PTS 015/097: Fool Me Once …


‘Broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong’ … (1HIV IV, iii)

PTS read-through: 1 Henry IV, Act IV

Today, let’s talk about serial liars, and those who promise much but deliver little, if anything …

As you’d expect, the action accelerates in Act IV, like two opposing sets of cavalry spurring their mounts into a trot towards each other, before someone raises his sword and shouts something incoherent, sending both sides into a full gallop.

We visit the rebel camp first.  What are we to make of these significant ‘no-shows’?  Hotspur reacts with typical frustration to his father’s letter:

‘Zounds! how has he the leisure to be sick

In such a rustling time? Who leads his power?

Under whose government come they along?

This is a valid point.  Not only does Northumberland not come to the muster (on Trilogy Day he was portrayed as reluctant from the moment the plan was broached), but he sends no troops either … Hmmm.  Worcester is concerned at how the wider kingdom will interpret this (rightly so), but like Prince Hal will shortly before Agincourt, Hotspur is spurred on, not cowed, by lack of numbers.  He points out:

there is no quailing now.

Because the king is certainly possess’d

Of all our purposes.

I suspect that he’s only pretending to read his father’s advice, rather trying to stiffen the resolve of his fellow rebels. 

Let’s skip to scene iv very briefly – I suspect there’s a special place in hell reserved for people like Archbishop Scroop – clergyman or no.  He was a named conspirator in Act I, so what the hell is he doing faffing around and writing letters in act IV?  Why is he not trotting towards Bolingbroke at the head of his forces, reminding everyone that his real boss is unhappy with the usurping king?  I feel Hotspur-like contempt for the man.  If he knows that he’s next on King Henry’s hit-list, why did he not pitch his forces in with Percy’s? All mouth and no trousers, that priest!

As to Glendower … I wonder.  In Richard II the welsh forces evaporated because the king was delayed returning from Ireland, and here, it’s the Welsh who’ll be a fortnight late.  Is this a consequence of Hotspur’s baiting of Glendower?  Do the Welsh troops simply not want to fight on the same side as any Englishmen?  After all, strategically, chaos in England can only work to their advantage.  We’ll never know.

But what annoys Hotspur most is Vernon’s description of Prince Hal.  Feather’d Mercury’ my arse!

That annoyance remains when, in scene iii, Blunt arrives to parlay with the rebels. Mind you, I’d be a little wound up, too.  It’s really no good Blunt alleging:

out of limit and true rule

You stand against anointed majesty.

When his boss is the past master who set the precedent, dethroning the most recent anointed king …

Hotspur’s speech is magnificent.  As in Act I the crescendo of his rage sweeps away any ineffectual interruption, to climax with a series of powerful allegations:

he deposed the king;

Soon after that, deprived him of his life;

And in the neck of that, task’d the whole state:

To make that worse, suffer’d his kinsman March,

Who is, if every owner were well placed,

Indeed his king, to be engaged in Wales,

There without ransom to lie forfeited;

Disgraced me in my happy victories,

Sought to entrap me by intelligence;

Rated mine uncle from the council-board;

In rage dismiss’d my father from the court;

Broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong,

And in conclusion drove us to seek out

This head of safety

I’ve emphasised those accusatory verbs.  Strong stuff.

The thing is, he has a point, and as I’ve said before, he’s not a liar.  Bolinbroke IS a liar, though, if you’ve paid attention throughout the plays; his gratitude for that essential support against Richard II has proved fleeting and niggardly.  If anyone has precipitated this pre-emptive strike by the Percies, it’s Bolinbroke himself, with his terrible man-management skills.  Percy makes the point that they have been driven to rebel.  What ought they to do, sit and wait for the axe that is obviously being sharpened for them?  Who on earth would trust the offer made through Blunt:

He bids you name your griefs; and with all speed

You shall have your desires with interest

And pardon absolute

With the benefit of experience?  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me … 

Before we leave the act, we need to check in with our lovable rogue.  Shockingly, we get our first glimpse of a truly unsavoury side to Sir John.  The man who knows no shame seems embarrassed by the ‘troops’ he has pressed into service, soliloquising at length on the poor sods under his commission and the methods by which he recruited them.  This is him at his most distasteful, profiteering from war, preying on the helpless, and in truth he remains shameless – what he really wants is for no-one to see the pitiful state of his men before he hurls them into battle, because they’ll know exactly what he’s done.  Hence he’ll:

‘not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat’. 

Sometimes (and students hate it, for obvious reasons), I’ll respond to a grudging, muttered half-apology with ‘are you sorry you did it, or sorry you were caught doing it?’  This is what I see here – no penitence; simply the desire not to be found out.

His luck’s out, though.  When he bumps into Hal, his defence echoes, perhaps foreshadows, the callous inhumanity with which he himself will be cast adrift:

Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food

for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better:

tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

Like the killing of the young princes (in Richard III) for so many of my students, this is the pivotal moment when my relationship with Falstaff changes; when I mutter ‘Oh, I say!’, ‘That’s just not cricket!’, and various other expressions of distaste.  We’re never quite as close again, me and the big fella. 

You fooled me once, Falstaff …


All play quotations taken from

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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