Sunday, August 24, 2014

Henry IV, Part 1

"Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;"

Written around 1597, Henry IV Part 1 is the second in Shakespeare's four part series dealing with the reigns of the English kings Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.  It remains one of Shakespeare's most popular works and includes many memorable characters like Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Sir John Falstaff.  Though it is popular, it's interpretations remain open and continue to evolve with modern readings.

The Plot:

King Henry IV's reign has been anything but quiet.  Not only is his mind disquieted by the murder of his predecessor, Richard II, but rebellion is beginning to arise in the kingdom.  Wales and Scotland are giving trouble on the borders and Henry is increasingly at adds with the powerful Percy family of Northumberland.  Adding to his troubles is the behavior of his eldest son, Hal, the Prince of Wales, who has forsaken the royal court and instead wastes his time in taverns and with low companions like Sir John Falstaff.  King Henry often wishes that Hal were more like Henry Percy (called "Hotspur"), the warrior son of the Duke of Northumberland.

The rebellious groups, including the Percy family, join forces and aim to overthrow the king and divide Britain into thirds. Prince Hal joins his father's army as they march to Shrewsbury where Hotspur's forces, and battle, await them.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the second of Shakespeare's "History" plays that I have read.  This was also the one I was most familiar with as it seems to be the most popular of those particular plays.  Though it didn't eclipse Richard III in my opinion, I did enjoy the many different viewpoints it had to offer.

One of my favorite aspects is the idea of the two Henrys, two stars in one sphere.  At first, we share King Henry's view that Hotspur is to be admired above Prince Hal.  Hotspur is a consummate warrior while Hal seems to take pleasure only in drinking and carousing, hardly the desired image of a future king.  But Hal soon tells us that he realizes the degradation the company he keeps brings on him and that he is only biding his time until he can prove that he has the character of a king.  Soon, King Henry learns that the honor and glory found on the battlefield and in the royal court cannot make up for the love a son bears his father.  Though Hal does not seem to be the son his father might have wished, he doesn't hesitate to leave the party life behind in order to defend him and his throne.

Another aspect that must be discussed is the character of Sir John Falstaff.  Perhaps no other comedic Shakespeare character is as well loved or well studied as Falstaff.  On the one hand, he seems to be most of the deadly sins personified.  He is fat, a drunkard, lazy, a thief, boastful, and cowardly.  For many years he is Prince Hal's teacher and leads him in a life of pleasure and debauchery.  But Falstaff has a depth that many characters don't.  His love of Prince Hal is genuine, and he has a quality about him that causes us to feel a bit of sympathy towards him.

This is a solid play and one that many people continue to love.  It has heavy drama with the rebellion scenes balanced with great comedy involving Falstaff's escapades.  I do recommend it as a must read for a general understanding of Shakespeare's works.  Though I wouldn't call it a favorite, it is still one that I'm glad I read.  

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 2012 production of the play included the BBC's The Hollow Crown.  It stars Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Michelle Dockery, and Simon Russell Beale.  It is a fantastic production and a must see.  The acting is spectacular, of course, and the structure of the play is kept mostly intact.  The action scenes are especially well done and it is nice to see it in more of a film setting versus a stage setting.  I highly recommend it.
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.          

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