Henry IV Part 1 Act 1, Scene 3 Summary & Analysis
New! Understand every line of Henry IV Part 1.Read our modern English translation of this scene.
In another room of the London palace, King Henry, Northumberland, Worcester, Hotspur, and Sir Walter Blunt gather with attendants. King Henry announces that he’s been acting too soft lately but that from now he will “be myself, mighty and to be fear’d,” and will therefore reclaim “that title of respect which the proud soul ne’er pays but to the proud.”
Although King Henry has declared himself a pacifist, his lines here demonstrate that he also understands and wants to participate in the honor and power won by fearsomeness and the threat of physical force.
Worcester replies that his family (the Percys) doesn’t deserve any harsh treatment since they helped King Henry assume his throne in the first place. King Henry orders Worcester out of the room, accusing him of being dangerously prideful and disobediently presumptuous. Worcester exits.
Worcester’s claim introduces one of the central conflicts of the play: does King Henry have the right to sit on the throne? Or has he lost that right by failing to reward the Percys who helped him to overthrow the previous king (Richard II) and thereby ascend to the throne?
Northumberland explains that there’s been a misunderstanding and that Hotspur never actually refused to turn over prisoners to King Henry. Hotspur himself chimes in, affirming that he’s never denied King Henry any prisoners and attributing the misunderstanding to a momentary fit of anger on the battlefield. Apparently, Hotspur had been told to turn over his prisoners by a particularly effeminate, prissy royal messenger who sneered at the soldiers’ crude lack of manners and called the corpses “slovenly” and “unhandsome.” Insulted, Hotspur had replied angrily and, though he can’t remember exactly what he says, insists he didn’t mean it. Sir Walter Blunt chimes in, insisting that whatever Hotspur may have said under such circumstances is dead speech and that he shouldn’t be punished for it as long as he “unsay it now.”
Northumberland’s and Hotspur’s assurances try to reverse the appearance of disloyalty that Hotspur projected when he refused to turn over prisoners. Hotspur’s disdainful description of the royal messenger illuminates his personal value system: he accords honor to physical force and courage, and is disgusted by men who aren’t at home on a battlefield. This marks the first of many times that Hotspur’s rash speech will get him in trouble. Both Hotspur and Blunt try to diminish the truth and power of words by brushing them aside, insisting that one can “unsay” what has been said.
King Henry protests that in fact Hotspur still denies the crown his prisoners, since he has only agreed to turn them over on the condition that King Henry pay ransom to free his brother-in-law Mortimer from Glendower (who captured Mortimer in battle). Yet Mortimer, King Henry insists, is a traitor and no friend of Mortimer is a friend of his.
King Henry is unconvinced by the loyal appearance Northumberland and Hotspur (with Blunt’s help) have attempted to create through polite, loyal language. He sees right through their words, he claims, to a traitorous spirit.
Hotspur protests that Mortimer has always been completely loyal to King Henry and that he has battle wounds—“those mouthed wounds”—to prove it. Mortimer, Hotspur claims, fought Glendower one-on-one for nearly an hour and took far too many wounds for the king’s sake to be “slander’d with revolt.” King Henry calls Hotspur’s story of the fight a lie. He forbids Hotspur from speaking any more of Mortimer and demands to be given the prisoners right away, telling Hotspur he’ll face grim consequences if he doesn’t comply. King Henry and Sir Walter Blunt exit with attendants.
Hotspur’s protests insist that physical acts—and the bodily scars that those physical acts might incur—are a kind of language of their own. This thinking suggests that aspects of a person’s appearance (such as their battle wounds) can communicate just as effectively as one’s mouth can. Indeed, Hotspur explicitly compares Mortimer’s wounds to a mouth: “those mouthed wounds.”
Worcester returns. To Worcester, Hotspur angrily declares his loyalty to “the down-trod Mortimer” and vows to raise him higher than the “unthankful” King Henry, whom he calls “this ingrate and canker’d Bolingbroke.” Hotspur explains what’s just transpired, saying that King Henry “look’d pale” and “trembling” at the mention of Mortimer’s name. Worcester says this makes sense, since (the now dead) King Richard proclaimed Mortimer next in line to the throne. Northumberland affirms this, remembering that King Richard was shortly afterwards deposed from the throne and murdered by Bolingbroke (a.k.a. King Henry).
Worcester and Hotspur’s exchange elaborates the Percy family’s perspective on King Henry’s right to be king. To their eyes, Henry is an undeserving monarch, cowardly, disrespectful and ungrateful to the Percy family he owes his throne to. King Richard II was the previous king (whom King Henry deposed) and Worcester’s account of his proclamation lays out further evidence for the Percy family case against Henry.
King Richard’s proclamation is news to Hotspur, who says that King Henry’s animosity towards Mortimer makes total sense to him now. He delivers a long speech describing how unfair it is that the Percys are so mistreated by King Henry, since Worcester and Northumberland helped him rise to the throne in the first place. He urges Worcester and Northumberland to “redeem your banish’d honours, and restore yourselves into the good thoughts of the world again” by seeking revenge against King Henry.
For Hotspur, King Henry’s position on the throne is inextricably connected to his own (and the Percy family’s) honor. As long as King Henry remains king, the Percys will be, he believes, deprived of the honor they deserve. Only by deposing him can they regain that honor.
Worcester interrupts Hotspur’s speech, telling him to “say no more” for Worcester wants to tell him a secret. Hotspur waxes poetic about pursuing danger and adventure. Northumberland comments that Hotspur’s “imagination of some great exploit” has made him too impatient. Hotspur exclaims that it’s easy “to pluck bright honour” to redeem those who deserve it. Worcester comments that Hotspur only understands metaphors and figures “but not the form of what he should attend.”
Once again, Hotspur’s language runs away with him and gets him in trouble. His father and uncle both try to shut him up, and Northumberland points out a major flaw in his son’s speech: it doesn’t correspond to the actual situation at hand (“the form…he should attend”) but rambles out into grandiose metaphors, hollow appearances.
Worcester tries to explain a plan but keeps getting interrupted by Hotspur’s excited outbursts about his loyalty to Mortimer, his refusal to give up his prisoners, and his vow to get revenge on King Henry. Worcester finally refuses to talk until Hotspur has calmed down enough to listen. Northumberland calls his son “a wasp-stung and impatient fool” who can’t listen to anyone but himself. Hotspur protests that he is driven crazy with anger by the thought of a conniving King Henry stealing Richard’s throne. Then he finally agrees to listen to Worcester.
Hotspur continues to demonstrate just how powerless he is to control his own language: even his blood relations can’t stand his rhetorical rashness and excess.
Worcester lays out his plot: Hotspur will release his prisoners without ransom, keeping only Douglas’ son as a bargaining chip against Scotland. Meanwhile, Northumberland will forge an allegiance with the Archbishop of York (Richard Scroop), who resents King Henry for killing his brother. They’ll then unite the forces of Scotland, York, and Mortimer against King Henry. Hotspur praises the plan.
By uniting all the parties that don’t think King Henry deserves his throne, Worcester will raise a formidable army against the king.
Worcester says they’ll carry out their plan soon, since King Henry has always been suspicious of them and is now starting to punish them. He tells Hotspur to wait to act until he receives Worcester’s OK by letter. Hotspur exclaims excitedly that he hopes they’ll be taking action as soon as possible. All exit.
Worcester knows that the Percys won’t be able to uphold their appearance of loyalty to King Henry much longer—it’s already starting to fray. Hotspur is, as always, eager to jump onto the battlefield.