Henry IV, Part 1

I had an affair with James Joyce in Dublin.  Poor, cuckolded, William Shakespeare waited with Henry IV at home while the sirens in the Sandycove Tower drew me to him, and to begin Ulysses anew and not put it down until Molly said, “Yes.”

It is easy to drown in Joyce in Dublin.   The “Prick with a Stick” is everywhere.  We sat at the feet of his statue and tiptoed over the plaques in the street quoting chapter and verse from Ulysses.  At Sweny’s PJ made me a cup of tea and sold me a bar of lemon soap to carry around in my pocket all day like Leo Bloom did.  

Never before have I felt a city so entwined around an author.  To come between an author and his muse by bringing Shakespeare along would have been a betrayal to Dublin herself.  Joyce is as hers as Leo was Molly’s.  So, while like Molly I will return to Leo one day and get back in bed to luxuriate with him, for now I’ve come back to my senses and the Bard.

What better place to re-start than with Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare’s first play.  Although I’ve seen Richard III and Henry V on stage and screen, I’ve never read a History before.  Nor do I have even an adequate knowledge of the history of the British Monarchy, but for now I like it that way.  I wanted to read these plays like an Elizabethan stumbling into the Globe to see what the buzz about this new, upstart playwright was about, not like a scholar.  

Also, I could have read the Histories in chronologic, not alphabetic order.  I realize that would have, in many ways, made more sense, but I just jumped in in the middle.  If, I reasoned, it worked for George Lucas and Star Wars, it’d work for me.

Because of my more intimate relationship with Hamlet I felt a tremendous burden to dig and delve.  I don’t know the Henrys well, so as in Dublin, I’m wandering and recording my impressions.  What piqued my curiosity most was the  conundrum of the two young Henrys.  They are doppelgängers.  The competitors share a name and are fighting for their destiny.  At first glance their personas are complementary and behaviors diametrically opposed, but looks can indeed deceive.  Ultimately doppelgängers cannot coexist, and nor can these two.  The best man wins.

No less than the King (Henry IV) himself introduces us to this couple of youngsters, quite disturbingly wishing he could trade his son for the other Henry:

“Yea, there thou mak’st me sad, and mak’st me sin/In envy that my Lord Northumberland/Should be the father to so blest a son–/A son who is the theme of honor’s tongue,/Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,/Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride,/Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,/See riot and dishonor stain the brow/Of my young Harry.  O that it could be prov’d/That some night-tripping fairy had exchang’d/In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,/And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!/Then I would have his Harry and he mine.” (I,i,77-89)

Wow.  Some words from a father about his son.  And maybe they were switched at birth, because at first, and we’ll soon see, surface glance, Hal acts much more like a “hotspur” than does Percy.  Dictionary.com defines “hotspur” as “an impetuous or reckless person; a hothead.”  Sounds more like the thieving, carousing Hal than the upstanding Percy early on.  While we think we have a clear picture of both boys , there is nothing quite clear about these doppelgängers.  

Their myriad names alone had me so confused that I was irritated initially; until I realized it was brilliant.  I was never sure who was who, and poor Hal, at the outset, must have felt just as confused – Quadrophenic, if you will, as he has at least four names:  The “Dramatis Personae” lists him as “Henry, Prince of Wales.”  His dad calls him “Harry”, Falstaff uses “Hal”, the stage directions refer to “Prince,” and “Prince of Wales,” and Henry Percy the younger call him “Harry Monmouth” when they finally meet.  The brilliance lies in the fact that who he is is not meant to be crystal clear until he shapes it so; the confusion has a purpose.  Although he is “Henry” like his father, Shakespeare emphasizes their separateness by referring to them as “Henry, Prince of Wales,” and “King Henry the Fourth,” respectively.  Henry Percy, on the other hand, is not so separate, as he’s listed thus exactly like his father; the only distinguishing note being the derogatory nickname of “Hotspur.”

While in some ways it’s easy to confuse them, and they seem initially to complement each other, their facades are misleading, and the somewhat one-dimensional, cardboard cutout Hotspur falls victim to the more complex and competent three-dimensional Hal.  Even textually, we meet Hal first and he has more lines than Hotspur (151 v. 120), and appears in more scenes (nine v. seven).  They remain separate throughout the play, virtually swapping scene for scene, until the final scene when they finally appear together, and only one can triumph. 

Hal surfaces in Act I, scene ii, acting the frat boy at first.  But his reputation may stem more from the company he keeps (the fabulous Falstaff, et al) than his true nature.  At the close of the scene when he’s alone and drops the facade he gives us a clearer glimpse of himself.  I will, he tells us, act the scoundrel and hence look that much better when I have my epiphany and start to behave like a big boy.  Those who thought they knew me will think all the better of me once I “reform.”  The son of the king, he compares himself to the sun and his transgressions to clouds which, when parted, will make the light seem that much brighter:

“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./Ill so offend, to make offense a skill,/Redeeming time when men think least I will.” (I,ii, 213-217)

He is smart and he is calculating.  By contrast, in Hotspur’s first appearance (I,iii) he explains to the King that he did not heed his command to relinquish prisoners because the fop carrying the message offended his senses on the battlefield: “To be so pest’red with a popingay,/Out of my grief and impatience/Answer’d neglectingly, I know not what–/He should, or he should not – for he made me mad/To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet,/And talk so like a waiting gentle-woman.” (I,iii,50-55)

He sounds like a churlish homophobe who disobeyed his sovereign’s command because the messenger didn’t smell like Irish Spring and Old Spice…or stink of sweat.  Perhaps Hal is wiser than we think to keep his distance and let Dudley Do-Right puff out his chest while disagreeing with the King from the get-go.

His lady Kate tells us that he’s morose, brooding and war-obsessed.  Oh, and disengaged, disinterested and dismissive.  Hal has more affection for and protectiveness toward Falstaff than Hostpur for his wife and co-conspirators.  

Hal and Henry IV reconnect and reconcile in Act III, scene ii.  The King scolds him, and Hal apologizes, not once, but thrice.  He cautions his dad not to believe everything he sees on TMZ, and professes unflagging fealty, and proves it later by risking his own life to save his dad’s at Shrewsbury.

Douglas tells Hotspur he’s the “king of honor” (IV,i,10), and that may be the case, but not of much else.  I don’t mean to malign poor Percy Jr.  He means well. He’s just not the sharpest sword in court; his priorities are a tad misplaced.  He and the rest of the rebels fall right into Hal’s plan by underestimating him:  “Where is his son, the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (IV,i,94-5), just as the hare did the tortoise.  Hal takes the slow and steady path to unexpected victory, and Hotspur (who perhaps actually does deserve the nickname) thrusts and parries his was to a fatal second place.  Hotspur has lots of “sound and fury,” but, as Macbeth notes, it ultimately signifies nothing. (Macbeth, V,v).  Hal proves himself more perceptive, focused, and insightful at the finish line, and he does it with grace, leaving us with nothing but accolades for his vanquished rival.

In their first and final meeting, the time for doppelgängers has passed; the town ain’t big enough for both of them and Hal asserts his right to the name and the throne.  It’s his moment to “go to the mirror, boy,” and resolve and synthesize his Quadrophenia once and for all.  He becomes, truly, Henry, Prince of Wales.  Bravo, Pinball Wizard, you’ve found yourself.  

He goes on, as I know from Kenneth Branagh’s fine, fine portrayal in the movie version, the valiant and eloquent Henry V; but that’s the sequel, episode six.  Stay tuned…Henry IV, Part 2 comes next.  





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