Shakespeare wrote four plays covering the reigns of three English kings – Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. They are without doubt the greatest of his history plays, and some would argue that these four plays, known as the Henriad, are the greatest plays he ever wrote.

I do love these plays, though I wouldn’t put most of them at the very top of Shakespeare’w work. Richard II is lyrical and beautiful. It is essentially the portrait of a spoiled brat who, upon losing his kingdom, plumbs the depths of self-pitying poetry and melodrama. Sounds terrible, but it is a triumph of language and portraiture, again showing Shakespeare’s overriding theme – kings are just people, trying to do an impossible job.

Henry V is powerful stuff, with a hero king who leads his country into battle with words that still resonate in our culture today.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry IV part 2 contains the rejection of Falstaff. More on that below. All three are wonderful plays, among Shakespeare’s best – and that is saying something. But for me those three come short of what I feel to be Shakespeare’s very best history play, Henry IV part 1. This play is only number 7 on my list, but I honestly think of it as number 1(g). If we were somehow missing all the great tragedies and comedies, and Henry IV part 1 were immediately promoted to the best play Shakespeare ever wrote, I would still consider that one play to be a miraculous achievement and Shakespeare one of the world’s great artists.

The traditional analysis of Henry IV part 1 pairs Prince Hal (the future Henry V) with his rebellious rival Hotspur (Harry Percy), and King Henry IV (formerly Henry Bolingbroke, who deposed Richard II) with the fat knight Sir John Falstaff. It’s an obvious comparison: Hotspur is the son Bolingbroke wishes he’d had, and Falstaff tries his darnedest to be Hal’s surrogate father. But I want to go in another direction, thinking not about the influences that tug on Hal and his father, but rather those that tug on me, the reader and playgoer.

For that reason, I’d like to compare Falstaff not with the dour and depressed Henry IV, but with Harry Percy, Hotspur himself. The contrasts are obvious. Falstaff is a confirmed coward, while Hotspur is anything but. Falstaff famously rails against honor, while to Percy there’s not much else to live for. Most obviously, Falstaff is old and fat, while Hotspur is young and vital.

But for me these differences are overwhelmed by one inescapable similarity. Both Falstaff and Hotspur are fabulously, undeniably, gloriously alive.

Despite being myself a confirmed coward, and therefore of Falstaff’s persuasion, Hotspur may be my favorite character in the play. OK, not just Hotspur, but also his wife Lady Percy, whom Hotspur calls Kate even though (historically, at least) that’s not her real name.

Kate (that’s what I’ll call her, too) adores Hotspur and wants nothing more than for him to come back to their bed. Hotspur, on the other hand, is more interested (at least on the surface) in war and riding his horse. Based just on the text, the scene could be played to make Hotspur a bore and a heel. But in the recent series The Hollow Crown, Kate (Michelle Dockery) and Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) play it steaming hot, making it clear that Hotspur is just as into Kate as she is into him, but that he’s got this other passion, this other demon, that he can’t escape.

bedroom kate hotspur

Personally, I would’ve stayed with the lady, but let’s be honest, part of the reason Kate is so crazy for Hotspur is because he’s such a warrior.

The next scene with Kate and Hotspur is even hotter, as they tease and play until they rush out together, barely able to control themselves.

kate hotspur glendower

So Hotspur has plenty to live for, and yet he rushes off to this dangerous and hopeless rebellion. Pretty foolish. And yet . . .

As I said, I’m a coward at heart. Yet I’ve always had this sneaking admiration for the sort of courage and honor Hotspur displays. It doesn’t look to me much like the honor that Falstaff describes in his famous speech:

What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon.

Rather, Hotspur’s sort of honor seems to have little to nothing to do with what other people think (merely air, or a scutcheon, a painted shield to display to the world). Hotspur’s honor is more internal. It reminds me of nothing so much as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Lieutenant Worf’s sense of honor. If you’re not a ST:TNG fan, you’ll have to trust me on this. Yes, Worf is obsessed with honor. But for Worf, honor is not what you show the world, but what you know of yourself. Just like Hotspur, Worf would rather die than lose his honor. Even more than that, though, Worf would rather lose his reputation for honor than his own internal sense of honor. Again, if you’re not a fan, you’ll have to take my word for it, because this is about the Henriad, not TNG. (Did I mention that Patrick Stewart played Prince Hal’s grandfather John of Gaunt in Richard II? Patrick Stewart is the greatest. OK, enough of that.)

Worf

As the battle approaches, Hotspur has multiple opportunities to back down. Both the Welsh warlord Owen Glendower (more on him to come) and Hotspur’s own father back out of the fight, turning the odds very much against the rebels. Everyone else wants to end the expedition, but Hotspur won’t hear of it. You get the distinct feeling it’s not reputation he’s interested in protecting. Instead, he just wants to fight, for the sheer joy of the battle. If he were to back off, everyone else would forgive him, but he would never forgive himself.

Not exactly noble, maybe, as for Hotspur fighting is his crack, but also not someone who craves honor as a word or a scutcheon. There’s something beautiful (if dumb) about fighting the unwinnable fight.

Maybe the real reason I love Hotspur is his smackdown of the blowhard Welshman Glendower. When Glendower goes into his song and dance about the heavens being on fire and the Earth trembling at his birth, and how he “can call spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur responds:

Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?

For an atheist like me, this is meat and drink. I love any character in Shakespeare (like Edmund in King Lear) who rails against superstition and in favor of a rational view of the world. This fits Hotspur’s character, as he trusts himself, and only himself. More than that, though, he refuses to back down to anyone, even if (as is likely the case here) his arguing costs him the support of Glendower later.

So Hotspur pulls at me. But then there’s Falstaff. Yes, I do love and adore Falstaff, again because he is so indisputably alive. No, I wouldn’t want him in charge of the Mint, or even have him over as a house guest. He’s a pirate. Did you ever notice how pirates don’t steal useful things like ships or food? Instead, they steal gold. Why gold? Because they can use gold to buy things. But they’re pirates! Just like a pirate, Falstaff lives outside society’s rules, and yet depends on the very society he refuses to contribute to. Regardless of this, his fun, his aged youthfulness, his ability to turn every situation into a game, a play, a pun, or a romp, make him irresistible.

falstaff

Long ago when I was very young, I decided that, unlike all the adults around me, I would never lose my love of play. And I never have. Of course, play for me includes reading and analyzing Shakespeare and doing math problems. So I’m not typical. But, like Falstaff, I love to play. So when I first encountered him, I of course recognized a kindred spirit.

And so we have these two wildly different, fully living characters tugging at me. What sort of life do I want to live? What sort of person do I want to be? Do I follow Hotspur, with his commitment to the cause of self-affirming honor, courage, and action, or do I worship Falstaff, with his pragmatic cynicism regarding honor and courage, but his love of play, fun, wit, humor, food, and drink?

In the end, of course, Hal destroys them both, killing Hotspur at the end of part 1 (producing the quote in my title) and all but killing Falstaff at the end of part 2. In a sense, he is robbing the world of youth, both the youthful exuberance of Hotspur and the playful fun of Sir John.

Hal (being an early study of Hamlet and so containing multitudes) can see both the wisdom and the folly in Hotspur’s path as well as Falstaff’s. He seems to blend the two into something that works for him in Henry V. But what about me?

I’m no Hal (and certainly no Hamlet), but like Hal I feel the pull. I am a science teacher (who happens to also teach math). Many and many a day it feels like a hopeless battle, and yet I fight on, fighting the good fight because it simply is who I am. Teaching is my crack, I guess. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. So there’s a little Hotspur in that seemingly hopeless battle.

But I also love play (and plays), I love eating and drinking and thinking and learning and wringing every bit of fun I can out of life. So there’s some Falstaff there, too.

In the end, there is of course no answer. As Joseph Campbell said (and I wonder if he was thinking of Shakespeare when he said it),

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive. . .

Experiencing Shakespeare, and all the glorious personalities he gave us, is, I think, the sort of experience Campbell was talking about. And alive is the best word I can think of to describe these two characters, and these four amazing plays.

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