Saturday, February 26, 2011

Henry IV Part 1 (Part 1)

Even though there are still five Shakespeare plays left that I have never read — 2 Henry IV; Henry V; Henry VIII; Cymbeline; and The Two Noble Kinsmen — I nonetheless decided, after finishing Richard II, to read 1 Henry IV because I figured it just made sense to read what is often referred to as "The First Henriad Tetralogy" — Richard II; 1 Henry IV; 2 Henry IV; Henry V — in order1. And it just didn't make sense to skip to 2 Henry IV merely because I'd never read it; because that would have obliged me to come back to 1 Henry IV at some point in the future and thus would have violated simple chronology2,3.

So as it stands right now I am nearly finished 1 Henry IV.

I love 1HIV because it has two of my all-time favorite Shakespeare characters, the first of which is the Sir John Falstaff of the Henry IV plays4. Falstaff is a great, funny, entertaining and original character. It's nearly 100% certain that the character of Falstaff was originally named "Sir John Oldcastle", but Shakespeare changed it to "Falstaff" because of a complaint from a descendant of the historical John Oldcastle — for playa was an historically fer-realz dude. Thus, to propitiate this descendant of Oldcastle, Shakespeare essentially did a global-search-and-replace — "Falstaff" for "Oldcastle" — except he was apparently using M$ Word so there were, of course, a couple of fuck-ups left in the text. E.g., in I, ii: Falstaff asks: "And is not my hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?" To which Hal responds with an apparent pun on the name "Oldcastle": "As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle." (There's no reason for Hal to call him that unless his name was originally "Oldcastle".)

Later, in II, ii, Hal says:
The thieves are all scatter'd and possess'd with fear
So strongly that they dare not meet each other;
Each takes his fellow for an officer.
Away, good Ned. Falstaff sweats to death, [emphasis added]
And lards the lean earth as he walks along:
Were 't not for laughing, I should pity him.
Like most nobles in Shakespeare's plays, Hal, a prince, occasionally speaks in blank verse5, which is what the passage above is; not the greatest example of it: a couple of the lines run long — the first two are eleven syllables rather than ten (no blank verse is perfect and there are often reasons an author might choose to alter lines of verse slightly) — but the only line that is short is the one I emphasized, the one with Falstaff's name in it. If the name "Falstaff" were replaced with "Oldcastle", it would be a nearly perfectly scanning line of iambic pentameter:
a-WAY GOOD NED. old-CAS-tle SWEATS to DEATH
... (I could have tried to pass "good Ned" off as an iamb ("good NED") but I'm pretty sure someone would have called "Bullshit!" — rightly — because it's pretty clearly a spondee, which, anyroad, does not change the fact that the passage, overall, is in blank verse).

The above evidence hardly amounts to a smoking gun proving that "Falstaff" was originally "Oldcastle"; but at the end of the sequel to 1 Henry IV — titled, creatively enough, 2 Henry IV: Teh En-Henrying: This Time, 'Sblood, 'Tis PERSONAL!1! —you get a weird epilogue that includes these lines, spoken by a dancer:
If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a' be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man. [emphasis added]
You can almost hear the L&O CHING-CHING! sound effect accompanying this Elizabethan version of "although inspired in part by a true incident, the preceding story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event".


This post is running long and hence I named it "Henry IV Part 1 (Part 1)" because it seems I'm going to need another Henry IV Part 1 post (which I'll call "Henry IV Part 1 (Part 2)") later.

Because I haven't even discussed Hal yet, but I'll leave you with this:

 Knowing that the historical Hal (King Henry V) looked like this (above) almost ruins it for me. Hey Hal! Nice tonsure! You almost expect this Prince Hal, when he interacts with Falstaff, to be all, "Why you ...!" and, holding up five fingers, "Pick two" — DOINK! Eye-poke!; which would oblige Falstaff to be all, "I'm a victim of soycumstance!" and "Nyuck-nyuck-nyuck!" You'd also expect Poins' nickname to be "Porcupine". SPOILER ALERT!1! None of that Happens in the Henry IV plays


1 Back when I read 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, I contemplated going on to read Richard III — which would have completed the Second Henriad Tetralogy — but at the time, I was getting tired of reading histories and since I had already read Richard III at least twice and seen it performed at least once, I opted, instead, to move on to Timon of Athens, which I had never read. (And now that is the best thing I can say about Timon — that I've read it.)

It's interesting that each of the two Henriad Tetralogies contains one play about a king not named Henry and in both cases the non-Henry is named Richard and in the First Tetralogy the Richard play (Richard II) is the first of the set, while in the second, the Richard play (Richard III) is the last of the set. So, taken as a whole, the Tetralogies are a King Sandwich consisting of six slices of Henry Meat between two slab of Richard Bread.  

Bon Appétit.

2 Even though chronology, frankly, dresses like a whoo-wer and is just asking to be violated. You know you want it, chronology!1!

There, I said it.

3 Whereas not reading Richard III after the Henry VI plays didn't screw up the chronology since Richard III comes last (That's What Queen Anne Said!1!). This kinda-almost makes sense, although I confess it's not what I was thinking at the time I decided not to read Richard III again until later on.

Okay. Busted. By reading the Henry VI plays first, I violated chronology already, because, historically, the monarchs went: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI [Edward IV, Edward V, whom Shakespeare does not give their own plays], Richard III.

But in another sense, I didn't violate chronology, because Shakespeare wrote the Henry VI plays before the anything else so in that sense, they're chronologically first, as long as th chronology we're talking about is that of Shakespeare's life3a.

See? Told you chronology was a whoo-wer.

3a Which we're not. But chronology is still a whoo-wer.

4 It's necessary to distinguish between the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays and the Falstaff of Teh Merry Wives of Windsor, even though they are ostensibly the same character. TMWoW may have been written at royal command (tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth demanded another play about Falstaff, this time involving his being in love, but the earliest "evidence" of this explanation of the play's genesis dates from one hundred years after it was written, so the "evidence" is far from reliable); the play is set in contemporary Elizabethan times (late 16th century) whereas the Henry IV histories are set circa 1400, when Henry IV was king, which would make Sir John roughly 260 years old at the time of TMWoW. Which is weirder still, since Sir John's death is announced in Henry V, which is set circa 1415.

But the reason I make a distinction between the Falstaff of the Henry plays and the Falstaff of TMWoW has nothing to do with the impossible chronology and everything to do with the fact that the Falstaff of the history plays is far more entertaining than the Falstaff of the comic fabliau TMWoW. He's just not the same guy.

5 Blank verse should not be confused with free verse — i.e., poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular meter —which latter Robert Frost once dismissed as like "playing tennis without a net". (Tennis and poetry, Robert? Gay much? Hahahahahaha! Disclaimer: "Not that there's anything wrong with that!1!" CHING-CHING!)  

Blank verse is simply unrhymed lines of iambic (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) pentameter (which just means there are five of those iambs per line, i.e., each line has ten syllables). So there's a definite meter to blank verse; Shakespeare also frequently lapses into rhyme (and these rhyming lines, though mostly still iambic pentameter, are no longer blank verse, because they rhyme; they are, instead, rhyming iambic pentameter (duh!); or, if the rhymes are mostly closed, heroic couplets; the following lines of Richard II (which I quoted a couple of posts ago) are an example of heroic couplets:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard's seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Harry, unking'd Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!)
 Imagine how hard it must be to write with these constraints! Frankly, this is part — albeit a small part — of the reason I consider Shakespeare to be such a great writer. He could spin a comprehensible narrative, make his dramas dramatic, while having his characters' speeches conform to these poetic limiters.

6 comments:

  1. I'm only one sentence into this, but... you've read "Cardenio?" The famed lost play (that may or may not have been found and has been republished recently as his)?

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  2. I would not have called you on meter terminology, as I can only remember "iamb" from innumerable encounters,things like "spondee" being completely meaningless in my mind - either something sounds musically right or it doesn't. I think poets should adopt drumming terms: flam, taradiddle and rattamaching, e.g.

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  3. Of the plays you have left on the unread list, Henry V is a treat (in places. The St. Swithin's speech you probably already know by heart, without having read the play), Henry VIII works well if you can remember the history as you read it (and you have a cheat sheet annotation to aid that), Cymbeline sucks (but does not swallow), 2 H 4 is as memorable as the title, and Two Noble Kinsmen reads as a Fletcher play with a few flowery passages that sound like you know who (that's right, Alan Ginsberg).

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  4. the best thing I can say about Timon — that I've read it

    Right. I'm putting that one at the bottom of the list. (I bought a whole box of pocket-sized volume's of Will's stuff; it adds a bit of class to my commute.)

    And if you think Hal looks bad, you should check out this site -- Rearrange Henry VII's face:
    http://www.r3.org/alexwarp/henry7.html

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  5. WARNING: Comment will reference several recent posts since I am behind (Shut up, G), but will NOT reference any prior knowledge of any of the "Henry's" as I have none.

    Holy Christ! (It is an expression. It is not meant to party crash your pissing match with SQ in the previous post. Seriously, with your quinquagenary prostates, no one wants to watch you two 'trickle it out.' And yes, SQ I am aware I just aged you, but me thinks your last DRE confirms it is 'close enough')

    Anyhoo...You can't stay healthy for two seconds without me. I guess I will have to come back to blogland. Your back? Your ankle? Take it easy out there. Especially since you are still markedly faster than me, even injured, and that stings a bit.

    RE Post title: "I Am Teh World's Biggest Pussy" Not as effective on eHarmony as you would imagine. It makes the boys feel inadequate. FYI.

    Using the Ian post circumcision picture is akin to chefs using bacon. You can not go wrong and it is always a hot. Damn, if that kid is not adorable, even in post-peeling agony.

    Alright, that is all I got. I have to ease back into this. It is my first day back from injured reserve.

    You do not have to say you missed me. I know *smirk*

    Off to harass SQ....

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  6. Oh, and ol' Hal ain't half bad. I'd do him.

    I have been hanging with chronology lately. That 'ho has NO standards and I think she is a bad influence.

    She told me to tell you to "lose her number", by the way.

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