Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Henry IV, Part 1 - Shakespeare

The 'Henriad' continues.  Henry IV is older now and a more established king.  His son, mostly called Prince Hal, is the primary focus.  Hal has fallen in with a group of rogues and scoundrels, most notably a huge man named John Falstaff.  Very early in the play, Falstaff decides to rob some men in the forest.  Prince Hal decides to make a game of this and, along with his friend Poins, he will then rob Falstaff.  They do this, not for the money, but to see what kind of story Falstaff makes up to cover the fact that he has been robbed.  The series of thefts happen and Falstaff does indeed run off like a coward. 
Meanwhile, the king is back at the castle and he is lamenting the sad state of his oldest son.  There is a threat to the north, carried to an extent by a man named Hotspur.  King Henry IV wishes that his son had as much of the ambition and drive as Hotspur.  The king sends men to summon Hal to the castle.
Prince Hal is at the Boar's Head tavern with Poins.  Falstaff and his men arrive and tell the tale of how they were beset by dozens of men (instead of two).  The prince tells him what really happened and Falstaff is momentarily stunned.  But only for a moment.  Then he tells the prince that he knew what was happening the entire time, but couldn't really attack the heir to the throne.  Shortly afterwards, both Falstaff and Hal pretend to be Hal and the king.  This ends with Falstaff 'holding court' over the tavern.
Hal is taken back to the castle and the king is angry with him.  He upbraids him for his behavior and choice of friends.  Hal is chastened.  Preparations are made to go north to face the rebels, led by Hotspur.  Once there, the battle commences.  Hotspur and Prince Hal happen to face each other singly, with Hal winning and killing Hotspur.  The king now sees him in a different light.

It's hard to believe that this could have been written as a standalone play.  The story is deep in character but very shallow in plot.  Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V when crowned, is an important figure in English history.  A play about his upbringing would not simply stop once he defeats Hotspur in combat.
There is an early speech from the prince where he talks about how he is simply with the common folk for the time being, but will break with them when he needs to.  It's hard to know what to do with a speech like this.  To take it at face value makes Hal a conniver of the first order.  It's far, far easier to believe that he played with rogues and scoundrels and then rose to be worthy of majesty at a later time.  But that isn't how Shakespeare presents him.

The headline character of the Henry IV plays is Falstaff.  He is a very large man, but not just in girth.  He also has a larger than life quality.  He is a master at wordplay, even when wrong-footed.  When the prince accuses him of something, he quickly finds a way to explain how the prince got the wrong end of it.  There seems to be a genuine affection from Falstaff to Hal.  Maybe in return as well.
Falstaff also represents a curious balancing act as well.  We, the audience, are drawn to him.  (In some ways, he is a very large precursor to roles like Han Solo.) 
However, he is also steadily corrupting a crown prince.  Hal isn't just some boy, he will someday be king of the realm.  Can he do this in any good way if Falstaff has a say about it?  Doubtful.  In the very opening scene of the two of them together, Falstaff tells Hal not to hang any thieves when he is king.  The implication is clear, Falstaff thinks there is too much law and order and he wants the throne to agree with him.  I imagine this would have been terrifying to the general populace.

This play was also new to me.  It's hard for me to see it plucked out from it's place in the 'Henriad' and enjoying it simply on its own merits. 

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