Henry Iv, Part Two
We live in an age where rebellion against established authority is commonplace around the world: guerrilla fighters in the hills of Kosovo, rioters in the streets of Jakarta, and students in Tianamen Square to name but a few manifestations. In America we have the memory of nationwide demonstrations against the Vietnam War and, more recently, terrorist bombings in New York and Oklahoma City. So we open our daily paper with some trepidation, and treasure what political stability we do have in our nation state. For Shakespeare’s audience stability was also tenuous. True, by the time he wrote his stirring chronicle history plays Elizabeth was established in her reign. But only at cost. First she had to cope with the threat posed by Mary and her Catholic allies. Then, early in the 1590s, she had to deal with an armed rebellion led by her former favorite, the Earl of Essex. His execution was exemplary, but not singular. Indeed, throughout her reign Elizabeth was constantly forced to wield the iron hand in the velvet glove, and often imposed deadly force against traitors and rebels. As a consequence a well-founded fear of potential political, religious and social chaos was a constant in the Elizabethan consciousness. Little wonder, then, that Londoners thronged to see chronicle history plays. Drums and banners, stirring rhetoric and ferocious armed combat, strongly drawn heroes and villains, and historic events brought to life certainly made for thrilling entertainment. But perhaps more importantly, chronicle history plays proclaimed a powerful and reassuring message: The center will hold. Of course this triumphalist theme buttressed the Tudor monarchy and in that sense could be termed propaganda. However, these plays repeatedly demonstrated the self-defeating flaws inherent in the motives and abilities of those who sought to overthrow established order. They also offered powerful examplars of that order, kings and princes whose weaknesses were complexly human but whose strengths were undeniable. This dymanic core of human interactions enlivens the political message, and the chronicle history play becomes much more than propaganda. At its best it provides a potently human antidote to the underlying anxiety of the age. Perhaps this helps explain the enduring power of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two, and why they resonate so strongly for the contemporary American audience. Individually and as a linked sequence they present us with a vivid theatrical representation of the ever present dangers posed by self-righteousness, irrationality and licentiousness. Masks for selfishness, these powerful threats to the balanced center, to lex publica, are here represented by Renaissance figures. It takes little imagination, however, to see their counterparts in our own society, nor to see the potential damage they might inflict. Consider two rebels, Worcester and Archbishop Scroop. Both take absolutist positions, the one based on political principles, the other on religious grounds. Unwilling to accept any accomodation or compromise, they are motivated only by a selfish desire for power, in spite of their protestations to the contrary. Shakespeare ensures that we see them as the narrow partisans they are by contrasting them with King Henry, a man who holds power firmly but is also racked with conscience for his overthrow of Richard II and desperate over his seemingly dissolute son. No such feelings sway Worcester and Scroop, convinced only of their righteousness as they drive the country to war, not unlike some dangerous leaders in our own times. Look too at Hotspur, Douglas, and Glendower, men appealing in their singularity but frightening in their inability to behave rationally. All emotion and impulse, constantly flaring into rage, they bring brute force into the civilized arena. We need not look too far afield to see their like. And Falstaff, perhaps the most dangerous of all. For the tides of politics and war will deal with the Worcesters, Scroops, and Hotspurs. But Falstaff, leader of the forces of license and libido, is hugely attractive and harder to extirpate. Grossly given to carnal pleasures he is committed entirely to the pleasure principle, and employs the strength and wits of a man to satisfy the appetites of the child. As he has Prince Hal in his thrall at the beginning of Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff must be seen as the greatest threat to the kingdom, the rot within. Shakespeare makes Hal’s development and eventual break from Falstaff the major action in these two plays. Political ideologues, religious zealots, and passionate wild men can be contained. But there is no future if the young are corrupted by amorality. For us, as for the Elizabethan audience, the tension holds till the end of Henry IV, Part Two when Hal rejects Falstaff. Only then do we see the promise fulfilled, only then are our fears set aside.
Grief and rage over Hotspur’s death fuels Northumberland’s rebellion. He is encouraged by news that the Archbishop of York is joining the rebel cause, bringing with him a fresh army and partisan support from the church. Prince Hal is conspicuously absent from the tavern scenes; without the Prince to protect him, Falstaff must face both the law and an irate Mistress Quickly for not paying his bill. A weary Prince Hal confesses to Poins his reluctance to continue fighting and, on the rebel side, Lady Percy begs Northumberland not to resume the hostilities. Disguised again, Hal and Poins start another ruse to fool Falstaff, but the game is interrupted by the call to war. As a knight, Falstaff is required to raise a battalion. Unfortunately, the only recruits he can find are rough country journeymen desperate not to fight. At the rebel camp, the Archbishop of York announces that Northumberland has withdrawn his army to retire in Scotland. Broken by this news, the rebels accept the chance to negotiate peace offered by Hal’s younger brother, Prince John. As soon as the rebel armies are dispersed, John arrests the King’s enemies for treason, ending the internal threat against Henry IV. The rebellion broken, the King has a greater concern--he is dying. He meets privately with Hal, and father and son at last reconcile. With the passing of Henry IV, Henry V is given a triumphant coronation, heralding a new era of healing and peace within the country.
A Prince to Build the Nation Henry IV was a usurper by the laws of primogeniture (the medieval custom by which land and title went to the first born son in order to keep a family’s wealth intact). Child of the fourth son of King Edward III, he took the crown from Richard II, first born in a line of first borns. The rebels in Henry IV are claiming the throne for other descendents of Edward III, derived from his third son (see genealogical chart). So how could Henry V, son of a usurper, become one of the most popular kings in English history? Stories of Prince Hal keeping wild company and later reforming date from his own time. Shakespeare transformed this anecdotal evidence into the epic tale of a prince torn between his real father, the king of the title, and a symbolic one, Falstaff. As Hal journeys from petty thief to hero and king, the country is fighting its way out of feudalism and the dark ages. Hal is the spiritual body of a country also struggling to define itself against the powerful forces of history. Henry IV, Parts One and Two are unique plays about civil war because they contain so much comedy. Falstaff rules over a court of his own at the tavern, a court where drinking, prostitutes and tall tales are the protocol. For Hal, a boy in his late teens, Falstaff is irresistible. The old man offers him beer, camaraderie and the warm affection his father cannot spare as head of state. The character of Falstaff comes from a line of comic vice characters in medieval morality plays but he is more lovable than his predecessors, his influence harder to reject. Hal understands that Falstaff is temptation. From the outset of the saga, he promises to throw off “this loose behavior.” He knows that he will have to play his part as Prince of Wales. Still, until he ascends the throne, the teen remains balanced cautiously between Falstaff and his less-present father. The real Henry V was so popular that he offered fealty (the sworn support of regional dukedoms) before his coronation--an act unprecedented at the time. Shakespeare’s Hal becomes a popular leader because of his ability to empathize with commoners, knights and kings. His friendships up and down the social register create sympathies with a variety of dramatic characters. In the prince’s travels through society, the audience witnesses the effect of war on loving families and common people. The Henry IV plays are a veritable tower of Babel, jumping from the rough slang of the tavern scenes, to a Welsh wife lovingly singing her husband to sleep, to the official language of the court. In most scenes, Hal is the link, the one character capable of traveling between these many worlds within one country. As he tells Poins, “I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life.” Shakespeare presents the audience with a cross-section of English society, not just the egos and ambitions of a king. By allowing Bardolph, Pistol and Falstaff to speak in their own language, he makes them men we have laughed with in a tavern, not just props in an adrenaline-filled combat scene or bodies sacrified to civil war. Even the enemy rebels are humanized in the plays. They have a legitimate point of contention and, watching their tender farewells to wives and daughters, the audience is not allowed to demonize them. Because neither cause is incontrovertibly “right” the audience is left with a question: How justified is the civil war? As always with Shakespeare, the meaning of a play cannot be reduced to simple moral judgment. The casualties of Henry IV, Parts One and Two--the lives and the friendships--are natural consequences of the growth to maturity that Hal and England both experience. It takes courage to grow in this way; we look to stories of great heroes and catastrophic wars for inspiration. Hal dares to realize his potential and, as we shall see in Henry V, that of his nation. What’s the harm, in the end? As Shallow, the country worker too poor to buy himself out of army conscription, observes, “A man can die but once. We owe God a death.” Sidebar 1: Falstaff and the Tavern World In Elizabethan England, taverns were the social center for a population of vagrants, thieves and poor day laborers. In the mid 1500s, changes to the way ale was brewed made it better tasting with a longer shelf life. Low start-up costs meant alehouses were a blossoming cottage industry as barns became bars. Taverns were home to unlicensed gambling, prostitution and the sale of stolen goods. Nowadays we consider our suburbs havens of green lawns and security, but not so in renaissance England. A short boat ride across the Thames took one from London to Southwark where Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre stood among bear-baiting arenas and cock-fighting pits; the trip was like a vacation from the law. Theatres were an inseparable part of the tavern culture. Some taphouses had a small stage and many theatre owners also owned brothels. Patrons gambled and professional prostitutes sold their wares during the show, and the pit was a workplace for cutpurses. Although Hal’s favorite tavern is located in London, it embodies the licentious life outside the city walls. Through Falstaff, Bardolph and Gadshill, Shakespeare gave the audience a place in the play they were watching, a place beside kings. Sidebar 2 Henry IV: The Invisible King By the time the Henry IV of history claimed the throne, he had been on one pilgrimage to the holy land, had led a crusade to East Prussia and had earned a reputation for being generous, musical and educated. So where is this charismatic Lancastrian in the plays? Instead of presenting us with a romantic hero, Shakespeare draws on the struggle Henry IV faced throughout his reign--to be accepted as the legitimate King. Henry IV’s troubled reign is part of Shakespeare’s examination of kingship in the Lancaster saga. He is the transitional link between the weak Richard II and his heroic son, Henry V. Through Henry IV Shakespeare also explores the performative nature of leadership. Henry aims for a rarified and holy image as king: “By being seldom seen, I could not stir but, like a comet, I was wondered at.” The real Henry may have had a reason for hiding his face: he suffered from eczema so severe that his contemporaries thought it leprosy, a divine punishment for usurping Richard’s throne. In the plays, the King’s public image is more scarred than his face. However worthy a leader Henry may have been, Shakespeare presents him as one who hides behind decoys on the battlefield, conceals himself from his followers and is surprisingly absent from the stage.