Heir-raising exploits: Henry IV, Part One

Okay, let’s get the bold claim out there: this is Shakespeare’s most perfectly constructed play. Is it his best play? Not necessarily, because there are baggy monsters to come, notably Hamlet, that shine with brilliance despite some flaws in structure, but I would include this play in my top five that our man ever produced.

This is another one that I have some experience with, having taught it for four years to Year 12 students and that teaching experience made some things very clear to me. One is that, Shakespeare finally worked out how to do a history play that did justice to the events and people involved but that nevertheless worked as a play in its own right, whether it was a true story or not. The Henry VI trilogy had its moments, but was obviously the work of a playwright still finding his way. Richard III had a stunning lead character/villain but was overstuffed with minor characters and introduced its conquering hero only in the final act. King John just wasn’t memorable (sorry, John, but how many people would even be able to name you as the subject of one of Shakespeare’s plays?). Richard II, the prequel to this play, was a promising effort that didn’t quite get there in the balance/contrast between Richard and his usurper, Bolingbroke, who would become Henry IV.

I think there are a number of aspects that make this play so good. One is that the main character is not actually the monarch of the title: it’s his son, Hal, who would go on to become Henry V. Hal has some growing up to do, but one of the main points of the play is that growing up and taking on responsibilities and even ‘greatness’ also involves a loss and a kind of diminishment. A second aspect is that Shakespeare makes the bold choice to include one of his own inventions as a major character instead of just sticking with the historical figures. And this character is one of the greatest in all literature: Sir John Falstaff, the disreputable, drunken egomaniac who is nevertheless sympathetic and emblematic of what is truly important in life. The third aspect is a structural one: Hal occupies the central focal point of the play as the young man who must develop and make hard decisions about himself. Shakespeare circles him with three other characters that he must learn from and surpass:

  1. His father, the king, who is consumed by the responsibilities of his position as well as by guilt for his usurpation and who is bitterly disappointed by the failings of his oldest son and heir.
  2. Falstaff, an alternative father figure, who draws Hal away from the world of the court to an underground world of theft and Bacchanalian revels as well as companionship and a sense of belonging.
  3. Hotspur, Hal’s mirror image: a valiant warrior who is all business and has no time for fun. Hal must defeat him in literal battle in order to assume his full development as a prince, just as he must metaphorically battle his father and Falstaff.

For this instalment in my Shakespeare series, I want to concentrate on these characters and how they develop across different scenes in the play.

King Henry in three key scenes

Jon Finch as King Henry IV and David Gwillim as his son, Hal

Act One, Scene One

The play opens with the king speaking to some of his courtiers, and he’s worried from the outset. His first words are: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care…” immediately indicating that this is not a settled kingdom at peace. Indeed, the BBC film version actually begins with the death of Richard II from the earlier play, in order to establish why King Henry IV might be feeling guilty and worried. His position is contentious, having usurped the previous king with a potentially legitimate but largely tenuous claim to the crown, and there are stirrings of rebellion around the kingdom.

Like Joe Biden now, he’s found himself in charge of of a country torn about by division and he longs for unity:

No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flow’rets with the armèd hoofs
Of hostile paces.

This grim personification of a country that has been devouring its own children speaks to the civil wars that racked the country for centuries and shows that the conflicts we see today within countries are perhaps more the norm in human history than the exception. Henry wants his country to “march all one way” and the way he sees that this can happen is by going on a crusade to the Holy Land “to chase those pagans in those holy fields.” It’s a perennial method to draw people together by finding a common enemy, as seen in more recent stories such as Wag the Dog. The religious aspect would also serve to assuage his guilt: he needs to convince himself that he is doing the Lord’s work, again so often a justification for also sorts of butchery and bad behaviour.

Unfortunately for Henry, domestic troubles preclude such a nation building adventure. ‘Wild Glyndŵr’, a Welshman, has been causing trouble, not only defeating an army from Herefordshire but desecrating their bodies afterwards (legend has it the Welsh women cut off the genitals and noses of the dead and inserted them in their mouths and anuses). How can you head off to the Holy Land when this kind of thing is happening at home? Furthermore, the Scots are causing trouble in the north (as always). At least there the “gallant Hotspur”, a fellow by the name of Harry Percy, has been fighting off the wild northerners with more success. The problem here, though is that the Percy family were staunch supporters of Henry IV taking the crown from Richard II and now they want some payback. As a result, Hotspur has been holding onto his prisoners rather than turning them over to the king (war at this time was predominantly a fund-raising exercise: you take captives and ransom them back to their families for cold hard cash).

King Henry is pissed off with Hotspur, but he’s also envious of him. Here is a son with initiative! The elder Percy (Lord Northumberland) has a “son who is the theme of honour’s tongue” (we’ll come back to this notion of honour), whereas the king’s son, Hal, has a brow stained with “riot and dishonour.” Hardly making a pitch for Father of the Year, King Henry entertains the possibility that “some night-tripping fairy had exchanged” Hotspur for Hal, because he really wishes the other guy was his son. Thanks a lot, Dad! It’s a perfect expression of parental disappointment to set up the tense relationship between father and son over the rest of the play.

Act Three, Scene Two

Halfway through the play Henry summons his no good son to court to give him a dressing down. Henry’s opening gambit is to float the idea that Hal is somehow an instrument of divine punishment for his own “mistreadings.” Nice way to make it all about you, Henry. Still feeling guilty about having the previous king killed, perhaps?

Part of Henry’s problem with Hal’s behaviour is that aside from all the drinking and hanging out with disreputable types and not fulfilling his royal responsibilities he’s just being too visible. He’s out there among the people too much, associating with them in all their smelly reality. See, Henry has this idea that the secret to his success (if you can call it that) is the way he is “seldom seen”:

I could not stir
But like a comet I was wondered at,
That men would tell their children, “This is he!”
Others would say, “Where? Which is Bolingbroke?”
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts…

Henry is contrasting himself with Richard II, who he refers to slightingly as “the skipping King” and thinks lacked the gravitas that he has himself. This is supposed to be a lesson for Hal, but Henry’s language reveals some things about his attitudes to the people and his understanding of his own position. For Henry, the role of king is less about the substance of your actions than the appearance you create, putting him very much in line with modern politicians. So rather than genuinely feeling humility, it is something that he merely “dressed” himself in (the imagery of clothes or costumes is important in the play and we’ll come back to it later). He wants to be “wondered at” by the people, but this is all just a kind of trick he is playing on them, reinforced by the language of theft. Thus he “stole all courtesy from heaven” and rather than earning allegiance from his subjects it is something that he “pluck[s]” from their hearts (i.e. taking it rather than them offering it up themselves). Henry is not a weak king exactly, and nor is he an evil one, but he is a hollow one who prioritises the wrong things.

Act Five, Scene Four

We need to see some reconciliation between father and son and we get it at the Battle of Shrewsbury which closes the play. Hal has finally proved himself on the battlefield and shown what he is truly made of. He is a man of substance and when he protects his father by fighting off the fearsome Scottish warrior Douglas, the king finally gives him the parental approval he’s been longing for:

Stay and breathe awhile.
Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion
And showed thou mak’st some tender of my life
In this fair rescue thou has brought to me.

Turns out you didn’t want me dead after all, son! Thanks for saving my life. Kind of makes up for all that time you spent down at the pub hanging out with Falstaff.

I think the most interesting part of this scene happens just before this, though, when Douglas is confronting Henry before Hal turns up. The king has been trying out a tricky tactic for the battle, sending out a bunch of other people dressed in his colours, and Douglas has already killed some of them. So when he sees Henry he exclaims:

Another king! They grow like Hydra’s heads.
I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
That wear those colours on them. What art thou
That counterfeit’st the person of a king?

Henry assures Douglas that he’s the real deal this time, but Douglas is still unsure:

I fear thou art another counterfeit,
And yet, in faith, thou bearest thee like a king.

This idea of counterfeit kings harks back to the idea of Henry “dressing himself” in humility and the importance he places on acting the part in a way that will impress people. And of course, from a certain point of view, (including that of the Percy family), Henry is indeed a counterfeit king, someone who has unjustly usurped the role. This is actually a pretty radical idea from Shakespeare: he’s showing that the role is one that isn’t inherently lived up to by the person occupying it. You can’t tell if someone is really the king just by looking at the dude wearing the crown. What’s actually important is what they do with the role. Henry at least bears himself in a kingly manner, but it’s his son, with all of his apparent flaws, who is the one who is more deserving of the role.

Hotspur in three key scenes

Tim Pigott-Smith as Hotspur

Act One, Scene Three

We’ve already heard of the King’s admiration for Hotspur in the opening scene, but we don’t get to see him ourselves until the third scene, when he has been summoned to court along with his father and uncle to be berated by the King, who claims that he has been too soft and from now on will be “Mighty and to be feared.” Far from being cowed, however, Hotspur is brash and contemptuous. To the charge that he denied prisoners that should have been sent to his monarch, Hotspur paints a picture of himself as a battle-hardened warrior who is frustrated with the namby-pamby civil servant who has been sent to the battlefield all “neat and trimly dressed, / Fresh as a bridegroom … perfuméd like a milliner…” He admits that he “Answered neglectingly” to this “popinjay” because he made him mad. Shakespeare positions the audience to look favourably upon this ‘man’s man’ and to be sympathetic to his scornful response.

King Henry has another problem with Hotspur, though, and that’s his brother-in-law, Mortimer, who has been taken captive by the fearsome Welshman Owain Glyndwr, and who himself perhaps has a legitimate claim to the throne (Shakespeare has actually gotten two different Edmund Mortimers mixed up here, but never mind). Henry insults Mortimer, insinuating he’s a traitor and again demands the prisoners owed to him. As soon as Hotspur is left alone with his father and uncle he blows his top and has to be talked down from speaking his mind to the king, who he characterises as “ingrate and cankered” given that the Percy family helped him to the throne. Shakespeare characterises Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, and uncle, Worcester, as being much more pragmatic and cunning than he is. Where he wears his heart on his sleeve they conceal their true feelings and start instigating the plot for rebellion.

For Hotspur, everything comes back to the idea of honour. In one of the key speeches of the play he says this about the potential dangers of their rebellion:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks.

Hotspur coneys his willingness here and his admirable courage, but the imagery also shows his lack of grounding in reality as he imagines leaping to the moon or diving to the depths of the sea in order to attain honour.

Hotspur is a prototype for characters that Shakespeare would go on to explore in Hamlet in the form of Laertes and Fortinbras. Hamlet looks upon those two with envy for the way they can act without thinking whereas he overthinks his actions to a point of near paralysis, but Shakespeare is on Hamlet’s side, not theirs: we really should stop and think about the risks to ourselves and others rather than acting blindly upon outdated notions of revenge and honour. The same is true here: as much as King Henry wishes Hotspur was his son instead of Hal, and as attractive as Hotspur may be to us in the audience, Hal is actually the better, more thoughtful, man.

Act Three, Scene One

As overly serious as Hotspur can be in his quest to achieve honour above all else, he can also be very funny, and this is almost certainly the most humorous of all Shakespeare’s history plays. In most cases the humour comes from Falstaff, but Hotspur has some cracking lines of his own. One of my favourite scenes is when the conspirators are meeting at the castle of Owain Glyndwr in Wales. This is a delicate negotiation where they propose a division of the kingdom amongst themselves after their hoped for victory over the king’s forces. Their alliance is not a natural one and they need to keep each other happy, which, of course, is not one of Hotspur’s strengths.

When Glyndwr suggests that King Henry is scared of Hotspur and Hotspur returns the compliment, suggesting that Henry wishes Glyndwr was in hell, the Welshman says he is not surprised and plays up his supposed mystical origins:

I cannot blame him: at my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.

Hotspur, never the diplomat, will have none of this, replying:

Why, so it would have done at the same season, if
your mother’s cat had but kittened, though yourself
had never been born.

Mortimer is mortified and just wants his brother-in-law to shut up and play nice so they can get on with their planning, but Hotspur can’t help himself, coming over all Richard Dawkins and refusing to accept Glyndwr’s claims of supernatural endorsement:

GLYNDWR

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

HOTSPUR

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

GLYNDWR

Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command
The devil.

HOTSPUR

And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I’ll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!

I find this whole scene hilarious and as a rationalist of course I’m entirely on Hotspur’s side, refusing to listen to the nonsense being spouted by Glyndwr. If only people had stood up to Donald Trump like this instead of just nodding their heads to the stream of bullshit flowing from his mouth. Of course, it doesn’t bode well for the alliance, but Hotspur thinks he can do it all himself anyway.

Act Four, Scene One

I’m going to end not with Hotspur’s death in Act Five (we’ll get to that later anyway), but with his preparation for the Battle of Shrewsbury. This scene drives home the theme of the reckless pursuit of honour that so consumes Hotspur. The scene starts with Hotspur and his uncle Worcester accompanied by the fierce Scottish warrior Douglas, who is very much of Hotspur’s mind. Worcester tries valiantly to keep them grounded in reality, but like the real one to come, this is a losing battle.

A messenger enters with the bad news that Hotspur’s father can’t come to the battle after all as he is “grievous sick.” If this sounds to you suspiciously like a student who comes down with something on the day of the exam, then Hotspur is with you. In a reversal of the typical generational conversation, Hotspur can’t believe parents these days and how soft they are:

Zounds, how has he the leisure to be sick
In such a jostling time?

Worcester is very concerned by this turn of events, rightly wondering how they’re now going to match up to the superior numbers at King Henry’s disposal as well as the impression that his no-show might give. Hotspur, as always puts a positive spin on things:

I rather of his absence make this use:
It lends a lustre and more great opinion,
A larger dare to our great enterprise,
Than if the earl were here; for men must think,
If we without his help can make a head
To push against a kingdom, with his help
We shall o’erturn it topsy-turvy down.
Yet all goes well, yet all our joints are whole.

It’s going to be all the more impressive when they win now! Anyway, aren’t they facing up against the pathetic Prince Hal, whom Hotspur refers to as “the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” who with his comrades “daffed the world aside / And bid it pass”?

Unfortunately, Vernon now turns up with more bad news. For one thing, it seems Hal has undergone something of a transformation. Vernon (who is on Hotspur’s side) describes the prince in a way that suggests he has a massive crush on him:

All furnish’d, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm’d
Rise from the ground like feather’d Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.

Wanton as youthful goats? Get a hold of yourself, man! Actually, on second thoughts: let go of yourself, man! This is not exactly what Hotspur wants to hear, but the bad news keeps on coming. It turns out that Glyndwr, the guy that Hotspur mercilessly insulted, rather shockingly, is also not going to show up.

Hotspur, however, doesn’t care how outnumbered they’re going to be: all the more honour for him! He sets out for battle with these words:

Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily.

Okay, then. If that’s what you really want…

Falstaff in three key scenes

Anthony Quayle as Falstaff

Act One, Scene Two

Sir John Falstaff is one of the most iconic and beloved characters that Shakespeare ever created and he hits the ground running when he makes his first appearance in this play. Well, not exactly running, because physical exertion of any kind isn’t really Falstaff’s thing. When he asks Hal what time it is, he gets roundly insulted by the young prince, who is mystified why someone such as Falstaff would want to know the time of day when all he does is drink and carouse around the clock.

As much as Falstaff lives in the present and takes advantage of his well-connected friend and his ability to buy the drinks, he also has his eye on the future, when Hal will be king and he wants to use this to his greater benefit, imploring Hal, “Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief.” For as well as being a fat drunkard, Falstaff is not averse to stealing.

Part of Falstaff’s appeal lies in his disregard for the realities of the world and his complete shamelessness. In one breath he will declare that he is “little better than one of the wicked” and will vow “I must go over this life, and I will give it over.” Then in the next he will agree to rob some people. When Hal points out this seeming inconsistency (or lack of will-power), Falstaff isn’t in the least bit concerned, justifying his behaviour with reference to the Bible: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal. ’Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” I’m not sure that’s quite what St. Paul had in mind in his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians.

Just a note here as well that at one point in this scene Hal calls Falstaff “my old lad of the castle” (which I suppose is much nicer than calling him “fat-witted” and a lot of the other things he calls him). This is an allusion to the original name of the character: Sir John Oldcastle. Unfortunately, Sir John Oldcastle was a real person and one of his powerful descendants didn’t take kindly to him being portrayed in this way, forcing Shakespeare to change the name.

Act Two, Scene Four

The big comic set-piece in the play is a robbery that has been set up by Hal and his friend Poins in order to expose and ridicule Falstaff for his outrageous lies. After Falstaff and associates rob some of the king’s men, Hal and Poins disguise themselves and proceed to rob Falstaff of the money he has just obtained and then wait at the pub top see what line he’ll try to spin. He doesn’t disappoint, calling Hal and Poins cowards for deserting him and freely inventing his story as he goes, not worrying in the least about contradicting himself as he tries to talk up his heroic actions:

PRINCE HENRY
Pray God you have not murdered some of them.
FALSTAFF
Nay, that’s past praying for: I have peppered two
of them; two I am sure I have paid, two rogues
in buckram suits. I tell thee what, Hal, if I tell
thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse. Thou
knowest my old ward; here I lay and thus I bore my
point. Four rogues in buckram let drive at me —
PRINCE HENRY
What, four? thou saidst but two even now.
FALSTAFF
Four, Hal; I told thee four.
POINS
Ay, ay, he said four.
FALSTAFF
These four came all a-front, and mainly thrust at
me. I made me no more ado but took all their seven
points in my target, thus.
PRINCE HENRY
Seven? why, there were but four even now.

Pleased with himself for the success of his prank, Hal unloads some of the choicest insults in all of Shakespeare’s play upon this roguish friend of his, calling him “This sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh — ” and Falstaff responds in turn, calling Hal “you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle…” This is clearly a sign of true friendship, for “A man truly crosses the threshold from acquaintance to true friend when he is able to thoroughly insult you without fear of physical repercussion.

Even though Falstaff has been exposed as a shameless lying coward, we somehow still love him for his chutzpah. In this case, when he has been exposed he once again tries to reclaim his sense of dignity, claiming that he knew it was Hal all along:

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.
Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the
heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince?
why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but
beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true
prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a
coward on instinct. I shall think the better of
myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant
lion, and thou for a true prince.

As we have already seen with regard to King Henry, this notion of being a “true” prince (or king) is actually a very resonant one in the play, so although it is raised here in a comic context as part of Falstaff’s pathetic attempt to justify his cowardice it actually contains a kernel of truth. In the scheme of the play, Hal does reveal himself to be the true (and worthy) prince, someone better than the Hotspur his father wishes was his own son, and indeed will reveal himself to be a better king than his father (although we’ll need to wait for Henry V to see that fully demonstrated).

Act Five, Scene Four

This one is a bit of a cheat in terms of my “in three key scenes” format, as I actually want to quote from Act Five, Scene One as well, where Falstaff gives his great soliloquy undermining the concept of honour:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ’Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

Falstaff is the polar opposite of Hotspur, with his constant striving for honour. Where for Hotspur it is everything, for Falstaff it is nothing but “a word” and that word nothing but “air”. Falstaff reiterates the idea in Act Five, Scene Three over the body of Sir Walter Blount: “There’s honour for you.”

But Falstaff’s role comes to its culmination in Act Five, Scene Four, the penultimate scene of the play. He once again demonstrates his cowardice by playing dead to avoid fighting with the fearsome Douglas, from which position he sees Hal kill Hotspur. Hal, spying Falstaff and believing him to be actually dead delivers a beautiful eulogy for his friend which is all the more beautiful for its irreverence and recognition of Falstaff’s manifold faults:

What, old acquaintance! could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!
I could have better spared a better man:
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee,
If I were much in love with vanity!
Death hath not struck so fat a deer to-day,
Though many dearer, in this bloody fray.
Embowell’d will I see thee by and by:
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.

There are plenty of better men who have fought in the battle, but this is the one who Hal cares about the most because he embodies (everything relates back to the body with Falstaff) humanity with all of his manifest flaws.

In a not-exactly Christlike manner, Falstaff rises from the dead, observing that “to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.” And Falstaff truly is no counterfeit for all of his lying: he is life itself in all of its contradictions. He even gives us the immortal phrase “the better part of valour is discretion” at this point and then goes on to brazenly claim that he was the one who killed Hotspur, stabbing the already dead man in the leg and claiming a reward for killing him. Hal’s younger brother observes that “this is the strangest tale that ever I heard” and Hal responds: “This is the strangest fellow, brother John.” The strangest and worst and best and one of the most wonderful of all of Shakespeare’s creations. So beloved by Shakespeare’s audiences that he had to bring him back for a sequel to this play and give him another (The Merry Wives of Windsor) all to himself.

Hal in three key scenes

David Gwillim as the disreputable prince

At the centre of all of these characters is young Hal (real name Henry, just like his father and just like Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur). We’ve already seen that he’s a disappointment to his father and he’s scorned by Hotspur. Falstaff likes him, but he also drags him down into the squalid (if pleasurable) life that he leads. He’s the eldest son of the King, so he bears all of the expectations that come from systems of inherited power. Can he live up to those expectations? And in order to do that should he follow the example of Hotspur or follow the example of Falstaff?

Shakespeare in this play explicitly draws upon Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly the ‘doctrine of the mean’ or ‘golden mean’. Aristotle explicitly uses courage as an example, arguing that if you show an excess of courage you are being reckless (like Hotspur), but if you show a deficiency of courage this is cowardice (as with Falstaff); the true virtue of courage lies somewhere in between the extremes. It is this middle way that Hal must navigate over the course of the play.

Act One, Scene Two

We’ve already touched on this scene with Falstaff, as this is when he is introduced along with Hal. Notably, Shakespeare withholds the appearance of his central character, giving us other people’s (unflattering) opinions of him before we meet the young prince himself. In his interactions with Falstaff and Poins we see that he is a witty character who loves banter and having fun, but they leave before the end of the scene and we get one of Shakespeare’s great soliloquies:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

It’s a remarkable speech in a number of respects. In some senses it could be seen to be boastful and self-aggrandising: Hal does seem to have a great deal of self-confidence in his ability to shine when he wants to. It brings to mind Falstaff’s empty promises to change his way of life, something we know he’ll never do. Except Hal is alone and he’s not trying to convince anyone but himself (and perhaps the audience) here. It feels very much like the thoughts of an aggrieved adolescent who isn’t getting the respect they just know they deserve. It’s also very calculating, suggesting that the dissolute life is something that he has consciously chosen so that when he does emerge from his cocoon as a beautiful butterfly it will be all the more impressive because nobody has expected it (wait: butterflies come from caterpillars?!). The imagery is also beautiful in its play of contrasts between the bright sun (also punning on ‘son’) and the “contagious clouds,” the tedium of work set against the “playing holidays” and “bright metal on a sullen ground.” And the psychology is as accurate as ever: we do appreciate the sun all the more when it breaks through a long period of bad weather and holidays when we’ve been working hard. The question is whether Hal can live up to this promise (spoiler alert: yes, he can).

Act Two, Scene Four

This is another scene that we’ve already looked at, with Hal’s trick on Falstaff. After that plays out, though, the scene continues with a rather wonderful play-within-a-play where Hal and Falstaff each play in turn at being the King, Hal’s father, foreshadowing the confrontation that will take place in Act Three, Scene Two. There is natural hilarity, of course, in Falstaff acting the king, which he plays up, much to the delight of the hostess, Mistress Quickly. As we’ve already seen a few times, the notion of the position of king being a role that can be played is a key one that undermines ideas of whoever holds the position being inherently worthy of it. In playing the king, Falstaff criticises Hal for the bad company he has been keeping with one exception: “and yet there is a virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy company, but I know not his name…” He goes on to describe himself as follows:

A goodly portly man, i’ faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye and a most noble carriage; and, as I think, his age some fifty, or, by’r lady, inclining to three score; and now I remember me, his name is Falstaff: if that man should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me; for, Harry, I see virtue in his looks. If then the tree may be known by the fruit, as the fruit by the tree, then, peremptorily I speak it, there is virtue in that Falstaff: him keep with, the rest banish.

Hal is unsatisfied with the direction this is heading so insists that they switch roles and he will play his father and Falstaff will play him. Hal’s description of Falstaff is less complimentary:

Thou art violently carried away from grace: there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years?

This is all great fun, of course, and very much of a piece with the shit-talking we’ve seen between the two characters thus far, but it all builds up to what I think is the fulcrum of the play and one of the most devastatingly brilliant and moving lines that Shakespeare has ever written, a line that for all of Shakespeare’s verbal dexterity and impressive vocabulary consists solely of four one syllable words.

It begins when Falstaff (playing Hal, remember) gives an impassioned defence of himself:

No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

A knocking is heard (it is the sheriff, searching for the thieves who robbed the king’s men, an intrusion of the realities of the world on their playing) and Hal (playing his father, remember) responds:

I do; I will.

I sense that some people might be skeptical about my claim for that line, but let me explain. Hal is playing the role of his father, pretending to be the king that he knows he will one day (and before too long) be in reality. It’s fun to play the role and he leans into it with his over-the-top insults of Falstaff, but as he proceeds he starts to feel it and he starts to recognise the reality of the responsibilities he will bear in the future (as symbolised by the knock at the door). The first half of his response is present tense: in this current play where he is pretending to be his father he tells Falstaff that he does banish him (which is no doubt what the real King Henry would like to do). Then you have that semi-colon (or comma — Shakespeare’s punctuation was elastic), which bears more weight than any other punctuation mark in any other play ever written. It is the moment of “reformation” that Hal promised earlier in the play: Falstaff is the “contagious clouds,” Falstaff is the “sullen ground” against which Hal must glitter and shine if he is to become king. So in that moment he remembers his promise, shifting tense as he repeats himself and that “I will” becomes a recognition that in the future he really will have to banish Falstaff from his company. If it’s delivered well then it becomes one of the saddest lines I’ve ever heard.

Act Five, Scene Four

I finished my look at King Henry with this scene, when he is confronted by Douglas. The Scot is a fearsome warrior and the king’s life is in danger until Hal turns up and saves him, declaring his identity to Douglas:

It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee;
Who never promiseth but he means to pay.

He fights off Douglas and King Henry admits “Thou hast redeem’d thy lost opinion.” He is now the worthy son that the king had hoped for, proving his mettle. Immediately he is forced to prove himself again, though, by confronting his nemesis Hotspur, for whom he has fighting words:

I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign,
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.

Rather than the “star-cross’d lovers” of Romeo & Juliet, these two are star-crossed warriors, and this country ain’t big enough for the both of them. Even though it is Hotspur who, as he points out, has the greater reputation as a fighter, Hal vows that his name will prevail:

I’ll make it greater ere I part from thee;
And all the budding honours on thy crest
I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.

There’s that word honour again, and once again Hal lives up to his promise, defeating Hotspur. The honour that his rival so craved that he would willingly die for it instead belongs to Hal, as he prophesied it would. The middle road has served him well. He’s been courageous without being reckless, cautious without being a coward. He’s shown the kingly qualities that will be necessary for his future role but he hasn’t yet forgotten his friends, so when Falstaff outrageously claims reward for killing Hotspur himself, Hal tells him, “For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,/I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.” The “I will” is coming, but Shakespeare is saving it for another play: Henry IV, Part Two.

Henry IV, Part One on film

The BBC Shakespeare Collection version of Henry IV, Part One first aired in December 1979 as the first episode of Series 2. Although filmed on a set it appears less stagey than some of the other plays in the series and the tavern and court settings work well. The acting is excellent across the four central roles and although none of them are particularly big names outside the world of the British stage, John Finch, who plays King Henry, will be recognisable to many as Macbeth in Roman Polanski’s famous film version. It’s a solid version of the play that’s been overshadowed by two other cinematic renditions.

The first of those actually preceded it: Orson Welles’ 1965 film Chimes at Midnight (also known simply as Falstaff). Welles had a longstanding love for Shakespeare and was an often brilliant interpreter of his plays, starting on the New York stage in the 1930s with his “Voodoo Macbeth” (with an all African American cast) and his adaptation of Julius Caesar in modern dress that evoked Fascist Italy. He also made notable film versions of Macbeth and Othello. For Chimes at Midnight Welles incorporates both parts of Henry IV, but also includes sections from Richard II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Although filmed on a small budget in Spain across a couple of years it is as visually striking as many of Welles’ other films and as always he has a great eye for locations. As is his wont, Welles acts as well as directs and given his increasing corpulence by the mid sixties he is a natural for the role of Falstaff. Even if he had needed padding, though, the larger-than-life exuberance of Welles is perfect for the role and he relishes it in what is one of his best films.

By 2012 the BBC could manage significantly bigger budgets than in the 1970s and they were back in the Shakespeare adaptation game with a star-studded cast for their series The Hollow Crown, which adapted the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two and Henry V. The Henry IV films were directed by Richard Eyre and starred Jeremy Irons as King Henry and Tom Hiddleston (whom people might be more familiar with as Loki these days) as Hal. As excellent as those two are in their roles, though the standout for me is British stage legend Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. I absolutely love this series and their version of Henry IV, Part One in particular. The tavern looks wonderful and not being stage-bound they manage a convincing Battle of Shrewsbury. There are cuts, of course, but all of the scenes I’ve mentioned in this article make it in and are wonderfully handled. It might not have the out-there brilliance of Welles, but for my money this is one of the best Shakespeare films you can see.

It took me a while to finish this piece because, you know: job, life, etc., but writing about it has made me fall in love with the play all over again. I actually feel excited about it. Which means that maybe I’ve gotten a bit carried away and it will also take a long time to read the article. If you’ve made it this far then congratulations. Reward yourself with a viewing of The Hollow Crown version or Chimes at Midnight, or even the 1979 BBC version. You can’t go wrong, really. You’ll be delighted by Shakespeare at the absolute top of his game.

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My project to watch all 37 Shakespeare plays included in the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection

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Blair Mahoney

Blair Mahoney

Teacher of Literature and Philosophy, prolific reader and sometime writer