An Introduction to Henry IV, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
“No play of Shakespeare’s is better than Henry IV…History as a dramatic form ripens here to a point past which no further growth is possible.”
If Richard II is a play about behind-the scenes power-broking, and King John took an unsparing look at the cynicism of politics, then both Henry IV plays examine just how fragile a king’s authority can be. Just glancing at the list of characters in Henry IV, Part 1, reveals just how much of the play is concerned with rebellion: the King’s party is just five men strong; opposing them are over twice that number. The canny and astute Bolingbroke of Richard II, who seemingly easily maneuvered himself into power, is beginning to look fatally undermined, and once again, England’s future hangs in the balance. BUT…despite the play’s weighty subject matter, a thick comic vein runs throughout the play, and Shakespeare is liberated rather than constrained by his historical materials. 1 Henry IV spends as much time in Eastcheap pubs as it does in the corridors of power, and of course, it is most famous for introducing to the world one of Shakespeare’s most famous double-acts: that of Prince Hal, the glamorous but profligate heir to the throne, and his sidekick and unlikely alter-ego Sir John Falstaff – the “fat knight” who has proved to be one of the playwright’s most enduring creations.
We have, of course, met the pair before – in Act V, Scene iii of Richard II, when the newly crowned King Henry IV, (who has usurped the crown from Richard II), and Percy, soon to be known as Hotspur, have a prophetic conversation about Prince Hal:
Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
‘Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, ‘tis he.
I would to God, my6 lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, ‘amongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch and rob our passengers,
Which he, young wanton, and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honour to support
So dissolute a crew.
My lord, some two days since I saw the prince,
And told him of these triumphs held at Oxford.
And what said the gallant?
His answer was, he would unto the stews.
And from the common’st creature pluck a glove,
And wear it as a favour, and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.
As dissolute as desperate! But yet
Through both I see some sparks of better hope,
Which elder years may happily bring forth.
The leader of this dissolute crew is, of course, Sir John Falstaff. We’ll be looking closely at him as we proceed through the plays, but let me give you this from Bloom:
“You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. Yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. As we read Shakespeare, we are always engaged in catching up, and our joy is that the process is never-ending; he is still out ahead of us. I marvel at critics, of whatever persuasions, old and new, who substitute their knowingness (really their resentment) for Shakespeare’s woe and wonder, which are among the prime manifestations of his cognitive power.
I have cited Hegel’s fine observation that Shakespeare made his best characters ‘free artists of themselves.’ The freest of the free are Hamlet and Falstaff, because they are the most intelligent of Shakespeare’s persons (or roles, if you prefer that word). Critics rarely condescend to Hamlet, though some, like Alistair Fowler, morally disapprove of him. With Falstaff, alas, it is different; many critics not only condemn him morally, they also lord it over him, as if Sir John knows less than they do. If one loves Falstaff (as I do, and as we all should, even as a role), they are likely to term one a ‘sentimentalist.’ I remember a graduate student in one of my Shakespeare seminars, a few years back, who informed me rather vehemently that Falstaff was not worthy of admiration, whereas the transformation of Prince Hal into King Henry V was exemplary. Her point was that Hal represented rule and that Falstaff was a lord of misrule, and I could not persuade her that Falstaff transcended her categories, as he transcends virtually all our catalogings of human sin and error. That Shakespeare had an intensely personal relation to his Hamlet is clear enough, and he lavished all his powers upon the prince. Falstaff did not trouble Shakespeare for as many years as Hamlet did, and perhaps Falstaff did not at all perplex his creator. I would guess, though, that Falstaff surprised Shakespeare and ran away from the role intended for him, which may have been no larger than, say, Ancient Pistol’s is in Henry V. The two parts of Henry IV do not belong to Hal, but to Falstaff, and even Hotspur, in the first part, is dimmed by Falstaff’s splendor. I despair of ever again seeing a Falstaff to match Ralph Richardson’s, half a century ago, because Richardson did not condescend to Falstaff or underestimate him. The Falstaff he played was neither coward nor jester, but infinite wit delighting in its own inventiveness, and transcending its own darkening pathos…
Sir John Oldcastle, in The Famous Victories, is only a minor roisterer. Shakespeare found Falstaff in Shakespeare, though the language and personalities of Berowne and of Falconbridge the Bastard, of Mercutio and of Bottom, do not prepare us adequately for Falstaff, who speaks what is still the best and most vital prose in the English language. Sir John’s mastery of language transcends even Hamlet’s since Falstaff has absolute faith both in language and in himself. Falstaff never loses faith either in himself or in language, and so seems to emanate from a more primordial Shakespeare than Hamlet does. Falstaff becomes Shakespeare’s greatest and subtlest victory over Barabas and the other Marlovian overreachers, because the fat knight surpasses Marlowe’s Machiavel’s as a rhetorician, yet never uses his magnificent language to persuade anyone of anything. Though Falstaff constantly has to defend himself against Hal’s endless and well-nigh murderous aggressivity, even with Hal he seeks neither to persuade nor defend. Wit is Falstaff’s god, and since we must assume that God has a sense of humor, we can observe that Falstaff’s vitalizing discourse, his beautiful laughing speech (as Yeats said of Blake), is truly Sir John’s mode of devotion. Making others wittier is Falstaff’s enterprise; not only witty in himself, he is the cause of Hal’s wit as well. Sir John is a comic Socrates. What Shakespeare knew of Socrates, he would have learned from Montaigne, whose Plato and whose Socrates were skeptics. Falstaff is more than skeptical, but he is too much of a teacher (his true vocation, more than highwayman) to follow skepticism out to its nihilistic borders, as Hamlet does. Skeptical wit is not witty skepticism, and Sir John is not a master of negation, like Hamlet (or Iago). As the Socrates of Eastcheap, Falstaff need not concern himself with teaching virtue, because the struggle between the usurper Henry IV and the rebels has no possible relation to ethics or to morality. Falstaff jests of the rebels that ‘they offend only the virtuous,’ who are clear not to be found in the England of Henry IV (or of Henry V).
From Auden: “It is difficult to imagine that a historical play as good as
Henry IV will ever again be written.”
From Mark Van Doren: “No play of Shakespeare’s is better than ‘Henry IV.’ Certain subsequent ones may show him more settled in the maturity which he here attains almost at a single bound, but nothing that he wrote is more crowded with life or happier in its imitation of human talk. The pen that moves across these pages is perfectly free of itself. The host of persons assembled for our pleasure can say anything for their author he wants to say. The poetry of Hotspur and the poetry of Falstaff have never been surpassed in their respective categories; the History as a dramatic form ripens here to a point past which no further growth is possible; and in Falstaff alone there is sufficient evidence of Shakespeare’s mastery in the art of understanding style, and through style of creating men.”
And from Samuel Johnson, writing of Henry IV Parts One and Two: “Perhaps no author has ever in two plays afforded so much delight.”
This is going to be fun.
Our next reading: Henry IV, Part One, Act One
My next post: I’m going away for a few days (badly needed break), so my next posting will be Tuesday evening, July 31st.
So take your time. And enjoy.