“This is a play which all men admire, and which most women dislike,” wrote actress and writer Elizabeth Inchbald in her diary in 1807 about Henry IV, Part 1. She objects to “many revolting expressions in the comic parts,” and thinks that a female audience would rather see Prince Hal as a lady killer, than an associate of the “traitor” Percy. The diary says nothing about Lady Percy (whom Inchbald portrayed onstage) or the other female characters in the play, except to comment that Percy pays more attention to his horse than to his wife.
But though the play’s action focuses on the male characters and the build-up to their confrontations on the battlefield, the noblewomen affected by their husbands’ actions stake their own claims to the audience’s attention: feisty Lady Percy gives as good as she gets from her husband, and Lady Mortimer, who was silently cut from performances for hundreds of years, has been revived in modern productions. Shakespeare created these heroines out of the fragments of history, giving them voices that appeal freshly to us today.
Although Lady Percy’s husband Henry Percy or “Hotspur” calls her “Kate,” she was actually Elizabeth, the sister of Edmund Mortimer. She and Lady Mortimer are barely footnotes in Holinshed’s Chronicle, Shakespeare’s major source for the story of Henry IV. Nevertheless, Shakespeare created from imagination the sort of woman he thought could match the impetuous character of Hotspur the warrior.
It’s interesting that he has Hotspur call her “Kate,” as she seems to reflect something of Shakespeare’s other “Kate,” the headstrong wife in The Taming of the Shrew, which was likely written a few years earlier than Henry IV. There is also a long tradition relating her to Portia, the wife of Julius Caesar, who similarly confronts her husband to learn what has been so troubling his sleep. Unlike Portia, however, who wounds herself to prove her trustworthiness, Lady Percy ultimately gives in to her husband’s misogynistic refusal to tell her what is on his mind. The nineteenth-century essayist, Anna Jameson (1794-1860), whose study of Shakespeare’s heroines was widely read, says that Lady Percy “has no real influence” over her husband: “he has no confidence in her.” Jameson compares “Lady Percy’s fond upbraidings, and her half playful, half pouting entreaties,” with Portia’s “matronly dignity and tenderness.”
Romantic and Victorian period illustrations of Lady Percy tend to play up this “sprightly, feminine, and fond” aspect of her character, depicting her as a doting wife, seen in these images:
The French artist, Alexandre Bida (1813-1895), has a better sense of the tension in the scene, placing a physical distance between Hotspur with one foot in the saddle, and Lady Percy who twists around awkwardly to look at him. His outstretched arm keeps her at bay.
Jameson remarks that “almost every one knows by heart Lady Percy’s celebrated address to her husband.” The speech occurs in Act 2, scene 3, where her husband has been pacing up and down, reading a disturbing letter from someone who has backed down from joining him, Mortimer, and other rebels against Henry IV. It is a “set” speech of almost 30 lines which was published many times in selections of “Beauties of Shakespeare,” meant to be memorized by school children and by those at home learning good elocution.
Today the speech is not as familiar, but we bring to it a new context. As Lady Percy asks what takes her lord from his bed, why he is musing and melancholy, why he talks in his sleep “of iron wars . . . Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin, /Of prisoners’ ransom, and of soldiers slain,” we recognize the helpless feeling of a woman whose husband is suffering from PTSD.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
. . .
And in thy face strange motions have appeared
Such as we see when men restrain their breath. (2.3. 58-60, 62-63)
She wants to know what’s bothering him, but like many men today who have experienced the horrors of war, and who know of more to come, Percy cannot and will not tell her. When he resists, her tone lightens as she tries to tease it out of him:
Come, come, you paraquito [little parrot], answer me
Directly unto this question that I ask.
In faith, I’ll break thy little finger, Harry,
An if thou wilt not tell me all things true. (2.3.90-93)
He banters with her but refuses to say where he is going, only that she will follow him the next day. The German artist Johann Ramberg (1763-1840) catches the moment perfectly with Hotspur, armed, whip in hand, waiting for his lively horse, and Lady Percy holding his shoulder and twisting his finger.
The couple turn up again with Owen Glendower, his son-in-law Mortimer (Lady Percy’s brother), and Mortimer’s wife, Glendower’s daughter, in Act 3, scene 1. This lady has plenty to say, but there is no written dialogue given, as she speaks in Welsh. It is thought that Shakespeare may have created the part for a Welsh boy in his acting company, who also had a good voice, since the lady sings beautifully. Productions of the play in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to cut Lady Mortimer’s part completely, but she has now been reinstated and serves as a contrast to Lady Percy, and also as a voice for a British minority.
Lady Mortimer — called “The Lady” in the play — is presented as a doting wife, who “makes Welsh as sweet as ditties highly penned,/ Sung by a fair queen in a summer’s bower” (3.1.215-16). She asks her husband to sit down with his head on her lap, while she sings him to sleep. The restful quality of their relationship is in stark contrast to the restless sleep of Hotspur as described earlier by his wife. “Lie still,” she says to him now, “and hear the lady sing in Welsh.” Hotspur doesn’t like Welsh and is too wound up to lie still; on her part, Kate refuses to sing, and he in turn accuses her of speaking oaths mouthed by London street vendors. Shakespeare uses the different characters of the two women to highlight the contrast between their husbands, summarized by Owen Glendower, who says of his son-in-law Mortimer, “You are as slow/ As hot Lord Percy is on fire to go.”
Lady Mortimer’s Welsh points to Shakespeare’s growing interest in exploring multiple languages, as seen in his later Henry V where Prince Hal, now as king, stumbles to woe Katherine of France in her own tongue, and Welsh, Scots, and Irish soldiers, each speak in their own accents. Under Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s plays were a celebration of Tudor history, and the Tudor line traced its ancestry to the Welsh Owen Tudur [sic] who married Katherine after the death of Henry V. The celebration and exploration of such linguistic richness begins here in Henry IV, Part 1.
Lady Mortimer is not seen again in Shakespeare’s plays, but Lady Percy turns up in Henry IV, Part 2 where she eulogizes her husband, who was killed by Prince Hal at the end of Part 1. Speaking to her father-in-law, the Earl of Northumberland, she reminds him how he did not support Hotspur in his initial revolt, and she remembers her lord as one who
. . . by his light
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts. He was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves. (Henry IV, Part 2, 2.3.19-22)
“Kate” to her husband, Lady Percy now passes out of the plays as a grieving widow who ends as she began with a powerful speech.