Thoughts on “King Henry the Fourth”

“King Henry the Fourth” is another historical, following on from “King Richard the Second”.  This one is in two parts, and the first part roughly describes King Henry the Fourth putting down a rebellion spawned by Hotspur while showing how his son — the heir to the throne — is a brigand and a wastrel and not on good terms with his father yet accepts fighting against Hotspur and makes a good show of himself, while the second part focuses on another rebellion following on from the one in the first part where his son again accounts well for himself and ultimately takes the throne at the end when his father dies.

I’ve commented in the past that I think one of the main reasons why I don’t care that much for the historicals is because they seem to rely on the audience having knowledge of the events and so already having feelings for the major characters, as the plays don’t really develop the characters all that well.  Here, that perception is only made worse by the fact that King Henry the Fourth doesn’t appear all that much in a two-part play that is ostensibly all about him.  We get him commenting on his son and negotiating with Hotspur, and a few other scenes (including his death) but by no stretch of the imagination is he the focus character for the play.  But for the most part he’s the only real character that carries on from “King Richard the Second”, and given that I, at least, found him to be sympathetic — he only rebelled because Richard took his lands to fund his wars and only took the crown because Richard basically just handed it to him — for pretty much everyone else I would have to build up that impression during the play, and for the most part everyone else is either not terribly sympathetic or else is opposing the one character that I remembered and liked from the previous play.

This hits me the worst for the rebellions.  Hotspur is rebelling against the character that I felt sympathy for and that I know didn’t take the throne invalidly, and so I’m not going to be inclined to think the rebellion legitimate.  And yet in one conversation he outlines that Henry the Fourth promised him some things for his help and didn’t deliver, but given that I don’t know the historical background I have no idea if this is true or not or if there were other reasons for that, and Henry does promise to make up for that in some way which makes me think that they should have been able to resolve it peacefully, and yet it results in a battle that ends badly for Hotspur.  I can’t help but think that the play wants me to be more pleasantly disposed towards Hotspur than it really gives me reason to be, especially since both he and the later rebellion hold Richard in high regard and yet I didn’t find any redeeming qualities in him from “King Richard the Second”.

And yet the resolution of the second rebellion in the second part moves things the other way a bit.  I never felt like they had any real reason to rebel, and when Henry’s son John and another retainer negotiate a peace promising to address their concerns — about the only reason for them to rebel, even though they talk about avenging Hotspur and Richard more — I felt happy that it would have a peaceful resolution … and then when the rebelling army leaves the two of them arrest the leaders of the rebellion anyway, while still saying that they kept their word because they were going to resolve their concerns.  This comes from John, who is portrayed as the good and honourable son, and a reasonable retainer, instead of coming from the shady Harry, and this reflects on the leadership of the army and ultimately on Henry himself.  So that left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.

This is the play that contains the character of Falstaff, who is a fairly well-known Shakespearean character.  And yet … I wasn’t all that impressed.  He is indeed an aging rogue and works pretty well as that, but the issue is that he’s not a roguish character around average or even good characters, so that he could provide some comic relief, but he’s a roguish character surrounded by scoundrels — including the Crown Prince — who are no better and often worse than he is, as when the group decides to engaging in some banditry and the Crown Prince decides to ambush the ambushers as a “joke”, he and his compatriot note that all the others will run away immediately while Falstaff while put up a token fight and then run away.  So Falstaff doesn’t provide a contrast to his companions as comic relief, nor is he in any way a moderating influence to stop them from doing terrible things in favour of more fun jokes.  He’s a cad among cads, and I’m not interested in following cads.  So when he’s with them he’s an unsympathetic character and when he’s alone he’s still an unlikable character.  I can see the appeal of the character, but the context of the character ended up with me considering him rather unlikable, which hurts the appeal for me.  In a different context, I think the character would really work well, but he doesn’t work so well for me in this context.

That being said, his ending as part of Harry’s — soon to be King Henry the Fifth — redemption arc is actually a brilliant scene.  After being a constant companion and having Harry bail him out of trouble, and after joining the army at least in part to help him and expecting a reward that would get him out of his latest debts for doing so, Harry after his ascension essentially tells him that he doesn’t know him and banishes him and his companions.  I could really feel the shock that Falstaff had to be feeling at that point, so it’s a brilliant line in a brilliant scene, especially since it’s a little ambiguous whether King Henry the Fifth has reformed and so doesn’t have anything in common with them anymore and so finds them to be a potential embarrassment, or whether he just considers them an embarrassment and so the banishment is more than they deserve, or whether he just has no need for them anymore and wants to get rid of them and so he’s essentially betraying them.  That being said, Harry’s redemption is a but unearned and he was never really a sympathetic character, but the next play is named for him and so I’ll forgive the ambiguity in the hopes that this can play into that play.

Shakespeare also gives a little speech at the end of the second part somewhat apologizing for Falstaff and imploring the audience to say whether they want him to appear again, which is similar to what he did for the play in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  If I was staging these plays, I’d leave those scenes out, as they don’t add much in my opinion and can be really annoying, especially since it seems a bit passive-aggressive.

At any rate, as another historical I didn’t care that much for it and continues the string of my not liking the historicals.  Sadly, the next play is another historical, in “King Henry the Fifth”.  So far, all these are doing is making me yearn for plays like “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”.


One Response to “Thoughts on “King Henry the Fourth””

  1. Thoughts on “The Merry Wives of Windsor” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] from “King Henry the Fourth”, and was a character that was famous and yet one that I didn’t care for in that play.  Here, he continues his roguish ways, hanging around with thieving companions and looking to get […]

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