Choosing Between Royal Duty and Friends, or is it Simple Betrayal?
I finished the 18th play in my effort to read all the Bard by the Shakespeare 450th anniversary, but I’m falling rapidly behind the calendar. From the number of plays I’ve read, I’m doing OK. The problem is the length of the plays. It seems—and I had no clue when I began—that the plays I’ve read are, on the average, shorter than the plays I have yet to read. According to an interesting word-count calculator, I’ve read 352,669 Shakespeare words in the first 11 months, but still have 928,913 words left to read in the next 13. I hope they’re short words! And that doesn’t include the poems and sonnets. I’ve got to hustle to get it done in time.
With that overall report (or confession) complete, I turn to Henry IV, Second Part. I wish I didn’t have to. This play does not rate as a favorite. It seemed long, comprised of long speeches. And most disappointingly, the Falstaff of Second Part does not live up to the First Part Falstaff. It’s sad to watch this great wit fade. Maybe it’s the result of too much alcohol over the years. Clearly his earthly appetites and irresponsibility seem to have taken a toll on him.
His decline contrasts with the rise of his “friend” Prince Hal. It’s the intersection of Falstaff’s decline and the moment of his expected greatest triumph– Hal’s rise to the throne–that reveals both. As the usurper Henry IV dies and Hal is raised King Henry V, Falstaff’s exuberant joy and expectations peak. Surely the new king will reward all Falstaff’s friends for past association. But it’s not to be. Hal, now in his “role” as king of the realm, true to his faithfully feigning self, denies Falstaff recognition and reward. Is it betrayal of friend for office? Or, could it be leaving behind the irresponsibility of youth for the burdens of leadership? With Hal, I’m convinced it’s the former. (Perhaps Shakespeare felt it the latter.) So far, Henry V, as was the case with Prince Hal, is not a favorite character.
One of the moments of valor (perhaps the only one) in the play was the speech of the Chief Justice, who so often in the past, served as enforcing policeman to Prince Hal. When challenged by the new king who clearly craves revenge against this minster of Henry IV’s wishes, the Chief Justice reminds the new Henry that he was acting on behalf of his royal father. “Question your royal thoughts, make the case yours; be now the father, and propose a son; hear your own dignity so much profane’d, see your most dreadful laws so loosely slighted, behold yourself so by a son disdain’d; and then imagine me taking your part, and, in your power, soft silencing your son; after this cold considerance, sentence me….” Contrasting again with his rejection of Falstaff, Henry V accepts, embraces and reappoints the Chief Justice.
Falstaff and Hal use each other. Prince John deceives the rebels into peace and their own deaths. The rebels use light excuse to make war. Besides the Chief Justice, I didn’t see any good guys in Shakespeare’s King Henry, Second Part.
Words that come to mind when I read Henry IV, Second Part are betrayal, rumor, rebellion, treachery/deceit.
Quotes I liked for various reasons:
Rumour: Open your ears; for which of you will stop the vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
Rumour: Upon my tongues continual slanders ride, the which in every language I pronounce, stuffing the ears of men with false reports. I speak of peace, while covert enmity, under the smile of safety, wounds the world….
Rumour: Rumour is a pipeblown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures….But what need I thus my well-known body to anatomize among my household.
Northumberland: …The first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office.
Morton: My lord your son had only but the corpse, but shadows and the shows of men, to fight: For that same word, rebellion, did divide the action of their bodies from their souls; and they did fight with queasiness, constrain’d, as men drink potions; that their weapons only seem’d on our side, but, for their spirits and souls, this word, rebellion, it had froze them up, as fish are in pond.
Morton: But now the archbishop turns insurrection to religion….
Morton: Never so few, and never yet more need.
Falstaff: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.
Falstaff: …It is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal.
Falstaff: I am as poor as Job, my lord, but not so patient….
Chief Justice: You are as a candle, the better part burnt out.
Chief Justice: Have you moist eye? A dry hand? A yellow cheek? A white beard? A decreasing leg? An increasing belly? Is not your voice broken? Your wind short? Your chin double? Your wit single? And every part about you blasted with antiquity? And will you yet call yourself young? (Capturing the image of “old age”?)
Chief Justice: …I am well acquainted with your manner of wrenching the true cause the false way.
Prince Henry: …Midwives say the children are not in the fault.”
King Henry IV: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Warwick: Rumor doth double, like the voice and echo….
Falstaff: Master Silence, I will not use many words with you. …I do see the bottom of Justice Shallow.
Archbishop: I have in equal balance justly weigh’d what wrongs our arms may do, what wrongs we suffer, and find our griefs heavier than our offenses. (Ever the excuse for rebellion.)
Hastings: And though we here fall down, we have supplies to second our attempt: If they miscarry, theirs shall second them; and so success of mischief shall be born, and heir from heir shall hold this quarrel up whiles England shall have generation. (The promise of and hope for continual rebellion: English version of Hatfields and McCoys with a crown thrown in.)
Archbishop: A peace is of the nature of a conquest; for then both parties nobly are subdued, and neither party loser.
Falstaff: …He saw me, and yielded; that I may justly say with the hook-nosed fellow of Rome,—I came, saw, and overcame.
King Henry IV: How quickly nature falls into revolt when gold becomes her object.
King Henry IV: O foolish youth! Thou seek’st the greatness that will overwhelm thee.
King Henry V: I know thee not, old man: fall to they prayers; how ill white hairs become a fool and jester! I have long dream’d of such a kind of man, so surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane, but, being awake I do despise my dream…Presume not that I am the thing I was; for God doth know, so shall the world perceive, that I have turn’d away my former self. (The words of personal betrayal, not repentance.)
Dancer (epilogue): I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it, and to promise you a better. (I hope so. It’s just too bad it’s named after Prince Hal become king.)
Dancer (epilogue): Our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John [Falstaff] in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France: where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already he be killed with your hard opinions…. (A bit of false advertising and foreshadowing.)
Next Up: King Henry V (if you’re reading along)