PTS readthrough – 1 Henry IV: Act III, scene ii
21 July 1403, Shrewbury. Fifteen three-minute rounds for the Heavyweight Championship of England and Wales. In the blue corner, the Percy Pounder, Harryyyyyyy Hotspur! In the red, the Lancaster Lumper, Priiiiiiiiiiince Hal!
Earlier in the play, Hotspur told his king not to listen to rumours when he could get the truth straight from the horse’s mouth. As the scene opens Hal appeals to his father in much the same way, reinforcing the symmetry between the two potential heroes. Mitigation is again the order of the day, not that Henry IV is inclined to forgive:
thou dost in thy passages of life
Make me believe that thou art only mark’d
For the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven
To punish my mistreadings. [a]
He wants to vent, and does so at length. Sixty-two lines and then a further thirty-four, allowing his son a mere fourteen syllables in the middle to answer his charges. The play might be named after Bolinbroke, but I think him a peripheral figure, and was surprised when I first learned that he had roughly the same number of lines as Hal, Hotspur and Falstaff. It’s this scene that accumulates those lines for our titular character.
It’s an interesting couple of speeches. The ghost of Richard II haunts them. Peter Saccio reminds us that Henry IV can never quite shake off what he has done:
Bolingbroke was a ruler with obvious liabilities: a flawed title to his crown, blood on his hands, and debts in his pocket. [b]
Maybe this is part of what G Wilson Knight is referring to:
‘the sense of unrightful position that continually urged Henry IV to a crusade of expiation.’ [c]
The debts Saccio refers to are owed, of course, to the very nobles he is currently opposing …
Fifteen lines are devoted to ‘the skipping king’, and it seems that the most damning thing Henry senior thinks he can do is to compare his profligate son to his predecessor:
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes
[…] And in that very line, Harry, standest thou
Hal can barely get a word in edgeways, as often happens when people have finally lost it with you. And his father’s off again, this time riffing on the other Harry, Hal’s foil (and comparing himself to the new pretender):
He hath more worthy interest to the state
Than thou the shadow of succession;
For of no right, nor colour like to right,
He doth fill fields with harness in the realm,
Turns head against the lion’s armed jaws,
And, being no more in debt to years than thou,
Leads ancient lords and reverend bishops on
To bloody battles and to bruising arms.
That really has to sting. And yet Hal floats over these jabs like a butterfly:
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account,
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
I was trying to find an analogy for what’s going on here and our world, and it took me a while to remember Rocky Balboa. What’s this got to do with him? Well, the point is that in the boxing world, if you beat the number 1, no matter how poorly ranked you are, you become the reigning champion, the man to beat. This is what Hal is banking on, a one time, do-or-die, winner-takes-all shot at the current title-holder. ‘Gimme a shot at the title’ …
His father buys it. Far too easily, if you ask me. The King’s motto may as well be ‘Might is right‘. Bolinbroke is more pugnacious than I am – I always felt he was a bit of a bully, not least in the opening scene of Richard II, when he relies on his physical prowess to support his accusations against Mowbray and, indirectly, his king. Almost perversely, Kings love opportunities for fighting: when they don’t arrive, they create pretexts to start a war – see Henrys V and VIII, amongst others.
We were introduced to the challengers early on, but this is the point in the play, really, when the title fight is finally on. It just remains, in the final scene in the act, for Hal to return to East Cheap in a far more business-like manner to more or less announce to Falstaff that the fun’s over; Fat Jack’s expected to set aside childish devices and play the man’s part in stamping out the incipient rebellion … on foot!
[a] all play quotations are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[b] Peter Saccio, Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama (Oxford: OUP, 2000)
[c] G Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme, (London: Methuen, 1931)