Nearly half way through my Shakespeare marathon, I come for the first time to plays that are in the group that I would previously have described as a “small handful of personal favourites” – plays that I return to repeatedly: the two Henry IV plays. So how do they read in the context of his other work?
For one thing, Shakspeare has solved the problem of presenting a wide, panoramic view of a nation, and at the same time focussing in on individual characters, and on the shifting relationships between them. In the Henry VI plays, he had gone for the former: we have a huge panoramic picture of a nation tearing itself apart, but individual characterisation remains, on the whole, pretty basic. In Richard III and in Richard II, the focus is narrower, but the principal characters are far more deeply characterised. Now, Shakespeare can have it all, and more: the focus is broader than before, and the relationships between the principal characters are depicted with a depth that belongs only to the greatest of art. And the thematic richness far surpasses earlier achievements: honour, loyalty, friendship, love, grief, morality, ageing, illness, death – there’s nothing in life that seems beyond the scope of these extraordinary works.
With such thematic richness, there’s a danger of being pulled in too many different directions at the same time – of the centre not holding. But there’s no danger of that here. Shakespeare’s technique is so assured and polished, that we have to look very hard indeed to try to work out how he pulled this off: everything flows so naturally into everything else, that one really can’t see the joins.
At the centre of this vast epic diptych (and these two parts really should be seen as a single unity) are two relationships – the first between Prince Hal and his father, King Henry IV; and the second between Prince Hal and the man who is, in effect, a sort of surrogate father – Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff, of course, is the star part in these works: it’s the actor who plays Falstaff who gets star billing. And no wonder: he is among Shakespeare’s most wonderful creations. But it is, I think, Prince Hal who holds together all the diverse elements of the play. And, huge and flamboyant though Falstaff is, Shakespeare does not allow the Hal-Falstaff relationship to overshadow the Hal-King Henry relationship. It is a virtuoso piece of writing.
King Henry is a tortured figure, weighed down with guilt (the earlier play in this series, Richard II had ended with the murder of the deposed former king). At the start of the play, he is troubled with seemingly unending rebellion, and with the behaviour of his eldest son, Prince Hal, who, instead of preparing himself for the responsibilities he must one day assume, spends his time dissipating with various disreputable low-life characters. In the very first scene, King Henry himself sets up a comparison between Hal and Hotspur: why could his son not be more like that brave and renowned warrior Hotspur?
We then see Prince Hal for ourselves, in company with this disreputable Sir John Falstaff. It’s easy to forget, I think, that Falstaff is a nobleman. He is, after all, a knight, and is later given a commission to recruit troops and to command them; his witticisms are peppered with casual but erudite references to the Bible, indicating that he had been well educated; and, when he impersonates the King at one point, he does so superbly – indicating that he had seen the king in court. If Falstaff is seen in low dives rather than in the court, it’s because this is how he prefers it: court life is too stifling for him. And, I think, it is too stifling for Hal as well. There is something cold about the Bolingbrokes in general – a certain stiff formality, a lack not merely of sentimentality but also of sentiment: the focus is on duty, on responsibility. Hal knows well enough the tremendous weight of the responsibility he has to assume, and, as we soon see, he doesn’t shirk it: but there is another part of his character that desperately needs an outlet, and it has found this outlet with Falstaff and his boozing cronies. For here Hal finds all the warmth, the friendship and fellow-feeling, the conviviality, the laughter, the high spirits – all that is absent from court life. And above all, here is some respite from that terrible burden of responsibility that Hal knows cannot indefinitely be shirked.
And he does not mean to shirk it. At the end of the first scene in which we see Hal, he has a monologue that has troubled many readers and theatregoers. He speaks of leaving all this behind once he becomes king. However, we know that Falstaff obviously feels a deep affection for Hal, and it is troubling that Hal seems so calculating – that Falstaff’s affection for him appears not to be reciprocated. For, if Hal is indeed merely leading Falstaff on in a cold-blooded manner, then that can only be seen as reprehensible.
I think the truth is considerably more complex than this. I think there is an element of Hal that is cold and calculating (he is a Bolingbroke, after all!), but there’s also a large element of himself that finds an affinity with the world of Falstaff; but he knows that this large part of himself has to be amputated. And if it hurts Falstaff, it hurts himself as well; but, contrary to appearances, Hal does take his responsibilities seriously. It will be objected that if this is indeed the case, Hal should stay away from Falstaff, and not lead him on. But, after Act Two of the First Part, Hal does precisely this: he does stay away from Falstaff. There is very little contact between Hal and Falstaff during the military campaign against the rebels in the latter half of Part One; and in Part Two, Hal makes a conscious effort to keep away: they are only together very briefly. And in the big tavern scene of the First Part ( Act 2 Scene 4), Hal as good as tells Falstaff quite explicitly that he will reject him: despite his intelligence (and he is a very intelligent person), Falstaff chooses not to take the warning seriously.
For most of the duration of these two plays, Hal tries, I think, to keep his distance; but he desperately needs Falstaff, and he finds it almost impossible to stay away. We find a very similar situation in the later play Antony and Cleopatra, where Antony too – at least at the start of the play – is torn between his sense of duty and responsibility on the one hand, and his overwhelming desire on the other hand for a personal fulfilment (in his case, in the arms of Cleopatra) that mere fulfilment of duty cannot offer. Antony, of course, is much older than Hal, and, in the course of the play, we see him abandon altogether his responsibilities; the much younger Hal takes the opposite course: it is his personal fulfilment that has to be sacrificed, and if that means sacrificing also a dear friend whom he genuinely loves, then that cannot be helped.
However, it cannot be denied that Hal is, indeed, calculating: but only the unintelligent live their lives free from calculation. Falstaff is also a very intelligent person, and he too calculates: the problem is that, despite his undoubted intelligence, he miscalculates. Even when Hal tells him openly that he will reject him, Falstaff, although he is perturbed about it at the time, is presumably happy to dismiss the whole thing afterwards as a joke on Hal’s part – a piece of play-acting. His affection for Hal blinds him to what really should have been obvious.
The scene that prefigures the eventual rejection is among the most remarkable in the entire canon. It comes in Act 2 scene 4 of Part One, and it is a very long scene set in a tavern. For most of it, the tone is light-hearted, and very funny: Falstaff is a skilled comedian, and the quickness and sharpness of his wit are among the great delights of this play. Hal matches him in this: some of Hal’s multi-level wordplay really is quite dizzying. The banter between the two is absolutely wonderful, and I, for one, never tire of returning to it: one can see why Hal is so drawn to Falstaff’s company. But as the scene progresses, a seriousness starts to creep in insidiously. It all starts when Falstaff decides to improvise a play in which he, Falstaff, is to take the part of Hal’s father; and, in that role, he is to reprimand Hal. Falstaff’s impersonation of the king is hilarious, but Hal abruptly interrupts his flow, and insists on changing roles: Hal is now going to play his father. Falstaff at first agrees, but something begins to take over here. Hal, playing the king, starts to attack Falstaff, and soon, it becomes apparent that this is not mere banter: something more serious has crept into the proceedings. Falstaff seems to sense this, and after a while, his replies to Hal are not in the spirit of banter either: they become increasingly heartfelt. Certainly, there is little of the spirit of banter when he pleads with Hal not to banish him: “Banish Falstaff, and banish the world!” To which Hal – possibly stepping out of his role – replies with all seriousness: “I do. I will.” Has Hal gone too far here, and said more than he had meant to? Or is he giving Falstaff a fair warning of what is bound to happen? It can be played either way. Falstaff is, for the moment at least, disturbed by the incident, but there isn’t time to pursue this, as messengers arrive from the court. And Falstaff seems to be happy later in the play not to take too seriously what Hal had said. But, for the seven remaining acts of this diptych, it is noticeable that Hal tries to keep a distance from Falstaff. Only once does he yield to the temptation to seek out Falstaff (in Act 2 Scene 4 of Part Two), but he himself cuts short this meeting rather guiltily when a message from court reminds him of his responsibilities.
But all the same … does the final rejection need to be quite so cruel? We may accept that Falstaff was a rogue (and not always a lovable rogue either); we may accept that Hal has to reject Falstaff if he is to take his responsibilities seriously. But all the same, the very cruel and public nature of the rejection is heartbreaking:
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
It will be argued that it’s more theatrical this way, but I don’t think Shakespeare would sacrifice consistency of character merely for the sake of a theatrical moment. If Hal genuinely loves Falstaff, why does he reject him in this manner? I think the reason is that Hal wants a closure, once and for all. He doesn’t want Falstaff to think that there may be a way back into Hal’s favours (Falstaff does say afterwards that Hal didn’t really mean what he had said, and that his rejection as just a show for the public, but, in view of the vehemence of Hal’s rejection, we know that Falstaff himself doesn’t believe this); and, more importantly perhaps, Hal has to put himself into a position where he won’t be tempted to return to Falstaff, as he momentarily had been earlier in the play: the rejection must be so final that it must not leave the slightest prospect of a way back for either of them.
Striking though this scene is, I don’t think this is the true climax of this work: that had come earlier, in Act 4, where Hal is reconciled to his father. It is at this point that Hal accepts irrevocably what he had known all along he must: he accepts his responsibilities. And although Falstaff doesn’t yet know it, his rejection is now a foregone conclusion.
For these are the two main issues on which the entire work rests – Hal’s relationship with his two fathers, King Henry and Falstaff. At the end of the First Part, the relationship with his father seemed partially resolved (for the moment at least), while the relationship with Falstaff was left hanging; now, in Act 4 of the Second Part, the relationship with his father is resolved for good, and the one with Falstaff can only go one way.
The resolution of the relationship between Hal and his father comes in a series of curious events that has long puzzled me, but this time round, not only did it all make perfect sense, but I also found it moving. It is a strange sequence of events. Hal finds his father sleeping, and, thinking him dead, takes his crown, puts it on his own head, and walks off with it. His father then awakes, and, being told that Hal had been in the room while he had been sleeping, concludes (naturally) that his son has stolen his crown, and demands that he be apprehended. Hal is found, we are told, weeping for his father’s supposed death, and is brought back to face his dying father. His father accuses him angrily of wishing his death, and Hal then placates him. What, I used to wonder, is the point of this seemingly farcical sequence of events?
To make sense of these scenes, we must appreciate, I think, the nature of the relationship between father and son. The mistake I used to make was in assuming that Hal’s relationship with Falstaff is more substantial than the one with his father. It isn’t. His relationship with his father is presented in a more understated manner, but it’s just as substantial. The problem is that the Bolingbrokes are a rather cold lot. It’s not merely that they do not wear their hearts on their sleeves: somehow, the very expression of affection, or even of fellowship, seems alien to them. This is one of the reasons Hal so needed the companionship of Falstaff: in Falstaff’s company, and in the particular milieu that Falstaff inhabited, he found all the warmth and fellowship and conviviality that he had been so starved of within his own family. But this is not to say he does not love his own father: quite the contrary, he loves his father dearly, and the distance existing between himself and his father is something that causes him pain. Indeed, when we see Hal in the early scenes of Part Two, he is tortured by the thought that although his father is ill and possibly dying, he cannot show his grief, as he’d only be thought a hypocrite. Speaking openly to his father of his true feelings for him would have been out of the question: that’s not the Bolingbroke way. His father expects filial love to be expressed only in terms of adherence to duty, and of uncomplaining assumption of responsibility, and none of this comes naturally to Hal. Indeed, the distance between Hal and his father had come about because Hal had felt crushed by the weight of these expectations.
The king, meanwhile, is doubtful of his son’s filial love. In the Battle of Shrewsbury at the end of Part One, he is surprised that his son saves his life; and reference is made at this point to the rumour that Hal had actually plotted against his father. And when in Part Two Hal makes off with his father’s crown, the suspicion re-emerges that he had wanted his father dead. This, however, gives Hal the opportunity – possibly the only opportunity he has ever had – to speak to his father from the heart, and his speech, deeply and sincerely felt, reconciles him at last to his father. The two now, at long last, understand one another, and, although King Henry dies off-stage, one suspects that he dies a happy man.
And it’s in these scenes, I think, that we find the climactic point of the plays. After the reconciliation with his real father, the rejection of Falstaff, his surrogate father, becomes inevitable. Hal now has to force himself to take on those responsibilities that he always knew he had some day to assume; and in order to assume them, a large part of his own self – and Falstaff with it – has to be sacrificed. (And it’s strange that those who find fault with Hal for doing this also find fault with Antony for taking the opposite course in Antony and Cleopatra.)
It is easy to sentimentalise Falstaff, as he is such an attractive figure in so many ways. He is obviously very intelligent; he is superbly witty – possibly the wittiest figure Shakespeare ever created (although it may be argued that Hal matches him in this); he is irreverent, and is happy to debunk all those high-sounding concepts such as honour that leads so many men to their death; he is convivial company; and, quite clearly, he feels a strong affection for Hal, which is expressed without the slightest hint of sentimentality. But Shakespeare does not gloss over his other aspects either. Falstaff’s debunking of honour is funny, and certainly has a lot of truth in it, but it is hardly the final word on the matter: after all, Falstaff’s own very self-conscious lack of honour isn’t really anything to be admired either. When in charge of conscription, Falstaff is merely interested in those who are likely to bribe him to get out of being conscripted. As a consequence, he is left only with those who can’t afford to get out of it – a ragged, half-starved bunch. “Food for powder!” scoffs Falstaff, before adding, very shockingly, “they’ll fill a pit as well as their betters”. Not surprisingly, most of them do die, but their deaths don’t seem to cause Falstaff much concern. And while it is funny to see Falstaff pretend to fall down dead to avoid a fight, it is sickening to see him get up again, and mutilate Hotspur’s corpse, in order to claim the credit for having overcome so mighty an opponent.
In the First Part, Falstaff emerges with vigour and comic gusto. But in the second, in keeping with the general tone in this play of decline and disease, Falstaff is very much in decline. Illness and death never seem far away. In Act 2 Scene 4, Falstaff laments to the marvellously named Doll Tearsheet “I am old, I am old.” Poins, spying on them from behind the curtains, jokes how strange it is that desire should so long outlive performance, but at the same time, we see Falstaff desperately trying not to think of his mortality:
Peace, good Doll! do not speak like a death’s-head;
do not bid me remember mine end.
And later in the play, when the equally old Master Shallow reminisces of the late, wild nights they used to keep, Falstaff comments sadly, and unforgettably:
We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.
In Antony and Cleopatra too, the chimes at midnight had signified death: there, Antony had wanted to have another “gaudy night”, and “mock the midnight bell”. But while Falstaff is happy to mock everything else, his own end he cannot bear to think about.
The shadow of decline and death hangs over the whole of Act Two, and gives it a curiously static quality. If the First Part is dynamic in structure, moving steadily on to the battle scene in the final act, everyone in Part Two seems merely to be waiting for something to happen, but hardly anything does. Consider the two great tavern scenes– both placed structurally in the identical position in the two plays: Act 2, Scene 4. In Part One, Act 2 Scene 4 is a scene of tremendous vigour and animation, of superb comic exuberance (although, of course, a seriousness does creep in towards the end during the play-acting sequence); in comparison, Act 2 Scene 4 of Part Two is almost completely static – absolutely nothing happens in it. Given that the second act is the point in a drama in which the momentum is usually developed, the decision to make this act more or less static is startling. (Hamlet is another play where Shakespeare keeps the second act more or less static.) In this particular tavern scene, not only does nothing much happen, much of what is spoken is gibberish: there’s Pistol, who merely mouths high-flown nonsense; there’s Mistress Quickly, who appears somewhat simple-minded; there’s the prostitute Doll Tearsheet, who seems as incapable as Mistress Quickly of speaking sense; and there’s Falstaff, who seems to be in a sort of alcoholic stupor. All this is a far cry from the sparkling repartee we had in the corresponding scene in Part One. But for all that, this tavern scene in Part Two is about as great a scene as anything Shakespeare ever wrote. All this meaningless gibberish, all this pointless clowning in the shadow of death, this lack of movement because there’s nowhere to move to… And in the midst of all this is the appalled awareness of one’s mortality. It all points way beyond the bounds of 16th century drama. Indeed, it possibly points way beyond what has been achieved in drama even to our present times.
This sense of stasis runs through the whole of the second part: nothing much seems to happen. Falstaff, in the later part of the play, goes off to Gloucestershire – not for any particular purpose: he just goes for the sake of it, and once he’s there, nothing really happens. Even the rebellion fizzles out without the expected battle. Prince John, Hal’s brother, offers the rebels terms which are accepted, but once they’ve dismissed their armies, Prince John breaks his word and has the rebel leaders arrested and executed. Of course, this is deeply immoral, and leaves a bit of a sick taste in the mouth, but it is immensely pragmatic, and, one may argue, better than the more honourable course which would have left dead countless of those who will fill pits as well as their betters. But we are a long way here from the world of Hotspur.
And expectations are constantly overturned – the expectations of the rebels; the expectations of the king, who discovers, to his surprise, the love his eldest son has for him; the expectations of all who had thought Hal would behave irresponsibly as king; and, of course, the expectations of Falstaff.
In this Second Part, the king himself is ill. He barely appears during the course of the play of which, one might have expected, he would be the eponymous hero. The first time he does appear, we’re already in Act 3, and he is ill, dying. Death, illness, disease, stasis – these are the principal elements that determine both the form and the emotional temperature of this astonishing work.
It’s a huge contrast with Part One, of course, but when Hotspur dies at the end of that play, something seems to die with him. If we had enjoyed Falstaff’s digs at the concept of honour, in Part Two we are shown what the world looks like without that concept. Honour obviously means much to Hotspur:
By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks
And even the fact that he leads thousands of men to their death in the name of honour doesn’t quite diminish either the concept, or, indeed, Hotspur himself. There is a no-nonsense straight-forwardness about him that is in contrast both to the formalities of court life, and to the dizzying wordplay of Hal and Falstaff. Hotspur has no time for subtleties, for nuances, or even for tact: when Owen Glendower burbles on about his ability to conjure up devils, Hotspur’s no-nonsense common sense is hilarious:
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
But it is also deeply tactless: Glendower is a valuable military ally, after all. But Hotspur is one of those people who says what he thinks and thinks what he says, without caring for the consequences. After deflating Glendower, he goes on to give him some moral advice:
And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I’ll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!
Morality is so simple to a mind such as Hotspur’s: there’s right and there’s wrong, and there’s no mistaking the two, and there’s no more to be said. This is refreshing in a way, but it is miles away from the more incisive moral insights of a Prince Hal, or, in a later play, of Hamlet, Hal’s spiritual (and more neurotic) cousin.
I like also the bantering relationship between Hotspur and his wife, Lady Percy. Of course, the banter is nowhere near as witty or as sophisticated as that between Hal and Falstaff, but nonetheless, it suggests a close and loving relationship between the two. They seem to be so confident of each other, that they feel free to speak all sorts of things safe in the knowledge that nothing would be taken amiss. In the very first scene between them, Lady Percy wants to know what her husband is up to:
Come, come, you paraquito, answer me
Directly unto this question that I ask:
In faith, I’ll break thy little finger, Harry,
An if thou wilt not tell me all things true.
After a while, Hotspur replies with seeming misogyny that a woman is not to be trusted with secrets, but this is all banter, and none of it is meant to be taken seriously. Indeed, they say these things precisely because they know it won’t be taken seriously. Hotspur repeats the sort of misogynist nonsense that many in those days believed, but it’s all tongue-in-cheek: he no more means it than his wife means to break his finger. Later, in Part Two, when Hotspur is dead, his widow has a deeply felt and wonderfully moving speech in tribute to him. This speech is often cut in performance as it holds up the action, and I think this is a huge mistake. In the first place, there isn’t much action in Part Two to hold up; and in the second place, in these of all plays, character takes precedence over mere events.
But most striking of all perhaps is Hotspur’s dying speech. He starts by saying that even more than the loss of his life, he laments the loss of his reputation, of his honour; but even as he says this, he realises on the brink of extinction that even his honour will mean nothing – that the rest is, indeed, silence:
O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for—
Time must have a stop. And with it, all human affairs, all that is human.
And yet, it is out of these human affairs that Shakespeare creates this epic. Let Homer write of heroes who strive with the gods, let Dante create in poetry an entire cosmic order: Shakespeare created with these two plays an epic work that can rank with the finest anyone has ever created, and his interest was solely in human matters, even as he was aware of their transience in the greater scheme of things. Yes, Hotspur is belligerent, King Henry is emotionally cold, Falstaff is morally reprehensible, Hal is calculating, and so on … But we don’t hate any of them because Shakespeare himself didn’t. He could see all the deep flaws of humans with an unsentimental eye, and he loved them all the same. What a vision, and what a work!