Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV Part I’, presents the young Prince Henry as an ambivalent and enigmatic character who is politically cunning in his ability to read situations and respond accordingly. He is a man of the world through his association with his friend Falstaff, but by the end of the play he has also supplanted Hotspur as a soldier and a man of honour who can take astute action when it is called for. By contrast, Hotspur is very much the man of action, though Shakespeare suggests that action, when it is untempered by thought and political acumen, is a dangerous and deadly quality.
Initially Hotspur is held up as a superb soldier and a model of chivalry and honour in marked contrast with Hal’s idleness and frivolity. The contrast between the two Harrys begins in Act 1 with King Henry’s praise of Hotspur’s victories in battle. Hotspur is referred to as ‘gallant Hotspur’ and the King describes him as ‘fortunes minion and her pride’, comparing him unfavourably to his own Harry who is stained with ‘riot and dishonour’. The comparison is further taken up when our introduction to Hotspur, fresh from battle, is juxtaposed with our introduction to Hal, drinking and planning frivolous robberies in the Boar’s Head Tavern with his Eastcheap friends. Hotspur is clearly a man of action to a degree that he becomes almost a parody of someone who is obsessed by honour gained in chivalric fashion through great victories in battle . His exaggerated claim that he will ‘pluck up drowned honour by the locks’ so that he alone may wear her garland and reap the full honour, paints a picture of a young man who is overly concerned with honour to the extent that he cannot spare time for his wife or await the opportune moment for further victory through the rebellion.
The negative attribute of Hotpur, his impatience, is highlighted and emphasised by Shakespeare as his failure as a politician and his ultimate downfall . Hot-headed Hotspur becomes easily angered and reckless. His uncle points out that his ‘greatness,[and] courage’ are want to become ‘defect of manners, want of government, pride, haughtiness and disdain’. Infuriated by King Henry’s dismissal of his brother in law, Mortimer, as ‘the traitor, Hotspur acts on instinct with an impulsive outburst of rage calling the King ‘this ingrate and cankered Bullingbroke’ and thereby risking treason. This is quickly silenced by his more political uncle Worcester who, in marked contrast to Hotspur, councils secrecy, caution and planning to overthrow the King. Reason does not rule Hotspur’s behaviour; rather, he is whirled about on the storm of his own emotions. Hotspur’s lack of political skills is further emphasised in his conversation with Glendower. Hotspur continuously mocks Glendower by repeatedly denying that ‘the earth did shake’ when he was born and haggles over the division of the kingdom to the extent that he is chastised by both Mortimer and Worcester who accuses him of being ‘too wilful’ to the extent that he threatens the unity of the rebellion. Hotspur fails to adhere to warnings that the rebellion may be too hasty in its preparation and this proves to be his undoing as in the end Glendower, Northumberland and Mortimer’s armies are delayed and the rebels defeated.
The contrast between Hotspur’s lack of political acumen and Hal’s ability to calculate and adapt himself to any situation, is used to highlight Hal’s political astuteness. In his opening soliloquy, Hal reveals a calculating side as he describes his Eastcheap friends as “the base contagious clouds’ who ‘smother up’ his royalty from the vision of those who observe him. Hal reveals his plan to cast aside these friends so that his ‘reformation, glittering o’er my fault shall show more goodly’ and his royal persona, once revealed, will be more marvelled at due to the contrast with his past indiscretions and ‘loose behaviour’. This ability to manipulate his persona and present many different facades to suit his situation will make him an accomplished politician. His willingness to make tough choices also gives him political acumen. He has been schooled in life by Falstaff who is the master of manipulating situations to his own advantage.
It is clear that Hal loves his friend ‘Fat jack ‘ but that that he also understands that this life of debauchery and pleasure is temporary. Hal’s declaration that Falstaff shall ‘have the hanging of thieves and so become a rare hangman’ alludes to the notion that under Hal’s rule as King, Falstaff would hang as a thief and rogue. This foreshadows Hal’s final betrayal of Falstaff’s friendship in Henry IV, Part Two. Again, this foreshadowing of Hal’s opportunistic attitude to Falstaff can be seen in his reply to Falstaff’s ‘banish plump Jack and banish all the world’. Hal’s blunt’ I do, I will’ sounds another warning note that he is capable of making difficult and harsh decisions to further his own political advancement. Perhaps Hal’s most blatant and interesting show of Machiavellian cunning is his decision to allow Falstaff to claim credit for Hotspur’s death. What better way to fulfil his promise to ‘exchange [Hotspur’s] glorious deeds for my indignities’ than to allow a fat debauched old man to claim the victory of Hotspur’s death and lug his trophy off like a sack of potatoes.
Hal is not merely calculating and Machiavellian in his plan to reform himself and ‘shine’ in the eyes of the world. He proves himself to be an accomplished and honourable soldier. In Act One Henry IV proclaims Hotspur as the model of chivalry and honour calling him ‘Mars in swaddling clothes’. Hal also takes up this idea and the bar is set for him to prove himself worthy in battle against Hotspur. Indeed, he vows before his father and God that he will defeat Hotspur and ‘exchange his glorious deeds for my indignities’; it is only by killing Hotspur and quelling the rebellion that Hal can truly redeem himself and win back honour.
However, even before this has been achieved Hal is described by Vernon( Act 4) as ‘feathered Mercury’ who displays ‘noble horsemanship’. Vernon also declares that ‘England did never owe so sweet a hope’ as in the new persona of Hal in battle. These descriptions recall Henry IV’s description of Hotspur as godlike, early in the play, suggesting that Hal has already risen and surpassed Hotspur in reputation. His defeat of Douglas affirms this, as he saves his father’s life, simultaneously showing his prowess in battle and reaffirming his loyalty to his father’s cause. Hal’s public pardoning of Douglas and repeated praise of his brother John display a noble generosity and mark his transition into the perfect King that Shakespeare depicts in Henry V, the final part of the tetralogy; he is a blend of shrewdness, diplomacy and chivalry.
In every Shakespeare we see the rotuna fortunae (wheel of fortune) at work; characters rise to their peak, then, often by their own doing, they plummet. This play was no exception. Hotspur begins as a valiant honourable soldier however, his lack of moderation and diplomacy see him making hasty decisions that lead to his ultimate death. In contrast Hal is very much a politician who is cunning and manipulative in his rise to success. Hal rises from the bottom using his political skills to form himself into the ideal prince; one who is the perfect blend of honour and political astuteness.