Shakespeare: Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2)

April 24, 2014

I’ve been doing my homework for this year’s Shakespeare week – reading the plays, and thinking about them, before I get to see the RSC performances.

Shakespeare explored the problems created by a useless king in Richard II. The realm goes to rack and ruin, and he is deposed and murdered. You can’t have a spare (more legitimate) king around, so he had to die. And you need someone to run the kingdom properly. The trouble is, the king is also God’s anointed and no-one can change that. Christopher Marlowe also considered this issue in his play Edward II, another king who was deposed and murdered, but who in the end was succeeded by his legitimate heir Edward III.

So, although Henry IV does a better job as king, he has no legitimacy: he’s an usurper. Shakespeare shows England descending into a state of semi-anarchy as the nobles who supported Henry’s moves against Richard feel short-changed and rebel against him, whilst there are also problems with the Welsh and the French.

The heir to the throne – who will become Henry V – is a great disappointment, drinking and whoring around with his friend, and great favourite of Elizabethan audiences, Sir John Falstaff.

Chaos on all fronts, then: the scenes with Falstaff are great fun, and anyone could improve their knowledge of swearing and general abuse by watching. The rebels are incompetent, ready to double-cross each other, always with an eye to covering their backs.

Politics at their crudest, with the incompetent chasing the illegitimate, and vice-versa (no change there then, haha!); meanwhile there is a country – England – that deserves better. Shakespeare doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

As usual, Shakespeare is playing fast and loose with the details of English history, but it’s the broad sweep, and the ideas that he’s interested in. The only hope seems to be that Henry V is made of better stuff, and with have rather more of the legitimacy that his father lacked… and yet there is a sadness about his repudiation of his old mate Sir John as he assumes his new mantle at the end of the play.

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