Sunday, March 15, 2009

King Henry IV, part I

It may have been a help or a hindrance to have seen Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V years before reading, to give it its long title, The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. The film is interlarded with specially created flashback-style scenes lifted from this latter play, so that the viewer of all the action leading up to the battle of Agincourt, involving all those kings and dukes, can understand what is going on with un-noble characters like Bardolph, Pistol, and Hostess Quickly as well. And Falstaff.

It may have been a help because it ensured that some of Falstaff's lines from 1 Henry IV were already in my mind, as the actor playing him delivered them. It helps to be able to recall a professional making sense of Shakespeare's language. "Do thou amend thy face, and I'll amend my life;" "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." (As a matter of fact the actor was Robbie Coltrane, later of Hagrid fame in the Harry Potter movies. And the newest Batman, Christian Bale, showed up then as the Boy. Yes, this movie is twenty years old.)

Remembering the droll meet-the-peasantry scenes in Henry V may have been a hindrance to reading Henry IV, however, because those scenes in their vividness prepared me to descry one particular theme in the play, and that is the theme of legitimacy. Those same droll scenes become tragic, when mighty Prince Hal abandons his peasant friends, as he must do in order to take up his father's crown and simply to become completely what he is -- king, in fate and in soul. He hangs Bardolph for theft on the road to Agincourt ("Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief" -- "No. Thou shalt"). He goes nowhere near Falstaff's deathbed (Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world -- "I do. I will."). Branagh may have played fast and loose with the niceties of Shakespeare's meanings in these flashbacks, but they do stay in the mind either because they are filled with a human sorrow that remains true, or because we modern little democratic types are so appalled by the sixteenth century's definitions of nobility that we fixate on them. Either way, they obstruct our view of other possible themes. Or do they? Are there other themes in 1 Henry IV besides legitimacy -- besides who belongs where?

What other themes could there be? Legitimacy seems to trump all. The action in the play shifts rhythmically between noble and commoner. We see the king and his court in palaces, then Falstaff and Prince Hal and their cronies in inn yards and taverns. Then back to king and dukes, then back to Eastcheap. After a while, this firm switching in scenery and action seems nearly pedestrian, as if we are reading a young playwright who has been told to mix it up and not bore people, but also to remember to tie his characters together somehow. They are tied by the Prince and Falstaff -- who, after all, is Sir John Falstaff, and therefore himself a titled link between Hal and the commoners -- but the Prince in his very first soliloquy announces his distance ("I know you all, and will awhile uphold The unyoked humor of your idleness"), while Falstaff is only permitted to enter Hal's world in the fifth act and even then, is told to be quiet in the presence of majesty ("Peace, chewet, peace"). Who belongs where may not even have been a question that sixteenth-century playgoers would have asked, as they watched a Prince of Wales and a happy sack-swiller pal about together. They knew that was temporary. They were probably far more exercised by the question of who belongs on the throne in the first place.

The storyline of 1 Henry IV concerns this more important legitimacy, that of the king, Hal's father, and his right to the crown he usurped from King Richard II. As the play opens, rebellion is underway, among other powerful lords of course, not among the common folk. The Earl of Northumberland and his son, Harry Percy (Hotspur), are at the head of a confederation including Scots and Welsh nobles and no less a magnate than the Archbishop of York, angry at the death of a brother in battle. We learn that one of these lords, Mortimer, had been proclaimed next in line to the throne by the deposed Richard before he was, it seems, murdered by the present king Henry himself; the reader can either read history or read Richard II or both in order to get all the details, but suffice it to say that this noble confederation has it in for Henry IV. All have grievances, but fundamentally all think they can do better as king, and that they deserve the position more.

The story wends its way to the battle of Shrewsbury (July 21, 1403), where the rebel lords will meet the forces of the king, his two sons Prince Hal (a refugee from the taverns) and John of Lancaster, and the loyal Earl of Westmoreland. We see almost nothing of the common soldiers who are the fighting forces there, except through the eyes of Falstaff. He is ordered by the Prince to raise a levy of men, and of the one hundred and fifty "rag-of-muffins" he presses into service, "not three are left alive" at the end (V., iii.). As it happens, three important rebel lords don't come to Shrewsbury in time, and so treason fails. The prince kills his opposite number, Hotspur, in single combat, after having rescued his father from assassination. The play ends mid-story. The king sends his two sons in opposite directions, to fight the barons who missed the battle but who still stand in defiance of his rule.

Never having seen 1 Henry IV performed, I can't say what it looks like, but Falstaff must be great fun to watch ("Go hang thyself in thine own heir-apparent garters!" he shouts at his future sovereign). Hostess Quickly's shrieking arguments with him about the safety of her inn not only make the reader smile, but make him cheer for her as she holds her own against him and in the presence of the Prince, too. There is a part for Mortimer's wife, the "Lady" who speaks only Welsh but whose words are not set down. How is this handled? And it seems, theater troupes must know and carry on the tradition that Bardolph has some sort of disgusting skin problem; he is the butt of all sorts of jokes about his face being fiery or lamp-like. What is supposed to be wrong with him?

And above all, who, what, is legitimate and what is not? Prince Hal is the son of a man who should not necessarily be king, yet we are to understand that he is a magnificent person not only in his own right, but also because this is natural in the son of a king. He is gentle, brave, chivalrous, and quiet. When noble circumstances arise, like insurrection and war, he behaves nobly amid them. Falstaff is a commoner, loud, drunken, witty, good-hearted. When noble circumstances arise, he behaves like an ordinary man who wants to stay alive. Before the battle, he and his royal friend have a simple exchange:

FALSTAFF: I would 'twere bedtime, Hal, and all well.
PRINCE: Why, thou owest God a death. [Exit.]
FALSTAFF: 'Tis not due yet ....

The Prince loves honor, and is not afraid of that simple thing he owes God. He will stake his life honorably, royally, on defending and possessing power. Falstaff, the common man, expresses the simple wish of all common men who have ever gone into battle for the sake of their betters -- or their own, to be fair ("every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head" -- Henry V, IV., i). When it comes to mortal combat, he fakes his own death and then rises up happily a moment later, bragging that he has killed Hotspur himself after a fight lasting an hour.

PRINCE: Why, Percy I killed myself, and saw thee dead!
FALSTAFF: Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying.

For all the space and fun given to Falstaff, the reader can't help but think, as soon as Hal speaks in his own voice (that first soliloquy is in blank verse, of course) -- this man is not your friend. You're not legitimate, not enough. Of course, the reader with memories of watching Henry V knows the road these characters are taking, and it's especially the modern, democratic reader who finds Hal's abandonment of the people at Eastcheap to be almost the heart of all the action. Sixteenth-century readers, or theater-goers, may have known better. Perhaps to them it was Shrewsbury and Agincourt that mattered, and perhaps they couldn't wait for Hal to do what was right, and for everyone's sake get there.

Battlefield at Shrewsbury. Photo from

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