Sunday, August 29, 2010

Discussion: Henry IV, Part II

The play: Henry IV, Part II

The plot tweet: Rebellion is quelled and wayward Hal is finally transformed. Henry IV dies, Henry V is crowned, and Falstaff is finally banished for good.

My favorite line:
I know thee not, old man ...
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company.


This play tries my patience. It reads as an extended and unnecessary epilogue to Henry IV, Part I. We've already seen Hal redeem himself at the Battle of Shrewsbury, but now we must sit through another cycle of his redemption. We've already heard Falstaff make eloquent speeches about life and honor, but now we get unmemorable rants about sack. Short of giving the popular Falstaff more stage time, what's the point? Everything we see here could be wrapped up in a quick prologue to Henry V.

This probably annoys me more than it should because I simply can't stand Falstaff. Harold Bloom is one of my favorite Shakespearean critics, but in this respect we differ widely; his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human fawns over Falstaff for dozens of pages, enough to turn my stomach. Falstaff is a superbly drawn character, full of wit and vitality, but I can't understand why Bloom should exalt him as the greatest character in all of Western literature. I mean, come on.

Critics often dislike Falstaff for moral reasons, and I suppose that is part of my objection. Bloom claims that Falstaff is "free" of societal structures and expectations, but that's simply not true. He takes money and goods he knows he can't repay, forcing others to bear the burden of his lifestyle; he deliberately leads poor, weak men to their deaths in battle. He leaves pain and destruction in his wake, and there is nothing admirable about that.

All the same, I do feel pity for Falstaff when the newly crowned Henry V rejects him so publicly. The audience has seen it coming, but Falstaff has not. He genuinely thinks that "the young king is sick for [him]" and has already started passing out favors to his friends. Hal told him outright in Part I that he would be banished, so we must assume Falstaff is blinded by his own genuine affection for the new king. That is Falstaff's one redeeming quality. It's more than enough for Bloom, but it's not enough for me.


  1. Ashley, Ashley! Moralizing in today's day and age? Hal "redeeming" himself at Shrewsbury? Insofar as "redeeming" means playing the part of the king, then sure, he's redeemed. Like we've talked about in Part I, does Falstaff really want Hal to deny his inheritance and live a freer life? Is this even possible? Either way, I see no redemption, just playing the part that was laid out for him as Prince of Wales.

    On Falstaff, note that Bloom says he wouldn't like to meet him, but he does admire him. I do as well: I don't see how he's NOT freed himself of "societal expectations." He plays them, hardcore, and therein is he free. If he borrows money he can't pay back, if he steals from "good" people, then so be it--the people in power do the same thing, but their actions cost thousands and thousands of lives. This doesn't excuse anyone, but we can't dislike Falstaff and like, say, Hotspur or Henry IV or even the upcoming Henry V. And hell, Falstaff does pick poor people for conscription ("the low will do just as well as the high for peppering," to paraphrase horribly), but doesn't he also say he indeed leads them? He doesn't abandon them on the field... if he comes out alive, and they don't, that's luck, but when it comes to playing with other people's freedoms, there's nothing suggesting that Falstaff doesn't act the good captain and protect and lead his men.

    So, I don't think he leaves pain and destruction in his wake. In Part II, we hear him say something surprisingly astute: that his wit is great, but even better is the wit he inspires in people (usually by making himself a target of ridicule). He is mostly a good time for us only, since we're not being robbed and tricked, but to say he brings only pain and destruction is a bit much, no?

    And I too had my heart broken by Hal's "I know thee not, old man." I knew it was coming, since 1 Henry IV, but still... makes me dislike Hal all the more. Sure, he can't associate himself with Falstaff at all, but were personal insults necessary?

    I need to reread part II, as I too liked part I much more though I wasn't sure why. Really, they're worth reading together--I kind of see the sequel as a prolonged epilogue.

    Thanks for the discussions! This is great stuff. I love hearing other opinions on Shakespeare; that there are so many possible reactions is what's made him so popular for the past 400 years.

  2. I don't want to be a moralist! I would never describe myself that way, but I have always had a negative gut reaction to Falstaff. Put simply, I have always disliked him, rather strongly. I'm not certain it's because of the moral issues, but I can't think of any other reason I should dislike him so much. (Of course, the fact that I feel so strongly about him indicates that he is a superbly written character.)

  3. Having finally made it through both - and having read Merry Wives a few years back when I was preparing to work on a production of Verdi's opera, "Falstaff" -
    I also find this play a bit thin on substance, though of course it does have moments of real beauty.
    Verdi (and his librettist, Arrigo Boito) draw mostly on Merry Wives, but also on these two plays for their Falstaff, and present him mostly sympathetically. But they were both brilliant dramatists, so their Falstaff is far from a two-dimensional caricature. He is an interesting and complex blend of all these qualities being discussed here.
    I mention all this because my relationship (so to speak) with him starts in the opera, so I'm immediately inclined to be sympathetic. In the opera, he is relentlessly funny - even moreso than in the plays. But we also see him alone, reflective, even sad. We see him scheming, deceiving... but always getting his comeupance.
    So that tends to be how I see him here as well. He is more sad to me than offensive. He's like the classic clown - he knows that people see him as a buffoon, he knows that he lives by dishonesty, he knows he's a fat slob... So he plays himself for laughs, in hopes of finding some sympathy, maybe even a friend, while underneath he hides the sadness born of being ultimately on the margins of society. He's funny - but fundamentally an outcast. There's a real poignancy in him for me.