Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 3
A determined King Henry strongly reproves the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester, and Hotspur, who have obeyed his summons to appear before him. His threat to use force if necessary to curb their opposition leads Worcester to remind him that they, the Percies, were largely responsible for his rise to the throne. The king promptly orders Worcester to leave. Now it is Northumberland who addresses Henry IV, voicing words of conciliation. Hotspur, he states, has been maligned, for his son never intended to ignore a royal command. Hotspur himself explains what happened. Battle weary, he found it impossible to respond affirmatively to the request made by the king's messenger, a pretentious, unmanly coxcomb. Although the loyal Sir Walter Blunt puts in a good word for Hotspur, the king does not accept this excuse. He is convinced that young Percy intended to use the Scottish prisoners in bargaining with him for the ransom of Mortimer, Earl of March, Hotspur's brother-in-law, whom he denounces as one who foolishly betrayed the forces he led and now has married the daughter of his captor, "that great magician, damn'd Glendower." Hotspur vehemently defends Mortimer, but the king refuses to believe that he is not a traitor. Ordering Hotspur to talk no more of the Earl of March, he adds: "Send us your prisoners, or you'll hear of it." The king and members of his retinue leave.
Hotspur is beside himself. Even though he risks his life he will not obey King Henry. Just as Northumberland urges his son to control himself, Worcester returns to hear another outburst from his nephew. When Hotspur says that the king turned pale at the very mention of Mortimer's name, Worcester replies, "I cannot blame him." And this leads to a review of past events: Richard II's designation of the Earl of March as his heir to the throne, the role of the Percies in Bolingbroke's successful revolt, and the ignominious position in which this proud and ungrateful Henry IV has placed the members of the House of Percy.
Worcester interrupts to announce that he has a plan, one "deep and dangerous," which he will reveal to his kinsmen. Hotspur is exhilarated by the very mention of a dangerous exploit to be carried out in the name of honor. Henceforth, he declares, he will dedicate himself solely to opposing "this Bolingbroke" and the Prince of Wales. Only after Northumberland has succeeded in calming his son can Worcester proceed. Hotspur is to pacify Henry IV for the time being by turning the prisoners over to the Crown, but he will make peace with Douglas and soon will ally himself with Glendower and Mortimer. Augmented by the Scottish and Welsh forces, the Percies will then confront the usurper Henry IV.
The action in the main plot has risen to the point where the conflict is brought into the open. Following the audience with the king, the Percies are on the verge of rebellion. The danger to the Crown is very great indeed as Hotspur's speech beginning "Send danger from the east unto the west" (195-97) makes clear. Henry faces not only the opposition of the most powerful baronial family in the North, but also, if the rebels' plan succeeds, the forces of Mortimer (legal heir to the throne according to the will made by Richard II) and the fearsome Glendower.
In this scene, King Henry is represented not as the sinner, weary and wan with care, but as the forceful, competent ruler determined to maintain order within his kingdom as he faces baronial opposition. Yet he has been politic. The opening lines of his first speech tell us that he has sought to placate troublesome subjects, who nevertheless must respect him as one "mighty and to be fear'd" (6) if they prove recalcitrant. In the language of sixteenth-century political philosophy, Henry is a man gifted with the "specialty of rule." Nor does this conclusion rule out the fact that, in the words of Hotspur, he is a "subtle king," — one capable of calculation, as a successful head of state has to be, at least in an era of power politics.
But this does not mean that Henry's crimes are to be forgotten. To Hotspur are assigned speeches which recall the sins of usurpation and regicide. For these the king and the Percies alike "wear the detested blot / Of murderous subornation" and must suffer "a world of curses" (163-64). In counsel with his father and uncle, young Percy frequently disdains to refer to Henry as king; rather, he is "cank'red [malignant] Bolingbroke," a thorn or canker in comparison to the lawfully anointed Richard II, "that sweet lovely rose." In the plant kingdom the rose is the appropriate symbol of royalty, just as the lion is in the animal kingdom.
All this may confuse the modern reader. Who actually is in the right, King Henry or the Percies, if either? The only way to answer this question is by recourse to Tudor political policy which, as has been stated earlier, informs this play. Henry remains a sinner; usurpation and regicide cannot be justified. But now a just God permits him to rule England. God may permit the rebel to rage as part of the punishment of a sinful ruler, but the rebel himself is guilty of mortal sin for his revolt against the Crown. A perceptive student may recall Richmond's leading a revolt against Richard III and emerging triumphant as Henry VII, first of the Tudor monarchs. Loyalists of the sixteenth century had an answer: Richmond (grandfather of Elizabeth I, ruler of England during the larger part of Shakespeare's lifetime) was the divinely appointed savior of the country and thus not a rebel. Perhaps it is well to remember that what most Englishmen cherished was stability — law and order within the kingdom. Richard II, in his latter years, was guilty of gross misrule; his successor, Henry IV, proved to be a strong, capable ruler.
Hotspur's basic character is firmly established in this scene. His high spirits and undoubted courage, and his forthright answer to King Henry make him appear admirable. Unlike his uncle, the crafty Worcester, architect of the planned revolt, he is completely aboveboard. His sincerity is not to be questioned when he inveighs against "half-fac'd fellowships" (208) and the alleged ingratitude of the king. He is dedicated to winning new laurels in the only way he knows how; craft and selfish motive have no place in his character.
But Hotspur lives up to his name in more ways than one. Patience and contemplation are foreign to his nature; only in violent action is he at home. Time and again either his father or his uncle must rebuke him. Will he obey the king's order to relinquish the prisoners? "An if the devil come and roar for them, / I will not send them," he exclaims (125-26). Northumberland's rebuke is hardly exaggerated: "What, drunk with choler?" No less revealing are Hotspur's words when Worcester first broaches his "deep and dangerous" plot: "O, the blood more stirs / To rouse a lion than to start a hare!" (197-98). This Hotspur of the North is dedicated to winning honor after honor and now relishes the prospect of facing his major opponent, the king himself. Again it is his father's remark which provides telling comment on his son's limitations as a leader:
Imagination of some great exploit
Drives him beyond the bounds of patience.(199-200)
In martial affairs this young man is indeed the soul of courage; but he lacks discretion, he is too impetuous. Subsequent lines with reference to plucking "bright Honour from the pale-fac'd moon" emphasize once more Hotspur's special concern with honor as he conceives it (and about which, perhaps, he talks too much). In the words of his uncle:
He apprehends a world of figures here,
But not the form of what he should attend. (209-10)
To be noted also is that Hotspur is again pitted against "that same sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales," as he contemptuously calls Hal. By the end of this scene in which we learn that the Percies will be allied not only with Mortimer and Glendower but possibly with the disgruntled Archbishop of York, second ranking churchman in England, Hotspur can hardly contain himself: "O, let the hours be short / Till fields and blows and groans applaud our sport!" (301-2). His choice of the word sport referring to bloody conflict is as revealing as anything else as regards his character. Hal, we recall, has been manifesting a far different attitude toward what constitutes sport; he is about to engage in an enterprise which is against law and order within the kingdom ruled by Henry IV.