Saturday, November 19, 2016


From the hooligan to the throne


Henry IV Part One was in many ways plot-lacking and not that dramatic. It had some brilliancy from the innovation of Falstaff and the Prince of Wales having a night life in some tavern with shady people and even some crooks, with a lot of humor in that environment, Falstaff being some kind of popular character at times gross and full of wit. I must say that Shrewsbury was slightly light to hold our attention and fascinate our interest.

But this second part of King Henry IV is quite different. We are at the end of the rebellions. The last one, that of the House of York and their archbishop has to be curbed and brought down. It is in the most vicious way. Prince John of Lancaster is leading the army. He makes the rebels believe, after a fair lesson about the archbishop daring lead a rebellion against the King, the true representative of God in England, that they will answer their demands and provide due correction to what requires some redressing, and thus that peace can be declared and celebrated with wine. The rebels are dumb enough to disband their troops who rush at once away, and then Prince John can have the rebels arrested on the spot and led into captivity for execution. True enough Prince John had not promised any pardon to the rebels, only the redress of their grievances.

This performed with little means of course we would only have Falstaff and his wit along with the Prince of Wales and his wallowing in popular mirth to carry the play. It is done with a lot of pleasure and fun, plus some marital or matrimonial suffering for the women, at times wives, of these drunkards and merry suckers. Falstaff adds some tricky situation in Gloucester where he has some “friends,” or so he calls them, a certain Shallow that lives with a certain Silence, two country justices, in whose home he stops over going to and returning from the war to have fun, drink and eat. He owes Shallow some money, maybe one thousand pounds if we believe the two borrower and borrowee, So we have some hectic celebrating there. But the play would still be light.

Yet in fact the play is carried by Henry IV in his deranged sickness. He is not insane and he has not lost his memory. He remembers too well how un-lawfully he seized the crown, and he is haunted by this feudal crime that was disguised as a voluntary abdication. It is this haunting guilt that makes him sick, deranged, practically insane though with his full consciousness and memory. There the King is brilliant in his slow degeneracy from haunted to fully paranoid and psychotic in his guilt that makes him identify with the crown and thus with his crime and his body becomes the prey of all sorts of ailing because of this assumed and interiorized repentance and disgrace. Brilliant in face language and body language (essential with all the close-up images due to the fact this is a TV film, Brilliant in his language that is engrossed with all of Shakespeare’s style.

This phenomenal performance is amplified by that of the Prince of Wales who rushes on the last day of this ordeal and stays with the King he believes is dead and he yields to the childish desire to try the crown on and goes to another room to strut with it in solitude. Unluckily his father is not dead and he comes back to life and finds out, with all the courtiers around, that the crown has been taken away. The Prince of Wales is brought back and he gives the crown back and there the accusation from the father, the contrition of the son and the acceptance of this confession by the father is worth a life time of good theater.

And never live to show the incredulous world
The noble change that I have purposed!
Coming to look on you, thinking you dead,
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were,
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: 'The care on thee depending
Hath fed upon the body of my father;
Therefore, thou best of gold art worst of gold:
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in medicine potable;
But thou, most fine, most honour'd: most renown'd,
Hast eat thy bearer up.' Thus, my most royal liege,
Accusing it, I put it on my head,
To try with it, as with an enemy
That had before my face murder'd my father,
The quarrel of a true inheritor.” (Act IV, Scene iv)

This accusatory personification of the crown gives the repentance a density that is obviously effective on the father who accepts the repentance, and even makes the “stealing of the crown” a divine decision to enable the son to express his love for his father so intensely. Maybe the son is a good actor, impersonating the repenting culprit but he sure does it, if he does, with great style.

These scenes are so powerful that good acting added to the great language provides the best ever, the most emphatic ever situation that becomes poignant when the King finally dies practically in front of us.

But Shakespeare then has to transform the Prince of Wales from a wild teenager who is sowing his wild oats everywhere in London into the new King straight away after his father’s death in court, and he has to pacify his three younger brothers and associate them to the new power that is going to be free of any guilt since he received the crown in the best and most legal way. He does that with what sounds like love even if he is the King and they are not. He may love them after all. But he has to assert his power with the Lord Chief Justice who once, on the King his father’s order, actually put him in prison. He does that with the grace and the authority of a king acknowledging the Lord Chief Justice’s absolute fairness and equanimity when dealing with the ruffian he was before up to just right now.

You can imagine the joy of Falstaff and his band who believe they have won the main prize of some bingo game. They go to the coronation and in the street the king comes by Falstaff tries to attract his attention. The King’s answer is a model of greatness and grace wrapped up in pure authority.

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 awaked, 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 turn'd away my former self;
So 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 evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. [To the Lord Chief Justice] Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform'd the tenor of our word. Set on.” (Act V, Scene ii)

And even in this situation he promises a change of heart if they deliver a change of behavior. And he has them arrested and banished ten miles away. I must say that this play gets to some real grandeur because of these elements: the death of Henry IV and the (re-)birth of Henry V.


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