Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare
The theme of the ninth grade is, at my school like so many of others, "coming of age." It doesn't really mean much, in practice, but it "sells" to the students that the arc of the year has a purpose. And in some moments it lends a shape to cross-textual conversations. How is the process of growing up different for Holden Caulfield than it is for Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Pip from Great Expectations? Unfortunately, it also means that we teach Hamlet way before kids, in my opinion, are really old enough to read it. (Who is, though?)
My solution was this: I asked my assistant principal to order Henry IV, pt. 1. Even more than Hamlet, I think of H4pt1 as Shakespeare's quintessential coming-of-age story, centering as it does on the young Prince Hal and his need to grow up and straighten out in order to inherit the throne of his father, the title king. The dissolute prince, always hanging out with Falstaff and his cronies, pales when compared to the hotheaded bravery of Percy Hotspur, who drives the rebellion against Hal's father. (In fact, I learned while reading about the play, that until relatively recently, most performances treated Hotspur as the protagonist, and relegated Hal to a supporting role.)
Reading it again this time, my attention was focused on these themes, and what would be accessible to my students. Will they relate to the pressure put on Hal to be a model son? Perhaps not as much as students at some of the schools I have taught. Will they sympathize with the moralizing Henry IV, as they sympathize with Holden's stuffy old teacher who tells him, "Life is a game you play according to the rules?" (It may sound weird, but teenagers have a conservative streak they have trouble growing out of.) Or will they find Falstaff's catechism on honor, as I do, some of the truest words in literature?
One thing that struck me during this re-reading is that the conflict isn't really what I remembered it being. It's not about Hal struggling with the decision to throw off Falstaff and his life in Eastcheap. In fact, it seems that decision is made well before the play starts. The love that Hal bears to Falstaff is pretty scant, and he can't really find a kind word to say to or about the man until he thinks he's died on the battlefield. It's entirely believable that Hal hangs out in Eastcheap for exactly the reason he says he does: it will make his enemies underestimate him and make his ultimate rise to power seem all the more awesome. If that reasoning is to believed, he's not a traitor to Falstaff, he's a psychopath. And yet it will take literally another play to get to the point where Hal dismisses Falstaff for good. Is that Machiavellian strategizing or real inner conflict?
I don't think this play will be easy to teach. There are a lot of war-room strategy meetings that I often want to glaze over, as I do with those same scenes in Othello and Julius Caesar. It's going to be important to find what matters about these scenes--Percy's hotheadedness, the eerie magic that hangs around Shakespeare's version of Wales, the parallel father-and-son relationships--and not skip them over to get to the tavern scenes and the grandiose speeches. We'll see how that goes.