PTS 015/098: Kill Your Darlings!

We each owe a death. Let’s examine that of Harry Hotspur: a hero too big to be allowed to survive …

PTS read-through: 1 Henry IV, Act IV

Prince Hal pays tribute to his fallen enemy, Hotspur, in he Hollow Crown version of the play.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, ‘On Writing: A Memoir’ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000)

Blame Phil Beadle, and his book ‘Rules for Mavericks: A Manifesto for Dissident Creatives‘ – he made me come back. Not knowing how long I’m here for, just testing the water, I thought it better to simply crack on and see how I felt afterwards: no cringing excuses or apologies for my lengthy absence; no promises either … publish and be damned, if you like.

First-time visitor?  Click here and here to find out what Ponytail Shakespeare is all about.  Then come back, read, and comment. Please do.

Let’s finish this magical play together, shall we?

Henry VWhy, thou owest God a death.
Falstaff'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day.(V.i.126-128)

Thus begins Falstaff’s wonderful realpolitik catechism on Honour. When the blog opened, when I last edited my profile, I identified with Falstaff. Sometimes, on a good day, I still do. That’s the aging maverick in me – the ‘old white-bearded Satan’. But today I want to talk about death. I’m very sensitive to literary deaths, frequently quoting Hal in the classroom. When killing off their darlings, a writer has so many options, so many significant choices to make. Example: I love the fact that Piers Gaveston is ignominiously killed off-stage in Edward II (the king is in fact, notoriously, the first of just two on-stage deaths. This year’s class were quite taken aback by it, and some would rather Edward had died place off-stage, I think). Further example – final words (too many thoughts on this; not enough time).

A quick recap on the play, then: much like the Talbots, who I wrote about in February 2017(!), we find our young maverick, Hotspur, increasingly let down by the people who should have supported him, as the Shrewsbury Showdown approaches. This betrayal increases exponentially in Act V. Advancing years, all 50 of mine, ought to have secured the overthrow of my youthful idealism with (bitter) pragmatism – in fact, perhaps with Falstaff’s realpolitik – but the self-preservation expressed by Worcester at the expense of his nephew stinks worse than a Kentish post-Brexit lay-by (regular visitors KNEW I would wangle Brexit in):

My nephew's trespass may be well forgot; 
it hath the excuse of youth and heat of blood, 
And an adopted name of privilege, 
A hair-brain'd Hotspur, govern'd by a spleen: 
All his offences live upon my head
And on his father's; we did train him on, 
And, his corruption being ta'en from us, 
We, as the spring of all, shall pay for all. (V.ii.16-23)

And so, inevitably, Hotspur will pay the ultimate price for his elders’ machinations in the spring of his life …

What did Shakespeare do with his source material? This is what Holinshed has to say:

The king in deed was raised, and did that daie manie a noble feat of armes, for as it is written, he slue that daie with his owne hands six and thirty persons of his enimies. The other on his part encouraged by his doings, fought valiantlie, and slue the lord Persie, called Sir Henrie Hotspurre.

Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles, (London: The Folio Society, 2012)

Your guess is practically as good as mine who this ‘other’ might be – the preceding passage concerns the various counterfeit kings on the battlefield, including the hapless Sir Walter Blunt, paying the ultimate price for his loyalty at the hands of the ‘Dowglas’.

Ian Mortimer’s analysis suits my bromantic crush on Hotspur far better:

What happened next is one of the occasions when history itself turns to watch in solemn admiration at the courage of men. Hotspur decided to stake everything on one great charge towards the king.

Ian Mortimer, The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King (London: Vintage, 2008)

Mortimer’s account is full of the excitement that Michael K Jones gave me in his  1485: Bosworth – Pyschology of a Battle (John Murray:  London, 2014) when I researched the demise of my other crush, Richard III (in very similar circumstances, incidentally – gambling all on a heroic do or die charge, in an attempt to decapitate the opposition). I recommend them both.

Back to Hotspur. What is certain is that Shakespeare manufactured the climactic duel between the two dashing heroic figures (also ignoring a 22-year age difference between the men). ‘Because Bums On Seats‘, as my friend, Claire, might say. In many ways, the play is about relationships and doubles – Hal has two father figures; the nation has two heroic figureheads. In each case, two is one too many.

Hotspur has an awareness of the brevity and preciousness of life that speaks more powerfully to me than any other impulse as I grow older. Gloriously reckless; heroically determined to arrive late for his own funeral.


O gentlemen, the time of life is short! 
To spend that shortness basely were too long, 
If life did ride upon a dial's point, 
Still ending at the arrival of an hour. (V.ii.81-84)

I’ll give you Richard II:

I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me (V.v.49)

and Tennyson‘s ‘Ulysses’:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains

AND even Muse‘s ‘Knights of Cydonia’

Don't waste your time or time will waste you.
Don’t waste your time …

Back to the climactic, ‘we’re not so very different, you and I‘ confrontation.

think not, Percy, 
To share with me in glory any more: 
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere; 
Nor can one England brook a double reign, 
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.  

With the echoes of Muse in our ears, let’s paraphrase:

This town ain’t big enough for the two of us …

Then there’s the final exchange between the pair:

no, Percy, thou art dust 
And food for—


Henry V:  For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart! 

It’s a fitting signal of a life lived to the brim that Percy dies onstage (cf Falstaff) and mid-sentence, although it’s perhaps paradoxical and poignant that he died with unfinished business on the tip of his tongue. Like Mercutio, he was just too alive, too big, to be allowed to survive: never mind what Holinshed might say, Shakespeare was prepared and skilled enough to bend history to his own purposes . In this 2020 reading at least, Hotspur was in danger of out-staging Hal (and Falstaff), and the shift in power, renown, and perhaps dramatic empathy is nicely symbolised when the Prince finishes his line for him.

1 Henry IV is an absolute rollercoaster ride – looking at the ‘to be continued‘ ending, it’s indecent to suggest that the sequel can be as full of laughter, of love, of loss, of LIFE, as the first instalment, which is why I’ve always approached 2 Henry IV with caution, watching it once on stage but never reading or studying it.

Now feels like the time to get firmly stuck into the next instalment …

REFERENCES to the play are taken from a combination of the Arden third edition and

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

2 thoughts on “PTS 015/098: Kill Your Darlings!”

  1. Yes! You’re back! We do seem to favour the same characters, and having subscribed in lockdown to Marquee TV we’ve just spent the last handful of Saturdays working through the History plays on the RSC’s portion of the service, beginning with RII. Henry IV Part 1 is thus fresh in my mind, though it’s never really gone away since I did it for O Levels back in the 1970s and fell in love with it and Hotspur. That teenage experience cemented my love of Shakespeare too and for that I am so grateful. It’s wonderful to have you back!


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