We don’t know quite what went wrong with Henry IV – scholars have suggested a skin leprosy, or epilepsy, or congenital syphilis, or a series of strokes – but it begins at the end of Henry IV, Part I, in the recent BBC production of William Shakespeare‘s Henriad tetralogy, The Hollow Crown, and continues through all of Henry IV, part 2. He was 46 at his death.
We discussed this and other subjects, en famille, during our Twelfth Night celebrations last night, which included viewings of Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. Then Shakespeare exhaustion set in before we could soldier on to Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V.
I still cling to my original judgments about Ben Whishaw‘s interpretation of Richard II as a whiny, self-indulgent drama queen. As a result, he’s a bore when he should soar. All the critics disagreed with me, but fortunately my family didn’t. That’s what family is for, after all. As I’ve written before, I think both the Henry IVs – Rory Kinnear in Richard II, and Jeremy Irons in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 – turn in masterful, unforgettable, and largely underrated performances. Someone on my Facebook page today described Irons’s Henry IV as “world weary,” but that’s only a small part of it; he’s haunted, and trying desperately to rectify the terrible mistakes he’s made as health and force seep from him, as the dynamism and initiative is inevitably passing to younger, more able players, who are destined to make many of the same blind mistakes. Honestly, when you run down the annals of English history – any history, really – it’s amazing how short a span some of the great kings and conquerors held sway. Whether terrifying tyrants or benign despots, they come, they conquer, and then hold power for maybe a decade or two before they are buried; they spend most of their active years defending their turf. In the meantime, by middle age, all of us have seen the Hotspurs who have burst forth, and burned brightly before they exploded, leaving only a brief trace in the sky. It all repeats.
When I studied Carl Jung decades ago, I remember reading something to the effect that the first half of life is action and ego, the second half is reflection and digestion. It sounded like middle age would be awfully dull at the time I was reading – not so much now. The quest for understanding, reconciliation, and mercy are largely second-half endeavors, when one begins to grasp the heartbreaking fragility of the whole human enterprise. (I know, I know… it’s not hard to find exceptions. But it’s hard to envision a middle-aged Hotspur.) The paradigm plays out in these dramas, where the men who wield the swords and make the calls spend their later lives in remorse, trying to remedy what they did when their blood ran hot and consequences seemed far away. The patterns of fate and choice are sealed and the rest is detail – impossible to wholly rescind the terrible chain of causes and effects already unleashed. For Henry IV, his destruction of an anointed king opens a floodgate of dynastic challengers and new wars invited by his choices. In a pre-democratic age, he’s ushered in a parody of democracy: whoever has the most votes wins the crown, but the figurative votes are cast by a small claque of nobles with clubs. The losers meet the ax or exile. Hence, the ageing king is desperate to convince his young son, Prince Hal, of the potential consequences of folly and dereliction – not only for him personally, but for the lives of his family, the stability of the country, and hundreds of nobodies who will be buried in battlefields during unpleasant uprisings.
It’s a shame that this magnificent production passes over the Jerusalem theme. Henry IV plans a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as penance for the death of Richard II, but it’s akin to those New Year resolutions that one keeps putting off until, in this case, age and death stake their claims. A prophecy says Henry IV will die in Jerusalem, and he longs for the journey east – instead, he dies in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster. And so the torch passes, to the seventh son of the seventh son. The night before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V prays (and I believe this, too, was cut from the new production, though I’ll have to doublecheck):
… Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
In other words, is it “real” repentance if you get to keep the stuff? Good intentions don’t seem to count for much. I like T.S. Eliot‘s lines in “Little Gidding”:
the rending pain of re-enactment
. Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
. Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
. Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Henry IV knows this in his bones. As he slides towards the grave he reaches back with increasing anger and urgency, trying to right the ship he himself has unsteadied with his actions.
I didn’t care all that much for Simon Russell Beale‘s Falstaff. Mark Lawson at The Guardian called him “a portrait of ambition and intelligence chiselled away by appetite.” That sounds about right, but I have to agree with the anonymous comment over at The Telegraph: “The problem with this adaptation is that without a charismatic Falstaff, nothing in the rest of the cycle makes sense. You need to be able to see why Falstaff commands these ruffians as their magnetic centre, why Hal is drawn to him.” Otherwise, his fall from Hal’s grace is poignant but not profound. In Tom Hiddleston‘s performance, I think the scales fall from Hal’s eyes after the death of Hotspur, when Falstaff’s lies take on a macabre, unsettling, and potentially perilous direction. By the end of Henry IV, Part 2, with the drawn-out death of his father, the new king Henry V “gets it.” But then, of course, he, too dies a few years later of dysentery after the Siege of Meaux. The Lancaster dynasty would end with the son he never saw, an infant when the new father died at 35.