1 Henry IV (with the death of Lady Henry Hotspur)

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

She’s too much. She’s too blunt and too loud and she never stops talking. She knows what she’s worth, and she’s worked hard to prove it, but these days that isn’t enough anymore. Now everyone says she needs to be quieter, needs to be gentler, needs to not be the things– aggressive, impulsive, passionate, utterly wholly constantly sincere– that have helped her claw her way to where she is.

Which Shakespeare heroine? Why, Harry Percy.

Alejandra Escalante’s Hotspur has no patience for arrogance (though she can be arrogant) or incompetence (though she is not, perhaps, an expert in her present profession of secret armed rebellion) or being thought of in any way as one of the girls. She’s a soldier, and in her chosen field, she commands the respect and open admiration even of her enemies: of the Douglas, of King Henry, of Sir Walter Blunt. But people who ask her to do things that fall outside her area of expertise– her aunt Worcester and brother-in-law’s hopes she’ll be politic, her father’s longing for her to be polite, her wife’s pleas that she be open and confiding– will be disappointed, and she mostly seems incredulous that anyone would bother to ask her to be anything but who she is. Don’t you know her? Don’t you know what to expect by now?

It seems inevitable such a Hotspur would have come to chafe against the confines of her society, a world where even as a nobleman’s daughter, she would always have to answer to someone else, to lead someone else’s soldiers. This is a Hotspur who would never really have believed in her King Henry V’s reformation– witness her incredulity in the moment of her death, the weight Escalante gives to the second lines of Hotspur’s final speech: dying isn’t as bad as being killed by you. 

And she has not played the game as wisely as the other women of her circle; she has made herself into something too violent, too angry for a woman to be permitted to remain: not smooth and silver-tongued like her aunt Worcester, not undercutting her self-assurance with cheerful eccentricity like Glendower, not thoughtful and pliable like Vernon. Once he throws Worcester out, there are no women in King Henry’s court.

There is a little something extra in King Henry and Prince Hal’s shock and envy. This Mars in swaddling clothes, this infant warrior– what right does she have? How does she do it?

So it seems inevitable: she cannot only be defeated, she must be disgraced. She must lose to a party boy who’s barely wiped the coke off his face. She must be mutilated and dragged around like luggage by Shakespeare’s most famous clown, and he must have the credit for her killing. Her death, as is sometimes the case, is not choreographed to be attributable to her honor against Hal’s pragmatism, her arrogant confidence against his desperation, his luck against her skill. It just happens. They grapple, and he wins. She fumbles with her armor, with her coat, unwilling to believe what has happened until she reaches in and sees her own blood.

She’s betrayed, too, of course, though she never knows it. Harry will be forgiven, her aunt argues. There’s a ready-made excuse: A hare-brained Hotspur, governed by a spleen. Silly girl, she just got so upset, she didn’t know what she was doing.

The pendulum between the two Harrys of Henry IV, the two stars in one sphere, has swung back to a preference for leading men to play Prince Hal, the politician and the pragmatist, the one with the heaps of juicy textual ambiguity and the daddy issues. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has used it as a traditional stepping stone for its brightest young actors: start as Romeo, then tackle the Henry cycle, then Hamlet, then Richard III. These days, we prefer to frame the play as reckless idealism colliding with the harsh necessities of performative politics, and this makes Hal the star, Hotspur his tragic foil.

But the preference was once for Hotspur, and surely will be again. Maybe this is how. Or maybe just for me. To feel how hard-won her place of esteem was, to watch her battering herself against the confines of every expectation– even those of gentility and grace– in her stark inability to be anything but herself. The willingness of those around her to use her for her good qualities and reject her for her bad.

OSF hasn’t rewritten the play, this is the function Hotspur has always played. The lines are the same. But that’s the power of creative casting. Their Hotspur’s a Shakespeare heroine, and just the one I needed.

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