Shall We Be Merry?

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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