Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 on 2014/04/16 by Mattermind

Henry IV: Part II, Act III

I’m not sure what motivated Shakespeare to write Henry IV in two parts rather than just one, but his follow-up suffers from a serious case of sequel-itis.

We start to feel this now, in the midsection of the play, as Henry laments his inability to sleep, and Falstaff contrives more devious ways to avoid responsibility and connive cash for his dubious exploits.  We almost wish for a good battle sequence to distract us with mindless action.  Anything to further the plot and wrap this up so we can move on to the larger stakes of Henry V.

I have finally caught up to this period in the lecture series on English history.  Along the way I got detoured by fascinating discussions on the Black Plague and its effects on the feudalistic economy, the Peasant’s Revolt, the spread of English, Chaucer, the growing power of Parliament, proto-Protestant dissatisfaction with the clergy, and even the dawning age of the printing press and the tidal shift of common literacy.

There is so much going on during this era that it made me angry at the black holes in my education.  The cataclysmic mistake, I believe, is that we compartmentalize our school systems in the United States, creating an assembly-line-inspired manufacturing process that has broken down complicated knowledge into its crudest, most rudimentary moving parts.

I have studied Chaucer in English class, the printing press in history, the Magna Carta in political science…but I have never had a teacher help me put the pieces together until now.  The blame for that falls squarely on me.  But when I look back at how I was taught everything I learned in school, it was delivered piecemeal in easily-digestible units, discreet chapters with tidy summaries that in no way bear resemblance to the complex, holistic truth. 

We have so specialized the generation and acquisition of information that we have lost all sense for how it flows together into Gestalt patterns.  History is no more a collection of generals and wars than literature is a bunch of novels, poems and plays. Those are just the names we ascribe to certain qualities and behaviors, fragments of glass in the stained-glass window shedding light on the human soul and our collective destiny.

We can’t just cut out and isolate convenient bits from our intellectual, spiritual and cultural development and then offer these up to our youth, assuming our work is done.  As educators, our job is first to master the material and only then present it with all its lumps, bumps, connections and contradictions. But those are the very instructors who are stripped from the corporate model of education in our race to the standardized bottom.

How many people on the streets know that it was the spread of gunpowder that led directly to the end of chivalry?  Or that the massive loss of life suffered during the Black Death created competition for the dwindling labor force, a downward momentum on prices and an upward push on wages that would help smash the oppressive chokehold of serfdom in Europe?
- or that an increase in laws would inevitably lead to a need for educated lawyers which in turn created openings for a new class of students to earn a good living in the courts?

Wheels within wheels. 

And now we’re in the middle of a series of succession plays during a tumultuous period when the king chafed at the rising power of Parliament to enforce checks on his revenues, and baronial accumulation of influence created clashes of treacherous alliances.  The more you know, the more fascinating all of this becomes.

I regret that I am late to the party.  But I am grateful that I was at least invited.

He Was the Mark and Glass, Copy and Book

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags on 2014/04/15 by Mattermind

Henry IV: Part Two, Act II

The title comes from a speech by Lady Percy, Hotspur’s widow, who speaks as boldly and as bluntly to her father-in-law as Hotspur might himself were he alive.

She has GRIEVANCE, since it was Northumberland and Glendower’s pussyfooting that contributed directly to her love’s defeat.  Hotspur might have withdrawn – or at least waited for reinforcements - but everyone knows that wasn’t his way.  The real question is why his father chose to hold back (it seems doubtful that he in fact was sick, since he fails to mention it now when any plausible excuse might come in handy).

I find it most revealing that Lady Percy takes umbrage at Northumberland’s specific reference of the word “honor” – a crucial word for this play and certainly for Hotspur.  It demonstrates that the idealism which ran through the son runs equally through his wife, if indeed it has run aground in the father.

She wonders why he’s all fired up now to take to the field after the horses have fled the barn.  Honor? she says.  You care about honor among strangers, when it didn’t bother you to abandon your own son at his most desperate hour?

Feisty girl, speaking to her father-in-law this way.  But I love that about her, just like I loved the same characteristic in her husband.  They stand for principles in a world run amok with royal flimflammery, baronial machinations, pompous egos and lowbrow buffoonery.

If we assumed that by killing Hotspur, Prince Hal would rise to the occasion and embody a regal bearing for the throne, we assumed wrong.  Not only does he continue to fart around with Falstaff, but he begins preening about his royal place and such, whether it’s uncouth to be seen among the common folk.  Cry about his ailing father?  But how would that look in front of his future subjects?

Blah blah blah.  The kid ain’t ready for prime time.  Falstaff is…Falstaff.  The rebellion is in disarray.  And now Northumberland has been convinced by his wife and daughter-in-law to wait this round out – again? – to see how the chips will fall.

Hotspur may have had his faults, but I sure do miss him now.

Next Man Up

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags , on 2014/04/14 by Mattermind

Henry IV: Part II, Act I

There’s a famous saying in American football: “The most popular player on the team is the backup quarterback.”  For those who either aren’t familiar with the NFL or have no idea what the expression means, it refers to the human tendency to believe that a simple switch is all it takes to fix whatever ails you.  The devil you don’t know versus the horndog you do.

Shakespeare shows us that this penchant goes way back, long before Walter Camp and others created the first rules for what would one day become the most dominant sport in the United States.  Which is a roundabout way of saying that what we find at the start of Henry IV, Part Two is a bunch of fed up malcontents desiring regime change because it beats the guy they got in charge now.

“Throw the bums out,” is another popular expression in American sports politics, referring of course to the same phenomenon, but through (we hope) an orderly electoral process.  It amounts to the same thing, really: out with the old, in with the new, maybe this go round will turn out better.  It usually doesn’t, but hey, memories are short and what else ya gonna do?

On a sad note, Part Two begins with the mighty Northumberland learning second-hand that his son, Hotspur, is dead.  Shakespeare complicates the scene by having the news travel unreliably by pony express, so that what Northy first hears is that his son is alive, the king is mortally wounded and the rebels scored a decisive victory.  That almost trumps DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN for blowing the banner headline.

By now Northumberland is old and weary, yet the personal loss spurs him into suiting up one more time and riding out for another battle, probably his last.  He is buoyed, however, by word that he and his men will be facing a divided royalty, with Glendower, the Archbishop and all the other latecomers who let Hotspur down now causing the king to have to split up his counter attack.

The odds are stacked tremendously against the insurgency at this point, but now they have little choice other than to carry on.  The offer of pardon is likely off the table for good.  Anybody involved in this mess will almost certainly end up like Worcester, only without a famous sauce named after him.

There follows an utterly forgettable Falstaff scene which only makes me wish to hasten the moment that Hal drops him like a bad habit.  I realize I’m tipping my hand here and that what’s to come remains controversial to this day.  But I don’t care much for Falstaff.  I’m just curious now how it all goes down.

As a theme song for this section of the play, I keep hearing this anthemic ear worm burrowing in my brain. Sing along, kids! You know the words.

What Is Honor?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , on 2014/04/13 by Mattermind

King Henry IV: Part I, Act V

FALSTAFF: Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then?  No.  What is honor?  A word.  What is that word honor then?  Air – a trim reckoning!  Who hath it?  He that died a 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.  Honor is a mere scutcheon – and so ends my catechism.

On the heels of finishing Act IV, I couldn’t wait to begin Act V.  One way or the other, the play was hurtling toward a dramatic climax.  Either Prince Hal would clash with Hotspur in an epic duel, or somehow convert him over to the royal side.

Not knowing the actual historical events (not that this seemed to bother Shakespeare), I found myself rooting for a Hollywood-like ending, a conversion scene where Hotspur is won over to become Hal’s partner in crime.  With Robin as his sidekick, together they could clean up Gotham and take a bite out of crime.  Surely Shakespeare had to realize that Hotspur was his best character in the story.  What writer wouldn’t be loathe to kill that guy off and let him go?

Breaking: I’m a romantic.  But I don’t think I’m that far off, at least in my sense that Shakespeare was reluctant to see Hotspur leave the play.  We have reason to believe from Worcester’s treachery that – if Hotspur knew the truth – he would most likely have surrendered.  This turn of events thoroughly angered me (yes, I get wrapped up in these things).  King Henry goes the extra mile to offer the rebels a way out of their predicament: state their claims, and he will address them and offer a full pardon to all involved.  In addition, Prince Hal volunteers to grapple with Hotspur against the longshot odds in one-on-one combat.  He is determined to win back favor in his father’s eyes come what may.

Unfortunately, Hotspur is not present to hear either the conditions for pardon or the terms of Ultimate Fighting against his shadow nemesis.  We are virtually certain he would accept the latter in a heartbeat – he has been looking for a way at Hal since the start of the play.  But as for the former, we have only Worcester’s deceit to understand that Hotspur may have taken the gentleman’s way out.

So instead of recapitulating the king’s words and allowing Hotspur to decide, Worcester deliberately lies to stoke Hotspur’s outrage and engage him in the battle.  And why does Worcester do this?  Because he’s convinced that Hotspur would be forgiven for his youth, valor and reputation for rashness, while the rest of the rebels would never fully be trusted again.  The king, he is sure, would only look for a convenient excuse later on to get them all back.

This argument has logic, but absolutely no moral grounds other than self-survival.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Worcester, in fact, gets his in the end.  Rounded up by the king’s men, he is summarily sentenced to death.  No honor, no valor, no glory to accompany his decision.  If, as Isaac Asimov says, Worcester was the “brains” of the operation, then the plan was doomed to failure from the beginning.  There was never a team here but a collection of self-interested individuals.

I am most intrigued, however, by Asimov’s suggestion that Hotspur and Falstaff represent polar opposites on the spectrum of the future Henry V’s personality traits – characteristics that must be reconciled for him to ascend to greatness.  As much as I hate to see Hotspur die, we comprehend in graphic terms how important it is that Hal adopt a more humble approach to honor.  Honor, in the ancient and medieval sense which means acquired glory from battle.  It stems back to the Greeks when such heroes as Achilles and Hector fought fearlessly – not for the tactical advantages or team-building, but rather for reputations that would survive them as a legacy (the riches, fame and women weren’t bad either).

Here, then, it becomes crucial to study the contrast between Falstaff and Hotspur, and how Hal manages to reconcile and transcend them both.  After killing Hotspur, he does not boast of the accomplishment, but allows Falstaff to make the claim if he can. It doesn’t say a lot for Falstaff that he would try.

As Hotspur dies, he cares less about the mortal life fleeing his body than for the honor that will now pass from him to the prince who defeated him.  In his eyes, honor is a zero-sum game. Nothing he ever achieved in his lifetime will matter.  You are only as notable as your final triumph or defeat. Sigh.

Thus, we close Part One with the death of Hotspur and the rout of the rebel force.  Because the attack was launched prematurely, before the full storm of opposition had gathered its strength, there are still opposition armies out in England that need to be dealt with.  But now, with Hal on the ascendant, Douglas captured and converted, and even Hal’s little brother John finding his mettle in the field, there seems little doubt that Henry will seize back the initiative and his reign will regain its footing.

But that remains to be seen in Part II.

No Harm. What More?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , , on 2014/04/12 by Mattermind

“It’s just a flesh wound.”

Henry IV: Part I, Act IV

I’ve got to hand it to Hotspur.  In a play bursting at the seams with memorable characters, he singlehandedly steals the show.

It’s your typical case of Good Guy Wins Hearts and Minds, Bad Guy Gets the Girl.  He’s brash, he’s brazen, he’s cocksure and half-loaded.  He’s fired up for battle when he ought to be measured and tactical – and still, I just can’t help loving the guy.

Up to this point, everything has gone swimmingly for the insurgency.  They have might, they even have right, with a greater claim to the legitimate crown than the sitting king himself.  Armed with confidence and united in purpose, they have come out into the open and declared their challenge to the realm.

And then things fall apart.  It’s almost comical, just how fast the fist of fury dissolves into a sputtering wreck.  It all starts when Hotspur’s own father, the great Northumberland, sends word that he has taken ill and can’t make it to the hoedown.  His forces can no longer be counted upon to match the king’s rapidly gathering horde.

This is as big a psychological blow as a tactical one, since Northumberland’s poorly-timed medical defection, whether honest or no, will surely have a ripple effect on the tenuous rebels who will now be badly outnumbered and overmatched.  Hotspur himself has no way of knowing whether his father has seriously taken ill, or has merely soured on the venture.  But to his credit, he does not allow this bad news to dampen the mood. (“It’s just a flesh wound.”)

Then, more bad news: Glendower has been set back two weeks by a foreboding astrological forecast and refuses to join them in the ranks.  That makes two vital allies now missing in action.  Anybody with half a brain would slow the parade, if not cancel it altogether.  But not Hotspur.  He’s just raring to get this party started.

His position is not completely without merit. He believes the advantage lies in striking quickly and early, before the king’s men have fully assembled.  He also contends that his horses are better rested.  On a more personal note, having heard of Prince Hal’s gallantry (being compared to Mercury astride Pegasus – high praise, indeed), he becomes all-the-more fired up for a head-on confrontation.

Although Henry IV is no Darth Vader and the insurgents no Jedis, Hotspur’s brazen courage in the face of insurmountable odds reminds me a lot of this guy:

Which leads me to believe that our story will suffer greatly if/when he ultimately gets rubbed out [see: Empire Strikes Back].  So as much as I’ve been looking forward to a mano-y-mano brawl between Achilles and Hector (Hello, St. John’s.  Yes, I was paying attention.), I’m deeply troubled that without our little engine of bravery, the play as a whole will crash and burn.

There’s still Falstaff, of course.  But after his soliloquy in Act IV, I’m not sure I even like the guy anymore.  Flush with over 300 pounds from the crown’s kitty, a purse to raise 150 able troops on the king’s behalf, he has instead recruited fops and dandies with the knowledge that they would bribe their way out of the draft (Hmm…).  He has fielded a cast of downtrodden misfits and losers, an emaciated bunch of ragtag bums who will never survive the confrontations awaiting them.

In a speech that turns my stomach, Falstaff says about his men:

PRINCE HENRY: I have never seen such rascals.

FALSTAFF: Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.  Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

This doesn’t sit well with me.  In fact, give me a dozen Hotspurs in his stead!  At least that man is fighting on principle, in defense of honor.  He’s brazen, he’s feisty, he’s lacking in a certain civil decorum.  But he knows what he stands up and is willing to die for, to the extent that he can say:

HOTSPUR: What may the King’s whole battle reach unto?

VERNON: To thirty thousand.

HOTSPUR: Forty let it be.

My father and Glendower being both away,

The powers of us may serve so great a day.

Come, let us take a muster speedily.

Doomsday is near.  Die all, die merrily.

Chilling stuff.  And the stuff of which unforgettable characters are made.

The Devil Understands Welsh

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags on 2014/04/11 by Mattermind

Anything you can do, I can do better…

Henry IV: Part I, Act III

You can bet that whoever thinks Shakespeare is boring never read Henry IV. As good as the dialogue in this scene from Avengers is, Shakespeare does it that much better. As talented a writer as Joss Whedon happens to be, I’m sure he would agree.

With so much going on in Henry IV, the last thing I expect is to laugh out loud at the outlandish chutzpah of irascible Hotspur. The comic infighting between legion of doom all-star members is downright hysterical – none more so than the digs Hotspur takes at the elder self-styled warlock, Glendower.

Or at least Glendower presents himself as a sort of warlock, a brazen alchemist in the Merlin mold. Only Hotspur doesn’t buy his schtick whatsoever – and tells him so to his face.

As I’m reading the lines, I’m ducking under the table. I can’t imagine what Hotspur can possibly gain by challenging the otherworldly claims of this fearsome rebel, a man he needs in order to help take down the standing king. Whatever else he may be, Glendower is a powerful solider with a fearsome reputation for having demonic powers at his command. His achievements on the battlefield precede him. Just about anybody would cower in his presence, simply to avoid the possible consequences from crossing him.

Not Hotspur. For absolutely no rational reason save youthful candor, he throws caution to the wind and the gauntlet at Glendower’s feet, daring him to conjure the devils allegedly at his beck and call.

GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR: Why, so can I; or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?
GLENDOWER: Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil.
HOTSPUR: 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!
MORTIMER: Come, come, no more of this unprofitable chat.

Mortimer tries to calm down the hotheaded Hotspur before Glendower unleashes his fury. Luckily, Glendower has great respect for Hotspur’s tempestuous courage, otherwise who knows what would happen.

Shakespeare creates this marvelous tension below what would otherwise be a static scene (“Bad Guys Hatch Their Evil Scheme to Take Over the World”), showcasing yet again the unpredictable, emotional and even idealistic undercurrent Hotspur harbors barely beneath the surface, liable to go off at any moment.

Another funny scene follows on the heels of this one, when the wives are brought in to say goodbye to their men during a lull when contracts are being drawn up for the post-rebellion division of the kingdom. Funny, because Mortimer’s wife is Welsh and cannot speak English — and Mortimer can’t speak a lick of Welsh. She also happens to be the daughter of Glendower, who translates for Mortimer while lamenting his daughter’s obsession with the Englishman.

Contrast the lovey-dovey cooing of this pair with the bawdy, tongue-in-cheek waggishness of Hotspur with his wife, trading sexual barbs while poking fun at the inscrutability of the Welsh dialect. Since Glendower understands it, the devil must therefore too.

As if the zingers between Falstaff and Hal were not flying fast enough, we now get hit from both sides: Hotspur and his ballsy chivalric chiding… and the loving verbal volleys served between oafish-but-good-hearted Falstaff and the slumming-but-marginally-still-virtuous young Hal.

And all the while, the forces of epic conflict are drawing nigh. With his back against the wall, Henry calls Hal in for a fatherly upbraiding. The situation reminds him too much of when he seized power from Richard, only it’s Hotspur who plays Bolingbroke and Hal cast as poor Richard.

This insult causes Hal to rise up and swear that he will regain his honor by taking out Hotspur in battle. But with the rebellion now in full flush, in the open and on the march, how will Hal reform himself in time to present a match for the legendary forces gathered against him?

Stay tuned, folks. This play is gloriously good…and just getting revved up.

Shall We Be Merry?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , , , , , on 2014/04/10 by Mattermind
Source: Forbes.com

Source: Forbes.com

Henry IV: Part I, Act II

Stepping into Henry IV is like entering a whole new story universe. I’ve never been quite so dazzled by anything this quickly; after much deliberation, I think I know why.

Writers often speak in terms of either “plot-driven” or “character-driven” narrative, with the conclusion inevitably being that they must be a fusion of both.  But at the end of the day, we can usually tell when what we’re reading or watching is plot-heavy (Dan Brown, The Expendables), or character-dense (anything by Aaron Sorkin, Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams).  Every once in awhile, your peanut butter gets mixed up in my chocolate, and everybody leaves satisfied (Joss Whedon’s Avengers).

And then there’s Shakespeare.  Most of his plays register high in all aspects of the Prichard scale, with some like Romeo & Juliet (which we’ll get to shortly) being both long on adventure and romance as well as interweaving a suspenseful, complex plot.

Henry IV takes this to a whole new level.  I say that because of the sheer quantity of character voices and personalities, each with a different tangy slang to their accent and outlook.  Stable boys, scoundrels, tax collectors, bar maids, chambermaids, kings, rebels, upstarts, barons, wives – they’re all here in spades and we’re only in Act II!  Not only are they here, but Shakespeare seems to revel in their boisterous individual speech and bluster.  They tell off-color jokes, insult one another with abandon.  Dialogue is saturated in subtext in the context of a festering civil war, lingering disappointment between father and son, the disillusionment of a big-hearted, petty thief, a regal heir sowing oats before inheriting the heavy responsibilities of the throne.  This is three-dimensional chess on a moving chessboard.  And a patient, deliberate artist willing to take his sweet time in delivering a corker of an action climax.

We can see it brewing in the background, a showdown between playful Prince Hal and hotheaded Hotspur.  It’s as though Hal were Luke Skywalker, passing his time on far-off Tatooine while Darth slowly strangled the rebel alliance.  You know they are headed for an epic clash.  So why not sit back and enjoy the ride?

This has all the elements of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.  Henry IV is beset by a legion of rapidly uniting forces intent on overthrowing his rule.  These aren’t just any old cantankerous dissidents, but a collection of legendary and profoundly powerful forces.  Henry IV has grown old and weary, yet he will attempt to rise to the challenge.  But it’s going to take somebody younger, a son with great, untapped potential to complete the task.

Here are my favorite lines:

FALSTAFF: But tell me, Hal, are not thou horrible afeard? Thou being heir apparent, could the world pick thee out three such enemies again as that fiend Douglas, that spirit Percy, and that devil Glendower? Art thou not horribly afraid? Doth thy blood not thrill at it?

PRINCE HENRY: Not a whit, i’faith; I lack some of thy instinct.

Marvel comic books wish they had tales this gripping.

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