Sunday, August 22, 2010

Discussion: Henry IV, Part I

The play: Henry IV, Part I

The plot tweet: Hotspur and Co. rebel against king they helped to the throne; Prince Hal and Falstaff live badly; Hal reforms and kills Hotspur in battle.

My favorite line:
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents. (Prince Hal)


Last Friday, I saw this play performed at the re-created Globe Theatre in London (more on that in another post), and as always I was struck by how vibrant and real the character of Falstaff feels. He is a character who could walk fully formed off the stage into real life, and in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom cites Falstaff as one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements.

He is, of course, a despicable character, who leads the crown prince astray, steals money, drinks to excess, brags and lies to suit his purposes, and sacrifices his poor, untrained soldiers for monetary gain. Hal knows all of this, so what attracts him to Falstaff? Perhaps he is seeking a different father figure, or perhaps Falstaff is just a fun guy to be around.

Falstaff is the best developed character in the play, but I always find Prince Hal more interesting. His speech at the end of act one, about his plan to "redeem time" and reform later in life, can be viewed either as cold calculation or desperate justification. Which is it? When he and Falstaff perform the little "king" play in act two, his coldly delivered line "I do, I will" seems to indicate that he knows exactly what he's doing -- and will abjure Falstaff and his entire way of life as soon as it becomes necessary to do so. (Falstaff's disquiet and attempt to defend himself seem to indicate that he realizes this, too.)

Either way, at the end of the play, he does seem genuinely reformed, offering his own life in single combat to settle the dispute with Hotspur (which is rejected by his father), fighting bravely in the battle, and finally encountering a one-on-one fight with Hotspur anyway. During the battle, we see Hal's touches of annoyance with Falstaff, who will not take the battle seriously. I haven't read Henry IV, Part II yet, but I assume those touches will become more frequent until the two pals finally separate, leaving Falstaff to an offstage, postscript death in Henry V.

I read Richard II for the first time only a few weeks ago, and it was interesting to have that background while reading this play. Knowing Shakespeare's version of how Henry IV gained the throne, we know that Hotspur and Co. are telling the truth about it. And yet our sympathies lie not with gallant Hotspur, whom Shakespeare is careful to depict in domestic scenes with his family, but with the unruly Hal and the degenerate Falstaff, who are depicted as drunken thieves. How does Shakespeare achieve this?

Or, to put it differently, why do we hate Falstaff so much and yet continue to root for him?


  1. I have a different question, for you: why do you like Hal? I don't find him (or Falstaff) despicable, but I don't like the young Prince. He's too much into honor, into royalty, into being a good king. Of course, what else can we expect from him. But while he plays into all this, and I doubt he has much of a choice, Falstaff tries to break free, and that's why I like him so much. Maybe my mind is adulterated with Harold Bloom's "Invention of the Human," but isn't Falstaff utterly free from everything? From monetary debts, oaths he pled, hell, the law. I agree that I may not want to hang out with him (except to try his wits), but I'm afraid of Hal: I don't doubt that he enjoys the witty spars he has with Falstaff, but in the end he knows he's a prince and will become a king, and he's interested, like Hotspur, in how history will percieve him. Boooooo! "Give me life," Falstaff says. That's most admirable.

  2. Check out the post on Sunday for Part II: I will be discussing exactly that issue of Falstaff's supposed freedom. As for Hal, he is certainly cold and calculating, but I feel for him: He is always looking for good mentors and father figures, and he is trying to figure out how to rule well. He can't divorce himself from his duty without letting the whole kingdom fall into disorder, so he does the best he can to shoulder that burden.

  3. (I'm a bit behind!) I also don't find Hal or Falstaff despicable - but they are certainly interesting characters because they are complex. They are not simple two-dimensional images of either virtue or vice, but like real people they have their better and worse qualities.
    I don't find Hal "pre-reformation" so much calculating as understanding of what his position is, and he recognizes that sooner or later this is what he will be called upon to do, and he knows his own self well enough to see that he will do it. And Falstaff, as much as he has enjoyed Hal's rowdy company, also sees that in time he will move on to take his place as prince and king.
    Speaking of time... There's a great deal of reference from several characters about time, most notably Hal. It struck me as an important thematic thread.

  4. @Ashley, I can't wait!
    @Jay, you brought up a curiosity in me: Falstaff being the intelligent wit he is, surely knows that Hal has little choice except be king; but, how much does he want this? Royalty is ripe for mocking and for cynical comments, so were it a possibility, I should see Falstaff urging young Harry to make other choices. But again, there really is no choice, it's an unfortunate situation for the prince, stuck in a life he may or may not want.