The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part 1 (Preliminaries)

Update: My work here is done, people – I am retiring from blogging on this high note!

I did get a chance to watch BBC’s second installment of Shakespeare’s “history plays” last weekend – The Hollow Crown – but I went back and reread the play and I think that it is definitely an odd one. It is a play that is not primarily about Henry IV (read the play here). Most of it is about Henry V and Falstaff (and partially about Harry Percy and even less about the rebellion). My academic instinct tells me I must read what Harold Bloom thinks about it or something, but I’m too lazy to do a proper Shakespearean research paper here. Here are some quick amateur remarks then:

1) The play is about the past deposition of Richard II. Henry is clearly preoccupied with the issues of succession – his own son is a dude who likes to party with shady characters, Northumberland’s son is awesomely warrior-like, full of valor and victories. Henry wants Percy for a son, Percy leads the rebellion against the king. Why? Because the king is being a dick about Percy’s hostages? No. Because he is being a dick about the entire business of deposing Richard II. Percy stands for the past young ambitious Henry, Henry who couldn’t care less about the “divine right of kings” and took what he thought was his by right of might. (Actually, thinking back to Richard II, it appears that he was the only one who truly believed in the “divine right of kings” which explains his inaction but which also explain his undoing – he bought into the ideology of the “divine appointment” when he was only supposed to have been using it to legitimize his rule.)

2) The play is indirectly about the perversity of the kingly rule. Falstaff, otherwise an odd character out in the whole business, stands for the present Henry. Like Henry, Falstaff pretends to play a role of an honest decent man, while basically being a thief, a liar, and a spendthrift. He isn’t a regular low-life, he decries being associated with them in one of my favorite lines from the play: “I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company!” Yet he is of course funny and jolly (and the play is so full of fat jokes, simply extracting them all will probably be a fun exercise) and therefore likable.

The simple presence of Falstaff is not enough evidence, of course. The point of focus is the “fake deposition” scene where Falstaff stands for Henry in a rather amusing episode in Act 2, Scene 4. Falstaff stands for the king, then Prince Henry takes his place. This switching around is obviously a reference to the fact that kings come and go in a kind of merry-go-round. Falstaff is mocked for his double nature, but is also accepted because he is cheerful and easy-going. In the end of the play he does a bit of a mocking “now I will change my ways” but it is hardly believable (and of course he does as we learn in Part 2).

3) Prince Henry stands for the future Henry IV, he will continue the dynasty and the destruction of rebellion will be sealed in this “lawful transition” from father to son. In Part 2, of course, the parting of ways between the future Henry V and Falstaff is quite plain – both structurally and ideologically. The choice is between kingly indulgence (future Henry version 1) and kingly duty (future Henry version 2). Hal will “rise” to his occasion. Falstaff will “go down” even further – the split is accomplished in Part 2. The rejection of Falstaff in the finale of Part 2 clearly demonstrates this partition.

So it’s not really a stretch to point out that these two play should have been called “The Ghost of Richard II, Henry V in the Making, and a Bunch of Fat Jokes about Falstaff”!

Or something like that…

3 thoughts on “The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part 1 (Preliminaries)

  1. Not too long ago I watched the old 1960 BBC version of the same plays, Age of Kings. The Hotspur by Sean Connery is great, as is Falstaff by Frank Pettingell. I think Richard II and Coriolanus are inverses: Richard II is a god become man, Coriolanus is a man becoming a god. The recent Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes is also recommended.

  2. Oh, I need to get those BBC ones from 1960!

    Richard II is a bit like a wanna be Jesus – one of those nineteenth century liberal theology Jesus-types “he thought he was the Son of God, but in the end he was just a loser with some weird ideas…”

    I haven’t read Coriolanus in a while – I should reread it now…

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