Shakespearing #18 by David Foley
Henry IV, Part 2
Maybe because I read Henry IV, Part 2 in fits and starts, over a few weeks, it strikes me as less a play than a series of virtuosic vamps whose central theme doesn’t become clear until the end. That theme turns out to be the apotheosis of Hal, who has remained largely in the background but now emerges as not just king but England’s best image of itself.
His years of wastrelsy have only prepared him for this, giving him a love for “humble considerations” and allowing him to “[study] his companions/Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language[.]” This notion that a ruler needs to rub elbows with the ruled—a notion queasily merging the democratic and the aristocratic—is what makes England civilized. “This is the English not the Turkish court,” Hal assures us when he’s king. Much of the last third of the play is given to hoisting Hal up, like a god in an old play, and this involves some creaking.
The strangest sequence comes when Hal, presuming his father dead, takes the crown from his pillow and carries it off. Henry, when he wakes, rebukes Hal in a speech some 46 lines long. (I’m struck by the way Shakespeare sometimes puts a stage direction in a line. If you’re wondering how Hal stays silent through all this, he’ll tell you: his tears were “moist impediments to [his] speech.”) Hal assures his father that he only took the crown“[t]o try with it, as with an enemy/That had before my face murdered my father.” And it appears we’re expected to believe him. Even his famous disavowal of Falstaff—“I know thee not, old man”—is tempered with the aside that Hal’s “wonted followers/Shall all be very well provided for[.]”
But we need Hal. We need this filial, proto-democratic king with the common touch, because, honestly, it’s been a depressing run. Shakespeare has now taken us through six plays in which bloody factions battle over who gets to rule, for reasons as fervid as they are incoherent, and he’s tired of it. Counterposed to the extended Falstaffian hijinks is a bass line of weariness. “Before God, I am exceeding weary” is Hal’s first line, and the play has not one but two gorgeous speeches about sleep. In the first, the King imagines the peaceful sleep of commoners, even on “uneasy pallets…hush’d with buzzing night-flies” or on “the high and giddy mast” of a ship. (As someone given to dream-disrupted nights, I’ve got some sympathy for the lyric longing with which Shakespeare can write about a good night’s sleep.)
Rebellion itself is weary here. In the first scene, Northumberland, who (“crafty-sick”) abandoned his son in the previous rebellion, now mourns his death and foments another, one which he will again abandon at the crucial moment. He seems not vicious or treacherous, just maddeningly unreliable. We lack the compulsive drive of a Hotspur or an Edward. Later Westmerland upbraids the Archbishop of York, “[w]hose beard the silver hand of peace hath touch’d,” for engaging in rebellion, the provenance of “bloody youth, guarded with rage.” Aren’t we old now and weary of this, he seems to say? Everyone rather easily agrees, only to have the rebels arrested and executed as soon as they’ve dispersed their forces. Is this Hal’s new England?
Not quite, since the devil’s work is given to his brother, Prince John, whom Falstaff describes as a “sober-blooded boy” whom “a man cannot…make laugh.” The new regime is Falstaff’s child, born not of sobriety but of wit and the complexity that wit acknowledges. It’s a Shakespearean regime.
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.