Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Henry IV Part 1 (Part 2): Redeeming Time

Spoiler Alert: The Henry IV plays aren't really about Henry IV. If you want a Shakespeare play about Henry Bullingbrook (i.e., King Henry IV), read Richard II, which is only partly about Richard II; because it's also about — WAIT FOR IT!1! — Henry Bullingbrook, the future Henry IV. Shakespeare is big on setting up comparisons and contrasts, and in RII, the comparison/contrast is between the ineffectual poet-king Richard, who speaks nothing but the highest of high-brow poetical1 rhetoric, and the plain-spoken, man-of-the-people warrior-king Henry. In 1HIV, the comparison is between Henry Monmouth (Prince Hal, the king's thus-far wastrel son) and the brave and noble, yet impetuous, Henry Percy (Hotspur)2.

But even in RII, Shakespeare is setting the stage for one of his greatest characters ever: Prince Hal, the future Henry V. For in Act V, scene iii of RII, (now-)King Henry asks:
Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last;
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found:
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes,
And beat our watch, and rob our passengers;
Which he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honour to support
So dissolute a crew.
It is no accident that the person who answers this query regarding the king's wanton and girly-man son is that other son Henry, Henry Percy, the "Hotspur" of the 1HIV3: "My lord, some two days since I saw the prince,/ And told him of those triumphs held at Oxford."

Continuing directly:
HENRY BOLINGBROKE
And what said the gallant?

HENRY PERCY
His answer was, he would unto the stews,
And from the common'st creature pluck a glove,
And wear it as a favour; and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.
Pfftt! Hotspur! Fucking narc! "He said he'd celebrate your triumph by going to a whoo-wer house and consorting with common whoo-wers as though they were the finest ladies and well worth jousting over."

Yet despite this, the king still holds out some hope for his seeming-wastrel son:
As dissolute as desperate; yet through both
I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years
May happily bring forth.
Yet right there, we have, in miniature, the (let's call it) "Three Henrys" conflict that will be central to 1HIV: Henry Monmouth (Hal) versus Henry Percy (Hotspur); and, as part of that conflict, Hal's attempt to replace Hotspur in King Henry's affections.

Hal and Falstaff are introduced to us in Act I, scene ii of 1 Henry IV, as Falstaff enters asking: "Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?"

To which Hal responds:
Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day4.
This comment not only effectively characterizes Falstaff — for Falstaff is a rampant id, thinking only of his present comfort and luxury, and changes not a whit over time — but also implicitly alludes to Prince Hal's imago, the self he hopes to become, knows he must become. This becomes explicit at the end of the very same scene, when Hal — speaking royally, now, in verse — soliloquizes about his intention to end his wastrel youth and surprise everyone by not merely becoming a man, but a man of worth and merit:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Hal begins this scene oddly and inexplicably discoursing at length on the issue of time merely because Falstaff asks him "what time is it?"; but it is in this speech that we find out just why time is of such moment to him5.

1HIV is about Hal's redemption. The king, at one point, reveals to Hal that he has so little confidence in him, is so suspicious of him because of his behavior, that he fears Hal will confederate with the king's enemies and help overthrow his own father:
For all the world
As thou art to this hour was Richard then
When I from France set foot at Ravenspurgh,
And even as I was then is Percy [i.e., Hotspur]  now.
Now, by my sceptre and my soul to boot,
He hath more worthy interest to the state
Than thou the shadow of succession;
For of no right, nor colour like to right,
He doth fill fields with harness in the realm,
Turns head against the lion's armed jaws,
And, being no more in debt to years than thou,
Leads ancient lords and reverend bishops on
To bloody battles and to bruising arms.
What never-dying honour hath he got
Against renowned Douglas! whose high deeds,
Whose hot incursions and great name in arms
Holds from all soldiers chief majority
And military title capital
Through all the kingdoms that acknowledge Christ:
Thrice hath this Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes,
This infant warrior, in his enterprises
Discomfited great Douglas, ta'en him once,
Enlarged him and made a friend of him,
To fill the mouth of deep defiance up
And shake the peace and safety of our throne.
And what say you to this? Percy, Northumberland,
The Archbishop's grace of York, Douglas, Mortimer,
Capitulate against us and are up.
But wherefore do I tell these news to thee?
Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,
Which art my near'st and dearest enemy?
Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,
Base inclination and the start of spleen
To fight against me under Percy's pay,
To dog his heels and curtsy at his frowns,
To show how much thou art degenerate. [emphasis added]
The king sees more of himself in Hotspur than he does in Hal; even though Hotspur is engaged in open revolt against the king, Henry has respect for him; whereas the king sees Hal as more like the ineffectual Richard II, whom Henry felt he had to depose for the good of the realm. Furthermore, the king thinks Hal incapable of leading, seeing him as far more likely "through vassal fear,/ Base inclination and the start of spleen/ To fight against me under [Hotspur]'s pay"6.

Hal, continuing directly:
Do not think so; you shall not find it so:
And God forgive them that so much have sway'd
Your majesty's good thoughts away from me!
I will redeem all this on Percy's head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash'd away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene'er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come, [emphasis added]
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account,
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
This, in the name of God, I promise here:
The which if He be pleased I shall perform,
I do beseech your majesty may salve
The long-grown wounds of my intemperance:
If not, the end of life cancels all bands;
And I will die a hundred thousand deaths
Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.
[F]or the time will come, Hal assures his father; you will be proud to see me as your son. But at this point in the play, Hal has elevated only his rhetoric. His ultimate redemption7 comes when he elevates his actions to match his rhetoric.

Which Hal, of course, does in face-to-face, one-on-one battle-to-the-death with Hotspur. But before Hal even faces Hotspur, he shows himself worthier, more noble, than Hotspur. Hotspur continues to hold Hal in contempt, while Hal's recognition of, and praise for, Hotspur's worth is manifest throughout; but Hal is no less determined to face Hotspur in battle and best him.

After Hal kills Hotspur, he eulogizes him thus:
[...F]are thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal:
But let my favours hide thy mangled face;
And, even in thy behalf, I'll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,
But not remember'd in thy epitaph!
Hotspur was in open rebellion with the crown; the king seemed, as far as Hal knew, to hold Hotspur in higher esteem than he did Hal, his own son; yet Hal finds time to offer "fair rites of tenderness" and has no doubt that the traitor Hotspur is yet worthy of heaven: "Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,/ But not remember'd in thy epitaph!"

It says much for Shakespeare as a playwright that, even though Hal's journey to greatness is only half finished in 1HIV; and even though the play is, for the most part, about that very journey; yet the play itself does not have a half-finished vibe to it. Though it ends in medias res, in more ways than one, it nonetheless stands well all on its own; because Hal's redemption, while not complete, is still impressive and (unlike some of the last-minute "conversions" in a few of Shakespeare's comedies8) seems entirely earned. Hal is more regal, but not entirely so. He shows the fault that still haunts him at the end of 1HIV: Falstaff finds the dead body of Hotspur and lugs it over to Hal, claiming that he, Falstaff, killed Hotspur. Hal, of course, knows better, but still feels affection for Falstaff and the life-out-of-time he represents:
Come, bring your luggage [i.e., the body of Hotspur] nobly on your back:
For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have.
Hal will back the lie — Falstaff's transparently false claim to have killed Hotspur — to help Falstaff gain favor with the king.

This is touching and humorous and makes us love Hal all the more.

But Hal's journey to greatness will not be complete until he rejects Falstaff, and what he represents, entirely.




1 You get nobles and nothing but in RII. (Well .. almost.) The play is entirely in verse (rare for a Shakespeare play), but Richard's rhetoric tends to be the purplest. Henry B., though he speaks in verse as well, has a speech pattern and style that is distinct from, and stands in relief against, Richard's more high-flown rhetoric. Not all verse is created equal. Shakespeare fits the style of speech to the character.

2 In a speech quoted above, the king chides his son because Hotspur is so very much more accomplished than Hal, though "no more in debt to years than thou" — i.e., though the same age. Shakespeare's gaming the system here to make his comparison work; because the historical Hotspur was born in 1364, whilst Henry Monmouth (Hal) was born in 1387. (Presumably, in 1388, the king was all, "Hal, young Hotspur has a wife, a kid and a job already. You'll never have that if you keep pooping your diapers! That's a total turn off to most chicks, and the ones who are turned on by it you don't wanna marry! Trust me on that.") Also, the historical Hal took an arrow to the freaking face and nearly died when he was like 15 fighting a war for his Dad, so no wastrel son he. But obviously my point in telling you this is that whatever the historical originals of these characters were actually like doesn't matter and is irrelevant to the play.

3 Who, of course, will rebel against his king, out of pride, and will become Prince Hal's chief rival, though they do not meet until they face each other in battle at the very end of the 1HIV. (Seemingly. Except Hotspur's speech in RII (see above) clearly states that they have already met. Then, for the purposes of dramatic tension in 1HIV, their having met before is apparently sent down the memory hole, or, given Hal's wastrel habits, possibly Teh Glory Hole.)

4 Yeah, royal Hal, the Prince of fucking Wales and heir apparent, is introduced speaking prose (cf. RII, in which there are exactly zero lines of prose), like a commoner, and he speaks a lot of prose in 1HIV, especially at the beginning of the play when he's hanging out with Falstaff et al. and not living up to his father's expectations or his own potential. But even Hal's prose is pretty poetic, in its way. Note, for example, how often he (and others) mention the sun (e.g., "and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta", above), a significant punning word in a play where a son is trying to redeem himself, trying to shine, in his father's eyes.

5 Absent this explanatory speech, Hal's response to Falstaff's simple question would be as off-puttingly ponderous and obnoxiously pseudo-profound as Robert Lamm's response, in the Chicago song "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?", to "a pretty lady"'s asking the time: "Does anybody really know what time it is?/ Does anybody really care?/ If so I can't imagine why/ We've all got time enough to cry."

Yeah, fuck you, Robert. Just tell us what time it is. AND DON'T SAY 25 OR SIX TO FOUR!1!

Full disclosure: I still think "DARKWTII" is a great song.

6 Needless to say, there are Oedipal issues a-plenty in 1HIV. But it would be a mistake to emphasize them too much because the king, while massively disappointed in his eldest son, nevertheless makes it clear on multiple occasions that he still has tender feelings for him; and Hal is obviously shocked and saddened by the esteem in which his father holds him, which spurs him, however, not to resentment, but determination to redouble his efforts to redeem himself and be worthy of his father and, eventually, the English crown.

7 In fact, I should say partial redemption. For at the end of 1HIV, Hal's journey is only partially over. He has not yet entirely redeemed himself.

8 This is not as much of a criticism of those comedies as it may at first seem. Hal's character is integral to the plot of the Henry IV plays; in comedies, character, generally speaking (and this not just for Shakespeare), is subordinate to plot and the conventions of comedic resolution. At times, that subordination of character causes problems, especially in the Shakespeare comedies that take a darker turn and cannot be so easily, even flippantly, resolved by comedic conventions. In those comedies, Shakespeare nevertheless "resolves" things in that easy fashion, thereby causing more problems (in the reader's mind, at least) than he resolves. This certainly makes those comedies more interesting. This is also why they are referred to, collectively, as Shakespeare's "problem plays".

6 comments:

  1. You were right; these posts are going to be tough sledding for the readers.

    Lately, a local radio station's been playing Beatles songs I don't recall having heard before (can't recall a single title, of course); was there some dump of previously unreleased material lately?

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  2. I wasn't really expecting anyone to read this post all the way through ... or even at all. And it seems I wasn't disappointed in that expectation.

    The secret to happiness: low expectations.

    There have been no Beatles songs dumped lately that I know of. I think they pretty much dumped every listenable (full song alternate versions and unreleased stuff, of which latter there really isn't that much) studio recording on the various Anthology albums.

    Of course, The Beatles recorded a number of songs for the BBC, some of which were songs they never recorded for an album, and that stuff's been widely bootlegged. I own them thanks to my friend Greg, but I'm not sure if he gave me bootlegs or if the songs have been officially released ... I have them, in either case.

    That could be what you heard.

    They don't sound live because they were not recorded in front of an audience.

    Like these

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  3. Oh dear Lord. You had me at HIV and whoo-ers, but lost me with the rest of it. I guess Charlie Sheen having a house full of whoo-ers is nothing new.

    Total mileage for March ... 3.3 miles!!!!!! Most I've run in years, er months!!!!!!! I'm on a roll now, biaches.

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  4. Hey G—prepare yourself for disappointment…it took me a while, but I read this post all the way through—twice (and some of it a lot more than twice). Steve Q is right, though, this is “tough sledding” (you can tell from that phrase what part of the country he lives in :)).
    When I first saw this post, I thought “, my God, anyone who puts this much work into a post DESERVES to have it read, even by a literary illiterate like me! So I read it…and read it…and read it. And I share Beth’s sentiment “Oh dear Lord…” But at least I tried….
    I do have a few comments, though:
    “Obnoxiously pseudo profound”—that’s a good one! And, I got a laugh out of your “25 or 6 to Four” exclamation.
    The choice of Pink Floyd’s Time is a good match to the story.
    My favorite part is Hal’s redemption soliloquy with the “imitate the sun” stuff and ending with:
    “I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
    Redeeming time when men think least I will.”
    One can’t help but ponder over the powerful implications of those words!

    Kudos to your efforts with Shakespeare….I feel a bit out of place commenting here, but I thought you should know that I do try to get something out of these efforts.

    Ian's videos are always great; I'm not sure about the other one "I'm Reading a Book"(maybe it will "grow on me").
    Oh, and congrats on your 200 mile WRB month.
    Ann

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  5. And now I've finished reading the post.

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