Henry IV, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: King Henry is unimpressed with his son’s antics with Falstaff and the gang, but is finally won over by Hal’s promise to prove himself and fight. In Wales, the rebellion gathers steam: Mortimer (Hotspur’s brother-in-law), has joined forces with Glendower, Hotspur and Worcester (the younger brother to Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland), and war is certain. Hal calls on the tavern and persuades Falstaff to join him.
While this is obviously a “transition” act, setting us for up for what is to come, I found it highly enjoyable. A couple of thoughts:
1. King Henry’s lecture to Hal: I was starting to feel sorry for Hal – Henry just wouldn’t stop – like any father, anywhere, anytime.
2. Hotspur’s continuous putdowns of Glendower. And the ongoing fight over splitting the spoils after their inevitable victory. Hilarious.
3. Falstaff’s attempt to convince Mistress Quickly that he had been robbed. And, what I think might be his fatal confession to Hal: “”The king himself is to be feared as the lion. Dost thou think I’ll fear thee as I fear my father? Nay, an I do, pray God my girdle break.”
“The third Act shows us the three worlds for the last time. In Wales, the rebels are dividing up the map in anticipation, and Hotspur loses his temper with what he calls the ‘skimble-skamble stuff’ of Glendower, who is out-bragging him. Worcester reproaches Hotspur with ‘Defect of manners, want of government,’ and tell him ‘You must need learn, lord, to amend this fault.’ The next scene in the Palace in London, has another intemperate (or thought to be) youth being reproached by a graver elder, this time the King to his son. Rather in the spirit of the parent who says to child, ‘you have been sent to try me,’ the King tells Hal that, the way he is behaving, he must be serving as ‘the rod of heaven/To punish my mistreadings.’ He does not, nor does he ever, confess or spell out what these ‘mistreadings’ were, but he is clearly a man carrying some guilt. He alludes to ‘heaven,’ and there are scattered references to ‘sin’ and the like, but – and this is also something of a departure – there is little religious sense in this play, not much ‘celestial superintendence’ as Maynard Mack put it, no sense of a divine or providential play. These people, anachronistically or not, inhabit what the commentators call a Tudor Erastian world. Erastus was a sixteenth-century theologian, promoted in England by Hooker, who maintained – against the extreme Calvinists – that the civil authorities should exercise jurisdiction both in civil and ecclesiastical matters. Generally speaking, ‘Erastianism’ indicates the ascendancy of the State over the Church in ecclesiastical matters. The most ‘religious’ language is in the mouth of Falstaff, drowned in flesh and parody. The King believes in ‘necessity’ and regards ruling as ‘business’ – ‘Our hands are full of business’ – a word favoured in Shakespeare, by unprincipled plotters. This is a very secular world. The King compares his ‘degenerate’ son unfavourably with Hotspur, but Hal promises that he will ‘redeem all this on Percy’s head.’ His language is, again, revealing. He says that he will force Hotspur to ‘exchange/His glorious deeds for my indignities;’ Hal will ‘call him to strict account/That he shall render every glory up…Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.’ This is the language of a merchant: Hal will go shopping for honour.
At the end of the scene, the King says: ‘Let’s away:/Advantage feeds him fat while men delay’ – to be immediately followed by Falstaff, complaining, implausibly, that he is getting thinner. ‘Bardolph, am I not fall’n away vilely since this last action? Do I not bate? Do I not dwindle?’ This is a simple joke, but what follows has deeper resonances. ‘Well, I’ll repent, and that suddenly, while I am in some liking.’ We have just heard the Prince promise sudden (opportunistic) repentance, and when Falstaff goes on to admit ‘And I have not forgotten what the inside of a church is made of, I am a peppercorn, a brewer’s horse,’ we may wonder if the Prince is any more familiar with the interior of religious buildings – or beliefs. Most of the rest of the scene has Falstaff bamboozling the honest Hostess, and refusing to pay her what he woes her. Rather shrewdly she says to him: ‘You owe me money, Sir John, and now you pick a quarrel to beguile me of it.’ Falstaff is certainly not alone in using this strategy to avoid an incurred debt; indeed, it pretty exactly describes how the King has treated the rebel nobles who once helped him to the throne (‘well we know the King/Knows at what time to promise, when to pay,’ says Hotspur, drily enough – IV,iii, 52-3). There is a lot of stealing in this play, but not enough honest repayment of debt. In the previous Act, when the Sheriff arrived and the Prince tells Falstaff to hide behind the arras, he then says, ‘Now, my masters, for a true face and good conscience;’ Falstaff’s parting line is ‘Both which I have had’ but their date is out, and therefore I’ll hide me.’ Their date is out. So it would seem – and the arras is not the only place to hide.”
From Garber, from the end of Act Two:
“Role-playing in Henry IV Part 1 emphasizes the flexibility and changeability of roles, their impermanence. There will come a time when Hal must abandon playing, abandon holiday, to preserve the unchanging role of ‘Prince’ and then of ‘King.’ But that time is not yet. For the moment, he stashes Falstaff behind the arras, or hanging tapestry, in yet another little stage play, in order to foil the sheriff who has come to arrest him. This confrontation between law and play will prefigure much that is to come.
It is the news of war, however, the provides the turning point in Henry IV Part I, shifting the energies of this scene, and of the play as a whole, from ‘comedy’ to ‘history.’ War is the pivot or threshold here, comparable, for example, to the death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which signaled the play’s transition from comedy to tragedy – or comparable to the achievement of his long-sought kingship for Richard III, which transformed him from a gleeful antagonist to a beleaguered and increasingly desperate protagonist. When comedy turns into history in this play, timelessness turns into time, and also into teleology – and genealogy. For with the threat of war comes, at last, the real onstage confrontation between King and Prince, that confrontation we have seen so deftly counterfeited by Hal and Falstaff in act 2. So skillfully has this play been put together that the audience may not have registered this central absence. But the delay, and the set of substitutions that enable that delay, produce their telling effects. Finally, in the middle of the third act, the King and the Prince face each other – and the audience – for the first time. It is at this point that we hear Hal, chastised by his father, speak the line that becomes the pivot of all the ensuing action. ‘I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord,/Be more myself.’ Glancing back at ‘I know you all,’ [Act One soliloquy], this declaration marks the end of ‘playing holidays,’ and the sun/son emerges from behind the clouds. From this point, too, Hall will move away from Falstaff and toward Hotspur, finding a version of ‘myself’ between, but also transcending, these two models and rivals.
Hotspur, however admirable, is still the rebellious enemy to Henry’s – and to Hal’s – kingship, and the Prince’s language of defiance against him deliberately engages the mercantile imagery of debt and repayment we heard in the act 1, scene 2, soliloquy. Hal is a secular as well as a Christian prince, and, unlike Richard II, he is aware of the value of money and capital in a changing world. Here a modern audience needs again to remind itself of the difference between the fictive date of the play, the mid-fifteenth century, and the date of its composition and first performance, at the end of the sixteenth century. The economics of the play are grounded in Shakespeare’s own time, rather than in the historical Hal’s although as with virtually everything in Shakespeare, this ‘period’ note speaks uncannily to our time as well:
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
‘Factor,’ ‘engross,’ ‘account,’ ‘render,’ and ‘reckoning.’ This is the language of economic reality, the language of calculation, the same language – although not the same tone – that mocked Falstaff’s gross imbalance of bread and sack. A ‘factor’ is an agent; a ‘reckoning’ is a bill. Yet in a passage that just precedes this one we can hear once more the other side of Hal’s emerging character, the side of typology and Christian redemption, of apocalypse now. As a dramatic character, Prince Hal is both a modern man and a transcendent one:
I will redeem all this on Percy’s head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favors in a blood mask…
The very excessiveness of the language here should alert us to the possibility of some biblical referent. Hal does not usually talk like this, but the Book of Revelations does, as for example, when discussing the second coming of the King of Kings: ‘And he had on [his] vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.’ Shakespeare’s Hal is still a dramatic character, still an Englishman, still very much alive and bristling with personality, yet behind him now looms the huge shadow of apocalypse. He has come to save England from Percy, from the rebels, and from vice in any form, as well as from the curse of usurpation that has been the unwanted inheritance of Henry IV.”
And finally from Goddard, who has this to say about Hal, the Prince, and that Act One soliloquy:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein I will 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 wond’red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as 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 the bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring 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 offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
On top of our first glimpse of the carefree Hal, these lines come with a painful shock, casting both backwards and forward, as they do, a shadow of insincerity. At a first reading or witnessing of the play the soliloquy is soon forgotten. But when we return to the text, there it is! So all this unaffected fun was not unaffected after all. Affected, according to Hal, is precisely what it was, put on for purpose – only perhaps, deep down, it was just the other way around, perhaps it was the fun that was unaffected and it was the desire to make a dramatic impression on the world that was put on.
The speech just doesn’t cohere with the Hal we love, his admirers protest. It is out of character. It is Shakespeare speaking, not Henry. And in support of them, the historical critics point out that the poet was merely following a familiar Elizabethan convention of tipping off the audience that they might be in the secret. It is odd, however, if it is just Shakespeare, that he makes the speech so long and detailed and chose to base it on a metaphor that was forever running through Henry’s mind. The playwright could have given the necessary information in a quarter of the space.
It is true that the soliloquy is unlike Hal. Yet there is not a speech in the role more strictly in character. How can that be? It can be for the simple reason that it is not Hal, primarily, who makes the speech at all. The Prince makes it. There are two Henry’s. This is no quibble; it is the inmost heart of the matter. We saw that there were two elder Henrys. The King who had Richard murdered bears little resemblance to the man who utters the soliloquy on sleep. There are two younger Henrys who resemble each other just as little. If we need authority for what page after page after page of the play drives home, we have it in Falstaff, who makes just this distinction:
Darest thou be as good as thy word now?
Why Hal, thou knowest, as thou art but man, I dare; but as thou art Prince, I fear thee as I fear the roaring of the lion’s whelp.
Hal and the Prince: we shall never get anything straight about this story if we confuse them or fail to mark the differences, the connections, and the interplay of the two. Talk about the Prodigal Son! There is indeed more than a touch of him in Hal; but in the deliberately and coldly ambitious Prince not a spark. In him the Prodigal was reformed before he ever came into existence.
The Henry who is the Prince is, appropriately, like the Henry who is the King, the son like the father. And Shakespeare takes the utmost pains to point this out. The theme of the famous soliloquy is the function of the foil. The Prince says he will imitate the sun and suddenly appear from behind clouds at the theatrical moment to dazzle all beholders. Well, turn to that heart-to-heart talk between the King and his heir that ends in the latter’s promise to amend his ways, and straight from the father’s mouth we have the son’s philosophy. The elder Henry tells how in earlier days he kept himself from the public gaze and dressed himself in humility in contrast with Richard, so that
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children, “This is he;”
Others would say, “Where, which is Bolingbroke?”
Whereas Richard II (and Hal of course catches the point)
Grew a companion to the common streets…
So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes.
Not only the Prince’s idea. His metaphor! The young man has already bettered his adviser in advance. His opening soliloquy was nothing but a variation on his father’s theme; the use of contrast. But the father kept himself rare, it will be said, while the son made himself common, acting like Richard instead of following his father’s example. That was indeed the ground of the King’s complaint. But he got the truth the)re exactly upside down. He did not see that his son was acting far more like himself than he was like Richard. The Prince was doing precisely what his father had done, only in a wilier way. The King had kept himself literally hidden and then suddenly appeared. The Prince was keeping himself hidden by his wild ways in order to emerge all at once as a self-disciplined king. As between the two, who can question which was the more dramatic and effective? But we like neither father nor son for his tricks, no matter how well contrived or brilliantly executed. The better the worse, in fact, in both cases. ‘A great act has no subordinate mean ones,’ says Thoreau. In view of the elder Henry’s abortive attempt to disprove this truth, we wonder whether the younger Henry will have better success.
Yet even after hearing his confession that his escapades are a political experiment in which his heart is not enlisted, we go on to the tavern scenes with unaffected delight. Hal seems to throw himself into them with a zest that gives the lie to the idea that he is holding anything back. Like ourselves, he seems to have forgotten his own words and plunges into the fun for its own sake quite in Falstaff’s spirit. Not only does he appear to, he does – Hal does, that is. But the Prince is there in the background and occasionally intrudes. Then Hal will return and only the alertest sense can detect the Prince’s presence. This is in accord with common experience. Who has not found himself so changed today from what he was yesterday that he could easily believe that other fellow was another man. He was. These vaunted modern discoveries about dual and multiple personalities are not discoveries at all. Shakespeare understood all about them in the concrete. I have quoted Falstaff. Let me quote a more recent and not less profound psychologist, Dostoevsky. [MY NOTE: Any of you who were with me for Project D will appreciate this.]
The second chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Devils (wrongly called in English The Possessed), is entitled ‘Prince Harry.’ In it we are given an account of the youth of Nikolai Vsyevolodovitch Stavrogin. Utterly neglected by his father, Nikolay is initiated at his mother’s request into the military life, just as some higher aspirations are being awakened in him by his tutor. Soon strange rumors come home. The young man has suddenly taken to riotous living. His is indulging in all sorts of outrageous conduct. His mother is naturally alarmed. But the tutor reassures her. It is only the first effervescence of a too richly endowed nature. The storm will subside. It is ‘like the youth of Prince Harry, who caroused with Falstaff, Poins, and Mrs. Quickly, as described by Shakespeare.’ The mother listens eagerly and asks the tutor to explain his theory. She even, in the words of the author, ‘took up Shakespeare herself and with great attention read the immortal chronicle. But it did not comfort her, and indeed she did not find the resemblance very striking. Neither may we, though we do not have the excuse of mother love to blind us. The resemblance is there just the same: the same charm, the same neglect, the same plunge into dissipation, the same outrageous pranks, the same contact with military life, the same impossibility of reconciling what seem like two different men. ‘I had expected to see a dirty ragamuffin, sodden with drink and debauchery,’ says the narrator of Nikolay’s story. ‘He was, on the contrary, the most elegant gentleman I had ever met.’ One anecdote in particular clinches the parallelism. Leaning down to whisper something to the Governor of the province, Nikolay, on one occasion suddenly takes his ear between his teeth. The exact, if exaggerated, counterpart of Hal’s striking the Chief Justice.
Henry IV gives us an analysis of his son’s temperament in advising Hal’s brother hot to handle him. It would fit Nikolay nearly as well.
blunt not his love,
Nor lose the good advantage of his grace
By seeming cold or careless of his will;
For he is gracious, if he be observ’d:
He hath a tear for pity and a h and
Open as day for melting charity;
Yet notwithstanding, being incens’d, he’s flint.
As humourous as winter, and as sudden
As flaws congealed in the spring of day.
His temper, therefore, must be well observ’d:
Chide him for faults, and do it reverently,
When you perceive his blood inclin’d to mirth;
But, being moody, give him line and scope,
Till that his passions, like a whale on ground,
Confound themselves with working.
What in Henry’s case is deep variation in mood amounts in Nikolay’s to a pathological split in personality. If Nikolay’s place in the world had been more comparable with Henry’s, their histories might have been more alike than they were. Even so, the violence and tragedy that came from this division within the soul of Stavrogin are a profounder comment than any criticism could be on the gradual fading of the carefree Hal and the slow emergence of the formidable victor of Agincourt. Dostoevsky understood Shakespeare better than did either the tutor or the mother in his novel. His chapter title ‘Prince Harry’ was no mistake.
But now comes the most remarkable fact: Falstaff diagnoses Hal precisely as Dostoevsky does Stavrogin! ‘Dost thou hear, Hal?’ he cries, just after the ominous ‘knocking from within’ which proves to be the Sheriff. ‘Dost thou hear, Hal? never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit: thou art essentially mad without seeing so.’ ‘Mad’ appears to be just above the last word to apply to the self-controlled and cold-blooded Henry. He certainly does not seem mad. But that is precisely what Falstaff says. ‘Oh, but Falstaff was only joking!’ it will be objected. Of course he was; but it is the very genius of Falstaff to utter truth in jest. There is madness and madness.
The moment we follow Falstaff’s lead and cease thinking of Henry as Henry and conceive him as Hal-and-the-Prince we see how right Shakespeare was to build this play on an alternation of ‘tavern’ scenes and political-military ones. Instead of being just a chronicle play relieved by comedy (as historians of the drama are bound to see it), what we have is a genuine integration, both psychological and dramatic, the alternating character of the scenes corresponding to the two sides of a dual personality.”
So what do you think? Is Hal the “put on” character? Is Prince Henry? Or, as Goddard suggests, are they both somehow vying for supremacy?
Our next reading: Henry IV, Part One, Act Four
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.