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Faltstaff is often put forward as one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, and understandably so. The old, fat, roguish knight has a towering presence even on the page, and I could sympathize with his fatherly love for Prince Hal and his fear that the boy will eventually turn on him. Henry IV, who was emotionally distant in Richard II (like most everyone), has some wonderful moments of vulnerability, even breaking into tears in Act III scene 2. And despite the fact that he’s the antagonist, I found Hotspur oddly likable. He’s brazen and impetuous—there must be Scots blood in there somewhere—and in spite of his constant avowals that he does not have “the gift of tongue,” he’s quite eloquent:
“But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”
Methinks the noble lord doth protest too much.
Actually, the only character who I had trouble liking was Hal himself, the protagonist. I learned this story through an old Wishbone episode, which whitewashed the character somewhat, so I was surprised to pick up the play and discover just how cunning and scheming he is. His dissoluteness and eventual redemption are not genuine, but staged to bring about a certain end; in the meantime, he manipulates the people around him with Machiavellian dexterity. I find that more and more I am placing a premium on honesty, both in books and in real life, and that may be why I prefer some of the other characters over the prince. Falstaff’s attempts at fibbing and playacting are generally unconvincing to those around him—he is inexpert—and I don’t think Hotspur could every bring himself to tell a barefaced lie, which may be one of the reasons I find him so lovable.
This is where we ended our perusal of the history plays in my Shakespeare class, but I plan to continue with this particular tetralogy before PBS airs new adaptations of all four plays later this year. Because I enjoyed Henry IV, Part I so much, I’m looking forward to reading more about these characters.
Henry IVi is the second of the Bard's (imposing) historical tetralogy following the ascent of Lancastrian dynasty, which first grapple into power in Richard II and carry it through the series. Then there's the Henry VI plays (a different set). Then things devolve into chaos in full-on War of the Roses mode through dastardly Richard III before everyone gets vanquished by the glorious Tudors (one must pause and consider the historical source here a bit—Shakespeare as propaganda mouthpiece for the Tudors? Hells yeah, for sure).
OK, OK, so the Shakespeare history plays. Hard. I won't gloss over that. And by hard I mean keeping one's head around the characters. The (wayward) future Henry V is referenced in the play as: Prince, Henry, Harry, Hal, Lancaster, the Prince of Wales. Most people are named Henry and most have more than one title, which also serves as a moniker.
Here's my advice. Remember these names: Percy, Neville, Northumberland. Those are the names and ducal territories of the dastardly northerners who rebel against Henry Bolingbroke (that is, the former Duke of Lancaster, aka Henry IV) in the play. To this day, the Percys and Nevilles are northerners with oomph (the current head of the Neville clan is Christopher George Charles Nevill, 6th Marquess of Abergavenny, born 1955; the current Duke of Northumberland is a Percy).
The fractious Percys and Nevilles, fronted by exquisite hothead Henry Percy—sigh, another Percy, another Henry, but rest easy: he's called Hotspur throughout the play and lives up to the title—aren't happy with the hand they've been dealt since Henry IV's deposition of wimpy old Richard II. Promises, promises, Henry IV made, but apparently isn't delivering. The specific reasons for the revolt are not that clear, nor do they appear to be that important to Shakespeare.
At the same time, wastrel/quintessential prodigal brat, the young King Hal, is frolicking around with the farcical John Falstaff, who resembles nothing more than a 16th-century Homer Simpson: fat, dumb, greedy, pathetic comic relief. His bawdy dipshittery is a stand-in for Hal's real father (the king). The king would like nothing more than for Hal to act like Hotspur (this before the revolt), who, in his mind, is the ideal valiant son.
Throughout the play, Falstaff plays the opposite tack in terms of honor, through several speeches decrying its perceived value. Interesting stuff. The play's tavern antics are balanced with standard Shakespeare high-falutin' battle scenes. Everything ends well enough, with Hotspur dying grandly and honorably, and the succession less threatened.
The plays vernacular, prose (i.e. not in meter) sections are some of the hardest Shakespeare to get through, and require glossing for all but the most middle/early-modern English expert.
Get a good edition with lots of footnotes. I use the Folger Library series, not because of their physical quality—they have rough paper and the reek of coloring books or newsprint—but because their facing-page notes are the easiest reference I've found for getting through the plays. Not by a sight my favorite Shakespeare play, but, hey, I'm making it through the histories.
I found myself losing focus sometimes during 1 Henry IV, and I'm not sure whether it was the context - I had little free time this weekend and I found myself reading it in small bites, sometimes while the wife watched cooking reality shows. Not a great way to read Shakespeare - or maybe it was that it's been a while since I read a bunch of Shakespeare in quick succession, and my Shakespeare muscles have gone all flabby. We'll see.
Where Richard II was very faithful to the actual history, Shakespeare departs more readily from the strict truth of things in the Henry IV plays. He throws a lot more stuff in from non-historical characters, Falstaff being the obvious one, possibly because he needs some padding to make this into two different plays; I'm not sure why he did two plays, but maybe I'll get it more after the second one. (I've read all this before, but it's been a while so I don't remember how 2 Henry IV ends.) The dramatic arc in this first part works perfectly, anyway; the climactic (and completely fabricated) duel between the young Henry V and Hotspur makes a great Act V.
Interesting, by the way, that Henry V is at least co-lead with Henry IV in this first part, and he's clearly the main character in the second. Just sayin'. I wonder whether we'd see these plays differently if 2 Henry IV had been called 1 Henry V. I think Henry IV gets less attention than Henry V in part because it's two plays, which makes people more anxious about reading them. More commitment, y'know? But if you take 1 Henry IV on its own...well, it's not as good as Richard II, but it's very good.
I'm rambling badly, aren't I? Truth is I have work to do and I don't want to do it. But okay, I should get to it. See you soon for 2 Henry IV.
Saccio's book, by the way, is great. Fun to read, really informative. My pattern has been to read the chapter about the play, then the play, then my Riverside Shakespeare's intro to the play; it's working out nicely. There's a lot of flipping between books involved, though; I'm going to buy a physical copy of Saccio today so I can reference it better. Paging around on a Kindle totally sucks.
I've recorded it as read 6 times.
The Hal/Falstaff robbery scene was quite amusing and set up the drama of the Hal/Hotspur confrontation with Falstaff taking credit for Hotspur's death.
It's got a good story line, Henry IV is fighting rivals for his throne and trying to bring his unruly son under control. Falstaff is a pretty funny character -- I thought he was much more fun here than in "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
Altogether, they have all the high drama of an epic saga with their vivid accounts of treachery, ambition, power, betrayal, feuding and war in an age of bloody upheaval.
If all this sounds gloomy and depressing, there are also colourful well-developed and memorable characters including the 'man mountain' plump and usually tipsy John Falstaff and the heroic Henry V as well as plenty of courage, chivalry and deeds of daring-do with a smattering of romance and humour.
Whoever said Shakespeare was boring? It should be said, however, that I could not fully appreciate these plays by simply reading them- they had to be seen as well. They are not, after all, novels, and reading through them in the way one would a book can be a tedious experience.
In this play King Henry IV struggles to maintain his position and power in the face of rebellion from the influential, passionate, impetuous and headstrong Henry Hotspur young son of the powerful Earl of Northumberland who joins with the King's enemies.
Alongside the threat of rebellion and civil war King Henry strives with his own wayward son Prince Hal (the future Henry V) who spends most of his time in seedy taverns and the company of ne'er-do- wells such as John Falstaff.
As events come to a head, Hal promises to prove himself worthy of his father's respect, and ultimately the position and authority of his future Kingship on the battlefield.
"But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time's fool
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop." Hotspur, V 4 80-82.
"Why? She's neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her."
"Thou art an unjust man in saying so. Thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave thou." Falstaff & Mrs Quickly, III 3 126-129.