Monday, December 7, 2015

Mo' Henry Blues in Henry IV Part Two

Mo’ Henry Blues


Henry IV Part Two

     Henry plays an even smaller role in this, his second (third if you count Richard II) play. He doesn’t even enter the stage until Act III and then he is in his nightgown. Hardly kingly.
     He is not a happy king. He suffers, as many of Shakespeare’s kings do, from insomnia, while imagining that his subjects are happily snoozing away:

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep? O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses into forgetfulness? (Act 3.1)

     He goes on for twenty more eloquent lines to end with that most quoted lament amongst the world’s royalty: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’
     Not only is he tired, he is ill. He is dying. He fears his kingdom is dying. To Warwick:

Then you perceive the body of our kingdom
How foul it is, what rank diseases grow
And with what danger, near the heart of it? (Act 3.1)

     He is still haunted by the past, by Richard, the man upon whose throne he now sits, the man whose crown sits uneasy on his head. He broods, and remembers, and fears Richard’s prophesy:

‘The time shall come,’ thus did he follow it,
‘The time will come that foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption.’ So went on,
Foretelling this same time’ condition
And the division of our amity. (Act 3.1)

     And again, still, he longs for redemption:

And were these inward wars once out of hand,
We would, dear lords, unto the Holy Land. (Act 3.1)

     Several scenes go by before we see the king again and then he is fretting about Prince Harry, who in spite of his princely heroism at the end of Part One, is still behaving in a most unprincely manner with his friends in Eastcheap. King Henry fears for his kingdom when he himself is no longer amongst the living:

The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary th’ unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
For when his headstrong riot hath no curb,
When raged and hot blood are his counsellors,
When means and lavish manners meet together,
O, with what wings shall his affections fly
Towards fronting peril and opposed decay! (Act 4.2)

     Warwick assures him the prince is just faking it, studying ‘his companions / Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language’ (Act 4.2).  But Henry is too ill to take comfort and when given the news of the rebels’ capitulation he cries

Will fortune never come with both hands full,
…She either gives stomach and no food –
Such are the poor, in health – or else a feast
And takes away the stomach – such are the rich….
… I should rejoice now at this happy news,
And now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy. (Act 4.2)

     The king collapses and is put to bed. Thereupon follows the famous scene in which Prince Harry puts on his father’s crown. When the king awakens and sees this, his heart is broken.

I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.
… O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee….
Thou hast stolen that which after some few hours
Were thine without offense…
… thou lovedst me not,
And thou wilt have me die assured of it….
What? Canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself…
Henry the Fifth is crowned…
O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that with my care could not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care? (Act 4.2)

     Prince Harry’s long monolog of repentance and explanation has never convinced me but King Henry allows himself to believe his son and they are reunited.
     Henry wishes Harry a more secure reign than he has had and laments of the crown Harry covets: ‘I myself know well / How troublesome it sat upon my head’ (Act 4.2).
     Thus Henry IV dies.
     Some scholars have described Henry as cold and unfeeling, grasping and power-hungry. Maybe because characters in the play itself do. I don’t see him that way.  I see him as a man who inexplicably finds himself in a situation not entirely of his own choosing. Yes, he could have refused the crown in Richard II but Richard essentially forced him to take it. Conscientious man that he is, Henry Bullingbrook does the best he can. Throughout both plays he struggles. Adrian Poole writes, ‘The king is consumed with care about everything over which he is supposed to rule – his realm, his son, himself’ (Introduction, Penguin edition, p. xxxii).
     He succeeds in the end to rule over a somewhat united kingdom. His son? As we know, but Henry doesn’t, Prince Harry becomes the heroic Henry V. In spite of their reconciliation Henry cannot fully believe that his wayward son is reformed and will be able to rule wisely. He is aware to the end of ‘the nightmare possibility that the Prince will not after all be able to redeem the time or his promise, and that under Harry Harry, England will get stuck in a murderous and licentious chaos from which there is no escape’ (Poole, p. xxvii).
     In spite of these fears the king embraces his son. Much has been made of Lear’s tragic role as a father. I find Henry’s role as a father much more heart-rendering. Lear was an awful father. Henry tries to be a good father and is, considering.
     Ruling over himself? Does he ever succeed in that? Not really. His usurpation of the throne from Richard plagues him to the end and almost the last thing he says is, ‘How I came by the crown, O heaven forgive’ (Act 5.1). And the fates laugh at his longing to redeem himself by going on a crusade to the holy land. The prophesy that he will not die but in Jerusalem ironically comes true. The room in which he collapsed is called Jerusalem. Thus

…bear me to that chamber. There I’ll lie.
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die (Act 5.1).

     I would have wished King Henry a happier end. I’ve always liked him. I will miss him.

Works cited:
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
  • Poole, Adrian. Introduction to the Penguin edition of Henry IV Part Two, 1977. Editor: Stanley Wells

 Films seen:
  • BBC, 1979. Director: David Giles. Cast: Prince Hal – David Gwillim; King Henry – Jon Finch; Falstaff – Anthony Quayle; Hotspur – Tim Pigott-Smith; Mortimer – Robert Morris; Lady Mortimer – Sharon Morgan; Owain Glyndwr – Richard Owens. 
    • This is a well-done production. Jon Finch is very good as Henry, Quayle is a convincing Falstaff and the others are generally very good too.  The only question mark is Gwillim as Hal, probably because I saw Branagh as Henry V first. Gwillim was better the second time (or was it the third) that we watched the play, but for me Hal will always be Branagh.
  • The Globe, 2012. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Cast: Prince Hal – Jamie Parker; King Henry – Oliver Cotton; Falstaff – Roger Allam; Mistress Quickly – Barbara Marten; Pistol – Sam Crane; Doll Tearsheet – Jade Williams
    • The boisterousness continues. Roger Allam is the star; he continues to be the best Falstaff ever. The characters of Hal and Henry are not given their full potential here. Barbara Marten as Mistress Quickly is fun to watch. Again, as always, the Globe itself is a very strong presence and carries the play all by itself at times.
  • Chimes at Midnight, 1965. Director: Orson Wells. Cast: Prince Hal – Keith Baxter; King Henry – John Gielgud; Falstaff – Orson Welles; Mistress Quickly – Margaret Rutherford; Doll Tearsheet – Jeanne Moreau.
    • Combining both plays as well as Henry V, Orson Welles portrays a tragic Falstaff in this beautiful black and white somewhat low key labour of love. This is the second time we’ve watched this film.  Welles considered it his best but I found it very hard to like the first time and a second watching didn’t improve it though the black and white is strong and the cast, except for the hammy stars Welles and Gielgud, are good.
  • My Own Private Idaho, 1991. Director: Gus van Sant. Cast: (Scott Favor) Prince Hal – Keanu Reeves; (Jack Favor) King Henry – Tom Troupe; (Bob Pigeon) Falstaff – William Richert; Mike Waters - Poins (or somebody) – River Phoenix.
    • Truly a strange movie, this too makes use of both Part One and Part Two. Why Van Sant chose to incorporate a great deal of the plays, often literally word for word, into his story is a mystery to me but somehow it works. Sort of.  I still like it after this, the third or fourth viewing.
  • The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part II, 2012. Director: Richard Eyre. Cast: Prince Hal – Tom Hiddleston; King Henry – Jeremy Irons; Falstaff – Simon Russell Beale; Mistress Quickly – Julie Walters; Pistol – Paul Ritter; Doll Tearsheet – Maxine Peake.
    • Again Hiddleston and Irons give masterly performances. Even Beale makes one pity Falstaff for being old and pathetic. As often with Shakespeare plays, it gets stronger and pulls together in the end. The ‘I know thee not, old man’ scene is very well done. The hoodlum Hal is now king and the boisterous and self-serving Falstaff is rejected.           
Seen on stage: Yes. Seen at the Roundhouse in London on April 16, 2008, it was the first complete Shakespeare play we had ever seen in English. Had we but known, we could have seen more. The Roundhouse was presenting all of the History Plays, but this was at the beginning of our Shakespeare days, and we didn't have a clue. Still we saw this one. And that was a giant step in the whole process leading to this blog.

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