My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the excerpt from The Plays of William Shakespeare collected in this volume, Dr. Johnson asserts that, “None of Shakespeare’s plays are more read than the First and Second Parts of Henry the Fourth. Perhaps no author has ever in two plays afforded so much delight.” In this first part, which follows Richard II, the new king is threatened with rebellion and usurpation in an echo of his own deposition of his predecessor. His main antagonist is the young Henry Percy, a formidable soldier nicknamed Hotspur for his impatient energy; Hotspur and his father form an unstable anti-monarchical coalition with the Scot Earl of Douglas and the Welsh magician Owen Glendower. Meanwhile, the Prince is roistering in Eastcheap with the dissolute knight and highwayman Falstaff. The play dramatizes the first course of the battle, in which the king’s forces face Hotspur’s, and Prince Hal begins the reformation that will lead to his becoming one of England’s most revered kings.
1 Henry IV is an improvement over Richard II; while the latter play shows Shakespeare’s lyric mastery, this one displays a growing dramatic gift, as each of the main characters (Hotspur, Hal, Falstaff) is made both particular and at least somewhat sympathetic. Hotspur’s impetuous courage, while frequently imprudent, also has a certain charm; Hal’s mobility, his ability to be at home at court, on the battlefield, and in the tavern, suggests a curiosity and intelligence, a hunger for experience, that must mirror his author’s; and Falstaff’s vices are coupled with a cynical intellect that sees through all appearances and justifies the indulgence of those appetites that nag at almost everyone.
Johnson has no difficulty praising Hal and Hotspur, but Falstaff disturbs his classical sense of morality (and should disturb even our non-classical morality at times: he is, after all, a practitioner of highway robbery); but he concludes that Falstaff “is stained with no extraordinary or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but may be borne for his mirth.” Shakespeare’s tact in finding this balance also testifies to his dramatic power, though I prefer the tactlessness of the later plays, in which we are invited to sympathize with even the most monstrous figures. On that note, in remarks also collected in this volume, Coleridge sees Falstaff as akin to Richard III and Iago, a grand Shakespearean aesthete-villain who combines “complete moral depravity” with “first-rate wit and talents.”
Falstaff is a parodist, deploying Puritan language against Puritan precepts, and mocking all ideals that come before him, such as honor:
Well, ’tis no matter; honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honor set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honor? a word. What is in that word honor? what is that honor? Air—a trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.
It is very difficult, I think, for audiences of the twentieth century and after not to sympathize with him in theory: he is one of us, even to the point of preferring prose to poetry for his corrosive double meanings. An ironist without spiritual allegiance, attached only to individuals such as Hal, he leads a ragtag army to the wars because he deliberately conscripts the rich first and pockets their deferment money. Of his army of shreds and patches, he observes:
Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better: tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.
Such passages justify Hal in labeling the old knight “that old white-bearded Satan” and Coleridge in associating him with Iago: his is a nihilism that allows him to toy with the lives of others. In one of the play’s most remarkable scenes, he and Hal play the roles of Hal and King Henry, respectively, and when Hal’s king orders his dramatized son to banish Falstaff, the knight touchingly imagines Hal’s protest:
No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
Falstaff in his base rondure is indeed “all the world”: Satan’s dominion.
In insisting on the authentic menace of Falstaff, I am not trying to join conservative critics in celebrating or radical critics in castigating a Shakespeare who stands for law and order, for the authority of kings. I am never able to detect that Shakespeare in his work. This play’s king enjoys a very insecure authority, and, as Maynard Mack observes in his introduction to the Signet edition, Shakespeare here gives us several images of the king as counterfeit, from Hal’s aforementioned tavern impersonation to the royal forces’ battlefield strategy of sending out men dressed as the king to mislead attackers. The Earl of Douglas exclaims, as if the king’s authority is itself a disguise,
Now, by my sword, I will kill all his coats;
I’ll murder all his wardrobe, piece by piece,
Until I meet the king.
Mack concludes nevertheless that Shakespeare portrays a legitimate monarch in Hal:
In this figure, combining valor, courtliness, hard sense, and humor in an ideal image of the potentialities of the English character, Shakespeare seems to have discerned grounds for that optimism about the future of his country which permeates his historical vision in the plays from Richard II to Henry V.
But from Hal’s first soliloquy forward he demonstrates himself an actor, a strategist, almost a politician in the more modern sense; I wonder if it goes too far to detect a bit of Iago in Hal too, a brimstone air of the Prince of Lies, his true affinity to his Eastcheap mentor:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Shakespeare has always seemed to me to share in his greatest characters’ nihilism; but, instead of killing anybody or leading an army down to death or usurping a crown, he became an artist.