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Henry IV Character Introduction

From Henry IV, First Part, by the University Society. New York: University Society Press.


It is exceedingly difficult to speak of Hotspur satisfactorily; not indeed because the lines of his character are not bold and prominent enough, but rather because they are so much so. For his frame is greatly disproportioned, which causes him to be all the more distinguishable, and perhaps to seem larger than he really is; and one of his leading excesses manifests itself in a wiry, close-twisted, red-hot speech, which burns into the mind such an impression of him as must needs make any commentary seem prosaic and dull. There is no mistaking him: no character in Shakespeare stands more apart in plenitude of peculiarity; and stupidity itself can hardly so disguise or disfeature him with criticism, but that he will still be recognized by any one that has ever seen him.

He is as much a monarch in his sphere as the King and Falstaff are in theirs; only they rule more by power, he by emphasis and stress: there is something in them that takes away the will and spirit of resistance ; he makes everything bend to his arrogant, domineering, capricious temper. Who that has been with him in the scenes at the palace and at Bangor, can ever forget his bounding, sarcastic, overbearing spirit? How he hits all about him, and makes the feathers fly wherever he hits! It seems as if his tongue could go through the world, and strew the road behind it with splinters. And how steeped his speech everywhere is in the poetry of the sword! In what compact and sinewy platoons and squadrons the words march out of his mouth in bristhng rank and file! as if from his birth he had been cradled on the iron breast of war. How doubly charged he is, in short, with the electricity of chivalry! insomuch that you can touch him nowhere but that he will give you a shock. . . .

Another consequence, apparently, of Hotspur's having so much of passion in his head, is the singular absence of mind so well described by Prince Henry, and so finely exemplified in the scene with his wife; where, after she has closed her noble strain of womanly eloquence, he calls in a servant, makes several inquiries about his horse and orders him to be brought into the park, hears her reproof, exchanges some questions with her, and fights a battle in imagination, before he answers her tender remonstrance. Here it is plain that his absence is not from any lack of strength, but from a certain rapidity and skittishness of mind: he has not the control of his thinking; the issues of his brain being so conceived in fire as to preclude steadiness of attention and the pauses of thought: that which strikes his mind last must pop out first; and, in a word, he is rather possessed by his thoughts, than possessing them.

The qualities we have remarked must needs in a great measure unfit Hotspur for a military leader in regular warfare; the whole working of his nature being too impulsive and heady for the counterpoise of so weighty an undertaking. Too impetuous and eager for the contest to concert operations, too impatient for the end to await the adjustment of means; abundantly able to fight battles, but not to scheme them; he is qualified to succeed only in the hurlyburly of border warfare, where success comes more by fury of onset than by wisdom of plan. All which is finely shown just before the battle of Shrewsbury, where if he be not perversely wrong-headed, he is so headstrong, peremptory, and confident even to rashness, as to render him quite impracticable: we see, and his fellow-chieftains see, that there is no coming to a temper with him; that he will be sure to fall out and quarrel with whoever stands out from or against his purposes. Yet he nowhere appears more truly the noble Hotspur than on this occasion, when amidst the falling off of friends, the backwardness of allies, and the thickening of dangers, his ardent and brave spirit turns his very disadvantages into sources of confidence.
Hudson: The Works of Shakespeare.

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare William. Henry IV, First Part. University Society. New York: USP, 1901. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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