King Henry IV, Part 1 By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act IV: Scene 1

Summary

The scene now shifts to the rebel camp near Shrewsbury, where Hotspur, Worcester, and Douglas appear. Young Percy and the Scottish warrior exchange compliments. A messenger arrives with news from the Earl of Northumberland. It seems that Hotspur's father is ill and cannot lead his followers to Shrewsbury. Shocked to hear this, Hotspur quickly recovers himself and finds reasons to remain confident: It would be bad strategy to risk his strength in a single encounter; moreover, a victory by the reduced rebel army will redound all the more to their credit, helping to convince the populace at large that the revolt will be successful. Douglas readily endorses these opinions.

Sir Richard Vernon brings news concerning the royal forces. The Earl of Westmoreland and Prince John lead seven thousand soldiers toward Shrewsbury, and the king himself has set forth with another army. Hotspur remains undaunted; he welcomes the opportunity of opposing the royal power. But what, he asks, of Prince Hal? Where is he? Vernon then describes the young heir-apparent "all furnish'd, all in arms," also headed toward the field of battle. Hotspur interrupts Vernon; he cannot bear to hear such words of praise about his royal contemporary. Nevertheless, he now can hardly restrain himself, so anxious is he for the conflict to begin.

There is more news. Vernon reports that Glendower needs more time to muster his power. Worcester and even the fearless Douglas concede that this is the worst news of all. Not Hotspur. When Vernon tells him that the royal forces number 30,000, he exclaims: "Forty let it be!" Douglas joins him in challenging death itself.

Analysis

Although the Battle of Shrewsbury is yet to be fought, the action in the main plot, having reached its climax in Act III, Scene 2, is now falling, structurally speaking. The fortunes of the Percies have been in the ascendent prior to this scene. Now the three items of intelligence mark the turn toward adversity: Neither Northumberland nor Glendower will appear with their troops to join those led by Hotspur; the Prince of Wales, having done no more than voice his good intentions, is now acting positively.

The Hotspur in this scene is something more than the limited individual who deserved to be the object of Prince Hal's satire in Act II, Scene 4. He emerges as more than the vain, rather boastful (if courageous) warrior. Although the initial exchange between him and the Earl of Douglas may suggest that the Scotsman is young Percy's alter ego, it is Douglas, not Hotspur, who is the exemplar of unreflecting dauntlessness. Perhaps this difference is implicit in the fact that Douglas is hailed for his courage, Hotspur for his honor. But it is explicit in Hotspur's reaction to the adverse reports — the first brought by the messenger, the second and third by Sir Richard Vernon.

When he learns that his father will not arrive because of "inward" illness (an intentionally ambiguous term), young Percy recognizes the extent to which the odds have shifted and momentarily he loses heart: "This sickness doth infect / The very life-blood of our enterprise" (28-29); it is "a perilous gash, a very limb lopp'd off" (43). But as a leader he knows that he cannot appear daunted. Promptly he recovers himself and advances reasons for complete confidence in the success of the enterprise. And, of course, Douglas can be depended upon to second him. This is equally true of their reaction to the news about Glendower's inability to muster troops in time, although he had assured the Percies that he would not need even fourteen days. Perhaps there is significance in the Scotsman's reply when Hotspur declares that all goes well: "As heart can think," he says (84). Emotion, not intellect, is his guide.

Vernon's description of the Prince of Wales and Hotspur's reaction call for special comment. From the start, these two have been set in opposition to each other. Young Percy is endorsing little more than the public reputation of the prince (who appropriately is never called "Hal" in these serious scenes of the main plot), one which had been held by King Henry prior to the reconciliation, when he, Percy, refers to him as the "nimble-footed madcap . . . that daff'd [thrust] the world aside and bid it pass" (95-97). Up to the end of Act III, the prince in this play has completely ignored public responsibility, so far as positive action is concerned.

Vernon's portrait is that of the Ideal Prince, one that might have been depicted in a rich medieval tapestry. The prince and his followers, wearing the ostrich feather, heraldic emblem of the Prince of Wales, are endowed with spirit and ardor. The prince himself is compared to the Roman god Mercury, a tribute to his prowess: Certainly vaulting into the saddle with ease when armor-clad is an impressive accomplishment! Superior horsemanship, it may be added, was an essential accomplishment of the ideal Renaissance man.

Now it is Hotspur alone, not he and his comrades, who is momentarily crushed by this report of a battle-ready Prince of Wales: "Worse than the sun in March, / This praise doth nourish agues," he exclaims (111-12). When he recovers himself, his words comprise a challenge for individual trial by arms:

Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne'er part till one drop down a corse. (122-23)

In a word, the conflict in the main plot is now assuming the characteristics of a medieval tournament, with an admirable centralizing of the action.

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