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A Timely Play For Any Time

  • Nov 17, 2010
"Henry IV Pt. 1" was one of Shakespeare's greatest successes in his lifetime, and has remained pre-eminently popular to this day. But each century has had its own version of what it is about. For Elizabethans, it was Falstaff and his merry pranks. For the 18th century, it was Hotspur and his proud nobility. More recently, the pendulum swung back to Falstaff, but this time as a tragic exponent of relativistic realism, a clown who understands his place as cosmic punchline. But as David Bevington points out in his introduction to my Bantam edition, the real central figure is the guy who encapsulates the best of both Falstaff and Hotspur, young Prince Hal. In "Henry IV Pt. 1", he is the dissolute heir to the throne, living the fast life of drink and crime (petty and otherwise) with the dubious aid of his pal Falstaff, a fat coward who lives only to fill his purse and gut. Can Hal break out of his seeming tailspin and aid his father, the title character Henry IV, before the king loses his throne in a civil war? Bevington's point is Hal represents the true center of this play, the character for whom Hotspur and Falstaff represent opposite ends of an ideal monarch. Not for Hal the opportunistic legacy of his grasping father, "this ingrate and cankered Bolingbroke" as Hotspur calls him, not without cause, early in the play. Hal must be his own self-made man, pulled from disparate parts, and "Henry IV Pt. 1" shows him at the start of his rather Machiavellian journey. "So when this loose behavior I throw off/And pay the debt I never promised/...By so much shall I falsify men's hopes," he declares, less as a cunning rogue a la Shakespeare's Richard III and more as a cagey modern-day spin-doctor aware of how unsteadily his father's kingdom rests. Philosophy aside, "Henry IV Pt. 1" is a worthwhile reading experience because it is packed with so much fun. You have low comedy, battles, court intrigue, and fast-flowing dialogue with sharp twists and turns. "I can call spirits from the vasty deep!" brags the mystical Welsh rebel Glendower, to which Hotspur replies: "Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?" Others seem more inclined these days to gravitate to Falstaff. I enjoy Falstaff's comedy, and his undeniable relativism sets him up as an Elizabethan figure more grounded in the 21st century than the 16th ("Henry IV Pt. 1" is set in the early 1400s, but was first produced around 1597), but as a personality he's about as callous as they come, at one point collecting a bunch of wretches to die in war so he can collect money from others who would have gone in their stead. Hal actually seems more attracted to Hotspur, the figure I find more compelling. Hotspur's an idealist, but entirely too mule-headed for serious statescraft. He's undone not so much by his enemies but his allies, including his shifting uncle and irresolute father. Hal here combines Hotspur's sense of a higher mission with Falstaff's pragmatic commonness to launch himself as a political man. "I'll so offend to make offense a skill/Redeeming time when men least think I will", he says early on. It's ironic how much more at ease Prince Hal would be in our era, running for office, than in his own, where the crown, if not attendant legitimacy, could be inherited. This is one of many things that makes "Henry IV Pt. 1" such a timeless pleasure.

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Bill Slocum ()
Ranked #299
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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