Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Henry IV, Part One

Henry IV is not the main character of Henry IV, Part One. He barely clocks in fourth--behind the impetuous rebel, Hotspur. But who is? Conventional wisdom would say that the center of the play is Hal, the future Henry V, who over the course of the Henry IV plays must learn to abandon his life of carousing in Eastcheap taverns, but Hal's drinking buddy Falstaff was perhaps his most popular creation, and according to Harold Bloom is one of the two greatest Shakespearean achievements (along with Hamlet).

The play opens with Henry IV wishing openly that his son were Harry Percy, or Hotspur, who within an act will be in open rebellion towards him:

Oh, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine "Percy," his "Plantagenet,"
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

And yet, what strikes me is that from his very first appearance, Hal appears to have no qualms about leaving his life in the taverns behind in order to become more like Hotspur:

I know you all and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Both Hal and his father have a nasty streak of uncharitableness; Henry's toward his son and Hal toward his friends. In particular I find Hal's insistence that he is better than his surroundings to be both ignorant and distasteful, as if his entire life he were merely "slumming it," waiting for an opportunity to show his true colors. It only makes it worse that Hal's self-assessment is essentially correct, and that he takes to the battlefield with natural ease, because it is unclear that the "true" persona is more valuable or honorable than the counterfeit.

This runs afoul of many readings of Henry IV (and here it seems as good a time as any to mention I have not read Part Two) which depict Hal as struggling to transform himself into the capable ruler of Henry V and Falstaff as his obstacle. But on Hal's part there is no struggle, no inner conflict about leaving his friends. On the other hand, Falstaff seems to overflow with love for Hal. In one scene, Hal and Falstaff are play-acting at being Henry and Hal, respectively, when Hal-Henry upbraids his Falstaff-Hal for the company he keeps. Falstaff's reply--clearly and pathetically not true to Hal's sentiments--becomes an endearing self-defense:

FALSTAFF: But to say I know more harm in him than in myself were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity; his white hairs do witness it. But that he his, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharoah's lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company. Banish plump Jack and banish all the world.

HAL: I do; I will.

Hal's banishment of Falstaff is completed in Part Two, and in the course of it he does in a way banish the world, as the pursuit of honor and glory is a lonely one by nature. Hal echoes this when he says to Hotspur before their final battle, "I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy, / To share with me in glory any more. / Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere." Hal banishes his doppelgangers: first Hostpur, then his Eastcheap self.

Falstaff, impressed by Hal into service, is on the same battlefield and fakes his own death to spare his life. Is this cowardly? Soliloquizing, he seizes upon the symbolism of counterfeiting that Hal has long been employing:

Counterfeit? I lie; I am no counterfeit. to die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit, but the true and image of life indeed.

This is Falstaff's finest hour, a rejection of Hotspur's glories, which court death. Falstaff is a prophet of life; life is truth, and death a falsehood. In his war poem "Dulce et Decorum est," Wilfred Own would call it "the old lie," that there is value, or goodness, or sweetness in death on the battlefield. Falstaff's vitality is the overflowing of his insistence on life--"Give me life," he says--and he has no respect for the empty vanities of honor:

Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor has no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word "honor"? What is that "honor"? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible, then? Yes, to the dead.

We feel this deeply because we like Falstaff and want him to exist; for that reason Shakespeare wrote more total lines for him than any other character. Nothing is lost when Hotspur meets his end at Hal's hands, mostly because the two of them have been spent the entire play planning to eradicate each other. Falstaff values life and Hotspur values honor; in Part One at least they reap their rewards. I am suspicious of Bloom's desire to turn Falstaff into some sort of ubermensch, but if there is a choice to be made, I'll take Falstaff's worldview over Hal's.


Brent Waggoner said...

More like Fallchaff.

lawnwrangler said...

This is my favorite play by old Will. But again we diverge, I'm for Hal and Hotspur all the way. An epic feud. I wish Hotspur had won.

I also love how Shakespeare's only mention of Falstaff in Henry V is to report on his death due to his alcoholism.

Did anybody see Shakespeare's plays for the themes? Or was the only worthwhile ticket purchased by groundlings hoping for a Falstaffian character?
He's like the chris farley of shakespeare.

Christopher said...

I totally disagree. Hotspur is intriguing but his death is exactly what he deserves. Hal's rejection of Falstaff is too brutal.

Christopher said...

But yeah, this is one of my favorites too.

Brent Waggoner said...

Have you read The Merry Wives of Windsor? Falstaff is in that too.

Christopher said...

I have not. Bloom seems to think it sucks.

lawnwrangler said...

Never read Merry Wives...I think Shakespeare tried to put him in as many plays as possible because he was selling out to the crowd. It's the equivalent of giving them what they want. Lame. And Bloom would know best, yet his criticism is so dry. Bloom is the Kevin Nealon to Falstaff's Farley.

Christopher said...

1.) Bloom is a lot of things, but he isn't dry.
2.) This is my favorite line of Hotspur's:


I can call spirits from the vasty deep.


Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

lawnwrangler said...

Boom! hotspur gots some moxie!

billy said...

it's been a long time since i've read this one, but i remember being disappointed and unimpressed by hal's sun hiding behind the clouds act. lowering people's expectations so it will be easier to outshine them seems weak and borderline cowardly. this is especially true in hal's case, because in the end (by the end of henry v, if i remember correctly) he shines brightly enough that he would have surpassed even high expectations.

also, i'm pretty sure i wrote a paper comparing hal to dubya my freshman year at carolina. i can't really remember what it was about other than the misspent youth to ruler parallel.

Christopher said...

Agreed, William.