Henry the Fourth, Parts I and II by William Shakespeare
If I look at the table of contents in my Norton Shakespeare, there’s a pink X next to both 1 and 2 Henry IV, which would leave me to believe that I’ve read these plays before. However, there’s not a note to be found in the text of either play, so that most likely means that I was assigned these plays but didn’t actually read them. I did an independent Shakespeare study as an undergrad, and I know that I wrote a paper on Richard II–something to do with language and gender and Richard II being one big girly-man. And I took a semester long Shakespeare seminar in graduate school, but it was with one of those insufferable professors who basically only read Shakespeare to deconstruct him and explain why he was really nothing more than a tool of the Western-colonial-hetero-normative-patriarchy and therefore must be destroyed. I pretty much left that semester with my unsophisticated love of Shakespeare beat out of me. So coming back to Shakespeare’s histories twenty years later with the stink of critical theory washed away, what strikes me most is how little the world changes: Men fight for power, betray other men, and in the end any force that threatens the status quo must and will be banished.
Shakespeare’s history plays all deal with power and how kings maintain, lose, and pass on that power in what they’d like to think is an unbroken line of divine will manifested. However, kingly authority really amounts to brute force. Who is best able to manipulate existing power structures and bend them to their advantage? In Richard II that, of course, is Henry Bolingsbroke, soon-to-be King Henry IV. Henry IV hears the former king’s curse/prophesy that “The time shall not be many hours of age / More than it is, ere foul sin gathering head / Shall break into corruption” and takes it to heart (V, i). And this lies at the heart of Henry IV’s anger with Prince Hal at the beginning of I Henry IV. The king sees his errant son as another potential ineffectual ruler, who underneath it all is showing the same effeminate nature as the unfortunate Richard II. When the King bemoans that his enemy Lord Northumberland “Should be the father to so blessed a son/ A son who is in the theme of Honor’s tongue,” the “Riot and dishonor [that] stain the brow/ of my young Harry” becomes more noticeable and more grotesque (I, i). Hotspur is a manly-man who is out there fighting battles and taking prisoners, who makes fun of men like Mortimer with his face “fresh as a bridegroom” and his “chin new-reaped […] and perfumed like a milliner” (I, iii). It’s hard not to take Hotspur’s bashing of the feminine Mortimer as a simultaneous stab at Prince Hal who is out thieving, whoring, and drinking sak with Falstaff.
But Prince Hal knows better. He’s playing to the masses just like his father did. The common people are dupes and are quick to fall behind a leader who pretends to have their best interest at heart. But it’s all fake; it’s all theater. The Prince tells us from the get go, that he isn’t as far gone as he’s pretending. It’s all for show. He’s a politician and knows that “like 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 have no foil to set if off” (I, ii). And this is what strikes me about both these plays. Power is for those who wield it, and people who seek it are always corrupt no matter their stated intentions. None of the “heads that wear the crown” in the whole of the Henriad cycle are anything but corrupt, and they all know it. And this is Shakespeare’s point all along. We of the masses would do well to heed his warning. Those in power are only out to maintain it at our expense. Which brings me to Falstaff…
Nowadays Falstaff is seen as a drunk and a coward, as someone who is out to use the influence of the Prince to further his own selfish goals. This interpretation is quite obvious in the 2013 version of the Henriad plays, The Hollow Crown. Falstaff is pretty well reduced to a stinky oaf with huge chunks of his brilliant wit and wordplay totally cut from the production. However, Harold Bloom is absolutely correct in his brilliant (albeit long-winded) essay in his 1998 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Bloom argues that Falstaff is the ultimate nod to freedom: “Sir John is the representation of imaginative freedom, of a liberty set against time, death, and the state, which is a condition that we crave for ourselves. Add a fourth freedom to timelessness, the blessing of more life, and the evasion of the state, and call it freedom from censoriousness, from the superego, from guilt” (289). We should like Falstaff because he knows that the crown/the state is corrupt. He refuses to be bowed by it and ultimately has no problem using it for his ends. When the now Henry V rejects Falstaff with his famous “I know you not, old man,” it’s nothing but a win for the status quo, for state power and state corruption. Existing power structures are maintained and Falstaff and his minions are carted off to prison and cast aside.
So I guess it’s not surprising that modern audiences reject Falstaff. He’s messy. He’s politically incorrect. He’s gross, silly, and has bad hair… He’s Trump? Perhaps. And if we have put Falstaff in power then social order has indeed turned topsy-turvey, the old guard is out and “The laws of England [America!] are at [his] commandment. Blessed are they that have been [his] friends!” (V, iii).