My Time of Shakespeare: The Second Tetralogy – King Henry IV First Part

04 May

From the Painting at the Boydell Gallery, R. Westail, R.A.

You stiffly force the turn of the revolving door flanked by glass panels flashing the buzz of the downtown street. You traverse the shimmering lobby floor and sway with your shifting weight as you await the arrival of the elevator. When it arrives, you leap from the doors as a rush of people flood from the car. Then you enter, alone, light the button for the wrong floor, then the correct floor, and dance your hyper finger on the “Door Close” button. You relax, stare at the glowing numbers count closer to your goal. The doors open. Close. You shouldn’t have pushed that wrong button.

After subduing the receptionist with your charms and forged press badge, you enter his office and find him lying on a sofa tossing a ball in the air to himself. Papers laze about his desk like beastly cats on a hot day in the Savanah and you look for his absent computer, then quickly to the point at hand. He looks to you, your lips quiver and you hold out the bottle of wine which dried up your last paycheck.

You just want to ask one question. You will have no other opportunity to question Shakespeare. He bends his brow, sits up impatiently…What will you ask him?

“Why John Falstaff?”

Amidst more civil strife, spawned by an uncomfortable seat which provides only the opportunity to fight for its keeping, we witness two sides of a politically epic tale. One side, starring Henry Bolingbroke as King Henry IV, portrays the warring factions of Lords Northumberland, Worcester and Percy, the very men who aided Bolingbroke’s apprehension of King Richard II’s throne, against the new King, their one-time friend. Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur for his reckless and cavalier temprament, counters a paranoid King obsessed with protecting, washing and wringing his hands, as Jon Finch plays him, in order to parley the guilt of King Richard II’s deposition and murder. If only Richard could witness the accuracy of his prophecy when he said to Northumberland,

The love of wicked friends converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.

True to his form, Shakespeare urges sympathy to both sides of this historical conflict, since all angles bear the kink of humanity. I sympathize with Percy’s faction because the new King returns the courtesy of their previous aid with scorn and mistrust. Although, to a small degree, I blame Percy’s reckless thirst for action which likely exaggerates his intentions against the King. But I do not find his complaint against Bolingbroke without merit. In this, the new king learns how he opened the gate for equality amongst nobility and royalty by usurping a throne designed for the security of perfect succession. How can he assert his dominance when he owes so much to others? How can he expect others to live submissively when he whom they serve sits on the throne by their actions? Humanity has now tainted the divine sanctity of the English monarchy and bears conflict with her.

Shakespeare might have better entitled King Henry IV – The First Part as The Rise of Prince Henry. Beyond the perilous drought of political conflict, we meet Henry, Prince of Wales, who galavants through inns and taverns with baseborn commoners and insignificant, cowardly villains. Presumabely, he abandons the royal court for the court of paupers where he still maintains his title but enjoys a life a bit outside of the law, like a youth above it. But Shakespeare begs his audience to remember the prince’s own words:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyok’d humour 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 wonder’d at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents,
So, when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill;
Reckoning time when men think least I will.

He plays this part so successfully that the King, his father, preaches to him about his holiday behaviour, comparing it to that of King Richard II, and beckons him to behave as he did, humbly presenting himself to gain favour and support as king. Perhaps I prematurely sympathized with Bolingbroke during King Richard II’s time, imagining he only wanted his birthright from Richard. But it would seem, according to his advice, he had his eye on the throne all along, deposing Richard when his birthright would have done. Now in this conflict with Percy he knows his enemies have just grievance against him. So this meeting between father and son, King and Prince, full of advice, with a hint of regret and nostalgia in comparing the prince to King Richard II, and both indicative of the prince’s successful ploy and the King’s apparaent guilt, marks the prince’s return to the royal fold after a very different upbringing than Bolingbroke. After all, Bolingbroke came from Gaunt and nobility while Prince Henry, though of the same blood, wallowed with commoners and miscriants. He has a deeper potential for character and may avoid the shallowness of envy and animalistic paranoia of possession. I wonder if the prince’s humble actions with the likes of John Falstaff, conspiring to rob robber friends, mirrors the pompous political circumstances of the state. The king, then, shares this reunion with a purified and strengthened son who can better lead England.

After the battle, the prince describes the nobility of his heart with mournful praises of fallen Percy and mercy for Douglas in return for his valor. But his true grace lies in his love for men like John Falstaff, jolly cowards who provide good company and unshakeable loyalty despite distastes for war, rebukes of honor and shameful behavior.

Yet who is John Falstaff? Like many other characters in your plays, he beckons so many different interpretations. Why did you write him? What purpose does he serve? You spend so much time on this obvious fiction juxtaposed to the historical plot…why? What sort of past does Falstaff carry with him? Who is he?

While away from court, perhaps the prince embraced Falstaff as a kind of father figure. Falstaff brought him up in all his vulgar practices and they enjoyed an intimate familiarity of loving speech and knee-buckling slurs. Falstaff outweighs the prince in years and pounds and they even perform the part of father and son opposite one another, taking turns imitating the prince and the king. Perhaps Falstaff willingly accepts the prince’s projections of feelings for his father, perhaps he foreshadows the prince’s fate should he choose to hide himself behind the base contagious clouds too long. If Falstaff does serve as a father figure, it would indicate a dual parentage for the prince which serves to strengthen his character for the commons and the nobility – and needless to say, in love, for I do not doubt that Falstaff loves the prince. And all these things combine to create a character that Vernon described:

He made a blushing cital of himself;
And chid his truant youth with such a grace,
As if he master’d there a double spirit,
Of teaching and of learning instantly.
There did he pause: but let me tell the world, –
If he outlive the envy of this day,
England did never owe so sweet a hope,
So much misconstru’d in his wantonness.

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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in William Shakespeare


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