Henry the Fourth Part I

What a fantastic play.  You halve the number after Henry, and you more than double the quality.  Stupid fat man.  But let’s not dwell on future Henry.  There are plenty of Henrys here to keep us company in this play.

Henry IV Part I is about a Father and his son.  Yes, there’s the whole political intrigue that mostly drives the plot, and we see plenty of interesting characters come in for that, but I don’t really feel like outlining the plot in much detail this post.  I just want to talk for a bit about how Henry IV deals with his son who is also named Henry.  You see, King Henry acquired his title through somewhat questionable means, and a bunch of people are upset by that.  So Henry is trying to maintain the legitimacy of his rule, in addition to suppressing a civil discontent while aspiring to invade the Middle East in a pious Crusade.  But the eldest son that shares his name – and will someday rule this kingdom – is off partying somewhere.

What a complete disappointment

In fact, the King openly states that he wishes the boy was not his son. Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, has an awesome son, and the King says in front of everyone, “O, that it could be proved that some night-tripping fairy had exchanged in cradle-clothes our children where they lay.” That is rough.  Granted, Percy’s son Hotspur is earning glory in battle against enemies of the King, while the prince is at the Boar’s Head Tavern.

But, Prince Henry is not ONLY partying at the bar every night, creating impromptu theatre; not only is he is keeping the company of common soldiers in the countryside; Hal is stealing from travelers and playing violent pranks on his friends to entertain himself.  Let me repeat that: He is getting drunk, and then going out with trained soldiers to mug citizens.  This is crazy, unreasonable behavior for anybody; but this is the son of the freakin’ King.  And everybody knows who he is, and the King even suspects that Hal is being paid off by enemies of the state to do the crazy shit he does.  He’s not, though.  He’s just being a rebellious youth.

Most famous among his brigand troupe is the “whoreson round man,” Sir Falstaff.  Along with the rest of the vagabonds, Hal and Falstaff form a sort of Laurel and Hardy comedic distraction for a great deal of the play.

Except more gangsta.

Tupac as Hal, Notorious B.I.G. as Falstaff. Damn, that's good casting.

It’s really amusing to see these guys casually throwing witty banter back and forth in one scene, and then all of a sudden in another scene Falstaff bursts out of a bush with a knife and a posse,  screaming at unarmed travelers: “Strike; down with them; cut the villains’ throats: -ah, whoreson caterpillars! bacon-fed knaves! they hate us youth: -down with them; fleece them.”

Then, once the mugging is complete, Hal and his friend Pointz costume themselves and mug Falstaff as a prank.  These sort of shenanigans are nearly half of the play, while the other half is Hotspur’s military might defecting to the side of the rebels.  Eventually, Hal is forced to return to his father and explain himself.  Underneath his youthful rebellion, Hal really does want to please his father, and proclaims that he will “Be bold to tell you that I am your son; When I will wear a garment all of blood And stain my favors in a bloody mask which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.”

And then unleash his horrific telekinetic powers upon his peers.

What makes this scene interesting is that Henry IV does not give a shit.  Hal is saying that he will die in battle to make his daddy happy, and the King encourages this.  In all likelihood, Hal will die in battle, and Henry IV seems to actually want that.  After all, if Hal dies, then his good brother John of Lancaster gets to be king.  And while Hal repeatedly offers his life in service to the crown, the King repeatedly offers pardons to the traitors.  And that’s something you don’t usually see done in monarchical regimes.

So why the strained relationship between father and son?  We never really know when or why Hal became the black sheep of the family, we don’t even know where his mom is in all this, but we do know he is aware of what he is doing.  At the end of Act I, scene ii, Hal admits to the audience that “If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.”

Especially if that sport is golf

Apparently this is all a ploy that Henry has set up, so that his someday respectability will be all the more impressive when it comes.  “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill,” he says, actually.  And it kindof seems like bullshit, except it’s the same sort of bullshit that his father did.  In Act III, scene ii, King Henry gives his son a very stern talking to and talks about how he gained the people’s favor when he sought the crown: “By being seldom seen, I could not stir But, like a comet, I was wonder’d at;” and encourages his son to seek a relationship with his people “Such as is bent on sun-like majesty When it shines seldom in admiring eyes.” Yet, “herein will I imitate the sun” was the exact tactic that Hal professed in Act I.  So, like jackass father, like jackass son, apparently.

And yes, I said it.  I’m not the biggest fan of Hal.  I’m on team Hotspur, because Hotspur is a badass of the old Talbot school of badassery.  Also, he’s just the more interesting character to me; he’s the one I’d want to play if I ever got the chance.  But despite being a superior warrior, Hotspur still dies at the hands of Henry, and the prince apparently gains his powers.

"Percy is but my factor, good my lord, To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf"

We see Hotspur throughout the play, usually in contrast what Hal is doing at the Tavern.  While Hal has his bickering bromance with Falstaff, young Percy Hotspur has a tumultuous relationship his loving wife.  Those scenes require a great deal of chemistry to pull off, because there is a huge amount of love underneath their frustrations with each other.  Hotspur leaves a party in a huff because Lady Percy won’t share her beautiful singing voice with the others in the room.  And earlier, she has her famous monologue about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watcht And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars; Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed; Cry, 'Courage, to the field!'"

It’s a beautiful scene, if not sad (Act II, scene iii, if you’re curious), and wonderful evidence of the Bard’s genius.  PTSD as we now understand it wasn’t even recognized until 1980, and was popularly regarded as a shameful or cowardly condition in the centuries before; something that affected the weak-minded grunts, not heroes.  So when Shakespeare inflicts that sort of psychological trauma on “this all-praised knight,” there is something profound being staged.  Compared to those earlier plays, where Shakespeare questions how morality and religion function in the immorality of politics, he is starting to question the very nature of heroism more and more.

Which brings me to “That villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan,” who is in fact a knight in the army, in service under Prince Hal.  In the last half of the play, we witness Falstaff in wartime, where he commits the horrific act of selling out service in his unit: the wealthier troops are able to bribe him and get pardoned from service in the war.  He then replaces their ranks with the poor and elderly and otherwise unfit for survival.  When the prince comments on these “pitiful rascals,” Falstaff retorts: “Tut, tut; good enough to die; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better.” Seriously?  They’re all going to die anyways, might as well be poor people?  Fucking fat men.  Though horrifying and poignant for Shakespeare to show onstage, it is a return to the pitch black humor of Jack Cade of Henry 666.

So yeah: Falstaff isn’t that sympathetic of a character, in my mind.  I actually think he’s kind of horrible.  He just bitches and blames everyone else for his own problems.

Like the Fat Holden Caulfield

Curiously enough, he is also where we get that useful phrase, “The better part of valour is discretion.” This comes after Falstaff fakes his death mid-battle by hiding in a pile of dead bodies.  This is the exact same tactic that Cillian Murphy’s character uses in 28 Days Later so he can escape and return to murder the rapacious soldiers, in case you were curious.  But while there is some wisdom in Falstaff’s tactics, I can’t help but be disgusted by it.  At one point, Hal has been disarmed and comes to Falstaff to re-arm.  Falstaff refuses to offer his sword, but does offer a pistol case filled with booze.  It’s a funny scene, and the dynamic is entertaining, but I can’t shake the feeling that Falstaff’s grotesque brand of heroism is the one prevalent in real life.  The higher heroism, the badass plays-by-his-own-rules heroism that we are sold by popular entertainment, is embodied by Hotspur who gets killed by some brat in battle.

It’s sad, really, and it’s actually put me in somewhat of a bad mood.  So, to cheer myself up, I will end this post with one of Hotspur’s cooler lines, which he delivers on the eve of battle:

“Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily.”

Next week, get ready for Part II.

3 Responses to “Henry the Fourth Part I”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] produced; Shakespeare’s history plays routinely rewrite timelines, invent characters like Falstaff in the heart of historical drama, and at one point Joan of Arc even summons demons.  So […]

  2. […] this play, Cymbeline, doesn’t really have much to say or do.  And I don’t mean like Henry IV or the First Part of Henry VI where the focus frequently leaves the political leader’s stage […]

  3. […] of war and I don’t think it should be ignored here.  In some ways, Hamlet has resemblance to Prince Hal, pursuing a plot that has absolutely nothing to do with the warlike politics raging around his King […]

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