Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Henry IV, Part Two by William Shakespeare

CHIEF JUSTICE: Well, God send the Prince a better companion.

FALSTAFF: God send the companion a better prince.  I cannot rid my hands of him.

What is the point of Henry IV, pt. II?  I cannot tell.  The fundamental conflicts seem warmed over from Henry IV, pt. I: Prince Hal feels compelled to cast of Falstaff in order to claim his birthright; King Henry thinks little of Hal; there are some rebels.  The scene in which Hal, now Henry V, condemns Falstaff, is one of the best scenes in either play, but it lacks the impact it ought to have because we've been here already, when the Falstaff of Part I begs not to be "banished" by Hal, who replies, "I do; I will."

The rebels enter even more limply.  Instead of Hotspur--the furious, headstrong foil of Part I--Part II gives us his father Northumberland, whose defining trait is that he fails to actually show up to the rebellion.  Shakespeare promises another showdown between the rebel forces and the King's, but instead has the Prince's brother John capitulate to all their demands and then arrest them when their guard is down.  (In this case I imagine Shakespeare laughing maniacally while writing this scene, delighted to frustrate his audience's expectations.)  For these reasons it seems hard to regard Henry IV, pt. II as anything but an attempt to further capitalize on the popularity of the first part, and on Falstaff in particular.

As a play it's underwhelming, but it also seems to be a product of perverse genius.  In a way, Shakespeare gives us exactly the play we want--that is, a repeat of the last play--but refuses to give it to us the way that we want.  Probably Shakespeare knew that the greatest moments of Part I were the interactions between Falstaff and Hal, and he purposely kept their two storylines (mostly) separate until the final scene.

What a final scene it is, though.  Hal's vicious rejection of Falstaff is almost worth the price of admission:

FALSTAFF: My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!

KING: I know thee not, old man.  Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing.  Know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know--so shall the world perceive--
That I have turned away my former self.
So I will those that kept me company.

The bit about Falstaff being part of Hal's dream is especially telling, because we know that dreams will be few and far between for Hal.  In the play's other truly moving scene, Hal sees his ailing father asleep and thinks that he has died.  Reluctantly, he takes the crown as his, knowing that it represents a sleepless future:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polished perturbation, golden care,
That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night!  Sleep with it now;
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night.

Henry will return to this thought in Henry V as he walks incognito through his military camps, soliloquizing that the trappings of a king, "laid in bed majestical, / Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave..."  Of course, Henry IV is not dead, and when he discovers that Hal has come and gone with his crown, his response could not be more off the mark:

How quickly nature falls into revolt
When gold becomes her object!

And yet this gives Hal the opportunity to admit the truth to his father--that he regards the crown not as a prize, but that creature "that hath fed upon the body of my father."  It is a rare moment of honesty from Hal, who seems so often to be nothing but a collection of performances.  And it is a deeply tragic moment, because Hal takes up a burden that he does not want to honor a man who has loved him little.  Perhaps Hal's greatest tragedy is that he will make a great king.

Whether a noble self-sacrifice or a fetishization of honor, Hal's attitude in this scene is not something he has learned from Falstaff.  But the skills that make him a great king--the play-acting and manipulation of words--show the evidence of Falstaff's tutelage.  As Hal has been proving since Part I, he is a greater jokester than even his mentor, once again outwitting him by posing as a waiter to eavesdrop on what Falstaff says about him.  (This, in turn, is a pale imitation of Hal's trickery during the Gad's Hill robbery of Part I).  I really enjoyed Falstaff's soliloquy attributing Hal's skills to heavy drinking, of which I'll share only a part:

Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant, for the cold blood he did naturally inhehrit of his father he hath, like lean, sterile, and bare land, manured, husbanded, and tilled with excellent endeavor of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant.  If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack.

This is not correct, of course, but neither is it wrong.  Hal could not have got his peculiar brand of histrionic valor from his father, but with Falstaff as his father he would never have possessed the cruelty kingship requires.  In a sense Hal has two fathers; though Falstaff imagines "a thousand sons," we know that he is thinking of only Hal.  That is why it is so painful to hear Hal say, "I know thee not, old man."

But as great as that scene is, and a handful of others (including Hal's trick and the snatching of the crown, as well as some of the comic Falstaff-only scenes) Henry IV, pt. II feels awfully shoddy, like a sagging tent held up with two few poles.  Though Henry is dead and Hal is king, nothing seems to have changed or been accomplished.  It is probably for the best that Shakespeare did not make good on his epilogue, which promises another play "with Sir John [Falstaff] in it," or else Henry V might have been just as inconsequential.