Review: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1+2


This is a strange play or pair of plays. (I consider it a single play, though this is controversial. Harold Jenkins made a convincing case that Shakespeare planned to do it as one play, then changed his mind in the middle of Part 1, Act IV.) An editor, judging it by today’s standards, might say it was hopelessly broken and ill-conceived. Yet, like War and Peace, it has a different kind of greatness to it than is fashionable today. I expect this play will perform well by my measure of greatness, which is how often I’m reminded of it when thinking of other things. It left me feeling more charitable toward Shakespeare than I have lately.

If you want an adventure story with a villain to boo and a hero to root for, you won’t find them in Henry IV. The play’s “hero” is Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V at the end of Part 2. The characters consist of Prince Hal, plus Falstaff and the villains and rogues he associates with on one side, and/or King Henry IV and the even worse villains he associates with on the other.

Falstaff & Co. aren’t really on the King’s side; the King hates them, and their service to him is worse than none at all. There are three teams on the field, and you can’t root for any of them. The King is unjust; Falstaff is repulsive; and the order of events frames the rebels as the antagonists.

Hal is less dissolute than Falstaff, and less bloodthirsty and honorless than his father and brother. Falstaff and his companions are brigands who rob and murder, then spend what they’ve taken on food, drink, and whores. King Henry IV is a usurper who murdered the former king, and like Stalin after him, reflected that anyone who helped him become king might someday help someone else become king. At the start of the play, he faces a rebellion because his former friends are convinced he means to kill them all one by one. At the end of Part 2, those rebels who survive surrender to Hal’s brother John of Lancaster, under a promise of amnesty, and he waits until their army has dispersed and then murders them.

Here are three bad things and three good things about Henry IV:

Three Bad Things About Henry IV

I’m going to ignore the historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, such as having pistols in 1403, which are still a cause of consternation for English historians. I’m also not going to cut Shakespeare any slack for writing in 1597. It’s only fair to Shakespeare to note that nobody else writing at the time would have done any better; but it’s only fair to writers today, as long as they’re held lower in esteem than Shakespeare by critics, to hold him up to the same standards they regularly meet.

1.The bad guys win, and we’re supposed to cheer for them. I think.

The only admirable characters other than Hal are Hotspur, Douglas, Colevile, and perhaps Vernon and the Archbishop. The good guys kill all of them but “the Douglas” over the course of the play. Hal cleverly spares him by asking for permission to dispose of him and then setting him free.

If I were to pick one scene that conveys the mood of Henry IV, it’s Part 1, Act 4, scene 3. Colevile, an honorable knight, yields to Falstaff, apparently meaning some honor to Falstaff, who is so fat, lazy, cowardly, and winded that any man alive could beat him. They exchange words, Colevile showing his honor and Falstaff his ridiculous yipping-dog pride. Then John of Lancaster walks by, casually orders Colevile’s execution, expresses his scorn for Falstaff, and walks on. Then Coleville is taken away, and Falstaff monologues about… the virtues of hard drinking. The two villains condemn the noble man to death and immediately forget him. Falstaff is aware of his own moral depravity but doesn’t care, and is only anxious that he should get some preference out of John for capturing Colevile. John of Lancaster, like his father Henry IV, rationalizes his evil actions with lies. Falstaff is a coward in the face of battle. J of L (and Henry IV) are cowards in the face of the truth. Each of them has only scorn for the other.

This was not accidental. It’s one entire scene, and that’s all it consists of. Falstaff’s monologue about drink might be seen by insensitive louts as comic, but it’s vile coming only seconds after Falstaff has sent his better off to death. I believe Shakespeare wrote this scene only to highlight how nasty the victors of Henry IV are. Why?

One might speculate that this was for.3 political reasons, but no: Queen Elizabeth I was a Tudor, and her claim to the throne was through the House of Lancaster. Possibly Henry IV is all a set-up in order to show, in the upcoming Henry V, that Hal is all the more noble for having grown up straight among only crooked weeds. I don’t know. I haven’t read it. But S. didn’t write Henry V until about 2 years later.

2. Prince Hal’s character is unbelievable

Hal is a contradictory character. He’s not complex, merely incoherent. Hal was Shakespeare’s warm-up for Hamlet. Like Hamlet, he’s an active, intelligent, introspective prince who feigns wantonness while keeping his own counsel so closely that the viewer never really understands him. Like Hamlet, his primary motivation is that he judges himself by how well he honors the rules about inheritance and bloodlines, which is perfectly relatable to any viewer who is also a medieval prince.

The plays are about Prince Hal’s transformation from wastrel to noble king. Classic hero’s-journey stuff, except that instead of an Obi Wan to lead him he has Falstaff to mislead him. Also, there’s no transformation. We’re told Hal is a wastrel at the play’s start. Then he says in an aside to the audience that he has done all this to deceive people, so that he might have all the more honor when he reforms; and he behaves only honorably when we see him (possibly excepting when he steals his father’s crown). Then, a little later, in a separate and contradictory explanation of his actions, he resolves to reform to win his father’s respect. I would rather the first explanation had been omitted, for I doubt anyone in the history of the world has ever lived that way deliberately.

I find no good way of making sense of this Hal who spends his life with a small set of boon companions, then coldly sends them off to prison at the end of Part 2. Who has lived his entire life as a lie for no convincing purpose, and/or is a paragon of virtues which he acquired overnight with no convincing cause.

This is made worse by the long and painfully-phony odes to Hal that Shakespeare has Vernon deliver in two separate parts, each time telling his lord and Hal’s rival for the crown, Hotspur, how noble and godlike that rake Hal has suddenly become. They’re just… so very purple, inappropriate, and implausible. They’re like the requisite ode to the proletarian worker inserted into a play sponsored by the East German communist party.

To “fix” the play, you’d need to show Hal’s transformation and its causes, not just tell us he has reformed, or that he was faking it all along (Hal says both, in different scenes). This is one of Shakespeare’s key problems: He strongly prefers telling to showing.

However, the play might not be about Hal. It seems clear to me, but Hal wasn’t even considered a central character until the 20th century. It also isn’t clear that Hal transforms into a good king. The scene near the end of Part 2 where he takes his still-living father’s crown is hardly admirable, and his actions seems more plausible to me as realpolitik than as reform.

3. Falstaff is two-dimensional

Falstaff personifies what I find so puzzling about how people react to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s works are supposed to exemplify literature. Yet many of the characters and plays that people love him for–Falstaff, Lear, Lady Macbeth, his comedies–are what you find in “commercial fiction”, which is regarded today as the “opposite” of literature. They are loud, larger-than-life, simple, and memorable. They’re interesting in the way colorful noisy things flapping in the wind are interesting to livestock.

Shakespeare wrote plays, not literature. Literature means, at least, stories written down in order to be read. Epic poems are a more appropriate model for literature than plays are.

A play, like a movie, is a large part spectacle. Drama overlaps with literature, but is different, in the ways that the J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson versions of The Hobbit are different. Many of the things we call good in movies, we call bad in novels. Characters especially so. A play’s stage is slanted toward the pit. Simple characters play better on the stage than on the page. The most exciting drama is when an actor’s emotions are so clear that the muscles in your face tense as his do, bringing those same feelings into your head. This doesn’t work with subtle or conflicted characters. This was even more true on Shakespeare’s stage, where the audience, lacking glasses or electric light, probably could barely make out the players’ faces. So a Lear on stage, railing into the storm, carries us with him, and we feel he has greatness because his emotions are great; whereas thoughtful reflection on the words he speaks profits us little, and may impress us more with what a great ass he has been.

At least, that’s one of my theories. Another is that the type of person who goes to plays or watches movies is different from the type of person who reads books. But for whatever reason, bold simple strokes are more respectable in drama than in literature. This would be no problem, except that people keep taking things from Shakespeare that may be great drama, and insisting they are the marks we should aim at to make great literature. This muddies the water for any writer trying to figure out how to write.

If you love Falstaff, you’ll love Shakespeare more than I can. He’s bold, brash, and spouts witty sayings nonstop. He is all fireworks and spectacle outside and hollow inside. It’s interesting to see how he will turn each situation to his advantage. It’s interesting to see Hal characterized by his reactions to Falstaff, especially at the end of Part 1 when Falstaff tells Hal that he killed Hotspur, without knowing Hal was the one who killed him. His opinions on honor and drink are cleverly-worded enough to rise, for some (though not for me) to the level of humor. But his character is so predictable and so monotonously depraved, and his speech so padded out with sex puns, that it’s tedious for me to get through scenes with him in it. Har, har, “thrust” has a “ribald second meaning” for the third time in this scene; thank you, Signet Classics. And Falstaff has more words in this play than any other character. Too many for me. The notes in my edition say that Falstaff’s role was greatly extended from the original play because the audiences loved him best, so perhaps Shakespeare agreed with me.

Think of any vaguely similar character from literature–say, Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, or Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22. Which one is more interesting? If you say Falstaff, you’re not interested in the same things I am.

I will say one thing in favor of Falstaff as character: He exemplifies the banality of evil. I’m tired of grand villains seeking empires, or cackling evilly as they tie damsels to railroad tracks. Falstaff wants nothing but drink, food, and women, and that is what makes him evil. Not the wanting of physical pleasure, but the not caring about anything else. He wishes no one ill, not really. He just doesn’t care. Commercial fiction would be several notches greater if it used fewer Nazis and more Falstaffs.

Most critics don’t consider Falstaff evil at all, but merely comic:

The grandiose humorous effect of a figure like that of the fat knight SIr John Falstaff rests on an economy in contempt and indignation…. His doings are on the whole harmless, and are almost excused by the comic baseness of the people he cheats. We admit that the poor fellow has a right to try to live and enjoy himself like anyone else…

— Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious

Falstaff’s wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good humor and good nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart’s ease, and overcontentment with himself and others…. we no more object to the character of Falstaff in a moral point of view than we should think of bringing an excellent comedian, who should represent him to the life, before one of the police offices… for no mischevious consequences do result…. The truth is, that we could never forgive the Prince’s treatment of Falstaff…. Whatever terror the French in those days might have of Henry V, yet, to the readers of poetry at present, Falstaff is the better man of the two.”

— WIlliam Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1818

We see that Falstaff is a professional highwayman, a career unlikely not to result in corpses in 1403. We see him bankrupt his regular inn-keeper by conniving her, through false promises of marriage, into lending her everything she has. But all that’s trivial compared to the body count Falstaff racks up in Part 1. Falstaff has authority from the King to conscript men into military service. He uses this authority to conscript only men too sick, old, or feeble to serve, to frighten them into bribing him into letting him go. He takes 300 pounds in bribes and ends up with 150 sickly conscripts who couldn’t pay their way out of it, mostly from prisons. Hal comments on their pitiful appearance, and Falstaff says,

Tut, tut! good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.

By the end of Part I, Falstaff tells us that all but three of them are dead, and those three so maimed they’ll do nothing more but beg at the end of town. Falstaff is noticeably not dead, so we presume he led his men from behind.

[url=]Henry IV conscripted men for this battle using a Commission of Array, which charged the conscripting officer with providing training and equipment for those that served, using money taken from those who would not or could not serve. Falstaff took that money for himself, and threw his sick, unfed, and probably unarmed conscripts into the battle to be slaughtered.

Is that not bad enough? Then back up a moment: Why would Falstaff recruit men from prison? They wouldn’t be able to bribe him.

Because the Treasurer of the War would pay the conscripts wages. Presumably Falstaff wanted them dead, so he could collect their wages.

So let’s not hear anything more about Falstaff being a harmless buffoon.

Three Good Things About Henry IV

1. It’s got a theme about the meaning of honor, which is a kind of Rosetta stone one can use to compare the characters. One can see how their opinions of honor have made them who they are, particularly in the cases of Falstaff and Hotspur. This makes the character set as a whole deeper than the characters taken individually.

2. The plot and subplot fit together perfectly. The plot is about Hal needing to rise to the occasion, save his father’s throne, and then rule after him. The subplot is about Hal breaking free of Falstaff. Henry IV and Falstaff are Hal’s two father figures. The King, one could argue, taught Hal words about honour, while Falstaff, who never pretended to be honorable, taught Hal to be honest with himself and true to himself. This is a beautiful parallel. It’s unfortunate that it was executed imperfectly. There’s no suspense over which way Hal will go; he declares early in Part 1 that he will cast Falstaff aside. It’s the “right” decision, but Shakespeare didn’t give me anything to let me root for the King and feel happy about this outcome. We saw nothing of Hal’s relationship with his father until Act 4 of Part 2, and what we did see was so filtered through the doubtful honesty and self-honesty of both parties as to be nearly opaque.

This brings us to Good Thing #3:

3. It doesn’t simplify the conflicts or answer its questions for us.

Each side, and many of the people, are by turns admirable and disgraceful. The rebels lose because Northumberland incites his son Hotspur to rebellion with the promise to join forces with him, and then changes his mind and stays home, apparently out of groundless and foolish cowardice. Then he weeps and rages about the death of his son, as if it weren’t his own fault. Then he does exactly the same thing again to the remaining rebel forces. One can only pity a man forced to choose sides in such a war.

The play is concerned with what makes a king legitimate, but provides no clear answer. I said earlier that Hal may not be virtuous, but merely a good player of realpolitik. But this may itself be virtue in Shakespeare’s eyes! Henry IV rules with paranoia and a willingness to spill blood. Hotspur would rule with pride, disdain, and a delight in spilling blood for honor. Hal may be a wiley actor who can play whatever part is to his own advantage, creating only incidentally the peace that others desire; but that might be enough in a king for Shakespeare.

We begin analysis of any story by asking whose point of view it’s told from. Asking that of Henry IV only reveals how many devices contemporary authors use to indicate which characters we’re supposed to sympathize with. Shakespeare didn’t make me sympathize with any of the characters. I don’t know whether the techniques for doing so hadn’t been developed yet, or he didn’t want us to sympathize with any one viewpoint. I find the play more interesting when I assume the latter. And doing so raises the question whether the entire literary tradition of having a point of view is a good thing. If literature is about finding truth, telling a story from a single point of view is counter to that purpose. Henry IV feels truer because it doesn’t take sides.

These subtleties are why I compared it to War and Peace. It isn’t on that level of character realism; not even a tenth of that level. But it has something of that kind of greatness: Rather than being a carefully-crafted story to carry us on an emotional rollercoaster ride, with thrilling but precisely-calculated highs and lows, it’s a train wreck, a view into the heart of darkness, where men are constrained by their characters and circumstances to doom each other. It is great only when it is doing something different than conventional literature does. If you take it as a standard dramatic story, or a coming-of-age hero’s journey, it falls down completely. If you take it as a story to awe you with the fearful chaos and heartlessness of history, it may succeed.

Did Shakespeare achieve this by plan, out of incompetence, or as a side-effect of living at a time when children watched public executions for fun? I don’t know. Perhaps more importantly, is this effect something we should aim at today in our own stories? Personally, I think that we need only a very small number of such stories. There’s value in confronting this feeling, but you shouldn’t stare into the total perspective vortex on a regular basis. Developing a traditional dramatic story structure is much more difficult, but much more versatile.


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