Henry IV Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Mistress Quickly attempts to have Falstaff arrested for fraud, but he manages (yet again) to talk his way out of it by renewing his promise to marry her, even persuading her to pawn her silver to raise cash. In the meanwhile Hal worries about his father’s illness, but is diverted from attending to state business when Falstaff sends a letter slandering Poins. Poins denies the allegations, and the pair resolve to spy on Falstaff and find out what he is up to. They sneak into the Eastcheap tavern and overhear Falstaff complaining about the Prince while cavorting with Doll Tearsheet. When confronted, Sir John attempts to convince them that he has Hal’s best interests at heart. The Prince is interrupted by a summons to court.
“Instead of Hotspur, the valiant epic warrior who was ‘the theme of honour’s tongue’ in Part I, we now have Ancient Pistol. An Elizabethan pistol was a relatively primitive weapon, likely to go off, without warning, at any time. (The first pistols, or pistolets, in England are described in texts dating from the mid-to-late sixteenth century.) Pistol – whose rank of ‘ancient’ (a rank also held by Iago in Othello), is a corruption of ‘ensign,’ and means ‘standard-bearer’ – is the embodiment of the ‘braggart soldier,’ or miles gloriosus, a stock character dating back to Roman times. Where Hotspur was impatient with words, Pistol is all mouth. Even Doll Tearsheet, herself a handy woman with an oath, calls him ‘the foul-mouthedest rogue in England.’ Pistol replaces Hotspur as the spokesman of heroic sentiment, and becomes yet another sign of what is happening in the play’s world. We noted in connection with Hotspur’s character and language that they closely resembled, and also seemed dryly to comment upon, the actions and speech of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Hotspur, like Tamburlaine, is a hyperbolic figure, an ‘overreacher,’ too big for the world that contains him. With this model in mind, the audience of Henry IV Part 2 encounters an Ancient Pistol who constantly spouts jumbled fragments of Marlowe and other Elizabethan playwrights. Thus, for example, Pistol invokes ‘pack-horses/And hollow pampered jades of Asia’ in place of Tamburlaine’s great challenge to his enemies, ‘Holla, ye pamper’d jades of Asia!’ spoken by Marlowe’s hero when he has harnessed the Asian kings to his chariot and strikes them with a whip. Taken out of context, spoken by a posturing mock-heroic or antiheroic opportunist like Pistol, Tamburlaine’s heroic verbiage becomes merely empty and ludicrous display. The effect is both deliberate and wickedly witty, as Shakespeare once again ‘send up’ his rival Marlowe even as he records his own admiration for the sounding periods of his verse. By contrast, Pistol’s own language, like the weapon that give him his name, is both explosive and inefficient, a fitting counterpart to ‘Rumour painted full of tongues.’ The audience may well have sympathized with Falstaff in Part I and may even be inclined to continue its affection in Part Two, but it is not easy to find a kind word to say about Pistol. Not even the whores have much to say on his behalf – although we will learn at the beginning of Henry V that he has married Mistress Quickly, and that he lives on, as such unprincipled characters often do, even as regimes and circumstances change.
Hotspur is gone, and with him gone a certain concept of honor. Falstaff, as we have noted, now soliloquizes instead on sack, and in place of honor as a grand political ideal we have the coldhearted and cold-blooded betrayal of the rebels by Prince John, Hal’s younger brother, at Gaultres Forest. In one of the most chilling moments in Shakespearean drama, John persuades the rebels that they will be given mercy, watches serenely while their armies disband, and then arrests them for treason and sends them to be executed, concluding sanctimoniously, ‘God, and not we, have safely fought today.’ (This lofty sentiment, spoken by so cold and antipathetic a character, will be repeated with a difference in Henry V, when after the hard-fought battle of Agincourt the King will say gratefully, ‘God fought for u s.’ throughout the scene of the betrayal at Gaultres Forest we hear over and over again the word ‘shallow,’ which becomes a kind of subliminal watchword for Henry Iv Part 2. ‘You are too shallow, Hastings, much too shallow,’ says Prince John, and ‘Most shallowly did you these arms commence,/Fondly brought forth, and foolishly sent hence.’ Shallow actions, shallow motives, and a justice called Shallow replace an idealistic – if unrealistic – world in which Hotspur could imagine diving into ‘the bottom of the deep’ in order to ‘pluck up drowned honour by the locks.’
Thus in every aspect of this play – in language, in honor, in literal illness and crafty sickness – the theme of disease and decay predominates, and the language of disease culminates, as we should expect in Shakespeare, with the sickness of the King, which seems to emerge, full-blown, out of all the metaphors that surround him. John of Gaunt had admonished Richard II, ‘Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land/Wherein thou liest in reputation sick’ This figure of speech is now transformed into visible dramatic action, as King Henry IV creeps feebly onto the stage, dressed in his nightgown, at the beginning of act 3, to complain that he is unable to sleep:
Hoe many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep? O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee…?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
King Henry’s sleeplessness, and the language in which he describes it, may well remind a Shakespearean audience of Richard III, and of the later figure of Macbeth – both, like Henry IV, kings with murder on their conscience, who have in effect ‘murdered sleep.’ But Henry here speaks, as well, about the limits and demands of kingship, its responsibilities, and, above all, its loneliness, lessons his son has also begun to suspect, and will have to learn. King Henry’s death in act 4 is foretokened by omens, very similar to those that created the topsy-turvy world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the River Thames overflows its banks; the seasons have altered, producing a warm winter and a cold summer; and unnatural monsters are begotten and born. For the figures of authority, Henry IV and the Lord Chief Justice, the future seems to hold an even more severe reversal of order, with the anticipated coming of the ‘wastrel’ Prince Hal to the throne. ‘O God, I fear all will be overturned,’ exclaims the Chief Justice, and King Henry anticipates with dread a time when England will become an antigovernment, a haven for all the thieves and murders of Europe:
Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
The oldest sins the newest kinds of ways?
Be happy; he will trouble you no more.
England shall double gild his treble guilt,
England shall give him office, honour, might;
For the fifth Harry from curbed license plucks
The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog
Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent.
These dire predictions of anarchy, of a world turned upside down in bitter reality, and without prospect of a carnival reversal, derive from the fact that neither the King nor the Chief Justice knows what the audience knows: that Hal is continuing to play a role, and that he will return, transformed, as the prodigal son returned, who had been ‘as dead’ to his father, ‘was lost, and is found.’
Hal, on the other hand, is increasingly aware of his role and of its limitations, as he will later learn firsthand the limits of kingship. He is aware, that is to say, of his humanity. ‘Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?’ he asks Points, in act 2, scene 2. ‘Small beer’ was beer of a weak or inferior quality, and thus referred by extension to trivial matters or persons of little importance. Hal longs for – and faults himself for wanting – both a commoner’s drink and common companions to drink with. Hal cannot show sorrow at his father’s sickness, although he feels it, because every man would think him, as Poins does, a ‘most princely hypocrite.’ ‘It would be every man’s thought, and thou art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks,’ agrees the Prince. Every man would think me a hypocrite indeed.’ So although Hal is still in the tavern world there is a sense in which he is no longer of it. Part of his strength in this play will be to emerge from behind the clouds, to show himself as sun and son.
It is worth noting that in Henry IV Part 2, a play deftly designed to be a counterfoil and answer to Part I, the central tavern scene is once again located in act 2, scene 5, and the audience comes upon the Prince and Points about to perform another play, about to disguise themselves as they did in Part I when they became ‘buckram men’ and robbed Falstaff. But Hal now sees this act of costuming – in this case as ‘drawers,’ tavern waiters or tapsters – as a ‘low transformation.’ It is now explicitly intended as a fictive vehicle for him, allowing him to descend into the tavern world. In fact, his entry into the world of Falstaff and company now looks more like a classical ‘descent into the underworld,’ undertaken by a hero (Ulysses, for example, or Aeneas) who is on a greater quest. ‘She’s in hell already,’ says Falstaff of Doll Tearsheet – but she is not the only one. Like Falstaff and the others who inhabit it, the tavern is now a shadow or shade of its former self. Its energy seems to have been sapped. Bawdy jokes on discharging and on ‘foining,’ or thrusting, are now the main topic of conversation, and these are terms of war that are being trivialized. The tavern world, manifestly unfit for the play’s new reality, turns warfare into a dirty joke. Thus it is fitting that Hal’s final moment of misrule and holiday in the world of the tavern is interrupted – as was also the case in Part I – by a reminder of war and of the outside world of society and politics. There is a knock at the door, and Peto appears with the news that a dozen constables are searching for Falstaff, who is derelict in his duty, having failed to join his soldiers. Once again Hal sounds a familiar note of temporality: ‘By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame/So idly to profane the precious time.’ Time, precious time. Hal’s own commodity, is running out. The King is dying, and England will be either redeemed or lost.”
So what do you think? Does Part Two change the way you view Part One? Share your questions, thoughts and comments!
Our next reading: Henry IV Part Two, Act Three
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning