Written for a production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 at STC, starring Stacy Keach as Falstaff. – DL
What is the history play? It ends with neither deaths nor weddings, yet contains both tragedy and comedy. It devotes itself to the regional and political differences of millions of people, while functioning as a family drama of unusual intimacy. The history play shows us great kings and mighty warriors, but it also makes room for the common man and allows the silent woman to have her say. How does one sum up a genre that appears to follow so few set rules and regulations? How does one define the warp and woof of what looks like pure inspiration?
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Almost as soon as it appeared, Henry IV, Part 1 was a popular sensation. It was the best selling of Shakespeare’s plays, going through nine editions between 1598 and 1639. (Part 2 was only printed once, in 1600.) It played regularly in theatres throughout the seventeenth century. During the Interregnum, when all theatre was prohibited, the Falstaff scenes were performed as a “droll” – at taverns and fairs, on an impromptu scaffold – under the title The Bouncing Knight.
Structurally, the play has a restless, triangular momentum. We begin with scenes alternately serious and comic in the court and the tavern, before political conflict disrupts the King’s Council in the third scene. From that point on, the action shifts between the three worlds of the court, the tavern, and the battlefield. Shakespeare yokes these three realms together in an almost contrapuntal manner, finding striking thematic unities in the most seemingly disparate of settings.
For example, the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury is foreshadowed and parodied brilliantly by the “Battle” of Gad’s Hill halfway through, just as Hotspur’s spirited arguments with his wife parallel Prince Hal’s jesting games of wit with Falstaff. Heterosexual tensions in the one world vie with homosocial bonds in the other; games of criminal mischief in one echo deadly war games in the other.
Another way of understanding the play’s architecture is by looking at character. The court, the tavern and the battlefield are ruled by King Henry, Falstaff and Hotspur, respectively. The only figure linking together these three worlds is Prince Hal, and the play is concerned principally with his personal and political education. Strikingly, Shakespeare does not pressure us to side with any one of Hal’s would-be mentors. He presents the King’s criticisms of Hal’s wastrel conduct just as seriously as he does Falstaff’s endorsement of a self-interested and liberal lifestyle, as well as Hotspur’s valiant self-conduct.
Shakespeare also, with brilliant irony, shows us the terrible burdens of the King’s mortal sin, the self-serving logic of Falstaff and Hotspur’s self-destructive qualities. Along with Hal, we in the audience have to reflect on and choose the wisest course of action. Shakespeare’s genius makes clear that every option comes with a terrible price. We are made utterly aware of the necessity for Hal’s maturation, but it registers as a heartbreaking shock when it arrives.
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That maturity arrives in Henry IV, Part 2. This play, never as popular as Part 1, is nonetheless unique in Shakespeare’s canon. A markedly transitional play, it looks forward to the great tragedies, boasting a newfound sense of mortality and loss. Choral lamentations, such as Northumberland’s speech in Act 2, scene 1, recall nothing so much as King Lear on the barren heath. The emotional tenor of the play seems to have ripened immeasurably from its predecessor, an amazing feat considering the two were written less than a year apart. While itshares the ingenious tripartite structure of Part 1, it would be difficult to imagine a more tonally opposite work and more striking completion to the story.
While Part 1 is a joyous play, capacious in its depiction of the richly varied realms of the commonwealth, Part 2 is distinctly darker and deeper, a melancholy reworking of the same themes. The triumphal symphony of the earlier play has been transposed into a minor key, Shakespeare’s gaze turning from dreams of wealth and plenitude to realities of disease and sickness, from the illusions of youth to the ravages of time.
The rebellion is faltering, showing little of the gallant chivalry of its initial leader, Hotspur. There is a strange feeling of futility, as if the rebels sense they are at war with historical change itself. Prince Hal himself cuts a much more solitary figure, less knowable than the impressionable youth of Part 1.
Most strikingly, the character of Falstaff has shifted. Kept apart from Hal for the majority of the action, his role as braggart has been taken over by the newly introduced Pistol (a B-movie Hotspur), while the bouncing knight himself seems to have aged a great deal. His ailing health and fortunes are made clear from his first appearance, and he is chased throughout the play by the Lord Chief Justice, a quasi-symbolic figure promising a final reckoning. “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff says to the similarly symbolic Justice Shallow, whose sun-dappled orchard in Gloucestershire has replaced the taverns of Eastcheap, casting an autumnal light over the stage. It is almost the exact midpoint of the action, Act 3, scene 2. The bell is tolling. An old order is dying and a new one is being born.
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Like history, the two parts of Henry IV work on the widest available canvas. Traversing across every strata of society, Shakespeare throws hundreds of characters on the stage, weaving together recorded history and improvisatory comedy, public speeches and private motives. Along the way, Shakespeare creates the mesmerizing illusion of a fully realized world, one that mimics life itself in all of its variety and complexity. In their wide-ranging panorama of human existence, the two parts of Henry IV, taken together, comprise perhaps the greatest history play ever written. Which is to say, they are among the greatest works we possess in dramatic literature.