Henry IV pt i (3)

Act IV takes us back to the rebels and the news that Hotspur’s father will not join them because of ill-health; Hotspur’s reaction gives us insight into another father/son relationship, coloured by the younger man’s impatience for battle: “how has he the leisure to be sick/In such a justling time.” Shakespeare has moved the historical illness forwards to pre-battle, presumably to accentuate Hotspur’s lack of sympathy or concern for anything other than the enterprise. He soon cheers himself up but Worcester is more cautious and realises that the Earl’s absence will cast doubt on the wisdom of their attack in the eyes of the fearful; naturally Hotspur sees more glory for himself and those present without his father. He mocks the “nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” and his comrades who “daft [toss] the world aside” but this scorn allows Vernon to deliver a set speech where Hal is the epitome of chivalry and sprezzatura [casual grace by which the gentleman dissimulates his skill, as praised by Castiliogne].

The language is elevated and represents the Prince as the embodiment of the very honour Hotspur covets, an icon of knighthood. The adulation inflames Hotspur who cannot wait any longer: “I am on fire” he admits, calling for his horse as he regards the animal as his close companion in battle. He is so adamant that even the news that Glendower cannot come for a fortnight does not deter his impetuosity, though the older men are cast down by it. The King’s side is unified and strong whilst the rebels are disunited though brave, even rash.
Falstaff’s iniquitous behaviour scandalises us in scene ii: he has used his power of impressment to obtain money by calling on those who will pay to get off and has ended up with an so-called army of “scarecrows” resembling, to a passing madman, the dead bodies off the gallows. He will not pass through Coventry with these pitiful half-naked wretches but, when rebuked by Hal, utters the memorable saying: “they’ll fill a pit as well as better”, again speaking with the voice of the common man. We are far from the ideal of honour in chivalry here but Falstaff escapes by wit once more: “for their bareness I am sure they never learned that of me.” The issue passes away but we are reminded by Westmoreland’s “Sir John” that Falstaff is a knight and that his abnegation of duty is serious.

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Scene iii opens with Hotspur’s determination to rush into battle, presumably still spurred on by rivalry with Hal but he is courteous to Blunt and does listen to the King’s offer of compromise along with his apology. Yet Hotspur will not forget the past and relates the grievances of the rebels at such length that he is interrupted: “Tut, I came not to hear this.” On he goes but is unusually mild when Blunt asks if he should deliver the refusal to discuss: perhaps he has vented his anger or perhaps a modicum of wisdom has intruded. His long and self-defensive speech has reminded the theatre audience of the essentially shaky and sinful nature of Henry’s position: once more we are given a different slant on matters. Scene iv is unremarkable except for the foreshadowing hint at trouble to come if the King is victorious since he has heard of their “confederacy” and will visit them before dispersing the army: they have little choice now but to attack as planned despite their weaknesses.

Act V opens with pre-battle scenes and, by pathetic fallacy with language of blood and paleness, it is suggested that the day will be full of difficult strife. Soon the humorous voice of Falstaff interrupts the portentousness: when Worcester excuses himself that he did not seek conflict, Falstaff interjects: “Rebellion lay in his way and he found it”, a pointed, subversive and witty remark that we applaud. Falstaff is wordly and will not be uplifted to a supposedly higher way of thinking. Worcester’s next long tirade recounts yet again the grievances of the rebels and the King points out that they have chosen a moment where “moody beggars” are “starving for a time/Of pellmell havoc and confusion.” The point about the chaos that will be caused is underlined by Hal who generously praises his rival, Hotspur, in terms that his rival would appreciate, agreeing that he graces “this latter age with noble deeds” while he, himself has “a truant been to chivalry.” He offers single combat, showing that he has learned from his tavern experiences that the common man has worth and that multiple deaths are to be avoided. The King refuses and offers compromise once more. Falstaff has a prose soliloquy which has great force because of its position before the battle and amidst the high-minded discourse of war and chivalry: he questions the very concept of honour in terms opposite to those of Hotspur, pointing out that it cannot heal the wounds of battle and is an empty word for which men die, no use to the dead or the living as crtics will takes reputation away from the deserving. In its question and answer form, it is a memorable key speech, satirical, human, vibrant and reasoned but it is not the whole view of the play. Falstaff is again the spokesperson of the foot-soldier who would also like to say: “Therefore I’ll none of it.”

In scene ii Worcester shows himself to be crafty and tenacious in his victim’s view that the King will turn against them later. He will not allow Hotspur to be told of the King’s offer of terms. Vernon delivers a clear and fair account of Hal’s offer of single combat in ringing pharses which once more depict him as an ideal of chivalry, even an ideal future King. Hotspur replaces this with his own description, also true: a “prince so wild a liberty.” Calling for his horse, Esperance, like a mascot, Hotspur leads off for war.

The battle of Shrewsbury is, in some ways, a micocosm of the play: all sides of war are shown, heroic death and low behaviour. Hotspur pays gallant tribute to his enemy, Blunt, and Falstaff is disgraceful in his treatment of his “ragamuffins” whom he led straight into danger and had all but three killed, and they are only fit for begging because of their injuries. It is an open question as to whether or not he did this to avoid further criticism of their condition but, whatever the explanation, we know he cannot, therefore, be the mouthpiece of Shakespeare in the play. He appears incapable of reform as is shown when his pistol case contains only ale; when Hal throws it at him he is symbolising the rejection of the life of the tavern. Hal accepts the reality of the moment: “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” and gives us a glimpse of the new character he will assume.

The King’s companions are united and Hal saves his father’s life, thus removing any suspicions Henry may have had (but this ground has to be reworked in Part ii). The single combat Hal desired, ironically, takes place by accident of war and the two young men, each named Harry, meet to fight. When mortally wounded, Hotspur regrets lost opportunities for honour more than loss of life: it is an acting tradition that he has a speech impediment and dies stuttering his last words, an interpretation which makes the incident even more poignant and moving. Hal finishes his sentence for him and pays generous and magnanimous tribute to his rival. Seeing Falstaff in a pretence of death, his words are harsh as he claims he would only miss him if he “were much in love with vanity,” the word here having its sense of emptiness and worthlessness.

The joke about a fat deer is tasteless and cruel but even now, the situation moves to humour as Flastaff rises and excuses himself for having survived by this deception. The point where he is terrified of the dead Hotspur is highly and realistically comic: “‘Zounds, I am afraid of the gunpowder Percy, though he be dead” but he soon spies an opportunity to shine and takes the corpse on his back, having first stabbed it to make sure it is not pretending as he did. With aplomb and cool nerve, he passes off the killing as his own; he will get the better of any one or any situation in this play and we cannot but laugh at the same time as condemning his: “If your father do me any honour, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you.” When Hal complains he turns the tables: “Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!” His account is “the strangest tale” but Hal decides that, if Falstaff cannot be put down, he might as well be promoted: do we believe Falstaff’s pledge to reform if he is ennobled?

Scene v hastily ties up most of the loose ends: the aftermath is harsh to some and lenient to others but the drama ends on a note of uncertainty as they have to head for Wales to finalise their victory. For the theatre audience, it probably already ended with the triumph of our favourite character, who has given us so much to laugh at and so much to contemplate in a play which ranks amongst Shakespeare’s finest.