Having studied Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part I and seen a performance of it in Stratford, I'm still uncertain of how we're meant to view the character of Henry Percy (Harry Hotspur).

Clearly he's a foil to the other Prince Harry, and the main antagonist of the story, the fight between the two Harrys coming at the climax of the play. But is he portrayed as an evil villain, or simply someone who happens to be on the opposite side to the protagonist? Cf. for example Richard III, who's definitely portrayed as a villain in the eponymous play - I never got the same feeling about Hotspur.

1 Answer 1


He is a hero.

The whole play is a "morality" play, with a virtue/vice comparison between Falstaff and Hotspur. But the twist is, from the outset, that Falstaff is really the virtue (wise, biblical, popular), while Hotspur is lost in vanity (harebrained, hot blooded) - but brave and honourable, like a legendary giant, with a devout, idealistic maiden in tow:

Prince Hal: ...I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the north, he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife “Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.” “O my sweet Harry,” says she, “how many hast thou killed today?” “Give my roan horse a drench,” says he, and answers “Some fourteen,” an hour after. “A trifle, a trifle.". Act 2, Scene 4.

Hotspur is chivalry, and is considered on the whole to be living up to the expectation of his time. But, ultimately, in vain:

Falstaff: ...There's honour for you! Here's no vanity! Act 5, Scene 3.

and slightly earlier

Falstaff: What is honour? A word...Honour is a mere scutcheon - and so ends my catechism. Act 5, Scene 1.

He is definitely not a villain. Perhaps there is similarity to Hamlet, who is lost in vain. Also, for his hot-bloodedness, I can see similarities with Sonny in The Godfather:

Clemenza: I hope you're not a hot head like your brother Sonny, you can't talk business with him. The Godfather.

Is Sonny a villain in the Godfather? No way.

Perhaps Hotspur's actions are not on the whole "recommended" by Shakespeare, in some sense, but he is given the role of a hero, not a villain. It is more likely Falstaff is the villain. Consider Henry IV Part 2, where Falstaff is ultimately cast out, and Henry V, where Bardolph is hanged. But then, he is too likeable. So there is a deep character comparison going on. If there is a villain, what is being driven out is Hal's un-kingly life. He is fulfilling his potential. So personalities are so bright and vivacious in the play, it is the opposite (dullness) which is being driven out "with a dagger of lath", leaving the fulfilment of Hal as Henry V (again, like in the Godfather).

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    Interesting comparison with Sonny Corleone. They have similar personalities, maybe, but where that analogy falls down is the role of Sonny as a character. Sonny is clearly on the side of the protagonists (the Corleone family) and he's murdered by some unambiguous villains. Hotspur is in opposition to the main protagonist (Prince Hal), who kills him in single combat. I guess we could say he's an antagonist in the plot but not a villain in his character. Interesting analysis.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 18, 2020 at 8:52
  • Though the King's side is "the good guys", he is not clearly seen as good in the play. He is repeatedly shown to have won his crown "with crooked ways", and murdered the true air to the throne when he returns from Ireland to be "intercepted..deposed...and shortly, murdered." So there is not a real good side here, both have a rival claim to the throne. Though I suppose the audience is on the King's side. But I definitely think they get Sonny from Hotspur, you can see the hot bloodedness being his downfall if you see the Godfather, then Henry IV. A lot of dramatic irony, leading to his death.
    – apg
    Apr 18, 2020 at 8:58
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    Your comment about the King has inspired me to post a new question. My reading of Henry IV Part 1 was more positive towards Henry than yours, but I recall in Richard II he was really portrayed as a usurper. Will be interesting to see what analyses emerge there.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 18, 2020 at 10:04

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