Shakespearing #16 by David Foley
Henry IV, Part 1
I wasn’t looking forward to re-reading Henry IV. It’s not that I don’t like it, but its central trope has become stale from a hundred Hollywood films: the wastrel son redeeming himself when the chips are down. Do we really need to run that tape again? And indeed the Hal/Henry plot strand is the least alluring element of the play—particularly since, like most of the history plays, Henry IV loses some steam when the battle’s engaged.
But before then, what fun! Falstaff has become so much his own trope that you forget the mercurial, intractable, hilarious life of him. If he’s a trope, we need more such tropes, especially since the mercury of his mind is made of language. The scenes between Hal and Falstaff are scenes about the protean pleasures of words. Between his “compulsion” and his “instinct,” Falstaff is a master of words not as parry and thrust but as evasive pirouette.
His match in linguistic agility is oddly not Hal (though the prince parries and thrusts like a pro) but Hotspur. Hotspur may be the real Hollywood hero of the play—the man’s man with no patience for the world’s milquetoast niceties. Cattle rustler or rogue cop, in a movie he’d save the world from itself in the final reel. He’s sexy, in a Mel Gibson sort of way. Like Gibson, he yokes the vivid soul of a poet to a cripplingly insufficient world view. Late in the play he says he has “not well the gift of tongue,” but this is just a man’s man’s boast. Even as he’s deploring a courtier’s effeminacy—“Fresh as a bridegroom, and his chin new reap’d/Show’d like a stubble land at harvest home”—he displays a virtuosic satisfaction in word and image that rivals Falstaff’s. The problem, as Northumberland warns, is that he “[ties his] ear to no tongue but [his] own.”
That this is a kind of insanity is revealed in Lady Hotspur’s speech in Act II, scene iii. It’s strange that after the ferociously alive women of the Henry VI cycle the women here should be so pallid, so tristely subservient to their men. But, however wanly, Lady Hotspur limns the mental instability beneath her husband’s bravado. Not only has she been “a banish’d woman from [her husband’s] bed” (another trope: the faint suggestion that the man’s man is not all that interested in women), but when he sleeps “the beads of sweat have stood upon [his] brow/Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream.”
It occurs to me that Henry IV is about layers of personality. If Shakespeare is moving towards more psychologically complex methods of characterization, he seems to be doing it here by refraction, a kind of prismatic splitting. Why else would Hal’s speech in Act I, Scene ii, be so mysteriously moving? (“I know you all and will a time uphold/The unyok’d humor of your idleness.”) It seems like plot. Like foreshadowing. A utilitarian aside to the audience to let us know what’s coming. But it echoes down in the deepest things we suppose about ourselves: that we are more various than the world perceives.
This sheds some light on the deep melancholy of King Henry: the charismatic, destabilizing figure of Richard II, feels frozen now in kingship, while in a tavern somewhere Hal and Falstaff take turns playing him, shifting in and out of parts in a way that gestures at the freedom—both personal and political—that theatre models for us. As in a saturnalia, theatre allows us to imagine our roles as not fixed, but provisional, poised for new improvisations.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.