When Thou Art A King

Henry IV Part I, Act I

I’m not exactly sure why it has taken me so long to wrap my head around this particular play.  Now that I have a reasonable handle on it and have begun to make inroads, there is nothing drastic going on besides a lengthy and convoluted backstory that takes Twister-like maneuvers to follow.  Especially when what most stands out about the first act is the less-than-stunning revelation how perilous it is to be king.

UPDATE: The depth of the play lies in its rich characters and dense plot.  Prince Hal and Falstaff transcend the confines of the story to achieve literary universality.  Not to mention the tragic built-in ironies confounding Henry. So yes, there is much to appreciate (and navigate) herein. It’s a chewy cookie (but so moist and flavorful).

When we left Richard II, he had been deposed by Henry and murdered by an overeager acolyte, casting a shadow of impending gloom over the dawning sequel.  It only takes the opening lines of Henry IV Part One to reveal that this has indeed happened.

KING: So shaken are we, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in stronds afar remote.

Boom! Henry is besotted from the get-go with woes virtually identical to those that plagued Richard.  Sweet irony! For we are reminded again and again how obsessive (fussy, overbearing, insufferable?) the English can be about legitimate succession.  These sorts of issues are the mandatory blowback, apparently, of trying to preserve a monarchy while accommodating a burgeoning parliament filled with ambitious barons and expanding the tenuous rule of law.  A fussiness quotient gets added to an already incendiary mix, trying to balance partisan barons, a rowdy public, a dominant clergy and rival rulers.  Constant warfare created the need for what could become unbearable taxation.  Even without the modern trappings of 24/7 media and opinion polls every news cycle, the king battled incessantly with competing factions.

He may not have suffered from the same extensive overreach as Richard (failures at war, excessive taxation to fund failed campaigns, insistence upon liberties with court wives), but he wasn’t the first to be felled by the yawning gap between running an upstart campaign and the complications of having to actually rule a country.

Why in the world would anybody wish to be king under those circumstances? There were (and still are) many perks, of course.  The position paid handsomely and marriage posed no barrier to dalliances.  Like a mob boss or CEO of an international conglomerate, the living is good but the term may be short and the fall steep.

Henry is besieged both personally and politically. Personally in the form of his wayward son, Prince Hal, a kid more fond of hanging around miscreants like Falstaff than grooming himself for eventual succession.  He is contrasted with Hotspur (great name!), a feisty, enterprising, talented idealist who stands in opposition to Henry but embodies similar values and characteristics to the young Bolingbroke (the future Henry) we met back in Richard II.

Wheels within wheels…what goes around, comes around.  And now a plot is hatched to unseat Henry the same way that Henry deposed Richard.  Will the young Prince Hal mature in time to inherit the kingdom? Or will Hotspur’s crew avenge the “betrayal” they’ve suffered since supporting Henry’s rise to the top?

Getcha popcorn.  This is gonna be good!

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