Friday, April 1, 2016

Henry IV, Part 2 - Shakespeare

When last we left our heroes, Prince Hal had just killed Hotspur in battle.  His father, King Henry IV was proud of him and had begun to hope that maybe, just maybe, the prince wasn't as worthless as the friends that that prince had gathered to him.  Falstaff had claimed to have killed Hotspur and was hoping that his friendship with Prince Hal would protect him from (true) charges that he had robbed some men of a thousand pounds.
As part 2 opens, we find that the king is sick and everyone is worried about what kind of king Prince Hal will be.  Falstaff is being sought by the Chief Justice about the theft and there is a not subtle hint in the air that the Justice may be in trouble if he doesn't drop the matter.  Threatening the new king's friends is a terrible career move. 
The revolt that killed Hotspur is also still afoot.  This time it is stopped not by battle but by treachery.  The leaders of the revolt are tricked into dispersing their men.  Then they are taken captive.  This plotline is then closed.
Meanwhile, the king is close to death.  He lays down and asks that the crown be put near him.  Prince Hal comes in and after a short time, thinks that his father is dead.  Hal takes the crown and speaks about what an awful burden and challenge awaits him.  King Henry IV wakes and finds the crown missing.  He accuses his son of wishing his death.  Hal convinces him that this is not so.  The king understands and then dies.
Prince Hal is crowned Henry V and he works very hard to assure the kingdom that he is up to the task.  He specifically tells the Chief Justice that he must continue to do his job.  He tells him that he respects what he is doing.
Falstaff learns that the crown has changed hands and he rushes to the coronation with his cronies.  He breaks in to speak to the king and Henry V tells him that Falstaff and his men must never come near him again.  The Chief Justice throws them in prison. 

The main theme of the 'Henry IV' plays is that of the upbringing of Henry V.  I don't know how much of a concern this really was at the time, but Shakespeare brings it to the fore.  A wild, wastrel prince is a thing to be feared and how lucky is England to have avoided such an awful fate. 
Meanwhile, the titular king is given fairly short shrift.  He worries and worries.  He has some nice speeches and a couple of notable lines.  "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" being one of them.  But these aren't his stories.

We get the full action of Prince Hal becoming Henry V and throwing off his former, disreputable companions.  In most cases this is no big deal.  Poins, Bardolph and Pistol are clearly trash.  In the case of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, they are good women (in some ways) but clearly on the lower rungs of society.
The shocking case is that of Sir John Falstaff.  His exile and imprisonment at the end feel like a betrayal.  True, he is not an honest man and it's best for all involved for him to not have the king's ear.  But the turn is brutal.  I can't help but wonder if Shakespeare himself thought so.  The play ends with an epilogue that literally tells the audience that the story of Falstaff is not done yet.

I can't imagine reading/seeing either of the Henry IV's without the other.  Neither one would work.  The first part would feel wildly unfinished while the second part would feel too much like it begins in the middle.  Shakespeare had already written a trilogy of Henry VI plays.  I bet he planned on several plays here.  From what scholars can tell, the continuing story of Falstaff, 'Merry Wives of Windsor' was made between Henry IV part 2 and Henry V.  The only break from this set of characters and stories was (probably) 'Much Ado About Nothing'. 
I can't tell if I liked the Henry IV plays or not.  They are quite difficult to stage (I'm sure).  But I'd like to see them done by someone else, in a different way.  (I almost wonder if they'd be better done as a group reading!)  Worth going over, of course, just not certain what the best way to communicate this type of story.

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