(This Shakespearian play is the second in a tetralogy: Richard 11; Henry IV pti and ii; Henry V. Each play can stand alone as a discrete drama, though this is less true of the second part of Henry IV, and each is enhanced by knowledge of the others.)
This play is one of Shakespeare’s richest in characters, themes and set-piece scenes. Falstaff needs no introduction: the fat man who fears shame and yet represents humanity, irresponsibility and a common-sense attitude to the important theme of honour. Hal, his companion in the ale-house and the future Henry V, knows he must give up Falstaff’s company when he is King: he prefaces this renunciation (which occurs in pt ii) at the end of the marvellously comic scene of role-playing in the inn and the threat of it colours our perceptions and adds a darker side to the revels. No-one else in the play hears Hal’s early soliloquy when he reveals his intention of reforming to the theatre audience and his father is justifiably alarmed at his behaviour when the throne is insecure and Hal is needed to fight for it. Hotspur, one of the leading rebels from a major family, is brave but represents another version of irresponsibility; Shakespeare alters the historical age of the real older man to make him Hal’s contemporary and provide a contrast to him and a rival, also making Hal more of a reprobate that in actuality.
It also adds to the theme of fathers and sons as Henry wishes that Hotspur were his son, whilst Hal is finding a more congenial father in Falstaff. The play can be hilarious in performance but there is a deeply serious side: a king must make harsh decisions and Falstaff dies of a broken heart at the start of Henry V as a result of Hal’s repudiation. Above all the drama reveals the relativity of judgements and attitudes as no one character or deed is wholly good or evil or seen as such by others. Although a history play, it is as human and rewarding as any other in the canon.
The play opens with a council of war so that there can be no doubt of the seriousness of actual and potential events. The full horrors of civil war are stressed: the earth has been daubing “her lips with her own children’s blood”, the personification making the account more striking, if rhetorical, as the King is encouraging a Crusade to afford unity and distraction. He is aware that the throne is insecure because of his own double-dealings to seize the crown (see Wikipedia for full details) and he knows there are trouble-makers who could be kept occupied by foreign wars. The rhythms become firmer and more endowed with momentum: from “Therefore friends … is a lengthy sentence persuading the men that this is the best plan even if it must be postponed further. Religion and politics could be profitably merged in a Holy War and his language emphasises the contrast between chaotic strife and harmonious purpose. Westmoreland is asked to speak of the latest news: Glendower is leading a rebellion from Wales and his supporting women have carried out monstrous butchery on the corpses of their enemy; Harry Percy (Hotspur) has fought against them in the North, more serious news as Hotspur’s family is powerful and wealthy. Hotspur has been victorious and is refusing to surrender most of his prisoners.
In ringing blank verse the King compares him to his own son, Hal, wishing that some fairy had exchanged them at birth: in fact Hotspur was 23 years older than Hal and three years older than Henry himself, but the dramatic contrast is need to underline the tensions and themes of the play. Throughout, we are given opposing views of the different characters in order to stress the relativity of human judgement and the complexity of human make-up: here Henry envies Northumberland for having a son like Hotspur when his own is tarred by “riot and dishonour.” These are key-words in the drama but we will see soon that the King is mistaken in his verdict, understandably, however. Hotspur is brave but rash and Hal has his own plan to reform. The father is essentially and sinfully disowning his son and would gladly exchange one Harry for another; even in this role he feels unstable. His position is insecure, his proposed Crusade will not happen yet, there is rebellion in the land and his crown was obtained by sinful means. He fears that, in the excesses of Hal’s behaviour, there will be a repetition of Richard II and the theme of something rotten in the state is here as strong as in Hamlet.
Juxtaposition of scenes is significant in the play as is the change of register from blank verse in the first scene to prose in the second where we see the kind of life Hal is leading. Falstaff has the first words which innocently ask the time of day but, in them and in Hal’s reply, there is revealed an irresponsible and timeless world which is full of fun, ale, food and whores. The prose is so rich and Falstaff so laughable that we find it a relief from politics: Falstaff is not without cunning, however, as he is befriending the future King. Far from plotting rebellion, they are plotting a highway robbery, although it takes them many jokes and much bantering to arrive at the plan. Their behaviour is irresponsible though not fully criminal as they do give the money back in the end. (I will not explain all the puns and gibes as any worthwhile edition such as Penguin or Arden will do that for you and good acting in performance will cover any textual difficulties.)
It is obvious that the relationship is that of a mock father and son and can be hilarious, yet there is mention of the gallows and Falstaff jokes that they may call him villain and “baffle” [hang him upside down] him but for not taking part! The rules of justice will be reversed. Falstaff has charm and wit but is hugely fat and constantly fears being shamed. His ready tongue is his defence. For the moment Hal will protect him as he provides entertainment and company but the situation cannot continue in the future or even in the present political situation. It is as insecure as Henry’s rule. The plan for the robbery is set but Poins has a sub-plot: he and Hal will separate themselves from the others and rob them, the joke being the lies Falstaff will tell about his own bravery. We, the audience, feel we have much laughter to look forward to. Hal’s blank verse soliloquy explains why his farewell to Poins was brief: he intends to cast them all off when he is King. The imagery places Faltaff as a “base contagious” cloud which can be dispersed by the beauty of the sun which has been in control all along. (Henry uses this same imagery later at III ii 79, showing a repeated pattern in events). With political cunning Hal knows that a reformation glittering over a fault:
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
This private plan is set in poetry not prose and shows that Hal is using Falstaff for his purposes, exploiting the imperfections of the world and playing on trust. Yet Falstaff sees the Prince as an instrument in his own rise to power. No-one else knows of Hal’s vow and his father is genuinely anxious: Hal’s real motives for frequenting the tavern and keeping his intentions secret are never made clear. Some commentators have suggested that he needs to acquire the common touch which, as Henry V, stands him in good stead before the Battle of Agincourt, but this is never made explicit. For the moment private life is at the fore but it will eventually be made subservient to public duty. Some of the main themes of the play are already apparent: chaos and order; public and private; honour and dishonour; responsibilty and irresponsibility; fathers and sons; human fun and solemn statesmanship. The drama is built around contrasts but they are not simple: no character represents one quality in its integrity – the boundaries are always blurred. The soliloquyends with the phrase “Redeeming time” which reminds us of the first words of the scene: Falstaff may inhabit a timeless world but his companion must remain aware of the necessities of the real political sphere.
Scene iii takes us back to court and we realise that each location is dominated by one character: the ale-house by Falstaff, the court by the king and the rebels, whom we will soon see working on their own, by Hotspur. This chosen character is shown to be dominant in the first few scenes by being given the first lines. The Prince must come to be lord over them all. Henry is furious and, in a measured but apparently uncontrolled speech, declares that he will be patient no longer: he offends Hotspur’s uncle Worcester (who encouraged him to retain his prisoners) and his father, Northumberland, an extremely powerful person, is obliged to explain. These men are reluctant to be governed; they see the world in their terms and want to dictate to others.
Hotspur’s explanation of his refusal to hand over his prisoners brings a smile to our lips: his language is vigorous and sensuous, making us visualise and smell the “popinjay” with his “holiday and lady terms” who came to ask for them and so irritated the warrior. We share his indignation at meeting a dandy on the battle field but he is shown also to be rash, impulsive and headstrong. His speech races along and boils as it goes, in contrast to the calm and resolute soliloquy by Hal that we have just heard. Hotspur wants the King to ransom Mortimer (his brother-in-law), who has married into Glendower’s family. The future rebels are strongly bonded. Henry is afraid because (although Hotspur does not yet know this) Richard II named Mortimer as his rightful heir. The situation is complex (see the Arden notes) but the narrative of the drama presses on and full understanding is not necessary to follow it on stage.
After the King has left Hotspur vents his fury: he is rightly described as “drunk with choler” by his father. The wrongs of Henry, then Bolingbroke, are mentioned, including his (probable) murder of Richard. On hearing this, Hotspur fumes again asking how they could have helped to:
… put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose,
And plant this thorn, this canker Bolingbroke?
He has to be stopped by Worcester but, as Northumberland says, “Imagination of some great exploit” has taken him beyond the “bounds of patience.” Hotspur does not have the qualities of a true leader and is fired beyond control by the concept of honour, a key theme in the drama to which all the main characters relate in one way or another. His phrase “To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon” is striking but his excitement leads him to folly as seen when he interrupts Worcester, even after having apologised for his waywardness. His anger has a ridiculous side as he recounts how he will train a bird to speak the name of Mortimer and give it to Henry to annoy him. Off he goes again on the topic of Hal, rightly describing himself as stung by nettles and ants at the memories of Bolingbroke’s actions but, comically, he cannot recall the name of the place. He is forgetful and yet difficult to restrain but the rebels eventually move on to business, cunning and resolute. Hotspur is incapable of planning but accepts the ideas of others. Worcester’s instigation of rebellion is not firmly founded on reason or fact but on the probability that the King will turn against his former helpers; the mere suspicion is enough to drive Hotspur to thoughts of revenge. He is longing for a battle and the last – irresponsible -words in the scene are his as were the first:
…O, let the hours be short,
Till fields, and blows, and groans applaud our sport.
The rebel faction has been established as a strong opposition to Henry and, at this moment, capable of uniting but not a proper alternative. By now Shakespeare has demonstrated two other modes: the world of Falstaff, timeless, living for the moment but so far harmless; Hotspur, almost equally irresponsible and potentially harmful, noble, full of honor but rash. Both are disorderly and Hal emerges relatively well out of the comparison.