In That Jerusalem Shall Harry Die

Henry IV: Part Two, Act IV

It turns out I’m not alone in thinking this is a problematic play.

Sir Isaac Asimov contends – and it makes sense to me – that Part Two exists solely because Falstaff turned out to be a smash hit, and Shakespeare recognized a great box office opportunity when he saw one.  Which is surprisingly similar to milking out four unnecessary Pirates of the Caribbean franchise flicks because Jack Sparrow happens to spin the turnstiles at Disney.

You can hardly blame the Bard for cashing in.  After all, his business acumen allowed him to retire into the lap of luxury at the relatively early age (these days) of only 52.  We should all be so lucky (and smart and shrewd, or whatever you choose to call it).

So instead of wrapping up the action in Part One, Shakespeare extended the rebellion into the sequel and came up with new comedic scenes for a fan favorite.  But this in turn leads to other troubles in an otherwise weighty  historical play that becomes tonally interwoven with a lowbrow sketch comedy, somewhat akin to Saturday Night Live presenting the Civil War.

On the one hand, Henry IV/Bolingbroke died from excessive cares, having to put down rebellion after rebellion because of his contested legitimacy.  That he managed to successfully pull this off is a testament to his sheer willpower and prodigious management skills; that he died a worn-out husk at the age of only 38, that just goes to show how profound those difficulties turned out to be.

But then we crossbreed these ponderous matters with a run of slapstick characters by the name of Shallow, Silence, Fang, Snare, Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, Bullcalf, Tearsheat, Pistol and Quickly… exchanging hot and saucy barbs about drinking, petty theft and prostitution in the name of a good laugh.  It becomes thematically jarring in a way that I’ll admit probably bothers contemporary reader/theatergoers far more than those in the 16th Century, though not so indisputably less that Shakespeare couldn’t help tacking on a confessional Epilogue (more on that later).

We are supposed to care about allegedly valiant Prince Hal’s epic character transformation on the cusp of inheriting the crown to become one of the legendary kings in British history.  But how can we, when we’ve undergone basically the identical scene in Part One?  When Falstaff has long past worn out his welcome?  When the rebellion has fizzled out from yet another lily-livered abandonment by the cunning Northumberland?  And when by far the most dramatic and striking scene-stealer left the stage back on the big battlefield? (Aside: echoes of Prince Andrei in War & Peace, but that’s a matter for a different time.)

You can’t always get what you want, that’s true.  But you must also be careful what you ask for.  I’m running out of appropriate clichés here but one last flourish leaps to mind: always leave them wanting more.

[Drops mic, exit stage left.]


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