Just to review: Henry “Hotspur” Percy was NOT Prince Hal’s contemporary. He was, in fact, three years OLDER THAN HENRY IV.
But history never stood in the way of Shakespeare. When he saw a opportunity to tweak history for dramatic purposes, he did not hesitate. And having a gallant knight to compare with a dissolute prince is dramatic. And thus we have one of the major oppositional pairs in The First Part of Henry the Fourth.
It’s not that Shakespeare completely ignores Hotspur’s history. Remember “brave Archibald” (I.i.53), the Scot that Hotspur defeated just prior to the opening of the play? Well, not only did Hotspur defeat him, but he fought against (and was defeated by) Archibald’s grandfather, James, 2nd Earl of Douglas, some 14 years earlier in 1388… when Prince Hal was only one year old.
Shakespeare can’t mention this fact, even though it’s really interesting, because it doesn’t fit into the dramatic character conflict in the play. If he did then Henry’s wish that “some night-tripping fairy had exchanged // In cradle-clothes our children where they lay” (I.i.87-88) would be, if not impossible, just downright creepy.
We hear of his gallantry in that opening scene, and when we meet him two scenes later, he doesn’t disappoint. His recollection of his denial of prisoners is hilarious:
My liege, I did deny no prisoners.
But I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dressed,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reaped
Showed like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talked,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He called them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
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
Of guns and drums and wounds,--God save the mark!--
And telling me the sovereignest thing on earth
Was parmaceti for an inward bruise;
And that it was great pity, so it was,
This villanous salt-petre should be digged
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good tall fellow had destroyed
So cowardly; and but for these vile guns,
He would himself have been a soldier.
This bald unjointed chat of his, my lord,
I answered indirectly, as I said;
And I beseech you, let not his report
Come current for an accusation
Betwixt my love and your high majesty.
Here is a fighting man, one used to “rage and extreme toil,” and of course he isn’t going to respond well to a well-shaved, perfumed pacifist “popinjay.” We laugh with him in his mocking recollection. Before the scene is done, however, we’ll be laughing AT him, as he cannot listen when his uncle and father try to tell him of their conspiracy. His constant interruptions are funny, prompting them to egg him on, mock him, and finally for his uncle Worcester to say, “Nay, if you have not (finished), to it again; // We will stay your leisure” (I.iii.255-256). Not only is he a military badass but a comic figure as well.
And it’s not just others Hotspur cannot help interrupting. He interrupts himself when reading the letter of another possible conspirator.
'But for mine own part, my lord, I could be well contented to be there, in respect of the love I bear your house.' He could be contented: why is he not, then? In respect of the love he bears our house: he shows in this, he loves his own barn better than he loves our house. Let me see some more. 'The purpose you undertake is dangerous;'--why, that's certain: 'tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety. 'The purpose you undertake is dangerous; the friends you have named uncertain; the time itself unsorted; and your whole plot too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition.' Say you so, say you so? I say unto you again, you are a shallow cowardly hind, and you lie. What a lack-brain is this! By the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was laid; our friends true and constant: a good plot, good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends. What a frosty-spirited rogue is this!
Even as he reads the letter, he cannot help but to break off for commentary, even breaking off his own comments for additional thoughts: “a good plot, good friends and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends.” This same lack of focus can bee seen in his meeting with Glendower, as he exclaims upon entering the meeting, “A plague upon it! I have forgot the map” (III.i.4-5).
The passion that can cause his impetuousness and forgetfulness pushes him to disagree with Glendower’s self-aggrandizing interpretations of natural occurrences at his birth and claims to converse with demons.
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil.
And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
With Glendower’s pomposity, we are again back to laughing with Hotspur, even as we cringe at his “willful-blame” (III.i.175) behavior. We love him for his practical view of the ridiculous. However, Hotspur is not above ridicule himself. Once Hotspur has perused the map and the division of the kingdom, he is unhappy with the split along the course of the Trent River. His solution?
I'll have the current in this place dammed up;
And here the smug and silver Trent shall run
In a new channel, fair and evenly;
It shall not wind with such a deep indent,
To rob me of so rich a bottom here.
His unbridled passion and nothing-is-impossible attitude make possible his only conclusion: to change the course of a river, to alter nature itself. Idealistically UNrealistic, and totally ridiculous. His uncle and brother-in-law chide him for it, and Hotspur claims to have been “schooled” (III.i.188).
His education comes in fits and starts, though, as he wants to attack the king’s forces “tonight” (IV.iii.1). It’s a rash suggestion that forces a debate on military strategy, an argument interrupted by Blunt’s arrival and communication of the king’s offer of pardon and peace. If we knew Hotspur only from the first two acts of the play, we would expect him to respond thoughtlessly and aggressively to the offer; instead, he says he will consider it and “in the morning early shall (Worcester) // Bring” (IV.iii.110-111) the king their answer. He is thoughtful and patient, qualities lost as the battle approaches and he “cannot read (messages) now” (V.ii.80). His schooling is incomplete at best.
We’re done laughing at Hotspur, and now can only feel sadness for the tragedy of a man who had not yet realized his full–his fully human–potential.