of our major oppositional pair of the play: Hotspur vs. Harry or Prince Hal. If there is a downside to Hotspur, it’s that he is reluctant to give his prisoners to King Henry, a reluctance that the king wants addressed when Hotspur meets with the king next Wednesday.
Act One, Scene Two takes us to Henry’s Harry, or as we come to know him, Prince “Hal” (I.ii.1). And who has the audacity to call the heir apparent, not by his true name Henry or even his father’s nickname of Harry, but simply “Hal”?
Falstaff, of course.
The first thing that is readily apparent in the scene is that while the court sequence was told completely in verse, here, the participants speak only in prose. Prosaic, too, is the tavern life: drinking, staying up late, sleeping in later, and taking part in the occasional robbery. Falstaff does have a conscience, or at least a conscious state of common morality, as he asks the prince,
when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night's body be called thieves of the day's beauty
And thus they begin a scene’s worth of back and forth of playful banter. Comic, but tinged with dark foreshadowing (as anyone who knows the fate reserved for Bardolph in Henry the Fifth). Into this scene comes another tavern dweller, Ned Poins who presents the two with a real opportunity for robbery. But our Prince cannot abide: “Who, I rob? I a thief” Not I, by my faith” (I.ii.134). This would make us believe that Hal hadn’t really participated in any robberies before this point, either. Falstaff gives Prince Hal some grief for his refusal, but Poins says that if Falstaff leaves them alone for a moment, he can get Hal to agree.
The surrogate father Falstaff leaves, and Poins makes good his promise, by promising Hal that the two of them will allow Falstaff and the rest of the tavern-dwellers to do the initial robbery, but then they two will rob the robbers for the purpose of hearing
the incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will tell us when we meet at supper: how thirty, at least, he fought with; what wards, what blows, what extremities he endured; and in the reproof of this lies the jest.
Hal agrees, and Poins leaves. And we are left with a character who, while fun-loving, is still willing to steal. How can we abide this in a Prince? Left alone with only us, Hal gives us his thoughts via a verse soliloquy (remember Richard the Second’s almost total lack of soliloquies?). He tells us this is all “unyoked humor” (I.ii.189), but it’s all an act:
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offense a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
He’s really a good guy, he wants us to know. But we still must have our doubts. If his dissolute prince bit is just an act, could this one be one, too?
With this question in mind, Act One, Scene Three takes us back to court where King Henry is meeting with the Percies, including Hotspur. The king wants his prisoners, but what Hotspur gives him is an explanation: the original demand for prisoners came on the battlefield from a dandy, a non-warrior. Hotspur recalls,
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so pestered with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and my impatience,
Answered neglectingly I know not what,
He should or he should not; for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
It’s a comically wonderful speech, and gives us great insight to Hotspur’s warrior mentality. There’s only one problem with the speech. Hotspur still “den(ies) his prisoners” (I.iii.77) unless Edmund Mortimer is ransomed from Glendower.
Who is Hotspur to make demands? One of Henry’s earliest supporters.
Why is Hotspur so interested in Mortimer’s return? Easy. Hotspur has married Edmund’s sister. So we can understand his desire.
On the other hand, we can understand Henry’s reluctance to do this. First, Edmund, in some minds, has a greater right to the throne of England than does Henry.
We’ll get around to talking about that later in the month…
and if that’s Henry’s thinking, then through that logic, Hotspur would be a possible traitor as well… But remember that Henry wishes Hotspur was his own son.
Secondly, and maybe even more importantly for the moment, Mortimer has “lately married” (I.iii.85) the daughter of Glendower, his captor. This would then make Mortimer more likely to align himself with the Welsh rebel leader.
Henry doesn’t want to hear Hotspur to even “speak of Mortimer” (I.iii.119), demands his prisoners, and leaves the Percies to stew. While Hotspur’s father and uncle stew, Hotspur himself is boiling over. What follows is a comic scene of Hotspur fuming (going so far as wanting to drown “that same sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales … with a pot of ale” [I.iii.229,232]), and his family trying to get him to relax until they can tell him of a plan to unite the Scots and the Yorkists with Mortimer and the Welsh.
And thus Act One ends…