PTS read-through: 1 Henry 4 Act II, scene iii
How can anyone, male or female, gay or straight, NOT fall for Harry Hotspur?
Harold Bloom calls the Macbeths the best marriage in Shakespeare. [a] I honestly think he knows squat. Between this scene and III.i, there’s plenty to suggest the the Percies are gloriously in love with each other, in a way we don’t otherwise see outside of the Comedies. Not for nothing does she exclaim:
O wondrous him!
O miracle of men! (2 Henry IV, II,iii) [b]
in her splendid eulogy of her dead husband.
One of the things I admire in Hotspur is his constancy. So when this scene opens, he’s alone on stage and just as wonderfully impetuous in soliloquy as he was when we were introduced to him – a lovely foil to the Janus-faced Prince. He roundly condemns the anonymous writer of the letter he’s reading as ‘my lord fool‘, and a ‘shallow cowardly hind‘, and as we have seen before and will see when he meets Glendower, he’s not saying anything he wouldn’t say directly to the ‘frosty spirited rogue‘ who has corresponded with him in such diffident terms.
But to the marriage. Re-reading Lady Percy’s speech reminds me of Julius Caesar: she echoes Portia’s frustration and bewilderment, as well as reporting Hotspur’s preoccupation. She begins with a run of questions; I think it’s significant that her first one is:
For what offence have I this fortnight been
A banish’d woman from my Harry’s bed?
We can imply from her complaints not simply that she’s been left to kick her heels, or that she’s nosy about what’s going on: the things she misses are, well … quality time in and out of bed – he has:
given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy?
Compare that to ‘hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear‘, or ‘when you durst do it, then you were a man‘ Harold Bloom.
Again, Hotspur is his usual self: he won’t tell her, but he’s appealingly frustrating in his pretence at obtuseness:
Lady Percy. What is it carries you away?
Hotspur (Henry Percy). Why, my horse, my love, my horse.
This teasing over-literalisation is maddening, but not angering. To coin a phrase, she’s ‘wasp-stung’, and can’t tell whether he is serious or not:
‘tell me if you speak in jest or no’
Let’s look at his final speech to her:
when I am on horseback, I will swear
I love thee infinitely. But hark you, Kate;
I must not have you henceforth question me
Whither I go, nor reason whereabout:
Whither I must, I must; and, to conclude,
This evening must I leave you, gentle Kate.
I know you wise, but yet no farther wise
Than Harry Percy’s wife: constant you are,
But yet a woman: and for secrecy,
No lady closer; for I well believe
Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know;
And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate.
Of course there is a ‘manly’ putting in place, and conventional misogyny about woman’s general predilection for gossip. But liberally sprinkled in here are terms of affection, and the ‘no’ she receives is softened again and again. We can’t help but smile at the way he expresses confidence in her not repeating what she doesn’t know. He’s frustrating, but cute with it.
I think they’re very much in love, I’m looking forward to their flirting in the next act, and I’ll definitely join Kate in mourning her dead hero when the time comes …
[a] Harold Bloom, The Invention of the Human, 1998
[b] quotations from to the plays are taken from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org