The Devil Understands Welsh

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.

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