Next Man Up

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.

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