Archive for the The Plays Category

Oh, For a Muse of Fire!

Posted in Henry V with tags , , , on 2014/05/01 by mattermind

Henry V, Prologue

Shakespeare wastes no time starting Henry V, an ironic statement since we begin not with the main action, but instead with a prologue.

Why this isn’t a waste has more to do with The Great Conversation, the Agon of the Ages as Harold Bloom calls it, Shakespeare’s claim to fame as one of the immortals of literature that began with humanity’s first attempts at storytelling in the annals of historical memory.

His words are thunderous, ear-splitting, mind-shattering, echoing previous invocations of the muse by Homer, Virgil and Dante – the Cosmic All-Stars.  Mighty company to keep.

When entering such a hallowed hall, best to make one’s presence known straight off by clanging the gong of a familiar meme:

Oh, for a must of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,

Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment.

Shakespeare twice begs pardon, having tapped into mighty, mythological imagery by invoking the Greek muses, the God of War, and one of the greatest kings in English history.

To rise to the vaunted heights, an aspiring writer needs a magnificent theme.  Shakespeare recognizes he has one here and seizes his opportunity by the throat, announcing to the world from the outset that the playing field has been elevated, his aspirations engaged at the highest levels.

We are invited to become willing participants.  Indeed, he needs our assistance if his words can hope to paint such a sprawling canvas.  We are to lend our aid in imagining the  battlefields, the thunderous hooves of the prancing horses, marching soldiers, bloody battles.

The stage may be a pale imitation.  But in the right hands, and with our active engagement, Shakespeare dares to make a great historic moment come alive.

It’s breathtaking and unforgettable.  And yet the play hasn’t even formally begun.


One More Word, I Beseech You

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 on 2014/04/29 by mattermind


Henry IV: Part Two, Epilogue

I have to hand it to Shakespeare.  Just when I think there’s nothing he can do that will surprise me, he pulls a quarter out of his ear and defies me to explain his magic.

I didn’t see the Epilogue coming.  Nor the Monty-Pythonesque humor of its rollicking apology for a play that Shakespeare all but openly admits is not up to his own standards.

Maybe he felt guilty for forcing the golden goose to hatch one more guilded egg.  Maybe it seemed to him that he laid on Falstaff’s lowbrow humor a little thick.  Or maybe he felt a little sick from having stretched his own talents to supply the audience exactly what they were clamoring for without the usual challenge or curve ball.

In any case, there the epilogue is, begging almost for forgiveness and another shot at glory.  It’s offered tongue-in-cheek, one supposes, in the form of a sheepish narrator who enters the stage after the primary action is complete, saying,

EPILOGUE: First my fear, then my curtsy, last my speech.  My fear is your displeasure; my curtsy, my duty; and my speech, to beg your pardons.

He promises that if we didn’t like this one, we ought to give him another chance.  More Falstaff (a promise unkept) and Katherine of France.  More laughs, a little sex.  And the exploits of one of the greatest kings in England’s storied history.

And with that, he exits the stage.  Strange stuff indeed…causing me to scratch my head and laugh out loud at the same time.  Is he serious?  Is this a put on?  What am I supposed to make of it?

That Shakespeare.  What will he think of next?!

I Know Thee Not, Old Man

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags , , on 2014/04/29 by mattermind

ImageImage: Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso / Source: Wikipedia

It’s easy to forget that Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) lived during almost precisely the same span of years as William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  Two towering luminaries expanded and redefined their national (as well as international) literatures in the identical epoch, creating some of the world’s most memorable characters.

This occurred to me as I was trying to make more sense of Falstaff and the comedic elements of the play.  Then it dawned on me how Shakespeare dwells upon Falstaff’s dubious status as a knight.  Suddenly, when compared to that even more famous knight errant, Don Quixote, the roistering fat man fit the bill.

Both Shakespeare and Cervantes, it seems, were intent on skewering the fading chivalric ethos with the overwhelming presence of knightly fools.  Not the same fools, to be sure.  Don Quixote is lovably deluded, whereas Falstaff is laughably conniving.  Both misread their current predicaments in an age when over-the-top romanticism is rapidly wearing thin.

The harshest blow occurs in Act V during a famous scene in which Prince Hal, newly coronated as Henry V, disowns his former friend in front of everyone.  Not only that, but he banishes Falstaff and prevents him from ever coming within ten miles of the royal presence at the cost of his life.

It’s enough to make one wonder how genuinely Hal kept the friendship, ever keeping in mind his disagreement with his father, Henry IV and the long-standing plot to transform himself into a king and shock the world.

But one must also remember that Hal’s role has changed now that his dad is dead and the weight of the realm has fallen upon his shoulders.  He must take a stand – make a show – in as theatrical (no pun intended) a fashion as possible to convince his subjects that the Harry of old will not continue his debauchery upon the throne.

It has led many to interpolate a bittersweet pride in Falstaff (portrayed particularly by Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight), recognizing even in his own rejection how far his protégé has ascended.  Our pain as audience members grows as we comprehend Falstaff’s emotional denial of the absoluteness of this rejection, attempting to convince himself that Hal doesn’t mean what he says but is merely putting on a necessary show.

By causing us to feel great sympathy for Falstaff at the last, Shakespeare has managed to bring our ideas of the man full circle, confounding easy description.  Falstaff is (pardon another pun) a “round” character, a full being who beggars simple labeling as either a good or bad man.

He may have a good soul, as Orson Welles argues, but he sometimes has a funny way of showing it.  By trying to make everything funny, he has a tendency to try and hide loose morals and cheap values, a tawdry sort of existence.  He may be lovable, and forgivable…but he sure can grow tiresome.

Like the newly christened King Henry, we all reach an age when it’s time to move onto more serious pursuits.  Such as Henry V, in this case.

The age of knights and chivalry achieved its own spectacular highs and abominable lows.  But every era too reaches a point when the welcome is worn out and a new era yearns to be born.

In That Jerusalem Shall Harry Die

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 on 2014/04/27 by mattermind

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.]

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 on 2014/04/16 by mattermind

Henry IV: Part II, Act III

I’m not sure what motivated Shakespeare to write Henry IV in two parts rather than just one, but his follow-up suffers from a serious case of sequel-itis.

We start to feel this now, in the midsection of the play, as Henry laments his inability to sleep, and Falstaff contrives more devious ways to avoid responsibility and connive cash for his dubious exploits.  We almost wish for a good battle sequence to distract us with mindless action.  Anything to further the plot and wrap this up so we can move on to the larger stakes of Henry V.

I have finally caught up to this period in the lecture series on English history.  Along the way I got detoured by fascinating discussions on the Black Plague and its effects on the feudalistic economy, the Peasant’s Revolt, the spread of English, Chaucer, the growing power of Parliament, proto-Protestant dissatisfaction with the clergy, and even the dawning age of the printing press and the tidal shift of common literacy.

There is so much going on during this era that it made me angry at the black holes in my education.  The cataclysmic mistake, I believe, is that we compartmentalize our school systems in the United States, creating an assembly-line-inspired manufacturing process that has broken down complicated knowledge into its crudest, most rudimentary moving parts.

I have studied Chaucer in English class, the printing press in history, the Magna Carta in political science…but I have never had a teacher help me put the pieces together until now.  The blame for that falls squarely on me.  But when I look back at how I was taught everything I learned in school, it was delivered piecemeal in easily-digestible units, discreet chapters with tidy summaries that in no way bear resemblance to the complex, holistic truth. 

We have so specialized the generation and acquisition of information that we have lost all sense for how it flows together into Gestalt patterns.  History is no more a collection of generals and wars than literature is a bunch of novels, poems and plays. Those are just the names we ascribe to certain qualities and behaviors, fragments of glass in the stained-glass window shedding light on the human soul and our collective destiny.

We can’t just cut out and isolate convenient bits from our intellectual, spiritual and cultural development and then offer these up to our youth, assuming our work is done.  As educators, our job is first to master the material and only then present it with all its lumps, bumps, connections and contradictions. But those are the very instructors who are stripped from the corporate model of education in our race to the standardized bottom.

How many people on the streets know that it was the spread of gunpowder that led directly to the end of chivalry?  Or that the massive loss of life suffered during the Black Death created competition for the dwindling labor force, a downward momentum on prices and an upward push on wages that would help smash the oppressive chokehold of serfdom in Europe?
– or that an increase in laws would inevitably lead to a need for educated lawyers which in turn created openings for a new class of students to earn a good living in the courts?

Wheels within wheels. 

And now we’re in the middle of a series of succession plays during a tumultuous period when the king chafed at the rising power of Parliament to enforce checks on his revenues, and baronial accumulation of influence created clashes of treacherous alliances.  The more you know, the more fascinating all of this becomes.

I regret that I am late to the party.  But I am grateful that I was at least invited.

He Was the Mark and Glass, Copy and Book

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags on 2014/04/15 by mattermind

Henry IV: Part Two, Act II

The title comes from a speech by Lady Percy, Hotspur’s widow, who speaks as boldly and as bluntly to her father-in-law as Hotspur might himself were he alive.

She has GRIEVANCE, since it was Northumberland and Glendower’s pussyfooting that contributed directly to her love’s defeat.  Hotspur might have withdrawn – or at least waited for reinforcements – but everyone knows that wasn’t his way.  The real question is why his father chose to hold back (it seems doubtful that he in fact was sick, since he fails to mention it now when any plausible excuse might come in handy).

I find it most revealing that Lady Percy takes umbrage at Northumberland’s specific reference of the word “honor” – a crucial word for this play and certainly for Hotspur.  It demonstrates that the idealism which ran through the son runs equally through his wife, if indeed it has run aground in the father.

She wonders why he’s all fired up now to take to the field after the horses have fled the barn.  Honor? she says.  You care about honor among strangers, when it didn’t bother you to abandon your own son at his most desperate hour?

Feisty girl, speaking to her father-in-law this way.  But I love that about her, just like I loved the same characteristic in her husband.  They stand for principles in a world run amok with royal flimflammery, baronial machinations, pompous egos and lowbrow buffoonery.

If we assumed that by killing Hotspur, Prince Hal would rise to the occasion and embody a regal bearing for the throne, we assumed wrong.  Not only does he continue to fart around with Falstaff, but he begins preening about his royal place and such, whether it’s uncouth to be seen among the common folk.  Cry about his ailing father?  But how would that look in front of his future subjects?

Blah blah blah.  The kid ain’t ready for prime time.  Falstaff is…Falstaff.  The rebellion is in disarray.  And now Northumberland has been convinced by his wife and daughter-in-law to wait this round out – again? – to see how the chips will fall.

Hotspur may have had his faults, but I sure do miss him now.

Next Man Up

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags , on 2014/04/14 by mattermind

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.

What Is Honor?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , on 2014/04/13 by mattermind

King Henry IV: Part I, Act V

FALSTAFF: Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then?  No.  What is honor?  A word.  What is that word honor then?  Air – a trim reckoning!  Who hath it?  He that died a Wednesday.   Doth he feel it?  No.  Doth he hear it?  No.  ‘Tis insensible then?  Yea, to the dead.  But will it not live with the living?  No.  Why?  Detraction will not suffer it.  Therefore I’ll none of it.  Honor is a mere scutcheon – and so ends my catechism.

On the heels of finishing Act IV, I couldn’t wait to begin Act V.  One way or the other, the play was hurtling toward a dramatic climax.  Either Prince Hal would clash with Hotspur in an epic duel, or somehow convert him over to the royal side.

Not knowing the actual historical events (not that this seemed to bother Shakespeare), I found myself rooting for a Hollywood-like ending, a conversion scene where Hotspur is won over to become Hal’s partner in crime.  With Robin as his sidekick, together they could clean up Gotham and take a bite out of crime.  Surely Shakespeare had to realize that Hotspur was his best character in the story.  What writer wouldn’t be loathe to kill that guy off and let him go?

Breaking: I’m a romantic.  But I don’t think I’m that far off, at least in my sense that Shakespeare was reluctant to see Hotspur leave the play.  We have reason to believe from Worcester’s treachery that – if Hotspur knew the truth – he would most likely have surrendered.  This turn of events thoroughly angered me (yes, I get wrapped up in these things).  King Henry goes the extra mile to offer the rebels a way out of their predicament: state their claims, and he will address them and offer a full pardon to all involved.  In addition, Prince Hal volunteers to grapple with Hotspur against the longshot odds in one-on-one combat.  He is determined to win back favor in his father’s eyes come what may.

Unfortunately, Hotspur is not present to hear either the conditions for pardon or the terms of Ultimate Fighting against his shadow nemesis.  We are virtually certain he would accept the latter in a heartbeat – he has been looking for a way at Hal since the start of the play.  But as for the former, we have only Worcester’s deceit to understand that Hotspur may have taken the gentleman’s way out.

So instead of recapitulating the king’s words and allowing Hotspur to decide, Worcester deliberately lies to stoke Hotspur’s outrage and engage him in the battle.  And why does Worcester do this?  Because he’s convinced that Hotspur would be forgiven for his youth, valor and reputation for rashness, while the rest of the rebels would never fully be trusted again.  The king, he is sure, would only look for a convenient excuse later on to get them all back.

This argument has logic, but absolutely no moral grounds other than self-survival.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Worcester, in fact, gets his in the end.  Rounded up by the king’s men, he is summarily sentenced to death.  No honor, no valor, no glory to accompany his decision.  If, as Isaac Asimov says, Worcester was the “brains” of the operation, then the plan was doomed to failure from the beginning.  There was never a team here but a collection of self-interested individuals.

I am most intrigued, however, by Asimov’s suggestion that Hotspur and Falstaff represent polar opposites on the spectrum of the future Henry V’s personality traits – characteristics that must be reconciled for him to ascend to greatness.  As much as I hate to see Hotspur die, we comprehend in graphic terms how important it is that Hal adopt a more humble approach to honor.  Honor, in the ancient and medieval sense which means acquired glory from battle.  It stems back to the Greeks when such heroes as Achilles and Hector fought fearlessly – not for the tactical advantages or team-building, but rather for reputations that would survive them as a legacy (the riches, fame and women weren’t bad either).

Here, then, it becomes crucial to study the contrast between Falstaff and Hotspur, and how Hal manages to reconcile and transcend them both.  After killing Hotspur, he does not boast of the accomplishment, but allows Falstaff to make the claim if he can. It doesn’t say a lot for Falstaff that he would try.

As Hotspur dies, he cares less about the mortal life fleeing his body than for the honor that will now pass from him to the prince who defeated him.  In his eyes, honor is a zero-sum game. Nothing he ever achieved in his lifetime will matter.  You are only as notable as your final triumph or defeat. Sigh.

Thus, we close Part One with the death of Hotspur and the rout of the rebel force.  Because the attack was launched prematurely, before the full storm of opposition had gathered its strength, there are still opposition armies out in England that need to be dealt with.  But now, with Hal on the ascendant, Douglas captured and converted, and even Hal’s little brother John finding his mettle in the field, there seems little doubt that Henry will seize back the initiative and his reign will regain its footing.

But that remains to be seen in Part II.

No Harm. What More?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , , on 2014/04/12 by mattermind

“It’s just a flesh wound.”

Henry IV: Part I, Act IV

I’ve got to hand it to Hotspur.  In a play bursting at the seams with memorable characters, he singlehandedly steals the show.

It’s your typical case of Good Guy Wins Hearts and Minds, Bad Guy Gets the Girl.  He’s brash, he’s brazen, he’s cocksure and half-loaded.  He’s fired up for battle when he ought to be measured and tactical – and still, I just can’t help loving the guy.

Up to this point, everything has gone swimmingly for the insurgency.  They have might, they even have right, with a greater claim to the legitimate crown than the sitting king himself.  Armed with confidence and united in purpose, they have come out into the open and declared their challenge to the realm.

And then things fall apart.  It’s almost comical, just how fast the fist of fury dissolves into a sputtering wreck.  It all starts when Hotspur’s own father, the great Northumberland, sends word that he has taken ill and can’t make it to the hoedown.  His forces can no longer be counted upon to match the king’s rapidly gathering horde.

This is as big a psychological blow as a tactical one, since Northumberland’s poorly-timed medical defection, whether honest or no, will surely have a ripple effect on the tenuous rebels who will now be badly outnumbered and overmatched.  Hotspur himself has no way of knowing whether his father has seriously taken ill, or has merely soured on the venture.  But to his credit, he does not allow this bad news to dampen the mood. (“It’s just a flesh wound.”)

Then, more bad news: Glendower has been set back two weeks by a foreboding astrological forecast and refuses to join them in the ranks.  That makes two vital allies now missing in action.  Anybody with half a brain would slow the parade, if not cancel it altogether.  But not Hotspur.  He’s just raring to get this party started.

His position is not completely without merit. He believes the advantage lies in striking quickly and early, before the king’s men have fully assembled.  He also contends that his horses are better rested.  On a more personal note, having heard of Prince Hal’s gallantry (being compared to Mercury astride Pegasus – high praise, indeed), he becomes all-the-more fired up for a head-on confrontation.

Although Henry IV is no Darth Vader and the insurgents no Jedis, Hotspur’s brazen courage in the face of insurmountable odds reminds me a lot of this guy:

Which leads me to believe that our story will suffer greatly if/when he ultimately gets rubbed out [see: Empire Strikes Back].  So as much as I’ve been looking forward to a mano-y-mano brawl between Achilles and Hector (Hello, St. John’s.  Yes, I was paying attention.), I’m deeply troubled that without our little engine of bravery, the play as a whole will crash and burn.

There’s still Falstaff, of course.  But after his soliloquy in Act IV, I’m not sure I even like the guy anymore.  Flush with over 300 pounds from the crown’s kitty, a purse to raise 150 able troops on the king’s behalf, he has instead recruited fops and dandies with the knowledge that they would bribe their way out of the draft (Hmm…).  He has fielded a cast of downtrodden misfits and losers, an emaciated bunch of ragtag bums who will never survive the confrontations awaiting them.

In a speech that turns my stomach, Falstaff says about his men:

PRINCE HENRY: I have never seen such rascals.

FALSTAFF: Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.  Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

This doesn’t sit well with me.  In fact, give me a dozen Hotspurs in his stead!  At least that man is fighting on principle, in defense of honor.  He’s brazen, he’s feisty, he’s lacking in a certain civil decorum.  But he knows what he stands up and is willing to die for, to the extent that he can say:

HOTSPUR: What may the King’s whole battle reach unto?

VERNON: To thirty thousand.

HOTSPUR: Forty let it be.

My father and Glendower being both away,

The powers of us may serve so great a day.

Come, let us take a muster speedily.

Doomsday is near.  Die all, die merrily.

Chilling stuff.  And the stuff of which unforgettable characters are made.

The Devil Understands Welsh

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags on 2014/04/11 by mattermind

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.