The Hollow Crown: Henry IV (Parts I and II)

This is already old news (with Olympics and all) but I still wanted to mention that BBC’s installment of Henry IV (Part I and Part II) was excellent. Watched as one long story, it makes for a great long enjoyable experience.

Part I and Part II do not exactly fit, I think, into one seamless narrative and they were probably not performed one after another, or so the scholars are telling me. The entire story is that of Harry becoming a king, a legitimate kind (unlike his father, or so the suspicion goes). Part II has two parallel stories developing – Harry and Falstaff. If in Part I they are bosom buddies and this fact greatly annoys the king, in Part II they are still very friendly, even if the end is near. I thought that the scene where Harry and Poins play yet another trick on Falstaff and overhear him making derogatory remarks about themselves and confront him was well done, but very much overemphasized the future break between the main characters. The purpose of the trick is once again to put Falstaff into an awkward position and watch him lie his way out (as in Part I robbery scene). The BBC version here makes it look like this is the reason Harry is going to break with Falstaff which isn’t so.

If Falstaff trick in Part II parallels the same incident in Part I, then the fake “death” of the king, Harry’s temporal assumption of the crown and then the king’s return are obviously all subtle reflections on the “deposition” that still haunts the story from Richard II. Both old king and young Harry spend a good deal of lines outlining their respective positions on the matter and it is here, and not anywhere else, that Harry becomes the future Henry V. At least in Shakespeare’s presentation, it is here that he rejects the old way, now having arrived at the realization that he is the future legitimate king and that Falstaff represents the lawlessness that, if encouraged, will consume everything. The myth of legitimacy must be created and perpetrated actively and without mercy. The entire speech directed at Chief Justice later in the play revolves around this idea.

The scene of final rejection of Falstaff (“I know thee not, old man”) therefore is not to be understood as something personal (and Falstaff takes it as a simple public performance – “I shall be sent for in private to him. Look you, he must seem thus to the world”) but as a political move: rejecting all lawlessness and disobedience, the king now is the example of propriety and justice.

In Part I the king is troubled by his illegitimacy while Harry and Falstaff mock him in the play within a play (so to speak) in which they play the king, geting in and out of the role with fair ease – first Falstaff plays the king:

Then Harry “deposes” him:

It is fairly clear that Harry is not ready to be Henry V – he is more determined to be worthy of his princely role by the end of Part I but Part II has him still associating with the old friends. He still visits London and hangs out with his buddy Poins (in one scene they are in a bathhouse for some reason – did they have public bathhouses in 15th century London? I always thought they were perpetually stinky and dirty).

Part II splits the stories of Falstaff and Harry – the former falls lower and lower, the latter rises above his youthful indiscretions and assumes more and more the role of the future king. The crucial moment, I think, is the moment of “coronation” that is performed by Henry IV who is still alive and after his anger over Harry’s supposed usurpation eases puts the crown on him himself. Obviously, again, it is a clear sign of the supposed legitimacy – Henry took the crown by force and then spent most of his life defending it from others, now he is ready to pass it on to his son in a “proper” way. That there is nothing proper in this transition is fairly obvious to anyone with a brain – why should a biological son be entitled to something simply due to this very biology? – and the play tries hard to both present the transition and to describe the complexity of this transition (in Henry’s speeches in both Parts in regards to his deposition of Richard II):

When Harry finally become the king, he immediately wants to expand his realm and challenge the legitimacy of other kings (which is where Henry V will go) – clearly the entire sequence of plays deals with that one issue: who and why should be regarded as a legitimate source of authority? The answer?  It’s hard to say.

The main lesson of Parts I and II seems to be that the theater goers of Shakespeare’s time were not some stooges who blindly believed in the divine right of kings but were sophisticated enough people to discern the problematic nature of the kingly power. While Richard II constantly references God as his guarantor, his downfall must at the very least make one think that either God was absent or Richard was mistaken. Henry IV takes power by force while constantly reassuring others (but mostly himself) that he did it in accordance with some higher sense of his own legitimacy. Henry V then is his legitimate heir who, however, appeals to blood and not to might while doing everything he can to show that only might counts. When in Henry V his courtiers produce a document that “proves” his right to the French throne, it is paraded around as a prop that is supposed to show the flimsiness of these claims to any intelligent viewer.

Needless to say, the scene of Falstaff’s rejection is heartbreaking but essential – note the visual parallel between the faking of kingly power in Part I and the genuine kingly power at the end of Part II (“genuine” however only in the sense that everyone now bought into it):

2 thoughts on “The Hollow Crown: Henry IV (Parts I and II)

  1. How did you get to see it? I don’t see it on BBC America schedule and the BBC site won’t stream to my region.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s