I started my Henry IV journey last weekend, and have spent all week thinking about the plays, or rather play as in my mind the two parts need to be combined to give the full story. I’ll continue referring to both parts as the combined “play”.
After first reading the play, and after watching the first adaptation I had chosen (the interpretation of The Hollow Crown series, starring Tom Hiddleston as Hal and Jeremy Irons as Henry IV), I ended up with very mixed feelings about the play.
I liked only about half of the play.
That is, I liked the parts that dealt with King Henry, the wars, his attempts to expand and defend his reign, and the relationship between the King and the Prince of Wales, Hal.
I loved learning that this would be the play that gave rise to another work that would draw from the Victorians right through to the 20th century. From William Blake’s poem to the, oftentimes mindless, rendering of the hymn Jerusalem in various institutions.
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,
Whose arms were moulded in their mothers’ womb
To chase these pagans in those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed,
For our advantage, on the bitter cross.
Very early on, we have the above lines that very clearly set the agenda of King Henry, to expand his kingdom, by conquest and invasion, and thereby, as we learn in Henry’s later advice to Hal, to ensure his legacy would be the establishment of a powerful reign which should serve to let people forget that Henry IV himself, the former Henry Bolingbroke, was not a king by birth but because he snatched the crown from his cousin Richard (as told in the excellent Richard II). Now Henry is struggling to keep the kingdom together and feels the burden of the “hollow crown” that Richard prophesied to him.
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep?
0 sleep, 0 gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hushed with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lulled with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why li’st thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch
A watch-case, or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge,
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them
With dealing clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
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.
The whole setting of the scenes that deal with Henry’s drive for justification of his position and his frustration that his son apparently has no interest in, to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett, “kinging”, are fabulous. Henry is not a power-crazy king, he’s aware of the burden on him and his reign, and he is aware of the quality of other contenders to the throne. And all of this creates some great basis for dramatic tension between Henry and his son Hal/Harry.
Yea, there thou mak’st me sad, and mak’st me sin
In envy that my lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry.
O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
When we’re not spending time with Henry and his Nobles, we spend time with Hal/Harry, who behaves like the cliche teenage drop-out, something that apparently has not changed throughout the centuries.
There are reasons for this, which do make Hal a little bit likeable, but overall I could not stand half of the play because Hal behaves like a little spoiled brat, and hangs out with people who quickly and severely got on my nerves. To the extent event, that I considered skimming all of the parts where Sir John Oldcastle, aka Falstaff, made an appearance.
Maybe I went into reading the play with a misconception, maybe I should not have expected Falstaff to be funny or witty or set much stall by the number of quotes taken from Falstaff’s speeches.
I did not find him funny, or witty, and truth be told I hoped someone would kick his butt and soon. So, when I learned that not only would Sir John appear in Part 2, and further plays, but would actually take up about half of the pages in the combined play, I may have reached for wine to dull my annoyance with this idiotic, spineless, arrogant vulgarian.
PRINCE HARRY Why, thou owest God a death. [Exit]
SIR JOHN ‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay him before his day.
What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?
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.
I fully get that Falstaff is needed as the counterpoint to Hal’s growing up. I really do, but I just loathe him so much that I could not enjoy parts of the play at all. I literally cheered when Hal decides that is now time for him to put away childish things and step up to the role he has known all along he must take up, and severs all ties with the acquaintances of his wild youth.
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awake, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace.
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self;
will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils;
And as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement.
I really liked Hal when he was talking to his father. I also liked him when he finally stepped up to his role, not just because he grew up, but also because he was not a pratt. He saw qualities in other people, even his enemies, he tried his best, he mourned for his friends of all ranks.
Now I am really looking forward to reading Henry V and finding out how Hal grows even further (or does he?) in his years as king.
Overall, I like the play, but it took some time and watching two adaptations (The Hollow Crown and the Donmar Warehouse production with Harriet Walter as Henry IV) to get to the point where I could appreciate the aspects that I liked over the aspects that I seriously disliked. It’s not a play I would recommend outright or watch again, but I would revisit certain scenes in text form.