Before we dive in, I have to give a hearty hello and internet salute to students of the FutureLearn Shakespeare and His World course (currently ongoing and FREE for any interested parties). Just wanted to say thanks for the support and encouragement you’ve thrown my way, even in just checking these pages out. I greatly enjoy getting to interact with such interested and perceptive folks from all over the world through that course. See you all on the course discussion boards!
Why This Play?:
I’ve been thinking a lot on the nature of friendship and growing up since my kids started school (my daughter began kindergarten in August, my son just started preschool last week). They have a few little buddies, but school days are where friendships really begin, right? In their new little daily worlds, outside of the influence of hovering parents. I’ve been reflecting on how intimacy can go wrong and where it can be so right. Why we cut ties versus continuing to nurture relationships. Friendship tiers, if you will. Falstaff and Hal seemed like a natural fit for that train of thought.
I talked a lot on growing pains in Henry IV, Part I. And certainly this play sees Hal’s transformation to responsible man/king all the way through. But here in Part II, we dive into how company kept is an extension of the process of personal evolution. Some friendships don’t survive the act of growing up. That doesn’t make them any less significant.
So What Happens?:
The Earl of Northumberland (that’s Henry Percy Sr.) is awaiting news of the battle of Shrewsbury (i.e. the ending of Henry IV, Part I) – you may recall, it’s the battle he decided to forgo due to being ill. There’s some back-and-forth from several messengers as to the outcome, but he receives final confirmation that the royals were victorious and his son Hotspur is dead. He swears revenge, and is spurred on with the further news that the Archbishop of York wants to take up the rebellion. Back in London, the Lord Chief Justice (I’ll call him LCJ; he’s the head honcho for local law enforcement) seeks out Falstaff. Falstaff pokes fun at the LCJ’s old age, then retorts that he himself is only “old in wisdom and understanding”. The annoyed LCJ tells him the King has called him into service against the rebellion once again.
The rebel leaders are the Archbishop of York, and Lords Mowbray, Hastings, and Bardolph (not to be confused with Falstaff’s miscreant pal, also named Bardolph). They argue over whether or not they should proceed to challenge the king in light of Northumberland’s wishy-washy support. They decide to move forth, even if Northumberland doesn’t follow through. We see a little later that Northumberland’s daughter-in-law talks him out of fighting in the rebellion, since he already lost a son to that lost cause.
In London, Mistress Quickly is on the hunt for Falstaff – he’s left too many bills unpaid and she needs those dolla dolla bills. There’s a brawl in the street as she tries to get him arrested, when LCJ shows up to break it up. Falstaff sweet-talks Quickly into dropping the charges and letting him back in her inn. Prince Hal and his buddy Poins discuss the recent news that the King is ailing…and that Hal would be seen as a complete hypocrite if he showed he’s sad about that, even though he is. They also hear that Falstaff’s on his way to Quickly’s for the evening, so they decide to eavesdrop on him. At the tavern, Falstaff is trying to woo prostitute Doll Tearsheet when his drunken pal Pistol busts in and upsets everyone. Falstaff chases him off, then cozies up with Doll and starts complaining about the prince. Turns out that Hal and Poins have been listening in; they confront him and he tries to pass off his remarks, claiming they were a means to make sure Doll isn’t too taken with Hal. A messenger arrives to call Hal back to the castle and Falstaff off to prep for battle.
King Henry’s at the palace, wandering around all night since he’s too sick/worried/wired/fed up to sleep. The Earl of Warwick brings good news that Owen Glendower (chief of rebellion in Wales) is dead. But the King is still concerned that the very men who turned on the prior king, Richard II, are turning on him, just as Richard had predicted at the time of his downfall. Falstaff has gone up to the country to recruit soldiers. Local justice Shallow is a silly man, but an old friend of Falstaff’s. There’s a great scene where the poor local lads (with names like Mouldy and Wart) are paraded as potential recruits. Shallow exaggerates his youthful misdeeds; Falstaff rolls his eyes.
The Archbishop of York, Hastings, and Mowbray have gathered their troops. They hear that Northumberland has bowed out. The Earl of Westmoreland and Prince John have arrived to parlay with the rebels. They hear the rebels’ complaints about the King’s shoddy treatment they’ve endured. Prince John makes all sorts of promises that amends will be made, and even breaks out some wine to celebrate this new peace. Hastings calls off the rebel army, and BOOM. The Prince calls in his own soldiers to arrest the rebel leaders for treason, then orders their execution. Much like this:
Over in the palace, the King talks with his other sons, lamenting his health and the fact that Hal is cavorting with his tavern buddies again. He suffers a fit, and everyone rushes him to bed, where he insists on sleeping next to his crown. Hal arrives and keeps watch over the King as he sleeps. Hal takes the crown, rebukes it for draining his father. King Henry wakes, notices the crown is missing, and goes on a tirade against Hal for speeding along his own rule (claiming that a time led by such a miscreant surely will be the downfall of England). Hal executes a beautiful, sincere apology. The King forgives him, passes along some last royal advice (basically, go to war against another country to keep your own subjects from trying to overthrow you), and dies.
Now that Hal is to become King Henry V, the LCJ is worried that he’ll be out of a job since he previously arrested Hal during his wild days. However, the new King Henry commends LCJ for carrying out his post so well, and that he will continue to help the King in that same job. Back in the country, Falstaff is still whopping it up with Shallow. Pistol shows up to share the news of the Henry IV’s death. Falstaff celebrates, thinking he’s got it made now that his Hal is King. He hurries off to London. After Henry V’s coronation, Falstaff calls out to him from the crowd. The King (as public proof that he is no longer Hal) upbraids Falstaff, calling out his gross behavior and banishing him from the King’s presence. There is a small coda where Hal indicates that if Falstaff reforms, he may receive some compensation for it later. Falstaff brushes off this King’s response, insisting to his friends that the King will make it up to him later, just as the LCJ closes in to arrest him. The King calls for Parliament to be held, and we’re all set up for the sequel!
Check This Out:
Naturally, I had to watch the next episode of The Hollow Crown series. This is far and away The Jeremy Irons Show, and rightly so. He gets some great scenes to play, and gives a marvelous, desperate performance. I love that Henry’s dying illness is played less with boils/makeup job and more with increasing absent-mindedness and borderline madness on Irons’s part.
The series makes the interesting choice of fully playing up all the twinges of sadness and regret and age that pop up in the midst of Falstaff’s humor (e.g. sitting around the fire with Shallow, reminiscing of golden youth). I applaud that decision, as it is a nice mirror to Henry IV’s illness and regrets over winning the throne. It also allows for Falstaff’s increasing self-pity to come to a peak in the scene where the new King Hal rebukes him. It allows Falstaff’s heartbreak to feel more real to the viewer, because it’s not quite so sudden. You feel for him, but you’ve seen enough of his bad behavior, churlishness, and lies to know that his punishment was well-earned.
Lots of beautiful quotations in this particular work. Personally, as a parent, I’m a little excited to bust this one out one day (probably on when they’re uppity teenagers): “O foolish youth, thou seek’st the greatness that will overwhelm thee!” Probably when they’re learning to drive.
Let’s do a virtual “pour one out” for jailbird Falstaff with some drinking songs, shall we? A mini playlist for you all (access via Spotify in previous link, or see song list below):
- One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer – John Lee Hooker
- Whiskey River – Willie Nelson
- S.O.B. – Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
- Tennessee Whiskey – Chris Stapleton
- Drink a Little Poison, 4 U Die – John Mooney
- There’s a Tear in My Beer – Hank Williams (although Jr. does a fine cover)
- Streams of Whiskey – The Pogues
Thoughts and Themes:
“It is certain that either wise bearing or ignorant carriage is caught as men take diseases, one of another; therefore let men take heed of their company” (5.1.67-70). Falstaff doesn’t even realize that his own bit of advice is about to swing wildly against him. Dramatic irony at its finest.
Most friendships from youth fade over time, sometimes dwindling entirely. It’s sometimes sad, sometimes shrug-worthy. It’s entirely normal. Many folks simply let go of one another over the course of time. I think the mere issue of proximity is the culprit here – people move to new places, start new jobs, attend new schools, pick new paths. You no longer see one another as often or have much common ground, so friendships drift apart. This is the majority fate of friendships that end.
The minority outcome of ended intimacy is, of course, when one party (maybe both) makes the active decision to no longer continue communication. There is typically a major reason for such a decisive break up. Perhaps a betrayal occurred, or you may be under pressure from family/work/other friends to drop the relationship. Like Hal, you could be casting off someone who is an acknowledged bad influence, a reminder of a self that you no longer wish to be. Sometimes it’s a stupid as a fight from which no one will apologize.
No matter the reasons, breakups are hard. Most (sane, reasonably nice) people don’t like to hurt or be hurt. The text in Henry IV, Part II – Hal’s kiss-off speech to Falstaff – is harsh. “I know thee not, old man…I have turned away my former self; so will I those that kept me company…I banish thee, on pain of death” (5.4.47-63). How an actor recites those words (and portrays all the scenes leading up to it), determines exactly what amount of regret lies in those words. Is Hal being cruel to be kind, pointing Falstaff to reform? Is he being completely selfish in setting up a new reputation as king? His speech ends by saying he could allow for some sort of career “advancement”, provided that Falstaff mends his ways; the biggest point of the speech is that he will no longer bear Falstaff’s presence and influence. I like to think there is some measure of restrained sadness here in Hal, some thought of the sacrifice of a friendship. Even when we know we’re making the right decision, that doesn’t mean we always feel joyful about it. [Random point that must be made: I find it extremely intriguing that we never learn what becomes of Poins. I’m thinking banished from the king’s company as well, but not jailed…perhaps sent away with the army?]
Have any of you ever gone through a friendship breakup? One of my personal experiences in this happened just a couple of years ago. Back in college, I made a friend through theatre (a Shakespeare play, no less), and I introduced him around to some of my close friends. There was a period of time that we were pretty close. After a few years, we each left Los Angeles for separate cities. He also maintained relationships with some of my college buddies, as they were all in the same city. We were still chummy and kept in touch, although we rarely saw each other in person. Imagine my surprise when one of our mutual pals (one of my best friends) told me that he had been complaining about me to her at an event they both attended. That part I can take without too much offence. But he started in on my family, making extremely judgmental comments about how I’m raising my kids (whom he has never met), my husband (whom he met for 5 minutes at a wedding 2 years prior), and my parents (met in passing once, way back in college). He made some remark about how “some people never change” (comparing my 31-year-old self to my 21-year-old self, apparently). My girlfriend, God bless her, retorted that he had no idea what he was talking about and informed me of the whole weird conversation soon after.
I was extremely hurt and confused for about two seconds. Then I was livid. Make any judgments about me, I can take that. But speak anything negative about my loved ones (little children!) with some false sense of authority? I was ready for blood. Then I realized the strangest part of the whole affair: that he was making sweeping judgments about my life when he and I had long since moved to long-distance acquaintances from our one time friendship. Despite a decade passing, he didn’t think I had changed…he was criticizing some mythical figure of me based on the me at age 21 coupled with his impressions from occasional emails and social media postings. He didn’t think that a person could grow and evolve and learn after a decade, and I felt very sorry for that opinion. It meant that he probably hadn’t learned anything about himself during that time, which made me very sad. My blood immediately stopped boiling. Rather than gossiping about him or seeking any dramatic confrontation, I just executed a Facebook block (oh, what a severing of ties that action is to my generation!) and asked our mutual friends to simply not talk about me around him. A decision 100% for the best. One that I haven’t thought on much until reading Henry IV.
“Presume not that I am the thing I was” (5.4.56).