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.

9 comments:

Sophia White said...

I like the later parts of the Henry story better, once he's past some of his immaturity. But this part has some good speeches too. . .
Last semester (I think it was last? Maybe the one before) I had a Shakespeare class in which we read this play and watched a piece of a movie. Unfortunately it was a tavern scene, with girls and all. If it weren't for that, it would have been really neat, as that's the closest I've been to seeing Shakespeare acted.

(I read your article on Wonder Woman, by the way, and though I haven't seen it, and won't be seeing it, I thought it was good --- I've read about the film and it seemed sort of decent. Except, like you said, all those 'empowered' women in next to no clothes. What armour they had looked like useful armour, but they didn't have nearly enough of it. I've seen real women fighters, and when they're on the field, you can't tell the difference between them and the guys, except the women are usually smaller.)

https://ofdreamsandswords.wordpress.com

M Tess said...

If you haven't already come across it, I recommend checking out A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters, about the disintegrating relationships between Henry and Hotspur and Hal, and Hal's painful maturation. A bit slow to start, and very deliberate, until near the end when it gathers force and the final scenes come like a freight train. I read it almost all at once on a plane, which probably intensified the effect.

Anonymous said...

A fine, thoughtful reading! Parts of it reminded me of an excellent little essay on Henry V by Charles Williams, which you might find especially interesting to read, just now. It was first published in Shakespeare Criticism 1919-1935, selected by his young friend, Anne Bradby, in the wonderful little pocket-sized hardback Oxford Classics series and reprinted for decades with her name appearing as Anne Ridler, once she married Vivian Ridler (who became the Printer to the University). She went on to write plays herself, and opera libretti - including of MacDonald´s Princess and Curdie (and to produce singable translations of others). The essay has just been reprinted in The Celian Moment and Other Essays by Williams, edited and annotated with a fine introduction by Stephen Barber. (The Inkling/'Seven'-loving Fr. Aidan Kimel kindly published a guest-post review of it by me at his Eclectic Orthodoxy blog recently.)

I might add that I really enjoyed and benefitted from Williams's more extensive writing about Shakespeare and his plays in The English Poetic Mind (1932) and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (1933), both scanned in the Internet Archive.

Do try to see the BBC complete Shakespeare productions of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I & II, Henry V, Henry VI, Parts, I, II, and III, and Richard III from the late 1970s-early 1980s, which have among their great virtues that of very few lines being cut. (They've been out on dvd for years, singly and in various boxed sets, and I'd hope there are public libraries that still have them...) I pity the actors of the recent Hollow Crown series, it must be both heartrending and exceedingly annoying to have everything pared down to so little text, with whole interesting and important scenes left out. I'd like someday to catch up with the BBC Shakespeare's An Age of Kings series from the 1960s (also on dvd), with Robert Hardy as Henry V, in 15th-c. period costumes, of which I've seen glorious snippets.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Sophia, I'm looking forward to experiencing Henry IV Part 2 shortly. You should definitely make the attempt to see Shakespeare performed, whether live on stage or just on DVD--it's really how Shakespeare was meant to be experienced. Glad you enjoyed the WONDER WOMAN review! I was pleasantly surprised by it, even after having heard some positive reviews.

M, oh, I don't have the Pargeter book you mention, though I've collected two of her Welsh quartet. Sounds interesting! I'll keep an eye out for it.

David, I'm glad you enjoyed the review, and thanks for the CW recommendation. I'm going to have to try to find it. I didn't know Williams had written on Shakespeare. I have been enjoying the HOLLOW CROWN series as an aperetif to actually reading the full play, but I'm sure that I'll get around to seeing the BBC productions as well (the MUCH ADO from that set is my *favourite*. Yes, above Branagh!).

Anonymous said...

Williams even has a fun play about the Bard, chock-full of excerpts, which (as far as I know) is now out of copyright and would be great to see/hear performed (or to get to be in): A Myth of Shakespeare.

(Maybe somebody higher tech than I can scan it for the Internet Archive...)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Just ran into something I'd somehow missed - a 26-part audio tour of English royal history, apparently consisting largely of Shakespeare excerpts with great actors, in a frame narrated by Richard Burton, from BBC Radio in 1977, and released on CD: Vivat Rex!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Joseph J said...

I wonder if when Henry V came out people were like, "ugh, not another sequel! And can you believe they killed off Falstaff? He was the best character!"

Anonymous said...

Joseph J,

Interesting to consider, in this context, Ann Barton's reporting in her introduction in the Riverside Shakespeare that "For some commentators, the idea is palpably absurd" to date The Merry Wives of Windsor, with the other appearance of Falstaff and companions, to "between the first and second parts of Henry IV and well before Henry V", while "for others, it represents an entirely plausible account of what happened." The first group presumably include many who think Shakespeare came out with an extra Falstaff play, after Henry V - who knows, maybe 'back by popular demand' was a factor! She also reports the "well-known theatrical tradition, first recorded by John Dennis in 1702, to the effect that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor at royal command, because the Queen had asked for a play about Falstaff in love" - maybe it only took one fan thinking "He was the best character!"

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Isn't it funny, in this age of the neverending sequelprequelrebootcinematicuniversespinofffranchise, that even ~*William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon*~ was not above series and spinoffs? Henry V seems to have been something of a folk hero in Shakespeare's day, though, so I'm pretty sure popular opinion would have been more along the lines of "Ohhhhh man, this is the one we've all been waiting for! It's going to be awesome!"

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