21. The Surprising Origin of Hotspur and Northumberland

Not long after the Parthians’ stunning defeat of Rome at the battle of Carrhae (53 BCE), located in modern-day Turkey, a Parthian General walked into the banquet hall of Orodes II, King of Parthia, with the rotting head of Marcus Crassus in his hands. A theater troupe was performing a tragedy for the king, and the general handed the Roman leader’s head to the performers. All the Parthian spectators, including the King, applauded and cheered. One of the lead actors then grabbed the head and began to sing:

 "Behold, we from the forest bring a stag now newly slain,
 A worthy booty and reward beseeming well our pain."
 The chorus then asked the actor: “Who struck this stag?”
 And the actor responded: “None else but I thereof may brag.” (621) 

Upon these lines, Pomaxathres rushed onto the staging area from his seat as spectator and took the head from the performer. He was pretending to take offence because he was the one who had really stabbed Crassus and cut off his head—not this actor. The low comedy delighted King Orodes, who rewarded Pomaxathres for the slaying of Crassus and gave the actor one talent for the performance. This is from North’s “Life of Marcus Crassus,” and he punctuates this concluding scene with an ironic and poignant coda: “Such was the success of Crassus’s enterprise and voyage, much like unto the end of a tragedy.”

So ends one of the more disturbing and earthy chapter in Plutarch’s Lives. It explores in grim detail all the unseemly aspects of war, from its undignified, bureaucratic preparation to the ignorance, irrationality, and cowardice that mar its execution, from the self-serving ambitions of the leaders who drag so many into their hopeful conquest to its dispiriting, futile end as a grotesque and tragic farce.

This same chapter would also serve as the thematic foundation for 1 and 2 Henry IV, plays that focus on these same bleak realities of war. A few of the minor resemblances in the historical events—between the war waged by Marcus Crassus and Northumberland’s rebellion against Henry IV—are the result of coincidence, but once the dramatist discovered them, he then modified many details in the English history in order to mirror the happenings of North’s Roman history. Similar Plutarchan threads run through nearly every English history.

Perhaps, the most obvious resemblances are those that link Northumberland and his brave son, Hotspur, with the father-son warriors, Marcus and Publius Crassus. This is because the dramatist has clearly used the latter pair as a model for Northumberland and Hotspur, modifying the historical events of their rebellion so they more closely resemble those found in the Plutarchan history. The parallels are both numerous and pointed:

  • Northumberland, like Crassus, risks everything in his undertaking of an ill-advised war and loses his son in the process.
  • Northumberland, like Crassus, urges his son forward to attack the enemy, but though he has control of an army, he does not join the battle, leaving his son alone to face overwhelming numbers.
  • Northumberland, like Crassus, first gets a false report that his son has been successful and victory was assured. Then he receives horrifying news of his son’s death.
  • As with the death of Publius, the death of Hotspur devastates the army, and they flee. The news also gives their respective fathers—Marcus and Northumberland—temporary bravado. Each then gives a stirring war-speech on his new-found resolve, which is futile and comes too late.
  • Hotspur, also like Publius (and Marcus), has his body desecrated—and becomes part of a comedic exchange over who should be credited with his slaying. Marcus’s head is presented before the King for a reward, and the same is intended for Hotspur’s body.

Except for the fact that Northumberland is not present at Shrewsbury, where Hotspur dies in battle, all this is ahistorical: these details are inventions of the dramatist in order to reinforce the parallels between the two sets of father-son combatants.

For example, as shown below, when Morton describes the battle in which Hotspur died, he recreates a vision that recalls Parthia’s skilled archers-on-horseback who killed Publius.

The Fall of Publius (Plutarch’s Lives)The Fall of Hotspur (2 Henry IV)
They reported that it was unpossible by flying to save themselves if they did follow in chase; neither to overtake them also if they fled. And further, that they had such kind of arrows as would fly swifter than a man’s eye could discern them…and their armors on th’other side made of such a temper and metal as no force of any thing could pierce them through …
Margian tempered steel that glared like fire (611, 614)

fledthat arrows as would fly swifter than,
flying to save themselves
fire, tempered steel, metal
Morton: Being bruited once, took fire and heat away
From the best-tempered courage in his troops;
For from his metal was his party steeled
So did our men, heavy in Hotspur’s loss,
Lend to this weight such lightness with their fear
That arrows fled not swifter toward their aim
did our soldiers, aiming at their safety,
Fly from the field. (1.1.114-16, 121-25)
That arrows fled swifter than,
their safety fly,
fire, tempered, metal, steeled

This alone confirms the dramatist’s obligation. The shared language and imagery is conspicuously distinctive and the context is identical: soldiers flying to safety juxtaposed with images of arrows flying swifter and fire, metal and tempered steel. An EEBO search for a grouping of just two of the collocations–arrows/swifter and temper/metal[1] — yields no results other than North’s Plutarch.

In the same passage, Morton gives news of how the death of Hotspur devastated the troops. His “spirit lent a fire” to the camp, but his killing “took fire and heat away,” and his loss brought them fear.  Likewise, the news of Publius Crassus death “did not set their hearts a fire as it should have done.” Instead, his loss“ made them quake for fear.” Both armies fled as a result – and both distraught fathers, Northumberland and Marcus, then give rousing speeches that come too late.

The allegorical figure of Rumor introduces the opening scene of 2 Henry VI, anticipating the false report that Northumberland is about to receive of his son’s triumph. Wartime rumors are also important in the story of Marcus Crassus, who also receives false news of his son’s success.

After Morton gives the Parthian-like account of Hotspur’s death—and Northumberland responds with his Crassus-like speech—Morton cites the theme: Northumberland, like Crassus, had gambled all for ambition: “You cast th’event of war,” said Morton, telling Northumberland that he must have known the stakes, must have known “That in the dole of blows your son might drop … Yet did you say, ‘Go forth’” (1.1.166, 169, 175). Crassus and Northumberland had both gambled on war, had both urged their sons forward, had both refused to give aid, and both then lost their sons.

In other descriptions of Hotspur’s final battle, including that of his wife, Lady Percy, the playwright continues to recreate the fall of Publius Crassus, event by event. The shared terms include: messengers, his father, advertise(ment), give an onset (we should on), his power, valiantly, disadvantage, abide, defense (defensible). A fuller treatment of the corresponding details will be explored in a later work, but the outline is clear. Both men die a courageous death, facing insurmountable odds, due, in part, to the ambitions and weaknesses of fathers who did not come to their aid.

Other parallels also confirm that North reread the “Life of Marcus Crassus” in his Plutarch Lives shortly before writing the plays. For example, Marcus Crassus at one point derides the premature adulation shown to Pompey, even when he was young and inexperienced, complaining that the Lords had “called him The Great before he had any hair upon his face” (607-8). A few pages later, Crassus is involved in another hair related metaphor when a Parthian ambassador warns the Roman general about his plans: “Hair will sooner grow in the palm of my hand, Crassus, than you will come to Seleucia” (611).  

Falstaff repeats these lines when he is mad at young King Harry and mocks him as Crassus did Pompey, noting Harry’s manly and royal pretensions are belied by his youthful, beardless face:

…the juvenal, the Prince your master, whose chin is not yet fledge. I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one of his cheek, and yet he will not stick to say his face is a face royal. God may finish it when he will; ’tis not a hair amiss yet. He may keep it still at a face royal, for a barber shall never earn sixpence out of it; and yet he’ll be crowing as if he had writ man [i.e., become a man] ever since his father was a bachelor. (1.2.19-27)

In other words, while the Prince is still so boyish that he has no hair on his face and a barber would not get paid for shaving it, he still plays the role of royal hotshot. This is the same put-down Crassus uses against Pompey, and the line in bold necessarily comes from North’s chapter:

Plutarch: Hair will sooner grow in the palm of my hand, Crassus, than you will come to Seleucia

2 Henry IV: I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one of his cheek

This was not proverbial.[2] Indeed, this particular ten-word string occurs in no other works that are searchable on EEBO, Google, or Google Books — except those quoting North or Shakespeare. In other words, once again we find North and Shakespeare sharing lines that no one else in the history of the English language have ever used — not before or since.

Falstaff’s comment even includes another unique word-string – “not stick to say his face”[3]which closely matches another line in North’s Plutarch: not stick to say to his face.” Again, EEBO confirms that no one has ever written “not stick to say his face” or “not stick to say to his face” except for North and the author of 2 Henry IV.

Falstaff, larded with vices, also offered the playwright the opportunity to explore the seedier aspects of war as detailed in “The Life of Marcus Crassus.” North, for example, wrote about a peculiar corruption of the Roman general that should seem familiar to Falstaff devotees: “And worse than that: [Crassus] sent to the people, Princes, and cities about him to furnish him with a certain number of men of war, and then he would discharge them for a sum of money.” This is precisely what Falstaff does in both 1 and 2 Henry IV, accepting money from soldiers so they may be discharged.

At the end of the Plutarchan chapter, the demise of Marcus and that of Publius Crassus are made more poignant by the indignities imposed on their corpses. Publius’s head is used in a taunt against his own father, and Marcus’s head would be laughed at as a prop in a farce. But most relevantly, Pomaxathres, who got the reward and applause for the slaying of Marcus Crassus, may not have been the one who actually killed him. He may have just stolen the glory. “None else but I thereof may brag,” says the actor, facetiously claiming credit for the murder of Crassus, just before Pomaxathres takes Crassus’s head from him. Pomaxathres then receives the true acclaim and reward for the deed. But, as North wrote, “Some say notwithstanding that Pomaxathres slew him not.” He merely had “cut off his head and hand after he fell dead to the ground.”

Here we find the inspiration for the ultimate fate of Hotspur in the penultimate scene in 1 Henry IV—with Falstaff now taking on the role of Pomaxathres. After Hotspur dies in hand-to-hand combat with Prince Harry, his corpse, like Crassus’s, would become a desecrated trophy in a similarly comedic conflict over credit and reward. Notoriously, Falstaff is present on stage, pretending to be dead as Harry fights and slays Hotspur. When the Prince sees his seemingly dead friend, he uses a peculiar metaphor.

 Death hath not struck so fat a deer today,
 Though many dearer, in this bloody fray.
 Emboweled will I see thee by and by.
 Till then in blood by noble Percy lie. (1 Henry IV 5.4.107-10) 

As Edward Berry writes about the comment: “For a brief moment, the bodies on the field at Shrewsbury become a quarry of deer and Falstaff the fattest among them.”[4] Meredith Anne Skura notes that the analogy extends across all four lines: “emboweling refers more immediately to the ritual undoing or dismemberment of a hunted stag, and therefore marks Falstaff as so much dead meat.”[5] As quoted earlier, the Parthians used this same metaphor about Crassus:

 Actors: Behold, we from the forest bring a stag now newly slain,
 A worthy booty and reward beseeming well our pain.
 Chorus: Who struck this stag?
 Actor: None else but I thereof may brag. (621) 

Harry’s “struck so fat a deer” is an echo of “struck this stag”—and the allusion in each passage is juxtaposed with a slain leader who has now become a trophy-kill. After the Prince exits, Falstaff jumps up and decides to take credit for Hotspur’s slaying. Just as rumors suggested Pomaxathres had merely cut off the head and hand of an already deceased Marcus Crassus, Falstaff stabs an already dead Hotspur. He then carries Hotspur on his back just before Harry returns, and, like the actor and the Parthian soldier, Falstaff and the Prince argue over who really was the vanquisher. Finally, Falstaff, like Pomaxathres, intends to get reward from the King.

At this point, as in many other places in the plays on Henry IV, Falstaff evokes laughter from the audience for his dissipated and devilish charm, but locating the origin of this scene in the fate of Crassus adds troubling undertones. The play mixes comedy and tragedy throughout, and this end to the son of Northumberland provides another such example. For here is the brave and glorious Hotspur, the hopeful kingmaker and “miracle of men,” being toyed with after death and used as a trophy and marker for a reward. The comedic dispute between Harry and Falstaff is analogous to the farcical argument between the actor and Pomaxathres. So a paraphrase of North’s coda that concluded the life of Crassus may also seem appropriate here: “Such was the success of Hotspur’s enterprise, much like unto the end of a tragedy.”

[1] The specific EEBO search was for arrow* NEAR/10 swift* NEAR/100 temper* NEAR/10 met* -and this results only in North’s Plutarch’s Lives and 2 Henry IV. Some modern editions of 2 Henry IV prefer “mettle” to “metal,” but “mettle,” of course, derives from “metal.” The hard part of a person’s character was originally equated with that person’s “metal” –and this eventually became the specific definition for “mettle.”

[2] Sir Francis Bacon, “Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Natural History in Ten Centuries” (London: W. Lee, 1627), 170, published four years after Shakespeare’s First Folio, does list a series of anatomical features involving hair: that it “commeth not upon the palms of the hands nor soles of the feet, which are parts more perspirable.” But that is not the same as the Parthian ambassador’s expression.

[3] The word “stick” here means “to be unwilling or reluctant,” and North often uses “not stick to say” to mean “has the audacity to say” or “does not have the decency to refrain from saying.”  

[4] Edward Berry, Shakespeare and the Hunt: A Cultural and Social Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 133.

[5] Meredith Anne Skura, Shakespeare the Actor and the Purposes of Playing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 132.

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