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Did A Failed Performance Shape How We See Hotspur?

by CJ Rockwell

Henry the IV, Part I was defining for William Shakespeare, partly because of the popularity of its characters. It features his most popular character, Lord Falstaff, the snarky, bumbling deuteragonist whose antics contrast the bleak tone of the historical drama.

However, a very different man struck a chord for both players and audiences: the fiery, prideful Harry Percy, best known as Hotspur. For, while Falstaff can easily grab one’s attention, Hotspur’s variability commands it.

 Mr. John Kemble in the role of Hotspur, by J. Bailey
Mr. John Kemble in the role of Hotspur, by J. Bailey.

What Makes a Character Variable?

Lord Falstaff is a dependable favorite through his consistency—a quick quip here, a quicker excuse there, and we have our oft-beloved comic relief. But Hotspur, in many ways Falstaff’s opposite, became an underdog favorite for fans and actors alike because he almost always differs between interpretations. He’s cunning and logical, with surprisingly compelling motivations, but he’s also egotistical, angry, and wields sharp judgment with an even sharper tongue.

His character is a balance of these traits, and weighing which traits take center stage gives us a wildly varied antagonist, or even tragic anti-hero, in stark contrast to bumbling Falstaff or the forced maturation of protagonist Prince Hal. One scholar commented that "given that Romantic critics so often argued that private reading allowed for more imaginative, complex, and genuinely Shakespearean interpretations than the stage permitted… many imitated the theater in identifying Hotspur as one of the play's centers of dramatic interest” (Barker 291).

Take for example Hotspur’s relationship to Lady Hotspur, as explored in Act II, Scene III. He declares he doesn’t love her, then says he does as long as he can get his horse, then says he cannot trust her with why he needs a horse anyway, as she is a woman and may spill his secrets—all within about twenty-seven lines.

Hotspur: Away, Away, you trifler! Love! I love thee not, I care not for thee, Kate: this is no world To play with mammets and to tilt with lips: We must have bloody noses and crack'd crowns, And pass them current too. God's me, my horse! What say'st thou, Kate? what would'st thou have with me?

Lady Percy. Do you not love me? do you not, indeed? […] Nay, tell me if you speak in jest or no.

Hotspur. Come, wilt thou see me ride? And when I am on horseback, I will swear I love thee infinitely. But hark you, Kate; I must not have you henceforth question me Whither I go, nor reason whereabout: Whither I must, I must; and, to conclude, This evening must I leave you, gentle Kate. I know you wise, but yet no farther wise Than Harry Percy's wife: constant you are, But yet a woman: and for secrecy, No lady closer; for I well believe Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know; And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate.

Lady Percy. How! so far?

Hotspur. Not an inch further. (Henry the IV, Part 1, II.III.96-122)

In this moment, we see Hotspur caught between his plans to wage war, his pride, his frustration, and his obligations as a husband. We also know the choice he makes: he most values his pride, synonymous with his identity as a soldier, and therefore refuses to show his hand to the person he could potentially trust most (“I know you wise, but yet no farther wise / Than Harry Percy’s wife”). Already we are gifted with the boon of a complex character.

But that says nothing of his tone. Hotspur’s language could be indicative of anything in this moment. Hotspur can be further seen as cold and cunning, or so distracted by scheming he cannot help but move around. He could even be full of poorly controlled rage. For example, his dismissal of Lady Percy could be interpreted as proof he does not love her at all, or as a dedication to his stance as a soldier, rejecting her kindness out of deep belief (“this is no world/To play with mammets and to tilt with lips”).

All is possible: Hotspur is only as wild as one reads—and plays—him. This is where his potential lies.

Yet this understanding of Hotspur is a gift of modern interpretation, and it had to start somewhere. In fact, there may exist one portrayal so influential precisely because it was the first to try. There was at one point a mold to be broken for Hotspur, when alternate depictions would never be considered for theater. I realized when reading this play that I wanted to find when this moment happened—surely there was some performance of Hotspur that explored this potential. And after studying archives of past Shakespearean performances, I realized I may have found the moment Hotspur’s variability was first captured—in the footnotes of a PLMA article from 1950, barely more than a few lines long.

It detailed a performance that didn’t make Hotspur very capturing at all.

It took me quite some time to accept that modern Hotspur, as we know him, could have potentially started with a theatrical flop.

How might this have happened? To understand this hypothesis, we must dig through the archives in search of Hotspur’s first major appearances—starting with the post-1660 period of Shakespearean theater, and with one Thomas Betterton.

Mr. Thomas Betterton, by M. Van der Gucht.
Mr. Thomas Betterton, by M. Van der Gucht.

Bombast and Flare

A luminary of vast acting prowess, actor-manager Thomas Betterton was a massive force in reviving Shakespeare within England after the Anglo-Dutch War. Under his guidance, Henry IV and many plays like it “became more a story about interesting individuals than the story of a nation” (Best). This was in part due to his portrayal of Falstaff, for which he was best known. But Betterton actually began with Hotspur, around 1682. Any discussion of Hotspur adaptations must start with Betterton, both because of his influence as a manager—he was the one who set the tone in theater—and because of his tendency to portray his villains with a particularly short temper.

And as Hotspur, Betterton was all too happy to show off his temper (Gildon). Eyewitnesses said that “those wild impatient Starts, that fierce and flashing Fire which he threw into Hotspur” (Cibber 40) left them intimidated and hungry for more. Audiences loved to see the ill-tempered and sharp-tongued soldier, especially when he was at his sharpest.

All is possible: Hotspur is only as wild as one reads—and plays—him. This is where his potential lies.

In fact, Betterton’s harsh rage defined half a century of how many believed Hotspur should be played. Not only that, but his 1700 portrayal of Falstaff, a rarity for its lack of censorship, cemented one of the character’s trademarks: high, floppy boots, something that was never within the original text but can still be seen in performances today (Gildon). It made sense for many to follow his impressions, both for Falstaff and, indeed, for Hotspur.

This belief lasted far into the 18th century. It could have lasted for far longer—if not for one man.

Mr. David Garrick, by T. Gainsborough.
Mr. David Garrick, by T. Gainsborough.

Enter Garrick

It would be an understatement to say David Garrick is a legendary Shakespearean actor. He understood the playwright so well that many critics regularly approached him just for advice on understanding Shakespeare, a man he never met (Murphy). Not only that, Garrick’s acting style was a revolutionary point in theater for the time, and his greatest legacy, stimulating the 18th-century Shakespeare revitalization.

Most scholars agree that Garrick “presented a new type of acting, natural and realistic, which emphasized psychological understanding of the characters, which opposed the declamatory style in possession of the stage until 1741, and which vividly impressed his audiences” (Stone 187). This understated style forever influenced how audiences view not only Shakespeare, but modern theater itself. Garrick also changed how Shakespeare was staged, how his works were preserved, and how they were interpreted (Murphy). His acting style was the focal point of this revolution.

Yet, in all honesty, Garrick’s 1746 adaption of Henry IV, Part I hardly rivaled Betterton’s. He only ever adapted the play once, and for good reason. His Hotspur is considered one of his greatest failures.

Unlike the giant, booming Betterton (Gildon), Garrick was short and slight. His small stature became his biggest target for critics. One wrote that “the person of Garrick was not formed to give a just idea of the gallant and noble Hotspur. The mechanic, or bulky, part was wanting; nor could the fine flexibility of his voice entirely conquer the high rant and continued rage of the enthusiastic warrior” (Woods 76).

However, Garrick did not completely abandon his trademark style during the performance, and Hotspur’s cunningness took center stage. But Garrick could not make his Hotspur seem convincingly angry, and since an angry Hotspur was what critics adored with Betterton, it became what they saw most lacking. Consequently, research on Garrick’s 1746 performance in Henry IV is highly limited.

At first, I didn't think anything of his rendition. After all, if this version was such a flop, then how could Garrick’s portrayal have actually changed Hotspur?

Mr. John Kemble as Hotspur, by C. Picart & J. Boaden.
Mr. John Kemble as Hotspur, by C. Picart & J. Boaden.

Legacy Versus a Lost Battle

As stated before, I had no knowledge of the importance of Garrick's failure. Not, at least, until I stumbled across the letters of one John Philip Kemble.

Kemble was a notable actor-manager who first took to the stage in the 1770s, a few decades after Garrick and Betterton. Although undoubtedly influenced by both men, Kemble admitted in private correspondence to admiring Garrick greatly (Wells). Widely considered a scholar of Garrick’s, Kemble was quick to become the next major champion of Shakespearean theater after his mentor’s passing. Many commentators were quick to compare the two—even his fiercest critics, such as Leigh Hunt: “If Mr. Kemble has not succeeded Garrick in all tragic excellence, as some of his admirers pretend, he has worthily succeeded him in one important respect, that of loving Shakespeare and keeping him before the public” (Jones 191).

Kemble’s 1817 Hotspur, although poorly received by critics, was much better received by audiences. His refined dignity hid bubbling anger; his rapidly changing temperament at times depicted a man mere seconds away from losing all composure (Best). Otherwise, he was reserved and cunning - not unlike Garrick's usual style.

Additionally, there is evidence that Kemble’s rendition was much more popular. Finding sketches of early 19th century Henry IV Part I, without Kemble, was surprisingly laborious. Accessing sites dedicated to preserving Shakespeare, such as LUNA by Folger Shakespeare Library or JSTOR, gave plenty of examples of Kemble as Hotspur—and very few others—for the early 19th century, with many other depictions of Hotspur resembling Kemble’s gaunt face and thin frame. Some included a black mustache and goatee that he at one point sported for the role, as seen at the beginning of this very article. It was at this moment that I realized that his performance must have certainly had some impact, although there are of course sketches of Hotspur portrayed by different actors, Kemble’s features are easily spotted in several 19th-century depictions.

Garrick’s model of acting shaped Kemble’s Hotspur as much as he shaped Kemble. But Kemble was tall and severe, as evidenced by the myriad paintings and drawings dedicated to his performance. If their styles of acting were as similar as critics claimed, was Garrick’s a fault of his performance, or merely his height?

This question has greater implications for theater. In spite of the Romantic criticism (Barker 291) that plays are best consumed by reading them by ourselves, the theater still influences how we view Shakespearean plays. Since Hotspur features great variability in performance, his character becomes the perfect litmus test for that influence. Garrick’s Hotspur undeniably failed to impress, and even Kemble was critically panned for his portrayal (Best), but they still questioned how Hotspur should be portrayed.

The two actors—Garrick especially—revitalized Shakespearean theater by bringing it to new audiences. That revitalization still includes their renditions of Hotspur, and their renditions still opened him up for audiences to see his great variability, popular or not. A failed performance didn’t shape Hotspur traditionally, but it did break the mold Betterton had previously set.

Mr. Garrick as the Steward of the Stratford Jubilee, by M. van der Gucht.
Mr. Garrick as the Steward of the Stratford Jubilee, by M. van der Gucht.

A Word on Impact

When researching adaptations of Hotspur, I discovered something odd about legacy.

Many scholars have written about the effects these three men, Garrick especially, had on theater beyond just Shakespeare. The difference between them lies in the accessibility of critique, specifically criticism from their time periods. Trying to find proof of Garrick’s failures was far more difficult than finding proof of Kemble’s. I only found harsh criticism of his performances when I explicitly searched for his Henry the IV, Part I adaptation, and even then not a lot of criticism extended beyond that role. It seemed as if everyone, even Garrick himself, wanted to forget about his rendition.

To an extent, I understand why that’s the case. Nobody wants to obsess over the failures of a man like Garrick, not when his role in revitalizing Shakespeare was so important. But at the same time, there exists a measurable value of failure, even if that value only extends to its novelty. There was worth to Garrick’s rendition, even for only breaking the mold Betterton set.

Hotspur doesn’t have to be overly imposing to work: that variability is part of what makes him interesting, after all. In fact, an overall weaker rendition of the character, whose insecurities would become impossible to miss, would be a fascinating challenge to prior adaptations. I realized that no version of Hotspur should be as outright dismissed as Garrick’s performance was, nor Kemble’s – nor even Betterton’s, whose Hotspur is typically ignored in favor of his Falstaff.

Arguably, the audience’s response to any play is what determines its worth – and some versions of a play will always be more popular and more frequently revisited than others – but I think that the negative response to Garrick’s version is misleading. If anything, he proves there is value in adaptations that audiences find disappointing. His role, as shown by Kemble’s rendition, was influential in shaping further performances of Hotspur simply by questioning the lack of change. I believe we are continuing to see the effects of such adaptations today.


This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.

About the Author

C. Rockwell is a contract editor, writer, and literary scholar, having graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a degree in English literature in late 2022. Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, they have lived in the Midwest all their life.

At a young age, with nothing surrounding them but corn fields, clouds, and trees, the author decided to stay inside, pick up a book, and start reading. Doing so ultimately determined their career choices, ability to socialize, and life going forwards. Like many English graduates, they spend their spare time chewing their nails and being frightened by loud noises.

C. Rockwell has a pet Brazilian red and white tarantula named Aubrey III, who appears to have gone missing, and three roommates who are afraid of large spiders.

Sources Cited/Extended Reading

Murphy, Arthur, 1727-1805. “The Life of David Garrick, Esq.” London: J. Wright, vol. 1, 1801.

Gildon, Charles, 1665-1724. “The Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton, the Late Eminent Tragedian ... With the Judgment of ... Monsieur De St. Evremond, upon the Italian and French Music and Opera's; in a Letter to the Duke of Buckingham. To Which Is Added, The Amorous Widow, or The Wanton Wife. A Comedy. Written by Mr. Betterton, Now First Printed from the Original Copy.” London: R. Gosling, 1710.

Barker, Roberta. “Tragical-Comical-Historical Hotspur.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, 2003, pp. 288–307. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Dec. 2022.

Woods, Leigh. “Crowns of Straw on Little Men: Garrick’s New Heroes.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 1981, pp. 69–79. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Dec. 2022.

Cibber, Theophilus. “An apology for the life of Mr. T......... C....., comedian: Being a proper sequel to the Apology for the life of Mr. Colley Cibber, ... Supposed to be written by himself.” London: printed for J. Mechell, 1740. Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011, Accessed 17 Dec. 2022.

Best, Michael. " Henry IV, Part 1: Performance History - The Restoration and eighteenth century." Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria, 28 Sept. 2016, Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.

Stone, George Winchester. “David Garrick’s Significance in the History of Shakespearean Criticism: A Study of the Impact of the Actor upon the Change of Critical Focus during the Eighteenth Century.” PMLA, vol. 65, no. 2, 1950, pp. 183–97. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Dec. 2022.

Wells, Mary Davies. “Anecdotes and Correspondence of Celebrated Actors and Actresses: Including Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Kemble, Mr. Colman, Mrs. Siddons, &c. &c.: Also, an Account of the Awful Death of Lord Lyttleton.” London: Printed for Edgerley & Co, vol. 2, 1830.

Jones, H. A. “Anniversaries 1957: John Philip Kemble, 1757-1823.” Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol. 109, 1957, pp. 190–193. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.

George Mason University. “History of Henry IV, Part I.” OpenSource Shakespeare. 2002. “,s3.” Accessed 27 Apr. 2023.

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