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Henry IV, Part Two

March 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The second half of Shakespeare's Henry IV is difficult to stage, to say the least. It is an incredibly long play as well as staging scenes in thirteen different locations. It's ambitious goal was to develop characters. Shakespeare is one of the first to take an old style farce and develop these tropes into characters. Therefore, Henry IV, Part Two includes characters such as Silence, Feeble, Shadow, Mouldy and Wart. Interaction with these comedic characters further develops the characters we met in the first half of Henry IV, such as Falstaff, the Lord Chief Justice, and, of course, Henry V (Prince Harry). The names are funny, ironic, and serious, all of which adds to the development of the characters that interact with them. The New Cambridge Edition of Shakespeare's complete plays (1942) gives the following analysis of this play. They write:

“Whatever may be thought of the comparative merit of the historical scenes, there is no decline in the part of the play carried by Falstaff. The conversations between him and the Chief Justice, the Tavern riots in which Mrs. Quickly is developed from the sketch in Part I and Doll Tearsheet and Pistol are added to the group, and the scenes with Shallow and Silence in Gloucestershire are among the greatest triumphs of Shakespearean comedy. The part played by the Prince in these is a diminishing one, the dramatist clearly preparing him and us for his final withdrawal. When this occurs in the great scene following the coronation and the reconciliation with the Lord Chief Justice, the transformation of the wild prince into the hero-king is complete. This had obviously been contemplated by Shakespeare from the first and was, of course, inevitable. Yet few episodes in these plays have been more bitterly resented than the rejection of Falstaff. Much argument has been waged in attack and defense, all of which goes to show how completely and perhaps uniquely Shakespeare has succeeded in producing in his greatest comic creation the absolute illusion of reality.”

Add to that, the fact that this play relies upon slang language much more heavily than previous plays. This localized language is one more tool in the effective development of characters. For example, much of the play takes place away from royalty, in taverns, on the streets or even one poor residential home. Difficult language adds to the difficulty of reading the play and requires the curious reader to look up many terms. For example, the banter between Mistress Quickly and Falstaff is sarcastic, biting and witty. The tone is clear, regardless of whether one understands the actual terms, yet it is difficult to ascertain exactly what their insults mean without notes. Below, I have listed a few examples of curses common to the day, and no longer in use.

"Hostess [Quickly]: By my troth, this is the old fashion; you two never meet but you fall into some discord. You art both, I' good truth, as rheumatic as two dry toasts; you cannot one bear with another's confirmities. What the good-year! One must bear, and that must be you; you are the weaker vessel, as they say, the emptier vessel." (Act II, Scene iv, 60-66)   What the good year! = a common expletive

“Prince: This Doll Tearsheet should be some road.” (Act II, Scene iii, 183)  road = harlot

“Falstaff: Away, varlets! Draw, Bardolph; cut me off the villain's head. Throw the quean in the channel.” (Act II, scene i, 50-52)  varlet = dishonest or unprincipled man or someone acting as if a servant, false servant; quean = hussy; channel = gutter

“Page: Away, you scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe.” (Act II, scene i, 65-66)  scullion = servant assigned the most menial tasks in the kitchen; rampallian = villain, rascal; catastrophe = end, backside

Why did Shakespeare choose such language for the second half of Henry IV? Hal increasingly becomes kingly, and the reader sees this transformation in his language, style, education and affiliations. He no longer pals around with Falstaff. On the other hand, Falstaff continues to swagger, to boast, to command a handful of poor beggars, and to drink. This continuance of character is expected, which perhaps makes Henry V's condemnation of Falstaff all the more striking and painful. When the King banishes Falstaff, the reader hopes that Falstaff will eventually gain esteem again.

The 2013 BBC film version offered incredible cuts to make the film possible, believable and narratively tight. The writers melded scenes together in a way that made a lot of sense. Difficult language does not intrude on the film version because the actors enhanced body language and facial expressions. In addition, the movie successfully employed usual tactics such as sound, colors and set design. This play lacks the action of the other three in the series, but it was never intended to have battles and Hotspurs. Rather, this play focuses on the internal political battles between Prince Harry and Henry IV, and Henry V and Falstaff.

Thanks to all of those who discussed it in our ongoing Harrison Middleton University Film Series. I look forward to Henry V in April. For more information, email rfisher@hmu.edu.

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