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henry iv, part 1

9 november 2015

Henry IV, Part 1 works on nearly every possible level; it was celebrated in its day and continues to compel admiration from both readers and viewers.

If I say "nearly" it's because there seems to me a central flaw in the play: Act 3, Scene 2, the long interchange of speeches between the exasperated King and the heretofore good-for-nothing Prince Hal. It's not so much that the scene inherently doesn't work: it has to work, or the whole play falls apart in the middle. So Act 3, Scene 2 presents a perpetual puzzle to readers and challenge to directors and actors.

King Henry IV is watching his regime attacked from all sides by rebels, while the future Henry V has been spending most of his time in taverns and not a little of it committing highway robbery. The key scene begins with the King bringing this up. The Prince says that things will get better. The King isn't so sure. He delivers sixty lines of blank verse saying that when young, he'd avoided the mistakes that Hal is making now. The thesis of this long, long speech (lines 30-91) is that young royals should make themselves scarce and cultivate a mystique – while Hal, as Shakespeare once put it in a sonnet, has "made himself a motley to the view." In fact, Hal shows himself to everybody in the kingdom … except his own dad … and at this point the King breaks down and cries.

Hal answers "I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, / Be more myself."

The King goes on for another thirty lines about stuff that happened during his own rebellion against Richard II. Hal counters with his own long speech where he promises to knock the chief rebel, Hotspur, on the head. Then everything is better: "A hundred thousand rebels die in this!" says the King, and since that's about twenty times more rebels than there actually are, the outcome is guaranteed.

The scene is both unbelievable (lying, thieving, alcoholic slacker redeems himself with one stirring speech) and emblematic of how things get done on the Shakespearean stage (by making stirring speeches). As long as Hal can talk well about something – and he'll go on to do that for the next 2½ plays – all is well with England.

And of course Hal eventually does knock Hotspur on the head, and the rebels disperse, and the kingdom is saved till the sequel. But the central scene remains interesting for its basic fatalism about hereditary monarchy. By means not entirely regular, Henry IV has become King, and his legitimacy depends in part on leaving his crown to his natural heir, however bad an idea that might seem. A few scenes later, when the rebels meet the royal army, Hal challenges Hotspur to a duel to decide things. Henry IV adds:

And, Prince of Wales, so dare we venture thee,
Albeit considerations infinite
Do make against it. (Act 5, Scene 1)
The "considerations infinite" can be taken as the basic stupidity of risking an entire kingdom on the accidents of single combat, as well as exposing your eldest son to harm and your followers to danger by proxy, and basically the whole thing is strategically a bad idea; but there's also the undertone of "My eldest son is a fuckup," with a dash of "What if the kid goes off and joins the rebels." But ultimately, "so dare we venture thee." If you live by the divine right of kings you die by it, as Richard II had shown Henry IV and a number of their followers down to Shakespeare's time would demonstrate.

Meanwhile of course we know that Hal will become Henry V, but also that there's a method in his badness. Hal reveals in Act 1, Scene 2 that he has the opposite theory of publicity to his father's. By being as visible and useless-seeming as possible while young, he will seem that much better when he comes into his own. It's a goofy theory but it's at least a theory. Hal doesn't openly express what Shakespeare himself, and many critics since, have noticed: that by hanging out with Falstaff and other drunks, Hal gains a knowledge of human nature that Hotspur (and even the standoffish Henry IV) never do. As Hotspur's scenes alternate with Hal's in the early going, we see that Hotspur is completely uninterested in other people, testing everything by his own desires and his own offended sense of entitlement. Hal, by contrast, is a born observer, and loves to set up situations that will test his hypotheses about their behavior – as when he gets the servant at the inn to keep saying "anon, anon" and never actually serve anyone, or as when he agrees to his friend Poins's plan to set up Falstaff for an elaborate display of cowardice and braggadocio combined.

Hal doesn't say that that's what he's doing; instead he comes up with the less convincing "bright metal on a sullen ground" explanation for his youthful fuckups. But by not figuring out that he has it all figured out, he becomes that much more attractive a hero.

Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. 1598. Edited by Gordon McMullan. New York: Norton, 2003. PR 2810 .A2M39