William Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV

Henry IV, Part 2Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first part of Henry IV was a crowd-pleaser, full of action, comedy, and strongly individualized characters representing ideologies and ways of life from which Prince Hal, on his path to the throne, had to choose. In this second part, events prove anti-climactic. Instead of a final battle with the rebels against the usurper Henry IV, we get a rather chilling scene where Prince John tricks them into disbanding their army with promises of truce and then has them executed. Prince Hal does little in the drama, playing no real role in the political conflict; toward the end, he comes upon his sick father sleeping next to the crown and, thinking his father dead, crowns himself. The king takes this ambiguous gesture as a sign of usurpation—a suspicion Hal’s successful demurral, to the effect that he wanted to bear the crown’s burden as if in struggle, does not quite dispel. Meanwhile, Falstaff’s comedy has gone rotten, his precious wit (“I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men”) now turned from intellectual skepticism to pure appetite: a desire for women, wine, and money that makes his critique of all values, gratifying in the earlier play, now seem puerile and predatory. He soliloquizes on sack:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme: it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences it and sets it in act and use. Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land, manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.

And the rebels themselves are in abject confusion: the play’s prologue is spoken by the allegorical figure of Rumour, “painted full of tongues,” while the remarkable first scene concerns the difficulty of Northumberland’s establishing the true outcome of the battle in which his son was killed, until, words coming too late, he reads it from his messenger’s face:

Thou tremblest; and the whiteness in thy cheek
Is apter than thy tongue to tell thy errand.
Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,
So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone,
Drew Priam’s curtain in the dead of night,
And would have told him half his Troy was burnt;
But Priam found the fire ere he his tongue,
And I my Percy’s death ere thou report’st it.
This thou wouldst say, “Your son did thus and thus;
Your brother thus: so fought the noble Douglas:”
Stopping my greedy ear with their bold deeds:
But in the end, to stop my ear indeed,
Thou hast a sigh to blow away this praise,
Ending with “Brother, son, and all are dead.”

Two critics I consulted—Norman Holland (who wrote the introduction to this Signet edition) and Marjorie Garber (in her Shakespeare After All)—suggest that the play presents the decay of all values, a nadir of the realm only escaped with Hal’s accession and his rejection of the appetitive world represented by Falstaff. Garber even goes so far as to associate the play’s setting with hell, picking up on Faltaff’s rebarbative pronouncement that the whore Doll Tearsheet is “in hell already,” that is, burning with venereal disease. I agree with this reading; this play is a catalogue of confusion, greed, and treachery. But I remain unable to reconcile myself to the prince. Despite my lack of reverence for Falstaff (in which I differ from Harold Bloom, to say the least), Hal’s celebrated rejection of him (“I know thee not, old man”) is too devastating to be a good outcome. Hal has been from the first a calculating manipulator, an apparently loveless one. Holland argues that the play instructs us in the necessity of submitting ourselves to a higher order than that of individual appetite, whether Falstaff’s for things of the flesh or the rebels’ for power. Maybe so, but the tones of this play are so confused or defeated or grotesque or cold that I doubt Shakespeare’s didactic intention of making us love this necessity, necessary as it may be. At the risk of anachronism, of irritating the historicist critic (and still more the Christian critic!), I persist in seeing Shakespeare’s vision as one so skeptical as to peer straight through normative values, Christian or humanist, to the abyss beneath them—the abyss of power, desire, and death.

The tragedies will find compassion at the end of this nihilism, and then, in the late romances, more authentic images of rightful authority will present themselves. But this earlier history play strands us in a hell that lacks all tender passions; Henry IV’s dying advice to his son is to go to war abroad to distract from civil conflict at home. We have a long way to go before we arrive at Lear’s or Leontes’s genuine purgation and redemption. There is no compassion and no salvation in this play: only the quest, successful and not, for power.