You define who you are by your reaction to Falstaff…Those who do not care for Falstaff are in love with time, death, the state, and the censor.”

Introduction to Henry IV, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams

Is it possible for a sequel (other than The Godfather, Part Two of course) equal the original?  In the case of Henry IV, Part Two, the answer is a resounding yes.

But the two plays, although probably written no more than two years apart, are startlingly different.  While Part I is dominated by youth – Prince Hal and Hotspur, two glamorous men locked in a bitter rivalry – its follow-up is both older and gloomier.  And even though the historical record for the decade that is compressed into Part II is packed with incident, that is not really true for the play itself, which gives us just one abortive battle and a lingering royal death.  What Shakespeare does here is to allow the action to become dominated by the character’s response to events already past – responses soured by reminiscence and regret.  And with Hotspur dead, young characters recede into the distance, and the cast becomes populated by people who are starting to seem to have past their prime.  Repetition, too, is a major concern of the play as we watch King Henry face yet another rebellion, and Hal, having promised his father (and us) to reform, seemingly has reverted back to his old “bad” self.  And while its humor is as fresh as ever, the play produces a final twist that, no matter how many times one has seen or read the play, still has the capacity to shock.  It is no surprise then, that Henry IV, Part Two, has often been called Shakespeare’s first tragicomedy.

From Marjorie Garber:

“Because the title of this play so clearly indicates that it is a sequel, and, moreover, a sequel to a play that had by the mid-twentieth century become extremely popular, The Second part of Henry the Fourth, as it was called in both the 1600 Quatro and the First Folio of 1623, has frequently been underestimated by critics, readers, and theater directors.  The Quatro title stressed, presumably for the delectation of interested purchasers, that the play would contain not only the story of the King’s death and of the ‘coronation of Henry the Fifth,’ but also ‘the humours of Sir John Falstaff, and swaggering Pistol.’  Whether critics agreed with the eighteenth-century editor Samuel Johnson that Falstaff ‘has nothing in him that can be esteemed’ or whether with the Romantic William Hazlitt and his followers, they flatly preferred the fat rogue to Prince Hal, the appeal of Falstaff was so considerable that the two Henry IV plays have often been combined as a kind of Falstaffiad’: the best example of this is Orson Welles’ 1965 film Chimes at Midnight.  But the play has much more to offer than a continuation of the Falstaff story.  It is brilliantly constructed; it deploys characters and types with remarkable deftness; and its ear for language is unerring, from the ‘high’ (Henry IV’s lament on kingship; King Henry V’s accession speech), to the ‘low.’  Not only does it address some of the established symmetries of Part I (for example, Hal’s quest for father figures), but it also powerfully explores what lies beyond them.

In the tavern scene of Henry IV, Part 2, which in so many ways parallels – and parodies – the tavern scene of Part I, Prince Hal’s friend Ned Poins, observing Falstaff with the whore Doll Tearsheet perched on his knee, remarks to the Prince, and to the world at large, “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?’  This wry comment might well serve as a useful epigraph for this entire play, for in a sense every person, every value, every energy, and every desire, with the sole exception of those belong to Prince Hal himself, seems in Part 2 to have outlived its performance.  The word ‘performance’ here carries both its core notion of doing of accomplishing (with a specific sexual implication that still attaches to the word today) and the ceremonial or theatrical association that we now regularly link with the stage and with ‘actors.’  (The gravedigger in Hamlet will parse ‘to act’ and ‘to perform’ in a related way.)  What seemed lively, improvised, energetic, and hopeful in Part I now seems enervated, tawdry, and corrupted.”


From Tony Tanner:

“Perhaps rather surprisingly, Shakespeare only used the word ‘metamorphosed’ in one play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (where he uses it twice); but the words ‘transform,’ ‘transformed,’ ‘transformation,’ recur in his plays from early to late:  it was a phenomenon, a process, which continually interested him.  And this part of Henry IV is primarily a play of ‘low transformations’ and ‘heavy descensions.’  The main movement is that of downward degeneration.  Royalty is tired; characters are visibly ageing or sick; things are ‘dull,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘lead;’ one image has men’s spirits frozen up ‘as fish are in a pond;’ a man’s tongue tolls bad news like ‘a sullen bell;’ the recruited militia is Feeble, Moldy, Shadow.  The scenes in Gloucestershire bring rustic provincial England into the play, and allow some amiable intimations of rural realities; but the supervising Justices are Shallow – a comic analogue to the Lord Chief Justice in Westminster, who, by a ‘low transformation,’ has ‘turned into a justice-like serving man,’ and whose ‘justice’ indeed proves to be ‘shallow’ – and Silence.  It is a comic enough world, but it is a world grown senile and sleepy, ripe for falling.  Falstaff has become a much coarser, at times rather sinister, figure; the tavern has become a brothel; Pistol’s bragging, bar-room violence is a sad travesty of Hotspur’s rash feudal valour; and the ending of the second rebellion, in the Forest of Gaultree, is a much nastier, meaner business than the open fighting on the battlefield of Shrewsbury.  There is no honour, no chivalry, not even any honest combat in this play.  ‘What trust in these times?’ asks the Archbishop despairingly, and the answer is – virtually none:  words are not kept, debts are not paid.  The feeling could be called entropic:  death and termination are in the air.”


And to end, I’d like to include, before we begin our reading, with another way of looking at Falstaff, from, of course, Harold Bloom:

“I hesitate to select any single power out of Shakespeare’s infinite variety of powers as being foremost, but sometimes I would vote that eminence to confidence in his audience.  You define who you are by your reaction to Falstaff, or to his younger sister, Cleopatra, even as Chaucer had you define yourself by your judgment of (or refusal to judge) the Wife of Bath.  Those who do not care for Falstaff are in love with time, death, the state, and the censor.  They have their reward.  I prefer to love Falstaff, the image of freedom’s wit, and the language of wit’s freedom.  There is a middle way, of being dispassionate about Falstaff, but it vanishes if you attend a good performance of the Henry IV plays.  W.H. Auden caught this with great vividness:

At a performance, my immediate reaction is to wonder what Falstaff is doing in this play at all…As the play proceeds, our surprise is replaced by another kind of puzzle, for the better we come to know Falstaff, the clearer it becomes that the world of historical reality which a Chronicle Play claims to imitate is not a world which he can inhabit.

One can agree with this, and still dissent when Auden insists that the only world appropriate for Falstaff is Verdi’s opera.  Auden also, rather oddly, calls Falstaff a troll, in the Ibsenite sense of Peer Gynt, but that is an error.  Trolls are daemonic, yet are more animal than human, and Falstaff dies a martyr to human love, to his unrequited affection for his displaced son, Prince Hal.  Again, if you dislike Falstaff, you can dismiss this love as grotesque or as self-serving, but then you may as well dismiss the Henry IV plays.  I hardly am determined to vindicate Falstaff, but to Shakespeare, clearly, the poet’s own love for the young nobleman in the Sonnets was anything but grotesque or self-serving, and it does seem to be the paradigm for the Falstaff-Hal relationship.  The personality of Shakespeare remains an enigma; some contemporaries thought him warm and open, though a touch ruthless in his financial dealings.  Some, however, found him withdrawn, even a little cold.  Perhaps he went from one kind of person to another, in his quarter century of a career.  Shakespeare certainly never played Falstaff upon a stage, any more than he acted Hamlet.  Perhaps he played King Henry IV, or one of the older rebels.  But his full exuberance of language, his festival self, is as present in Falstaff’s prose as in Hamlet’s verse.  If you love language, then you love Falstaff, and Shakespeare palpably loved language.  Falstaff’s resourcefulness gathers together the florabundance of Love’s Labour’s Lost with the more aggressive verbal energies of Faulconbridge the Bastard and the negative exuberance of Shylock.  After Falstaff’s prose, Shakespeare was ready for Hamlet’s prose, which rivals the Prince of Denmark’s verse.

There are fewer than a double handful (at most) of Shakespearean characters who are truly endless to meditation:  Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, Iago, Lear, Edgar, Edmund, Macbeth, Cleopatra.  A considerable portrait gallery of the others is not quite that profound and problematical:  the Bastard Faulconbridge, Richard II, Bottom, Portia, Shylock, Prince Hal/Henry V, Brutus, Malvolio, Helena, Parolles, Isabella, Othello, Desdemona, Lear’s Fool, Lady Macbeth, Antony, Coriolanus, Timon, Imogen, Leontes, Prospero, Caliban.  These are two dozen great roles, but you cannot say of any of them what Milton’s Satan says of himself, that ‘in every deep a lower deep opens.’  The great villains – Iago, Edmund, Macbeth – invent Western nihilism, and each is an abyss in himself.  Lear and his godson Edgar are studies so profound in human torment and endurance that they carry biblical resonances in the pre-Christian, pagan play.  But Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, and Cleopatra are something apart in world literature:  through them Shakespeare essentially invented human personality as we continue to know and value it.  Falstaff has priority in this invention; not to appreciate his personal largeness, which surpasses even his sublime girth, would be to miss the greatest of Shakespearean originalities:  the invention of the human.

How far back should we take our apprehension of Falstaff?  Inference, as first practiced by Maurice Morgann in the eighteenth century, and refined by A.D. Nuttall in our era, is the mode offered us by Shakespeare himself.  One of the neglected aspects of Henry IV, Part Two, is its subtle reach back to Falstaff’s earlier years.  It cannot be said that Shakespeare provides all the information we might hope for concerning the life and death of John Falstaff, but we certainly are given enough to help us appreciate Falstaff’s enormous personality.  Shakespeare is no more a field anthropologist than his Prince Hal is:  the Falstaffiad is intricately interwoven with the Henriad, each as the stuff of saga.  What Shakespeare challenges us to imagine is left almost clueless by him:  How did Hal and Falstaff enter upon their original friendship?”

Good question…



Our next reading:  Henry IV, Part Two, Act One

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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