Friday, July 28, 2017

Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

My adventures in Shakespeare's history plays continue with Henry IV Part 1, which (to be honest) is really about the misspent youth of Henry V, or "Hal" as he's known in this play.

Henry V was one of the two history plays I was reasonably familiar already. I'm not sure if I've read the whole thing, but I've definitely seen the movie. And of course, in that play, although there are references to his unpromising youth, Hal has become the Model King. And because I already knew how Henry turns out as king, it was fascinating to fill in some of the backstory here.

Henry IV, Part 1 takes place more or less a year after the end of Richard II (although Shakespeare uses a great deal of poetic licence with the chronology). Henry IV, still dogged with guilt after seizing the throne from Richard II, is beset with difficulties. The Scots and Welsh are both causing trouble; young Prince Hal, rather than helping, seems content to spend his life roistering and even thieving in the company of the disreputable and cowardly Sir John Falstaff; and a dispute over Scottish prisoners leads to young Henry "Hotspur" Percy, member of a powerful Northumberland family, starting his very own rebellion.

Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have been a hit during Shakespeare's day and ever since, and it's not hard to see why. Hal is the central figure of the play, but the supporting characters are colourful and sympathetic as well. To begin with, there's Henry IV himself, suffering the consequences of how he gained the throne: guilt and rebellion. Shakespeare is too good a playwright to make a villain of him, but there's a distinct sense of taint about Henry, and ironically, one of the most promising signs that Hal will prove a better king is his intentional distancing himself from his father. But that meaning is more in the subtext than the text of the play: in the text, Henry reproaches his son for irresponsibility, arguing (again, with an ironic twist of meaning) that Hal takes after Richard II rather than himself. He means, of course, that Hal imitates Richard's irresponsibility. But Shakespeare is really hinting that Hal has a better, because not usurped, title to the throne.

This is underlined when Henry compares Hotspur, another key supporting character, to himself. Like the young Henry IV, Hotspur has taken offence at a perceived wrong done him by the King, and is determined to topple the King. Unlike the young Henry IV, Hotspur has a much better argument to help him gain allies: the King is a usurper. Hotspur is another intensely likeable character, as hot-headed as his nickname suggests, and the only person in his rebellion who is doing it purely for honour's sake. Shakespeare likes him so much that he calls his wife Kate (a name he seems to have reserved for his favourite female characters) and provides them with a hilarious, yet tender, bickering romance. In reality, Hotspur was a couple of years older than Henry IV, but Shakespeare makes him younger so as to act as a better foil to Hal. While Hal slums it in London taverns, Hotspur is winning fame and glory as a knight. But as different as they are, we can't help liking both of them, and it's painful watching them forced into conflict as the story escalates.

If Hotspur primarily serves as a foil to Hal, someone King Henry can wish loudly had been his own son rather than Hal, then Sir John Falstaff serves as a foil to King Henry, Hal's other father figure. Falstaff is the dark horse in this play's ensemble, a character so enjoyable in his cunning cowardice that he has passed into literary legend. He's regularly compared to the Vices in a morality play, his main aim being to lead youth astray. And Shakespeare definitely encourages the audience to boo him. Whether pressing unsuitable men into military service, or trying to get undeserved credit after the battle of Shrewsbury, at least some of Falstaff's actions are intended to be sinister rather than comic.

But this play is about the making of a king, the future Henry V. Falstaff contributes to Hal's future in a number of ways: his quick-wittedness and silver tongue, his flashes of magnanimity, will all make an appearance, fully refined, in Henry V. Hal ends this play standing above the bodies of both Hotspur and Falstaff, but he lives the play, symbolically speaking, between them. Certain themes crop up in both Hotspur's and Falstaff's scenes: the most obvious one is honour. Hotspur puts honour above anything else; Falstaff has a lengthy speech deriding it. Neither of them is right, and rather than choosing between them, it's Hal's job to learn what he can from each and reject their faults.

This brings us to Hal himself, another very enjoyable character. In an early speech, Hal makes sure to inform the Elizabethan audience (probably as concerned as any father by his irresponsibility) that his fecklessness is a show, adopted to make everyone think all the better of him when he suddenly reforms upon becoming king. It's not hard to assume from this that Hal must be a fairly cold and conniving character, but I don't think this is what Shakespeare is trying to convey. Shakespeare often gives us heroic characters who plan their success in cold detail ahead of time, and it's almost always a sign of moral seriousness and strength of character. Just think of Petruchio, arriving in Padua with the avowed intention of marrying wealthily no matter how ugly or old the woman is. Deliberation is always a sign of strength of character in Shakespeare, and Hal is no exception. He intends to become king, and to do a good job of it, and as genuinely as he enjoys the low company he keeps, as much as he is learning about how to relate to and inspire the ordinary man, he knows that his place is not truly with them. One day, he will be forced to break with them, and it's going to be painful for everyone.

I wish I could have spent more time thinking this play through before reviewing it, but Shakespeare is difficult to get to the bottom of! If you've read a helpful article on Henry IV Part 1, drop a link in the comments!

I've seen the Hollow Crown production of this play, featuring some excellent acting work from Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Jeremy Irons as a crabby and compelling Henry IV, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. For some reason the director thought it was important to include a bit of nudity, which, you know, back then they had guys playing the ladies anyway so they would have kept them all covered up so as to preserve the illusion, so don't pretend you need it for authenticity, gah. Parental discretion advised.

Find Henry IV Part 1 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Poem: The Village Choir by Anonymous

I've been a little behindhand this week, so I will just edify you with this poem, which I came across years ago in a music anthology. Old Hundredth, of course, is the "All People That on Earth Do Dwell" setting of Psalm 100, which usually isn't rendered with such verve as on the memorable occasion of the Village Choir...

The Village Choir
(After the Charge of the Light Brigade)
by Anonymous

Half a bar, half a bar,
Half a bar onward!
Into an awful ditch
Choir and precentor hitch,
Into a mess of pitch,
They led the Old Hundred.
Trebles to right of them.
Tenors to left of them,
Basses in front of them,
Bellowed and thundered.
Oh, that precentor's look,
When the sopranos took
Their own time and hook,
From the Old Hundred!

Screeched all the trebles here,
Boggled the tenors there,
Raising the parson's hair,
While his mind wandered;
Theirs not to reason why
This psalm was pitched too high;
Theirs but to gasp and cry
Out the Old Hundred.
Trebles to right of them,
Tenors to left of them,
Basses in front of them,
Bellowed and thundered.
Stormed they with shout and yell,
Not wise they sang nor well,
Drowning the sexton's bell,
While all the church wondered.

Dire the precentor's glare,
Flashed his pitchfork in air,
Sounding fresh keys to bear
Out the Old Hundred.
Swiftly he turned his back,
Reached he his hat from rack,
Then from the screaming pack,
Himself he sundered.
Tenors to right of him,
Trebles to left of him,
Discords behind him,
Bellowed and thundered.
Oh, the wild howls they wrought:
Right to the end they fought!
Some tune they sang, but not,
Not the Old Hundred.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ensign Carey by Ronald Welch

Ensign Carey, the eleventh (and second-last) in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series, begins unconventionally with a burglary. In a gritty Victorian London setting, an impoverished young blueblood robs the house where he was a guest the week before, then murders an accomplice who seems a little too curious about his real identity.

It quickly turns out that this character is not, in fact, our protagonist and the latest Carey whose adventures we'll be following through some pivotal moment of history... but it's a brilliant opening to one of the more unconventional of the Carey series, an opening that manages to neatly foreshadow just about everything else.

Because William Carey, our actual protagonist, is not a particularly heroic figure either. Selfish to the point that he's never felt true sympathy for another human being, William Carey is an idle young man who prefers slumming in the London underworld to study or honest work. An encounter with a billiards sharp provides William with his first real ambition: to become a billiards sharp himself, and use his skill to line his pockets.

After a drunken horse race at Cambridge goes terribly wrong, William is sent down in disgrace and forced to enlist as an ensign in the extremely uncelebrated Bengal Army. William endures his purgatory in the heat and boredom of life in India in his usual way, but trouble is in the air: not just for him, but for all the English sahibs in Bengal.

I often feel that plotting is not Welch's strong point, and as with many of his other books, this one, while never dull, is not particularly tight. But it made up for this with some terrific characters, plus opening and closing chapters that form deliciously ironic bookends for the story.

Ronald Welch's heroes usually have a character flaw to overcome, but none of the ones I've read are so close to sociopathery. William is a genuinely repulsive character, but I was impressed by how well-written he was. Welch is always showing him doing understandable or even thoughtful or brave things, and then just as you think William has grown and learned, yank! out comes the carpet from under your feet, as you learn the truly selfish motivations William has for his actions. This is not to say that William doesn't grow or learn: by the end of the story, he's risen to the occasion in a number of ways, and managed to feel sorry for someone not himself. But I was fascinated and impressed by the deftness of the characterisation here, which never completely breaks your liking for this character, despite all his avarice, low cunning, and gutsy determination to live comfortably on the misfortunes of others.

It was huge fun to have a black-sheep protagonist for a change. After all, not all families turn out generations of unblemished military heroes. But my favourite thing about this book was what Welch did with this character in the end. I'm not going to tell you exactly what happens, but suffice it to say that William does not get away with the fruits of his misdeeds. I am a huge fan of morally compromised characters in fiction, as long as the author doesn't then attempt the belly-dance of moral relativism in an attempt to get me to approve of their wrongdoing. Ronald Welch is not, on the whole, that kind of author. He's the ruthless kind, and I loved it.

That said, it is nice to have a rather more heroic Carey in this book. The protagonist of the previous instalment, Nicholas Carey, turns up in this one to provide a foil for what William might have been if he was less selfish. Of course, Nicholas had his own character arc from apathy to sympathy in his own book, and it's interesting that in both the books Welch wrote in a Victorian setting, he was savagely critical of the vices of young Victorian men.

Another part of this critique of Victorianism crops up in the India passages. I know that the case against colonialism is often over-stated these days (at least one Indian intellectual has dedicated significant time to exploring the benefits of colonialism in India), but Welch has some thought-provoking things to say. He depicts, without overt judgement, a life of idle luxury which depends on armies of native servants to do the exhausting work of keeping the sahibs and memsahibs comfortable; and he blames the Sepoy rebellion, at least partly, on the fact that few of the British officers took the trouble to learn the names or language of their men. I don't know how historically accurate all this is (Welch's book Knight Crusader, while pretty fair considering how little scholarship had then been done on the history of the Crusader States, is not a miracle of historical accuracy), but as usual with Welch, it's even-handed and level-headed.

I particularly enjoyed this installation of the Carey Family Series. With a delightfully unpleasant protagonist, and an ending that is as ironically satisfying as anything I've every read, this book surprised me in all sorts of delightful ways.

After years out of print, Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is briefly available in beautiful heirloom-quality limited editions from Slightly Foxed. Find Ensign Carey on their website, or better yet, check out the whole series. It's very good! Generally appropriate for middle grade and up, although this book and the next in the series, Tank Commander, include some PG-13 level swearing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Well, I'm back. Tasmania was, as always, wonderful, and at the Pilgrim Artists' Festival I was privileged to meet (or spend more time with) some amazing local artists: indie author WR Gingell, whose books you should definitely check out if you love fairytales, Georgette Heyer, or mysteries; acoustic guitarist Alan Gogoll; Steve and Marion Isham, who between them write poetry, produce children's books, and make amazing drawings and paintings.

During our stay, our lovely hostess Margaret (herself an award-winning oils painter, while we're on the topic) introduced us to The Hollow Crown, which somehow I'd missed seeing, or getting excited about. Splendidly-acted new Shakespeare films? True, I've never been all that interested in the history plays, but still: Shakespeare.

We only got the chance to see Richard II during our visit, but it was terrific, and having seen it, I knew I had to read the play in full.

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court...

At first glance, you might not think Richard II a bad king. When two noblemen come before him with competing accusations of treason, Richard tries to make up the quarrel before allowing the trial by combat to go ahead. The Duke of Lancaster's son Henry Bolingbroke is convinced that the Duke of Norfolk is guilty of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, and is willing to fight him to prove it. But just as the combat starts, King Richard cancels the match and banishes both combatants to an arbitrary period of exile.

When the Duke of Lancaster, the wise and experienced John of Gaunt, dies, Richard shows his true colours, seizing the Lancaster property to finance a war in Ireland. Enraged that his rightful inheritance should be seized by the crown during his absence, Henry Bolingbroke returns to England determined to reclaim it, by force if necessary. Meanwhile, rumours about the Duke of Gloucester's death thicken: was the murder plotted by Norfolk, or did Norfolk only cover up for someone who must not be suspected?

I'm not sure I even realised that Shakespeare had written a history play about Richard II (my tastes have always run to his comedies), let alone whether it was considered one of his best or not, but Richard II was magnificent, and as usual with a well-regarded Shakespeare play, it surprised me with a few very famous speeches. For example, this is where the This sceptr'd isle, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise... this England speech comes from, as the dying John of Gaunt complains about Richard's rule.

This play, like much of Shakespeare, is full of spine-tinglingly magnificent lines. In addition, I was fascinated to note that the "sceptr'd isle" speech begins a motif repeated through the play, of England as a badly-tended garden, an Eden beset by curses. Another motif, drawn out and beaten to death in the Hollow Crown version, is Richard II's view of himself as a quasi-divine figure, a type of Christ, having a divine right to rule however he wants. Against this, Shakespeare pits the insistence of Richard's barons that right to rule depends not on birth or office, but on justice. Richard fails multiple times at the beginning of the play to do justice, and it's this that naturally deprives him of his crown.

But one of the things that struck me most deeply about this play was its ambiguity. The two dominating figures are the plain-spoken Henry Bolingbroke, and Richard himself. And what a character Richard is, by the way: wilful, emotional, and weak; always performing to an audience, saving himself from the worst of his humiliations simply by bravura monologuing; and yet weirdly charming, sympathetic, and even noble in the midst of his richly-deserved trials. Richard is no clear-cut villain (indeed, Victorian productions of the play apparently used to make a saint of him), but neither is Henry a clear-cut hero. He accuses Norfolk, rather broadly, of "all the treasons for these eighteen years", and legitimises his own claim to the throne in speeches that seem increasingly threadbare and desperate; by the end, he consolidates his grip on the crown with a series of executions, but puts on a show of remorse over Richard's coffin.

Which makes this play a fascinating character study. Overall, I believe it's a veiled critique of the idea of the divine right of kings (an evaluation shared by Elizabeth I, who was so offended by the play that it had to be heavily censored). There are two theories of kingship here: Richard's theory that kingship is substantiated by its existence, and Henry's (at first), that it is substantiated by justice. As the Duke of York warns Richard early on, a king who refuses to respect his subjects' rights is laying a dangerous precedent:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?

If Richard takes away Henry's patrimony, he ought not to be terribly surprised when Henry takes away Richard's patrimony. And yet that first act of injustice does not absolve Henry. By not being content to regain what he has lost, by taking more than he promised, Henry founds his own kingship on the same brand of injustice that Richard committed early in the play. Although Henry begins his rebellion on a platform of limited monarchy, he ends it with something very like absolutism because at this stage he can no longer rely on justice. By the end of the play, Richard dies; but by the end of the play, it seems, he has converted Henry to his way of thinking.

Richard II is an extraordinarily rich and subtle play which I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of. And now I'm excited to dive in and work my way through all of Shakespeare's historical plays, especially now that I know where to find some excellent filmed editions to form my introduction.

The Hollow Crown production of Richard II features Ben Whishaw in a truly excellent performance and some memorable supporting work from Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and Rory Kinnear as Henry Bolingbroke. For some reason, it chooses to cut the Gloucester subplot entirely, an odd decision since that makes so much sense of many of the characters' actions, as well as the fun scene in Act IV where everyone is throwing down gauntlets and Aumerle has to ask someone to loan him a third. Oh well--this was otherwise very good, and you really must see Shakespeare performed to experience him properly.

Find Richard II on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.


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