Hotspur, the Hero

Live fast, die young, and go out in a blaze of glory? Or, live long and see yourself comprise your former identity? It’s a tough choice.However, deciding which one is more heroic is not.

Just as history does not have a protagonist, neither does Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV. King Henry IV gives his name to the play, but does not feature centrally. Rather, a ensemble of characters share the spotlight: Hal, the prodigal prince, Falstaff, the blundering and drunken knight, and Henry Percy, “the Hotspur.”

Today, readers and performers tend to see Hal as the protagonist, and the main drama of the play in his transformation from an irresponsible partyer to a noble and respectable king. According to the histories of the way the play has been produced, however, it is evident that this reading was not always prominent. An investigation into the production history of the play reveals that Hal’s character often took a back row seat, receiving less attention than those of Falstaff and Hotspur. The best actors on the stage were usually playing either of those roles and receiving all the critical attention. There is even evidence that around the 1620’s, the play was referred to as the “The Hotspur,” conveying the significance given to his character. Scholar Scott McMillan ascribes this change in focus from Hotspur and Falstaff as a result of a 20th century practice of performing Shakespeare’s history plays in a “cycle,” meaning one after the other in order. This practiced changed the way in which the play were viewed and analyzed in that they were put into context with each other and therefore read as a multi-play continuous story.

Before the idea of “cycles,” Shakespeare’s histories stood alone, inspiring readings of the play that were specific to the content and themes of each individual play. When 1 Henry IV is viewed by itself, without the idea that one should be following Hal as he is going to be more important throughout the plays “sequels,” his character falls short of satisfying the role of dramatic figure. He is eclipsed by Falstaff as the comic “hero,” and by Hotspur, who can be seen as the play’s tragic hero.

Aristotle describes a tragic hero as someone who falls from prosperity by an error of judgment and elicits pity from the audience. He wrote, “The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad.” This certainly describes Hotspur, who can be read as a great and ambitious warrior who is brought down and defeated, in part due to the fault of his allies, by a Hal, who can be seen as a budding representation of Machiavellian political oppression. When read as a stand-alone drama, it’s not hard to see why Hotspur could have been seen as the play’s hero, and why the play’s performance was centered on his character as the role to watch.


Hotspur, dying valiantly on the field of battle. Death of Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy, from a 1910 illustration by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.

Perhaps the change in the way the play was viewed, from a self-encapsulated story to a piece of an historical narrative framed by the plays following and proceeded it, convey a shift in thinking about the nature of Shakespeare’s histories. As time went on and the readers began to lose contact with the social connotations surrounding Hotspur’s place in history and literature as a tragic, noble hero, people lost sight of his significance as such and began to focus on Hal due to his presence in Shakespeare’s following plays.



Rosemary Gabby, Henry IV, Part 1: Performance History. Web.