Friday, August 4, 2017

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

This week I continued exploring Shakespeare's history plays with Henry IV, Part 2. In the third part of Shakespeare's English-History Theatrical Universe (I'm sorry, couldn't resist), King Henry IV's illness worsens as second son Prince John of Lancaster mops up the rebels from the previous play.

In any series, duology or trilogy there are usually instalments that lack the quality of the others, and it's hard not to see Henry IV Part 2 as the obligatory filler episode, necessary to bridge the gap between the two hits of Henry IV Part 1 and Henry V. Putting on my own author hat, I think the main reason this play feels so filler-ish is that the central character, Prince Hal, evidently has so little to do. In Part 1, Hal struggled with his father's disappointment in him, and addressed it by seeking glory on the Shrewsbury battlefield. He did indeed prove himself - but only to himself, because Sir John Falstaff took the credit for the victory (no doubt a sly symbol for how his association with Falstaff has tainted Hal's reputation in other ways as well). 

But in Part 2, although Henry IV remains doubtful about his son, Hal has no plans to prove himself, at least not during his father's lifetime. Part 2 is a waiting game as the king sickens, and the most active role in the plot belongs to Hal's younger brother John, who presents a different kind of foil to him than Hotspur in the previous play. Where Hotspur was hot and chivalrous, John is cold and cunning. Hotspur was an old-fashioned medieval knight; John is a more up-to-date renaissance prince, achieving his goals through ruthless realpolitik. While Hal clearly has a dose of cool calculation himself, while he avoids Hotspur's splenetic idealism, he's very much more warm-blooded than his brother, and perhaps Shakespeare is positioning Hal between the two extremes as a way to comment on the ideal king. 

Whether this is so or not, it's fun, in this play, to see John so effortlessly put down the rebellion. The play presents him young and extremely competent, trusted by his father and as anxious as anyone else about Hal's impending accession to the throne. With this in mind, I'm surprised that Shakespeare didn't take this character further, didn't more clearly position him as a threat to Hal, which might have loaned more urgency to the plot. Then again, perhaps Shakespeare is saving him up for some juicy antics in Henry VI. We'll see.

The fact remains that Hal has little to do here, and even Falstaff's antics can't quite save the play. Part 2 finds the fat knight in financial distress, dodging the Chief Justice and taking shameless bribes on a recruiting drive through Gloucestershire, including from two fellows named (I'm not kidding but Shakespeare is) Mouldy and Bullcalf. 

But the play's power, and its somewhat doom-laden tone, derives from the fact that for everyone, time is simply running out. Henry IV, crushed by guilt and disappointment, is dying. Hal's days as a carefree prince are coming to an end, and he has no choice but to go on playing the carefree prince because no one would believe him if he showed his genuine grief. His brothers and courtiers await his accession with dread. And Falstaff's days as a petty thief and general sponger cannot continue, no matter how strenuously he denies it: his only hope is that Hal will become king in time to pay his debts.

The play is, rather simply, the story of how time runs out, and what happens when it does. After so long waiting and wondering, it's actually pretty exciting to see Hal become king. When he does, strangely enough, one of the play's most moving scenes has to do with a highly symbolic character whom we only see in this play: the Lord Chief Justice. We're told that the Chief Justice is trying to corner Falstaff the petty criminal, and that in Falstaff's defence, Hal once socked the Justice's juridical nose. When Hal becomes king, the Chief Justice expects disgrace at best and death at worst, but Hal, it turns out, is more than ready to cast aside Falstaff, the symbolic Vice, and replace him with the equally symbolic Justice. This is easy to understand, but it suggests other possibilities as well: Henry IV, we all know, does not himself have an easy relationship with the blindfolded lady; is Shakespeare hinting that Henry IV had to die before Hal could openly embrace Justice?

At any rate, it was nice to see that when Hal becomes king, he does, in fact, give Falstaff and his other old friends a decent pension. I feel that gets forgotten often.

As before, I introduced myself to this play by watching the Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russel Beale as Falstaff, and the always excellent Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. It's a great production, though as in Richard II, I thought some important scenes were omitted. 

Find Henry IV, Part 2 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.


Jamie W said...

What did you think about Lady Percy's mourning scene? I really love her speech. The first time I heard it spoken I had to pull out the Iliad the same night and read all the bits with Andromache. For me it's the highlight of this (admittedly rather fillerish) play.

Suzannah said...

Oh, yes, that was definitely a highlight. I was sad Lady Percy wasn't in both the plays more...


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