Love and Marriage

In a play about history, about fathers and sons, about symbolic brothers, about surrogate fathers and absent mothers, we actually get to see two and a half marriages (maybe even three quarters, by absence).

Welcome to love and marriage in The First Part of Henry the Fourth.

The first married couple we see is the Percies, Hotspur and his wife. Having already met Hotspur a few scenes earlier, with his mixture of comic bravado and buffoonery, it’s time to meet the wife. How does she react to his sudden announcement that he must leave within two hours? At first, quite well. She is less concerned with his leaving–he’s a warrior, after all, and time in the field must be a common experience–than she is with his current absence from her life:

O, my good lord, why are you thus alone?
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry's bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is't that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit'st alone?

— II.iii.36-42

She cares for her husband, and he hasn’t been acting normally. As if he might be beginning to turn away, she changes tactics mid-speech, using military terms to pull him back into her plea:

And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars;
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed;
Cry 'Courage! to the field!' And thou hast talked
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners' ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.

— II.iii.47-54

She knows her husband all too well. It’s like a fantasy league widow talking to her husband in the autumn: she grabs his waning attention with the mention of Tom Brady. But then she quickly gets back to her point: “Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war” (II.iii.55). She wants to know what is bothering him: “Some heavy business hath my lord in hand, // And I must know it, else he loves me not” (62-63).

His response? To call for a servant and ask of his horse. I see two ways to play this. The first, and the one most often used, is to show his distraction and his natural inclination to war. The second, and the one I would love to explore on stage, is that all this horse talk is a tease, to see how much she will take. I can almost hear her line “But hear you, my lord” (II.iii.72) being repeated after every speech by the servant, only to be cut off by her husband’s next statement to the servant.

When she finally gets his attention and asks him to tell her what (enterprise) “carries (him) away” (II.iii.74), his response is a comic one: “Why, my horse, my love — my horse!” (II.ii.75). She calls him an ape and compares him to a weasel, and when she begins to fear her brother Mortimer is behind all Hotspur’s behavior, he interrupts her, “So far afoot, I shall be weary, love” (II.iii.83). What a wonderful hidden stage direction; she obviously has been so near to him (possibly even in an embrace), that he must tell her to stand aside. But it does no good, as she responds:

Come, come, you paraquito, answer me
Directly unto this question that I ask:
In faith, I'll break thy little finger, Harry,
An if thou wilt not tell me all things true.

— II.iii.83-87

You can see (as most directors) her not just saying the words but beginning to act them out, physicalizing the exchange even more. Hotspur breaks away, saying, “Away, away, you trifler! Love! I love thee not” (II.iii.88). The response is interesting in more than just the obvious denial of his love: Look at the line:

~ /   ~ /    ~    /  ~    /    ~  /     ~   /
Away, away, you trifler! Love! I love thee not

It’s not iambic pentameter. It’s six beats. Some editions break this line into two lines, the first with just the first word “Away,” and the second with the remainder of the long line. I like this. It creates a four-beat pause which must be filled with something, most likely Hotspur having to break himself free.

As if he knows he has hurt her feelings, he immediately backtracks from “I love thee not” to “I care not for thee, Kate” (II.iii.89). A de-escalation plus the use of name (a hostage negotiator couldn’t have done it better).

but more on THAT (as you know I plumb quite the depth) when we get to bawdy-ville, later in the month…

What follows is is wonderful bit of bawdy (“this is no world // To play with mammets and to tilt with lips” [II.iii.89-90]; mammets being breasts) that descends to a level corresponding to the depths of the reader’s (or director’s) mind-gutter.

He finally backtracks to tell her, “I love you infinitely” {II.iii.100}, but then tells her that he cannot tell her where he is going (as she “wilt not utter what [she] dost not know” [II.iii.109]). As a kind of consolation prize, he then tells her that she will be following him to his next destination. When he asks if the situation is one with which she can be content, she responds, “It must of force” (II.iii.115). It WILL content her to be with him, even if it means she cannot know his secrets.

It’s a wonderful scene, and a great insight to the dynamic of their marriage (and it certainly fills in some of the blank spots of Hotspur’s seemingly one-dimensional character), no?

I’ve had far too much fun with this scene, and have gone on too long for today… tomorrow, more with the Percies and we’ll hit up Mortimer and the Welsh-woman (and one other couple)…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *