No Harm. What More?

“It’s just a flesh wound.”

Henry IV: Part I, Act IV

I’ve got to hand it to Hotspur.  In a play bursting at the seams with memorable characters, he singlehandedly steals the show.

It’s your typical case of Good Guy Wins Hearts and Minds, Bad Guy Gets the Girl.  He’s brash, he’s brazen, he’s cocksure and half-loaded.  He’s fired up for battle when he ought to be measured and tactical – and still, I just can’t help loving the guy.

Up to this point, everything has gone swimmingly for the insurgency.  They have might, they even have right, with a greater claim to the legitimate crown than the sitting king himself.  Armed with confidence and united in purpose, they have come out into the open and declared their challenge to the realm.

And then things fall apart.  It’s almost comical, just how fast the fist of fury dissolves into a sputtering wreck.  It all starts when Hotspur’s own father, the great Northumberland, sends word that he has taken ill and can’t make it to the hoedown.  His forces can no longer be counted upon to match the king’s rapidly gathering horde.

This is as big a psychological blow as a tactical one, since Northumberland’s poorly-timed medical defection, whether honest or no, will surely have a ripple effect on the tenuous rebels who will now be badly outnumbered and overmatched.  Hotspur himself has no way of knowing whether his father has seriously taken ill, or has merely soured on the venture.  But to his credit, he does not allow this bad news to dampen the mood. (“It’s just a flesh wound.”)

Then, more bad news: Glendower has been set back two weeks by a foreboding astrological forecast and refuses to join them in the ranks.  That makes two vital allies now missing in action.  Anybody with half a brain would slow the parade, if not cancel it altogether.  But not Hotspur.  He’s just raring to get this party started.

His position is not completely without merit. He believes the advantage lies in striking quickly and early, before the king’s men have fully assembled.  He also contends that his horses are better rested.  On a more personal note, having heard of Prince Hal’s gallantry (being compared to Mercury astride Pegasus – high praise, indeed), he becomes all-the-more fired up for a head-on confrontation.

Although Henry IV is no Darth Vader and the insurgents no Jedis, Hotspur’s brazen courage in the face of insurmountable odds reminds me a lot of this guy:

Which leads me to believe that our story will suffer greatly if/when he ultimately gets rubbed out [see: Empire Strikes Back].  So as much as I’ve been looking forward to a mano-y-mano brawl between Achilles and Hector (Hello, St. John’s.  Yes, I was paying attention.), I’m deeply troubled that without our little engine of bravery, the play as a whole will crash and burn.

There’s still Falstaff, of course.  But after his soliloquy in Act IV, I’m not sure I even like the guy anymore.  Flush with over 300 pounds from the crown’s kitty, a purse to raise 150 able troops on the king’s behalf, he has instead recruited fops and dandies with the knowledge that they would bribe their way out of the draft (Hmm…).  He has fielded a cast of downtrodden misfits and losers, an emaciated bunch of ragtag bums who will never survive the confrontations awaiting them.

In a speech that turns my stomach, Falstaff says about his men:

PRINCE HENRY: I have never seen such rascals.

FALSTAFF: 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.

This doesn’t sit well with me.  In fact, give me a dozen Hotspurs in his stead!  At least that man is fighting on principle, in defense of honor.  He’s brazen, he’s feisty, he’s lacking in a certain civil decorum.  But he knows what he stands up and is willing to die for, to the extent that he can say:

HOTSPUR: What may the King’s whole battle reach unto?

VERNON: To thirty thousand.

HOTSPUR: Forty let it be.

My father and Glendower being both away,

The powers of us may serve so great a day.

Come, let us take a muster speedily.

Doomsday is near.  Die all, die merrily.

Chilling stuff.  And the stuff of which unforgettable characters are made.

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