Archive for the Henry IV Part 2 Category

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.