KING No more the thirsty entrance of this soil Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood. Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields, Nor bruise her flow'rets with the armed hoofs Of hostile paces. (1.1.5-9)
This passage from the play's opening speech gets at the unnaturalness of civil warfare, which King Henry portrays as a family affair. In the king's vivid metaphor, English soil becomes a cannibal mother, consuming the bloodied corpses of "her own children." This is a rather disturbing visualization of the burial of English soldiers in the earth's bowels, don't you think?
If the earth is a cannibal, then her own "children" are also guilty of gashing or, "trenching" and wounding the earth's "body." As armed cavalry soldiers march across the land and engage in earth-gouging combat, the violence of warfare seems to plant the "fields" with dead bodies, while destroying the small, tender flowers that spring from the soil.
KING Yea, there thou mak'st me sad, and mak'st me sin In envy that my Lord Northumberland Should be the father to so blest a son, A son who is the theme of Honor's tongue, Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant, Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride; Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him, See riot and dishonor stain the brow Of my young Harry. (1.1.77-85)
According to King Henry, his son brings nothing but shame and "dishonour" to his family, while Hotspur is the very definition of honor.
As Henry describes his envy of Hotspur's father, he puns on the word "plant" to describe the way Hotspur distinguishes himself from wild Prince Hal and even other members in the Hotspur's family (the Plantagenet line) by being the "straightest plant." What Henry means is that Hotspur distinguishes himself from prince Hal and also other members of the Percy family, which are portrayed as a crooked "grove."
King Henry's remarks about his "sin[ful]" "envy" of Northumberland for having such a "blest" son help the play establish Hotspur as a foil to the wild and rebellious Prince Hal. It's curious, though, that Henry thinks so highly of the young man who will later organize a rebellion in an effort to bump King Henry from the throne. Hmm. We wonder why that is.
KING I know not whether God will have it so For some displeasing service I have done, That, in his secret doom, out of my blood He'll breed revengement and a scourge for me. But thou dost in thy passages of life Make me believe that thou art only marked For the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven To punish my mistreadings. Tell me else, Could such inordinate and low desires, Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts, Such barren pleasures, rude society As thou art matched withal, and grafted to, Accompany the greatness of thy blood, And hold their level with thy princely heart? (3.2.5-19)
This isn't the first time a parent has complained about an unruly child being sent to earth by "God" as punishment for some past sin. Most parents (we hope) don't actually believe this, but Henry sure does. Hal's rebelliousness, he insists, is God's way of punishing him for deposing, and then ordering, the murder of King Richard II. Since it was believed that English monarchs were God's appointed leaders on earth, Henry's usurpation of the throne is a sin against God.
We're also interested in Henry's use of the term "grafted" to describe Prince Hal's relationship with the "rude society" of his friends at the expense of his relationship with his "blood" relatives. (Grafting is a horticultural term to describe the way a tree's tissue is fused with another tree so the sap of one tree circulates through the other.) Henry suggests that Hal's association with "rude society" is the worst kind of family disloyalty, one that threatens to transform his royal "blood" to something common and "base."
KING O that it could be proved That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged In cradle-clothes our children where they lay, And called mine 'Percy', his 'Plantagenet'! Then would I have his Harry, and he mine. (1.1.85-89)
Yikes! King Henry wishes Harry Percy (Hotspur) were his son (instead of Prince Hal) and he's not afraid to say it out loud. (You thought your parents were hard on you. How would you like to have Henry for a dad?) Henry's fantasy about being tricked by fairies into raising a child that's not his own is pretty common in Elizabethan literature. (Changelings pop up in plays like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Thomas Middleton's The Changeling.)
Here's why we think Henry's little fantasy is so interesting. For King Henry, the term "changeling" is associated with civil rebellion and disloyalty. When Henry lectures the rebels Vernon and Westmoreland for badmouthing him and starting a war, he describes the disloyal subjects as "fickle changelings and poor discontents" who are eager for rebellion (5.1.76).
What does this tell us? Well, it seems to us that Henry views his son's very teenage rebellion as a threat that's just as dangerous as civil rebellion. In the play, what would ordinarily look to us like a little family drama is often portrayed as a national crisis. Makes sense, if you think about it. Prince Hal's the guy who's supposed to inherit the throne. If he can't get his act together, the kingdom's in serious trouble, wouldn't you agree?
KING Why, yet he doth deny his prisoners, But with proviso and exception That we at our own charge shall ransom straight His brother-in-law, the foolish Mortimer, Who, on my soul, hath willfully betrayed The lives of those that he did lead to fight Against that great magician, damned Glendower, Whose daughter, as we hear, the Earl of March Hath lately married. Shall our coffers then Be emptied to redeem a traitor home? (1.3.79-88)
When Henry accuses Mortimer (Hotspur's brother-in-law) of being a traitor and refuses ransom him from his Welsh captors, we're reminded that family loyalty can shape political alliances. Not only does Henry suggest that Mortimer's a traitor for marrying a Welsh woman, the daughter of Owen Glendower, he also suggests that Hotspur's insubordination is driven by family allegiance. On the other hand, there's a whole lot of family disloyalty in the play. (Northumberland, we're talking about you.)
FALSTAFF Well, thou wilt be horribly chid tomorrow when thou comest to thy father. If thou love me, practice an answer. PRINCE Do thou stand for my father and examine me upon the particulars of my life. (2.4.384-388)
When Falstaff proposes he and Hal perform a skit so the prince can practice what he'll say when he's confronted by the angry king, we're reminded that Falstaff has been a kind of surrogate father figure to Hal, mentoring the young prince in the seedy ways of Eastcheap life. Hal must eventually decide where his loyalties lie.
PRINCE Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for me, and I'll play my father. FALSTAFF, rising Depose me? if thou dost it half so gravely, so majestically, both in word and matter, hang me up by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or a poulter's hare. (2.4.447-452)
When Hal and Falstaff put on an impromptu skit at the Boar's Head tavern, Hal insists on taking over Falstaff's role as "King Henry." Falstaff jokingly suggests that Prince Hal has "deposed" him by taking over the role of king, which is clever, sure, but we're really interested in the way this comment speaks to Hal's relationship with his real father.
Later in the play we learn that King Henry is seriously concerned about whether or not his son wishes him dead so he can inherit the throne by lineal succession. It's only after Hal kills Douglas, saving Henry's life, that the king finally lets his guard down in Act 5, Scene 5. (But, the issue comes up again in King Henry IV Part 2, when Hal, thinking his father is dead, removes Henry's crown and places it on his own head. Henry's not happy when he wakes up and realizes what's happened!)
Shakespeare is very much interested in father-son relationships and explores the idea that, where primogeniture (the system by which eldest sons inherit their fathers' wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc.) is the rule, all sons (not just princes who stand to inherit kingdoms) inevitably look forward to their fathers' deaths. As long as one's father is alive, a son has very limited power and wealth, which can strain even the best father-son relationships. Shakespeare revisits this theme in other plays like King Lear (check out Edmund's relationship with Gloucester) and Hamlet (Hamlet's got serious issues with his dad and his uncle).
MORTIMER I understand thy looks. That pretty Welsh Which thou pour'st down from these swelling heavens I am too perfect in, and but for shame In such a parley should I answer thee. (3.1.206-210)
Even though father-son relations (male relations, really) dominate the play, Shakespeare also thinks about husbands and wives. Here, we see that Mortimer's tender relationship with his Welsh wife acts as a foil to the relationship we see between Lady Percy and Hotspur. Hotspur, as we know, loves warfare more than he loves his wife and is always telling Kate to be quiet and leave him alone. Mortimer, on the other hand, laments the fact that his wife speaks no English and he no Welsh. But, that doesn't stop her from singing for him and he lovingly and sensually describes her voice as a sound that "pour'st down from these swelling heavens."
HOTSPUR Come, Kate, I'll have your song too. LADY PERCY Not mine, in good sooth. HOTSPUR Not yours, in good sooth! Heart, you swear like a comfit-maker's wife. 'Not you, in good sooth,' and 'as true as I live,' and 'as God shall mend me,' and 'as sure as day'—
And givest such sarcenet surety for thy oaths As if thou never walk'st further than Finsbury. Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art, A good mouth-filling oath, and leave 'in sooth,' And such protest of pepper-gingerbread To velvet-guards and Sunday-citizens. Come, sing. (3.1.254-266)
When Lady Percy refuses to sing for her husband's colleagues on the eve of the rebels' departure for Shrewsbury, Hotspur mockingly upbraids her for speaking like an uptight, mealy-mouthed "com-fit maker's wife" (comfit-makers are not noblemen – they prepare candy-coated fruits and nuts for a living) instead of a sophisticated nobleman's wife. Aside from the fact that Hotspur appears to be throwing a tantrum here, what interests us about this passage is the way Hotspur's anger at Kate seems to come from his sense that her behavior is an embarrassing reflection on him. The only reason Hotspur asks Kate to sing is because Mortimer's wife has just finished a song and Hotspur doesn't want to be outdone. He's not upset that he's missing out Kate's lovely voice – in fact, he's always telling her to pipe down. Always competitive, Hotspur's little tantrum is about his failed attempt to use his wife to one-up another man. Kate, however, isn't having it and, with a firm hand, refuses to indulge her husband's childish behavior.
MESENGER These letters come from your father. HOTSPUR Letters from him! Why comes he not himself? MESSENGER He cannot come, my lord. He is grievous sick. (4.1.16-18)
When Hotspur learns his father, Northumberland, will not join him in battle, we're reminded that parents can't always be depended on to protect their children. Not only does Hotspur's father abandon him in his time of need, his uncle later deceives him by withholding news of the King's second offer for reconciliation. Both actions, as we know, cost Hotspur his life.
Note: In Henry IV Part 2, Hotspur's widow, Kate, chides her father-in-law for deserting his son:
The time was, father, that you broke your word, When you were more endeared to it than now; When your own Percy, when my heart's dear Harry, Threw many a northward look to see his father Bring up his powers; but he did long in vain. Who then persuaded you to stay at home? There were two honours lost, yours and your son's. (2H4, 2.3)
WORCESTER Your father's sickness is a maim to us. HOTSPUR A perilous gash, a very limb lopped off! And yet, in faith, it is not. His present want Seems more than we shall find it. (4.1.45-48)
There's that horticultural metaphor again. This time, Hotspur suggests his father's absence at the battle at Shrewsbury is like a "limb lopp'd off." This reference to a "maim" or a "gash" in the Percy family tree anticipates the way Hotspur will lose his life in battle at Shrewsbury, in part because of his father's abandonment and his uncle's deception.
PRINCE By God, thou hast deceived me, Lancaster I did not think thee lord of such a spirit. Before, I loved thee as a brother, John, But now I do respect thee as my soul. KING I saw him hold Lord Percy at the point With lustier maintenance than I did look for Of such an ungrown warrior. PRINCE HENRY O, this boy lends mettle to us all. (5.4.17-24)
Hal's little brother, Prince John, plays a minor role in the play, but we think this passage is pretty significant. When Hal embraces his brother, it's pretty clear that he realizes the importance of blood relations and family loyalty. This is a sure sign that Hal will turn away from his base companions and behave in way that's expected of him, which, will, in turn, save the kingdom.