Saturday, 16 August 2014

Henry IV Part I: Father and Son (and a Fat Friend)

This is the second play in Shakespeare's second tetralogy. I have reviewed Richard II somewhere in the blog. Now, to be honest, I kind of read the four plays in succession. So in fact, I have read them all since several months ago. However, being me, I can't write well when I feel too much, so I waited until my heart cools down. (In fact, I can't write about Henry V now for the same reason.)

We all have seen how Henry Bolingbroke feels guilty about 'compassing the crown' in Richard II. The feeling haunts him for the rest of his life. To be fair about it, he didn't take it because he was ambitious. From his point of view, it's more like saving-the-kingdom-from-a-bad-ruler kind of thing. However, it's still wrong. So this past deed torments him so much with guilt and fear.

Why fear? Well, once you overthrow a king other people will start thinking that they can overthrow you in order to be king. Further on, there are other people lurking about who have stronger claim to the throne than Henry IV himself. Politics.

The king's distress doesn't stop there. His oldest son, who would later become king, is a naughty rascal. He doesn't go to the court, but to the tavern. He is friend with robbers, drunkards, thieves, prostitutes, and what-not. Certainly not a good reputation for a king-to-be.

On the other hand, Northumberland (if you remember the guy who helped Henry to the crown) has an excellent son - Henry Percy a.k.a Hotspur. He has a reputation of an honorable and brave soldier. Henry IV's a bit jealous that Northumberland has such a son while his own is hopeless. This same young man later joins his father and uncle in a rebellion against the king. It is by no means surprising, because his brother-in-law has a claim to the crown stronger than that of Henry IV himself.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV 
That's not the king's main source of fear. His fear comes from the resemblance between this young soldier's reputation and feats with his own when he took the crown. It's like dejavu, with you on the losing side. It's certainly not a beautiful thing to imagine. Being frustrated, he vents all his causes of distress to his oldest son, scolding him so bad (in private, thankfully), comparing him with the gallant Percy.

That's painful. So the prince vows to kill Percy and proves that he's not as bad as his father thinks. (He truly is not that bad, I mean, come on, he's Henry V. Oops, spoilers.)

Talking about the prince. (I start to smile and blush in front of my computer screen.)

Because kings and nobles love to name their kids after their own names and make everything confusing, I'll just call the prince as Prince Hal. After all, it's his popular name. His father wouldn't like it, but as long as he doesn't know, it's kinda okay. Besides, the name 'Prince Hal' sounds so sweet in the tongue of his best companion - Falstaff.

See, I have a high standard for friendship, and Falstaff doesn't reach even half of it. Nor does Pointz, Hal's other companion. But before I digress and leave my subject, let's go back to the prince.

To understand what the Prince thinks about himself, Shakespeare gives us one short soliloquy.
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at.
...
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
...
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Young little braggart. The prince sincerely believes that he's just playing around, concealing who he really is, and one day, when he becomes a king, he'd be amazing. (Which is true, by the way, but not the way that he thought it might be.) Instead of sounding like a great prince or soldier, he sounds like a teenage school boy, dreaming of greatness in days to come, but loitering around instead of working for it.

Another thing about the prince: his association. I'd be the first to admit that your companions affect you tremendously in ways you may not realize. Prince Hal's are the worst association you can get for a prince. But the worst of them is Falstaff.

Jamie Parker as Prince Hal, Roger Allam as Falstaff,
both are my favourites of the roles.

Falstaff is an old rogue with no personal standard of right or wrong. He himself is the law to himself, or, may I say, lawless. He doesn't care a scruple about lying, stealing, or swearing. A person like that is great for humor, not great for a friend. Apart from physical jokes that Hal practices on him, he also calls him a "white-bearded Satan". Seeing that he lies a lot, I'd prefer the word 'devil'.

***

So. The play is not really about the king, it's more about the prince. Or both.

What I like about the play is that it's so many different things. Although the previous Richard II is practically a tragedy, Henry IV onward are comedy. So we laugh a lot. And since Falstaff is a great comic character, I really have nothing to complain about the script. From King Henry's point of view, it's not so comical. He has rebellion, a difficult son, and past sin to deal with. But that's another beauty of the play.

For me, the most important thing in the play is the relationship between Hal and his father. It's lovely because it's so realistic. Putting aside the kingship and all its glory, they're just father and son. Have you ever known parents who constantly compare their children with other children, and children who are tired of being treated so? Or children being tired of their parents expectation of them? Or parents being frustrated by their children's behaviour? It's all in Henry IV.


I also think that Prince Hal resembles so many of youngsters in the world. Nothing's wrong with it, it's just, you know, being young. I'm not referring to his drinking habit or choice of companions, but his search for identity, his bragging about the future, his struggle with peer pressure and people's expectation.

Goodness, I love the play. And the Prince.

***

So, the play ends with Hotspur dead and the rebellion thwarted, Hal being Hal again after killing Percy. Falstaff takes the praises for killing Percy (crazy liar!). Everybody's happy(?). It's a comedy after all. But Our story hasn't ended.

See you in Henry IV Part II.

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