Katherine Mayberry as Hotspur

Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 is one of his most brilliantly structured plays. Like many of his comedies, this history follows parallel plots which move towards each other, finally coming together in act 5 and climaxing in the battlefield face-off between Hal and Hotspur. One plot is the story of Hal’s personal rebellion against his father, his friendship with Fallstaff, and his ultimate reformation. The other plot is what I like to call The Tragedy of Hotspur.

Of course, every actor wants to think the play is all about her own character, but I also say this because Hotspur functions in many ways like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. He has multiple chances to avert his tragic ending, and makes choices which bring about his own destruction. He doesn’t turn over his prisoners to the king, he plots rebellion, he refuses to back down when his father doesn’t show up to the fight, he insists on beginning the fight against the advice of the other rebel leaders, and he rejects the king’s offer of clemency carried by Sir Walter Blunt (although Worcester does manipulate this response a little bit). He is determined to run headlong towards the clash with Hal.

The trap of playing Hotspur is that it would be easy to just play “angry” for 2 1/2 hours, and I have no desire to scream my head off for the entire play, nor do I want audiences to have to sit through that, so in rehearsals, I have focused on finding the variety in the character.

Shakespeare’s text actually shows a lot of depth and variety in Hotspur. He isn’t a villain, but a foil to Hal, who even calls him “my factor.” Whenever I read the play, I have to confess, I’m a little bit in love with Hotspur. I think it’s the sarcastic sense of humor. I greatly enjoy playing the comedy in act 3, scene 1, in which Hotspur encounters Owen Glendower, the Welsh warlord who claims that he “can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur’s response, “Why so can I, or so can any man,/But will they come when you do call for them?” is a perfect example of the wry and sardonic humor that he uses throughout the play.

Shakespeare also does the actor playing Hotspur a great favor by putting a scene of his domestic life on stage. The scene with Lady Percy doesn’t advance the play’s plot at all. It offers a glimpse into the characters’ personal relationship, and Amy McFadden and I have tried to create an image of a passionate marriage. The scene involves a confrontation in which Lady Percy demands to know what has been preoccupying her husband, and he refuses to tell her. This scene has been one of the hardest for me to play in terms of being a female actor playing a male character, because there are some ways in which Hotspur is being a real jerk. He ignores his wife’s pleas for information and calls in a servant to get out of the conversation. When Lady Percy persists in her questions, he explodes and tells her “I love thee not.” What he is trying to do, in a clumsy way, is to protect her. He has been plotting a rebellion against the king, which is treason. His plot would put Lady Percy’s brother, Edmund Mortimer, on the throne. If Lady Percy knows anything about the plot, she too is guilty of treason. She is safer if she doesn’t have any information. The scene presents Hotspur handling this situation badly, a nice flawed, human moment.

Another moment that I feel is crucial to the character’s depth is the moment when Hotspur receives the letter from his father Northumberland which says that Northumberland is not bringing his army to fight against the king because he is “sick.” I try to imagine the punch in the gut Hotspur must feel when reading this letter. Essentially, Northumberland is willing to abandon his son to a traitor’s death rather than bring his army to fight against the king. From Hotspur’s point of view, Northumberland is pretending to be sick so that he can see which way the initial battle goes before deciding which side he will be on. At this point in the play, Hotspur has committed his treasonous plots to paper and raised an army. There are only three possibilities for him: kill both the king and Hal in battle, die on the battlefield, or be executed for treason. I have tried to have these realizations within the scene. This scene is Hotspur’s one moment of hesitation and fear. He initially reacts to Northumberland’s absence as “A perilous gash, a very limb lopped off,” but then insists to Douglas and Worcester that their forces are enough to take on the king. He responds to his own fear and feelings of betrayal with bravado, using his habitual cockiness to convince not only the other rebel leaders, but also himself.

From this point on, Hotspur is moving inexorably towards his confrontation with Hal, rejecting any possible means of avoiding it, because he has something to prove. He is no longer sensible to reason, but driven by his anger at the king, and his disgust for the “sword and buckler Prince of Wales” who holds an exalted position in spite of his “libertine” life and lack of accomplishment. Our fight choreographer, Michael Empson, has created a combat sequence that makes an excellent contribution to the story as well, with Hotspur so blinded by rage that he tries to kill Hal with his bare hands. I hope audiences will enjoy seeing this production as much as we enjoy performing it.