Why This Play?:
Mostly, it was just time for another history play. I know I’ve been going at these plays in no real order thus far…and that’s probably going to continue. There are sure to be 0.43 readers out there who are rolling their eyes that I didn’t do Richard II prior to this play. I don’t really have any defense – my week’s selection is either based around available performances (ahem, my Netflix queue) or mere whim. While I know the basics of the War of Roses that make up 8 of the history plays, I’m also trying to write posts that would help make sense of it for someone new to the plays who had zero background knowledge (hi, Hubs!!). I promise in the case of true sequels (i.e. the Henry plays), I will not read them out of order. Probably, maybe.
Certainly the first part of Henry IV is a play about growing up. There’s Hal, messing around and acting the fool, mentored by the ultimate drunken Peter Pan. Even at the beginning of the play, Hal admits to himself that this time has to be short lived. He knows that he will eventually take up his royal obligation, and he even states of his time in the tavern: “If all the year were playing holidays,/To sport would be as tedious as to work” (I.ii.201-202). And good Lord, doesn’t every one of us know that from experience?
So What Happens?:
Henry IV is the king of England, after having dethroned the previous king, Richard II. He’s still feeling a little guilty over this, but that’s not stopping him from being pleased that his forces have defeated the Scots. Those forces were led by Henry Percy Jr, known as Hotspur. He’s such a valiant fighter, that King Henry kind of wishes that Hotspur were his son rather than his real son, Hal (another Henry, Prince of Wales), who is wasting his potential by hanging out with reprobates. Hal’s knocking about taverns on the bad side of London, drinking and carousing with an old drunk knight named Jack Falstaff. Hal knows he’ll eventually have to take over the throne, so he figures he should get some fun in while he can (which would make his transformation to honorable king even more amazing).
The King calls in Hotspur and berates him for not handing over his prisoners from the Scottish skirmish. He’s upset because he thinks Hotspur wants to exchange the prisoners for his brother-in-law, the Earl of Mortimer (Richard II’s previous heir to the throne). Mortimer’s been taken prisoner by enemy Welsh rebel Glendower, and by marrying Glendower’s daughter has shown disloyalty to the king. Hotspur, living up to his name, is hugely angry over this treatment. He, Henry Percy Sr (Northumberland), and his uncle (Worcester) all decide King Henry’s gotta go, despite the fact that their family helped put him on the throne. They seek out former enemies, the Scots and Welsh, to stage an uprising and make Mortimer king.
Hotspur gets all riled up over planning the insurrection, and his wife Kate gets on his case for not telling her what’s up. She’s figured out what’s going on, but he’s admitting nothing. Elsewhere, Hal and servant Poins have played a trick on Falstaff. Sir F and some friends robbed some travellers on the road, then Hal/Poins ran in disguised and stole the stolen money off of them. They’re all back at the tavern, listening to Falstaff’s bogus tale of the many men who robbed him of his treasure after a valiant fight. Hal and Poins have a grand time of proving his story false in front of everyone. It’s all a glorious way to showcase the friendship and depravity of Hal and the tavern crew. Some dudes from the palace come to summon Hal back to his life of duty, but he continues playing with Falstaff. Literally “playing” – they act out an entire scene where Falstaff pretends to be the king to scold Hal, then they switch roles and Falstaff as “Hal” half-jokingly begs not to rid Hal of Falstaff’s company. The two friends know Hal is sure to be pulled into his obligated life, and that there revels will soon be up.
Hotspur and Worcester meet up with Mortimer and Glendower in Wales to plot out their rebellion. Hotspur’s the worst guest ever. He pokes at Glendower (who claims all sorts of magical ability), he insists that their determined three-way split of the kingdom is not fair to him, and he’s generally rude to Glendower and his daughter. Hal returns to the castle, to an irate King Henry who loses no time in reminding his son that Richard II was deposed and that the same thing could happen to them. Hal’s contrite, and agrees to go off to lead the royal army that’s gathering. He gathers Falstaff from the tavern – since he is a knight, Falstaff is recruited to lead some troops on behalf of the king.
Hotspur is ready with his own men for rebellion, but word arrives that his father is ill and that Glendower and his men from Wales are delayed. Despite these problems for the rebels, Hotspur insists they’re ready to fight the king’s army. One of the king’s knights, Blunt, is sent to relay the message to the rebels that the king is willing to offer pardon. Hotspur rebuffs him, saying that the Percy family helped the king overthrow Richard II only to be turned against as he rose to power.
Worcester appears before the king, and reminds the king of all the wrongs he’s done against the Percy family. Hal suggests that he and Hotspur have a one-on-one duel instead of getting everyone involved in battle, but the king offers a chance for the rebels to give up and make nice. Worcester does not relay the message to any of the rebel leaders, but tells them to get ready to fight (while follower Vernon praises Hal’s turnaround in behavior). The battle begins. The Scotsman, Douglas, kills Blunt, and Hal is injured in battle. Douglas goes after King Henry next, but Hal saves him and proves his loyalty. Hal and Hotspur meet and fight; Hal kills Hotspur. Falstaff fought with Douglas nearby and falls over, apparently dead. Hal sees his body and says goodbye. Once alone, Falstaff rises, causing an audience-cheering moment that’s reverberated over 400 years. He stabs Hotspur’s corpse, then brings the body to the princes, hoping for reward. Hal is amazed to see his friend alive and taking credit for Hotspur’s death. However, he shrugs it off since he knows what a rascal is pal is. The king orders the captured Worcester and Vernon to be executed, and Hal speaks up to pardon Douglas. The rest of the rebels have run off (also Percy Sr and Glendower never showed) leaving a nice opening for further rebellion and an inevitable sequel. TO BE CONTINUED...
Check This Out:
- The history plays and all their talk of country and honor and going back and forth about how a king needs to be overthrown because he wasn’t nice to someone’s family…well, they mostly just remind me of this:
- Embarrassing admission of celebrity crush time! Tom Hiddleston is magnetic as Hal in Henry IV. Turns out the silly fan girls were right about this guy. He has a great read on the language and really gets it across in a natural and feeling way. You can check out the Hollow Crown series, a set of 4 movies (all 4 of the first tetralogy, the next one’s already being filmed). This series pulls out all the stops with some excellent current Shakespearean actors – Simon Russell Beale is a unrecognizable as the semi-disgusting yet charming Falstaff.
- A great super-short version of the history of these varying kings and the nature of their inheritance (or seizure) of power comes from the official website of the British monarchy. It’s a quaint little pocket-sized bit of background reading to bring anyone up to speed before diving into any of the history plays. Here’s the blurb on the Lancastrians (Henry IV, Hal as Henry V, and later Henry VI).
Thoughts and Themes:
This play is definitely one of the most popular of the histories to this day. Of course a large part of that is the endlessly amusing and clever Falstaff, and the low comedy he creates. It also has a ton of great action and fight scenes. But I think the reason it still is in high rotation (on stage, in movies, in schools) is because Prince Hal is just so relatable. Everyone, at some point, comes upon a threshold into adulthood. Some are thrust into it early, some rush in headfirst, others (like Falstaff) peek over the edge and scamper backwards. Much like Hal, I knew that growing up was certain (hell, supposed to have already happened), but I clung to certain levels of frivolity for a period of time in attempt to delay the inevitable.
Hal literally puts off his fathers’ lackeys at the door of the tavern – choosing to role play with Falstaff to poke fun at the king instead. I had my own period of malcontent right after graduating college, when I moved from swinging LA to conservative Connecticut to attend a summer-long sales and finance training program for my new employer. I was bewildered and even downright depressed (unrealized until a few years later) about the fact that after all that potential, all that fun and creativity and leadership and promise in college…I ended up working at an insurance company. Woe was me– I had a wholly unglamorous job, albeit one that paid and trained me well, was stable, and had upward career mobility. It was a fantastic opportunity that I took simply because it was the best offer that came my way prior to graduation. I adore my parents, but I was far too proud to move back home upon receiving my cap and gown. The days were full of classes on underwriting, insurance 101, and sales techniques. By night, my classmates and I would spend more time drinking than sleeping or studying – me more than almost any of them. I remember our group instructor giving me my review at the summer’s end, telling me I had started out so strong and then had obviously lost interest along the way and skated on by. I had never been told that by anyone in my life, and she was absolutely right.
I returned to LA after the training summer to start my actual sales job. I worked with kind and driven people, had the best mentor possible, and was given all sorts of opportunity with a strong client base. I worked only as hard as I had to in order to be moderately successful, then I’d go home and head straight to happy hour. [Ugh, I know how stupidly bourgeois it is to be upset about a good but boring job.] Those good friends from college who had anchored me during the growing pains of job applications and graduation had mostly left Los Angeles and moved on to start their own lives. I wasn’t led astray by new friends…I just became my own Falstaff. Lost most of my motivation and drowned it in booze. Basically acting like an entitled and bored Millennial before my generation was ever known by that moniker.
How did I snap out of it? Like Hal, it just had to be a conscious choice. He’s certainly forced into a new life due to outbreak of war. I didn’t have to deal with anything more calamitous than just getting sick of myself. There’s no magic solution for letting go of immaturity. Unless you happen to get a glimpse of your future through a few dates with guys in their 30s who are still trolling Westside LA post-college bars like they’re Bob Saget (to unknowns of West LA during the 90s/00s, Saget routinely hit area sports bars to chat up girls in their 20s). It finally hit me that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean settling down. It DOES mean taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. I realized I had to treat myself with a lot more respect, and I started to calm down on overcompensating on Fun Time to make up for discontent about my career. The bible states it best: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (I Corinthians 13:11). The processing of manning up has been a long one.
So in all this talk of growing up, what about friendship? I have all kinds of thoughts about how friendships are forced to change over time. But I realized that as far as Falstaff and Hal go, I only have half the story. So let’s shelve that topic for Henry IV, Part II. I'm going to hit the pause button on the Henriad, but we'll return to it next month so I don't lose my train of thought...