Henry IV, Part II

Many passages from Shakespeare have passed into everyday speech, often without people who use them knowing their provenance. Henry IV, Part II has one such saying that became familiar to the Webner kids when we were growing up: if we brought our neighborhood friends home for Popsicles, Twinkies, Kool-Aid, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, after Mom distributed the goodies she would look at the throng and say, with a happy look on her face, that we were “eating her out of house and home.”

I wonder if Mom knew that she was quoting Hostess Quickly’s statement in Act II, Scene one of Henry IV, Part II (about her deadbeat tavern guest Sir John Falstaff, of course!): “He hath eaten me out of house and home.”

Henry IV, Part II is full of such good lines, embedded in a sequel’s plot that is a bit schizophrenic. Because it’s a sequel, we’ll need to find out what happens with those three significant plot threads that were left unresolved at the end of Henry IV, Part I. One thread concerns the rebellion that was a significant focus of Henry IV, Part I, another follows the antics of Falstaff, and a third explores the long-delayed maturation of Prince Hal and his complex relationship with his father, the king, and with the irresistible Falstaff. Shakespeare masterfully pulls them all together for a conclusive and somewhat bittersweet ending.

The rebellion is really a minor element of the play and is resolved in short order. Lord Northumberland decides not to participate in the fight, leaving the other rebels high and dry and causing one of them to ruefully remark: “Thus do the hopes we have in him touch ground and dash themselves to pieces.” Without Northumberland’s resources, the rebels decide to parlay with King Henry’s representative, Prince John of Lancaster, who promises to redress their grievances–only to then arrest them as traitors and send them to their deaths. After being accused of breaking his word, Prince John explains his position with a nimble and almost lawyerly bit of hair-splitting:

I promised you redress of these same grievances
Whereof you did complain; which, by mine honour,
I will perform with a most Christian care.
But for you, rebels, look to taste the due
Meet for rebellion and such acts as yours.
Most shallowly did you these arms commence,
Fondly brought here and foolishly sent hence.
Strike up our drums, pursue the scatter’d stray:
God, and not we, hath safely fought to-day.
Some guard these traitors to the block of death,
Treason’s true bed and yielder up of breath.

With the rebellion quashed neatly and without bloody battle, the play is free to concentrate on Falstaff, the King, and the struggle for Hal. Shakespeare recognized that his audience would care most about that human story, not the high-level struggles of mighty lords. As in Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff is the subject of considerable attention. When we first see him, he is being insulted by a page who dutifully reports that Falstaff’s doctor believes “he might have moe diseases than he knew for.” Falstaff’s response is vintage Falstaff:

Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me: the
brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not
able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more
than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only
witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other
men.

Falstaff remains the shrewd, unethical, self-centered rogue who delights in low company. But we see still more of Sir John’s dark side as he attempts to dodge the grip of British justice in the form of the Lord Chief Justice, cheats and then charms the widowed Hostess Quickly, dallies with Doll Tearsheet, and accepts bribes from recruits who have no wish to fight the rebel forces. He also takes advantage of the aptly named Justice Shallow, a contemporary of Falstaff’s whose recollection of his role in their ne’er-do-well past has been colored and inflated by the passage of time. After Falstaff grudgingly concedes that he and Shallow “have heard the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff later remarks:

Lord, Lord, how
subject we old men are to this vice of lying! This
same starved justice hath done nothing but prate to
me of the wildness of his youth, and the feats he
hath done about Turnbull Street: and every third
word a lie, duer paid to the hearer than the Turk’s
tribute. 

Prince Hal, after having killed Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, seems to have backslid into his old habits, and remains deeply intrigued by Falstaff, his lifestyle, and his companions, especially Doll Tearsheet. The Prince observes that “This Doll Tearsheet should be some road” and his companion Poins responds: “I warrant you, as common as the way between Saint Albans and London.” Unable to resist the lure of Falstaff, Hal and Poins devise another ruse to trick Falstaff–as they did in Part I–this time by posing as servants while Falstaff romances Doll Tearsheet. When the unknowing Falstaff insults the Prince and Poins and the Prince and Poins reveal themselves and object to the abuse, Falstaff’s quick wit is shown again:

No abuse, Ned, i’ the world; honest Ned, none. I
dispraised him before the wicked, that the wicked
might not fall in love with him; in which doing, I
have done the part of a careful friend and a true
subject, and thy father is to give me thanks for it.
No abuse, Hal: none, Ned, none: no, faith, boys, none.

The Prince is called away to see the King, and his jesting with Falstaff ends–with some sign that the Prince is beginning to regret his unsavory activities:

By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame,
So idly to profane the precious time,
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapour, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare unarmed heads.
Give me my sword and cloak. Falstaff, good night.

The King, meanwhile, has become increasingly ill, and is unable to sleep. He reflects on his condition (and not incidentally shows a lack of appreciation for the harsh and difficult lives of the English commoners), in a famous soliloquy:

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

The King’s condition worsens, and even the news of the capture of the rebels and the end of the rebellion cannot fully revive him. When Hal finally visits the King on his deathbed and see the crown sitting on the pillow, next to the King’s head, the Prince similarly reflects on the burdens of leadership:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polish’d perturbation! golden care!
That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night! sleep with it now!
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night. O majesty!
When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,
That scalds with safety. 

Thinking that the King is dead, Hal removes the crown, places it on his head, and moves to another room to mourn. When the King awakens to find the crown is gone he thinks Hal has taken the throne before the time has come, and upbraids him:

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.

But the misunderstanding is resolved, and the King and Hal are reconciled before the King dies. When the news that Prince Hal is to be crowned becomes known, Falstaff and Justice Shallow head to London, expecting Falstaff’s relationship to bring them a rich reward from the new monarch. But Hal has finally grown up and accepted that the duties of the King do no permit his relationship with Falstaff to continue. When Falstaff speaks to his old friend after the coronation, the new King finally and conclusively terminates their connection, but with a trace of the humor and affection that has always marked their relationship:

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.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement.

We’re sad to see the new King rebuke his drinking comrade but, with everything we have seen of Falstaff over two plays, we accept that he really had no choice. Falstaff was not going to change, and due regard for the role of monarch would not allow him a significant role in government. And with the entanglements with Falstaff stripped away, and his youthful indiscretions behind him, the new King–Henry V–sets his eyes upon France. The stage is therefore set for one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays: Henry V.

Henry IV, Part I

I’m pretty sure that Henry IV, Part I is the first Shakespeare play I read from cover to cover. Mr. Will, the enthusiastic teacher who presided over our Shakespeare Seminar class at Upper Arlington High School, wisely picked it to be the first play we read in that course. I suspect he knew that the insult humor and abusive banter between Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff would appeal to the simple minds of teenaged boys—and it did. 

For a time the lads of Shakespeare Seminar reveled in calling each other “whoreson knaves” and “vile standing tucks” and “fat kidneyed rascals.” We loved Falstaff and Hal just as patrons of the Globe Theater did in Shakespeare’s time, and as did English audiences for years thereafter–which is why Falstaff is generally regarded as the single most popular character ever to emerge from the Bard of Avon’s prolific pen. Thus introduced to the humor and “bawdy” side of Shakespeare, we high schoolers were willing to put up with romance, and tragedy, and Hamlet’s angst as we went on to read other plays.

Of course, age brings a different perspective. As I read Henry IV, Part I now, I still enjoy the sallies between Hal and Falstaff at Eastcheap taverns (although I realize, given the changed eddies and currents of slang that have occurred in the centuries since, that I will never understand or appreciate the humor as an Elizabethan audience did)–but I see a lot more in Falstaff than I did nearly 50 years ago.

Shakespeare’s construction of the play may be a sly exercise in misdirection. He explicitly raises the contrast between the wastrel Prince Hal and the rebellious Harry Hotspur in the very first scene, as Henry IV laments how his ne’er-do-well, tavern-haunting son measures up against the victorious warrior Hotspur:

Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

But this contrast proves to be a bit of a false lead. To be sure, we see the irresponsible Hal at the outset, but ultimately Hal is not so different from Hotspur. Hal rallies to his father’s side, fights to defeat the rebellion, and ultimately kills Hotspur in the climactic battle that brings the play to a close. No, the real contrast is between Hotspur and Falstaff–and not simply because Hotspur is a hothead and Falstaff is perfectly content in playing the clown. Hotspur is unable to curb his own vanity and sense of honor, and it ends up costing him dearly, both in causing him to rebuff the King and bring on the conflict and in needlessly insulting Owen Glendower and losing a much-needed ally. Hotspur’s pride and self-regard prevent him from looking out for his own best interests. Falstaff, on the other hand, is able to swallow jibes and ridicule in the service of his ultimate goal of wine, women, and survival–which means maintaining his relationship with Prince Hal at all costs.

Falstaff’s character leaves a lot of room for interpretation by a skilled actor. He could be played as a buffoon, to be sure, but there is a certain genius in him, and a conniving nature, with ugliness and deviousness lurking just below the surface. He’s not harmless. For all of his surface jolliness, Falstaff is not above robbing innocent travelers, or trying to cheat an honest hostess out of what he owes–but he does it with a roguish charm and shrewdness. A classic example of Falstaff’s quick wit comes when he learns that Prince Hal and Poins set him up to take the money Falstaff had stolen from travelers and are well aware that he has been lying about facing an ever-growing number of brigands. Falstaff abruptly pivots to a different approach, claiming that he was well aware that it was Hal who pilfered the booty:

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.
Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the
heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince?
why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but
beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true
prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a
coward on instinct. I shall think the better of
myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant
lion, and thou for a true prince. But, by the Lord,
lads, I am glad you have the money.

Falstaff and Prince Hal then act out a scene where Hal returns to talk to his father the king, with Falstaff initially playing Henry IV before he and the prince switch roles, so that Falstaff plays Hal and Hal the king. After Hal, as the king, describes Falstaff as the devil who has led Hal astray, Falstaff, as Hal, rises to his own defense:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Prince Hal’s chilling response–“I do, I will”–presages the coming pivot in their relationship.

What did Shakespeare think of Falstaff? For all of the Bard’s ability to portray the heights of British pride and patriotism, his treatment of Falstaff shows he well understood the underside of war and the cost of valor. Falstaff recruits a ragged band of soldiers, most of whom don’t survive the final battle. After presenting Hotspur as relentlessly driven by pursuit of “honor,” Shakespeare has Falstaff, in the king’s camp before the battle, give his jaded view of the concept of “honor”:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

Still later, when Falstaff feigns death to avoid being killed, and responds to Hal’s expression of sadness at Falstaff’s apparent death, the portly knight makes a further point:

I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and
perfect image of life indeed. The better part of
valour is discretion; in the which better part I
have saved my life.

Is cowardice defensible? Of course, Shakespeare doesn’t say so–but Hotspur dies while Falstaff lives, and indeed goes on to claim that it was he, and not Prince Hal, who finally killed Hotspur, in hopes of gaining a rich reward. But while Falstaff lives on, his special relationship with Hal has not survived. The prince has become a prince and, as the play ends, he looks forward to a further, final battle that will help to quash the rebellion.

Falstaff

Last night Kish and I enjoyed a terrific adaptation of Henry IV, Parts I and II by Shakespeare & Co., a performance troupe in Lenox, Massachusetts.  My lovely wife treated me to front row seats.  It was a fine way to celebrate the Bard of Avon’s 450th birthday and will be an evening I’ll always remember.

Henry IV will always be one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.  I first read it for Shakespeare Seminar, a class taught by Charles Will at Upper Arlington High School in the ’70s.  Mr. Will was a great teacher who brought joy and passion to teaching Shakespeare.  He loved Henry IV, and all of his students did, too.  The teenage boys in the class, in particular, relished the barbs traded between the carousing Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff, and relished calling each other “vile standing tucks” and whoreson rogues that semester.

Henry IV was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime, too.  It not only features witty insult dialogue, but also royal intrigue, roaring humor, rebellion, whoring, swordfights, drinking, death, and the human drama of a difficult relationship between royal father and rebellious, oat-sowing son.  

But the real attraction for me and for many is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations and one of the most memorable characters ever devised in literature.  Falstaff, the fat, duplicitous, cowardly, sack-guzzling, honey- tongued, quick-witted rogue, is the true center of the play.  When Falstaff is on stage, all eyes are on him, whether he is cheerfully enduring the insults of his drinking companions, playing the king in a jest, coming up with another lie to cover his misbehavior, or making deft observations about the human condition.  Falstaff’s wry battlefield comments about the concept of honor as he stands over the dead body of Harry Hotspur is some of Shakespeare’s best writing.

It’s a crucial role and not an easy one to play.  Last night Malcolm Ingram was wonderful in his depiction of that iconic figure.  In a cast that was filled with talent, Mr. Ingram made a great night into an unforgettable one.  Mr. Will would have loved it.