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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

45. Richard Eyre’s Henry IV, Part 2 (2012)

Let’s recap my assessment of The Hollow Crown so far. Episode 1 (Richard II) was excruciating, except for the monkey. Episode II (Henry IV, Part 1) proved to be quite good.

Henry IV, Part 2 simultaneously feels like a reboot and a sequel to Part 1, which turns out to be an odd sensation since this Part 2 is wonderful.

The royal plots and the themes are similar. There is a rebellion against King Henry, who is still in failing health.

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Prince Henry seems aloof and is mucking about on the wrong side of town rather than in the royal court.

The new development is that Falstaff is insistent upon his rise in social stature. While he is credited with being a knight, the actual provenance of his knighthood is uncertain, and one must suspect that Falstaff took the title upon himself. In Part 1, however, he was given credit for the slaying of the rebel Percy, even though the lie of this, too, seems to be an open secret. (Falstaff stabbed Percy, but only after Prince Hal had slain him in battle.)

With the prince’s good word and the gift of a very young page, Falstaff has been treated somewhat generously by the court, and he proudly wears red finery, in the same colors favored by the king and the prince in the battle from Part 1. Alas, Falstaff is running into trouble with Lord Chief Justice (Geoffrey Palmer, perfectly), who accosts him for those crimes committed before the war, and for continuing to be a corrupter of the prince.

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Falstaff insults him wittily, but the confrontation rankles, since the exchange brings to mind Falstaff’s shaky standing as a nobleman.

Matters are made worse when Mistress Quickly makes a scene outside her inn. Falstaff owes her a considerable sum, and he has, apparently, promised to marry her.

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In another affront to his dignity, he must mollify her, and arranges to have an evening of celebration in her house, with the prostitute Doll Tearsheet and some of his fellow associates.

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This farewell carousing will damn him with the prince, but will also be quite touching. Maxine Peake (who played Titiana in David Kerr’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) gives Doll a remarkably mercurial mixture of vulnerability and toughness, and her affection for Falstaff moving rather than merely tawdry.

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For the most part, the prince is avoiding both the court and Falstaff’s circle, in order to continue to conceal his intentions to be an upright monarch without publicly besmirching his reputation with his old confederates.

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When the rebellion forces King Henry to prepare for war, Falstaff must conscript soldiers for the fight, and they are a sorry lot indeed. In the countryside, Sir John meets an old friend, Justice Shallow, a friend from his wilder, younger days. These scenes drag on peculiarly, as they do not drive the story forward, but deepen the characterization. What such scenes do, besides working like entertaining set pieces, is make us feel how far away from Falstaff the prince has become, and how old Falstaff actually is. He is, despite everything, a lovable rogue.

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Simon Russell Beale is one of the finest Shakespearean actors of our time, and Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. While I wasn’t sure offering a realistic Falstaff rather than a broadly comedic one was the best idea in Part 1, the comedy works well with a light touch, and modulates so immaculately with the pathos of Falstaff in these scenes that it becomes some of the best Shakespeare ever filmed.

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Jeremy Irons as the dying king, and Tom Hiddleston as the prince who watches his father die, are also wonderfully performed.

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The confrontation between Falstaff and the new king at the coronation is exquisitely heartbreaking.

The war plot is much less important in Part 2, and this makes us feel much closer to the characters, at least the way Richard Eyre has filmed it.

Henry IV, Part 2 is a masterpiece.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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