Henry IV (Part 1)
By: William Shakespeare
Format/Source: Ebook; my copy
Henry IV sits on a usurped throne, his conscience and his nobles in revolt, while his son Hal is immersed in a self-indulgent life of revelry with the notorious Sir John Falstaff. Shakespeare explores questions of kingship and honor in this masterly mingling of history, comedy, and tragedy.
As I mentioned some time ago, I recently got my hands on The Hollow Crown, the BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s The War of Roses plays. I never read the plays but I couldn’t help watching the adaptations before reading the plays themselves xD This book is part of the William Shakespeare Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in.
Henry IV part 1 is an interesting play, following Henry IV late in his reign and dealing with nobles revolting against his authority and his son Hal being the wayward son he did not expect. Given that the BBC adaptation is so fresh in my mind, I imagined the actors in their respective roles as I went through the play. I found Hal’s story in the play with Falstaff a little blah compared to the action in the court and the growing antagonism with Hotspur and his supporters, but the underlying themes of proving oneself, deception and rulership were interesting to read and watch as it all plays out.
I was intrigued that the speeches were considerably lengthy in this play compared to other plays that I’ve read so far. In a way, it sort of made it a slog to get through, but two speeches in particular stood out for me:
Yea, there thou mak’st me sad and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
– Act I, Scene i, 77–88
This speech by Henry IV remained in my head because it really emphasised how disappointed he is in the way that Hal turned out. It also emphasises how, for all of Henry IV’s attempts to be a good ruler, there’s always something in life that fails to align and turn out well, in this case his son and their relationship.
Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.
– Act V, Scene i, 129–139
I think the above quote, said by Falstaff, resonated with me because of the way Simon Russell Beale delivered the scene. It kind of brings to home the senselessness of war, of how upholding honour leads to senselessness and violence and the loss of life. For all of the things Falstaff is and despite of my slight boredom with his side of the story, it’s my favourite speech of the whole play.
Overall Henry IV part 1 was an interesting read. I personally found it wasn’t as exciting or quick-paced as Julius Caesar (review) or Macbeth or Hamlet but the themes it examines are nonetheless interesting. And it helped that I had watched an adaptation beforehand so it kept my attention with what was happening in the play. Anyway, on to part 2 of the play!