In rebellion from his hard-driving father, the Heir Apparent experiments with hard drink and takes up with some hard cases. But he puts an end to the charade when he realizes that a die-hard rival his own age is mounting a real rebellion–and making it look easy.
Such is the plot of the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. The two plays in this story arc are so bursting with Oedipal energies and competing models of masculinity that one hardly (!) knows where to begin. We have fun-loving Prince Hal and his macho counterpart Hotspur (the rebel Henry Percy); Hal’s father, old King Henry, irritable, ill, and weary with the labors of state; and last but not least, Sir John Falstaff, the outrageously cheerful and irresponsible drunk who serves as Hal’s fantasy father-figure.
Falstaff is the kind of “dad” who’d gladly smoke a joint with you or score you a bottle of Jim Beam (make that a butt of sack), even if you happen to be underage– as long as you’re paying. He’s a barrel of laughs (and I use the term “barrel” advisedly). Just don’t look to him for help when the going gets rough.
There are two main schools of thought on how to direct the Henry IV plays. You can make Falstaff a countercultural anti-hero, and depict Hal’s eventual repudiation of him as a betrayal. Orson Welles is supposed to have said that Falstaff was “the most completely good man in all of drama.” On this reading, Hal shows his true Machiavellian colors when he chooses honor, war, ambition and politics over what really matters in life: enjoying a cup of sack with one’s fellows during the short time we have allotted to us in this mortal vale.
The other school of thought says that Prince Hal must grow up and accept the responsibilities of kingship; that he must prove his mettle against rival Hotspur, who would strip him of his birthright, and that in order to do all this, he must forsake the company of outrageous old rogues like Falstaff, no matter how quick they are with a joke. The Hollow Crown production, directed by Richard Eyre, takes the latter approach. In my opinion, it reflects Shakespeare’s intent. And yet, these plays are complex. Falstaff is both a magnetic anti-hero and a dishonorable, selfish coward. Hal transforms himself to a responsible prince in time to save the day, but there’s something calculated about it, as though he has gauged exactly how long he could waste everyone’s time and still come out on top.
When we first see Henry IV, he is bemoaning the fact that Northumberland’s son, Hotspur, has covered himself with glory on the battlefield while Henry’s own heir disports himself in taverns.
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”!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
Meanwhile the prince is busy living up to his wastrel reputation, as Poins and Falstaff convince him to take part in highway robbery. But Poins reveals that it’s all a joke on Fat Jack: Peto, Bardolph and Falstaff will rob the Canterbury pilgrims, then Poins and Harry in disguise will rob the erstwhile robbers, in gleeful anticipation of the tall tales Falstaff will doubtless spin afterwards.
I never quite reconciled myself to Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. Beale has been called the best stage actor of his time. The Independent even asked, Is There No Limit To His Genius? As a matter of fact, there is. Even Beale can’t make himself taller. Falstaff has got to be a huge man with a booming voice, full of gusto and masculine balderdash–a father figure fit for a king. Orson Welles, the perfect Falstaff, was six foot one and didn’t need padding. Beale is five foot six, and in his fat suit, beard and breeches, he looks like an escapee from a hobbit movie.
Beale gives Falstaff a distinct pathos, but he doesn’t have the charm to make you admire his outrageousness. Instead, you pity him. Hiddles is six foot two, and Prince Hal inflicts some serious zingers as he looks down at his diminutive partner in debauchery:
These lies are like their father that begets them, gross as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou claybrained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow-catch!
This sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh!
Hiddles delivers the lines with light and affectionate mockery, yet Hal’s delight in abusing the Whoreson Tub of Lard can easily come off as bullying when he towers over the object of his contempt.
The greater part of Act 2 is taken up with the results of Hal and Poins’ practical joke, and we get to watch Falstaff inflating the number of assailants he heroically beat off, then extricating himself from the lies with his customary élan. The fun is interrupted when Hal is summoned to the palace on reports that the Percys have rebelled. In one of the play’s deepest scenes, Falstaff and Hal play-act his upcoming confrontation with his royal father, each in turn taking the role of Henry.
When it’s Falstaff’s turn to play Hal, he grows serious and pleads with his “father”:
As he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
But “Henry,” equally serious, replies, I do. I will.
When the battle begins, we glimpse Falstaff the soldier. Given money to recruit a band of soldiers, he gathers a miserable group of spavin-legged, tubercular invalids because (of course), he has squandered most of the cash. This imparts an extra level of meaning to his denunciation of honor as a useless thing, an empty notion which cannot heal a wounded man’s leg. Beale is at his elegiac best in Falstaff’s few serious moments, like this soliloquy in the royal camp.
But Falstaff’s total disavowal of honor means that even friendship and loyalty are easily tossed aside. On the battlefield, when a hard-pressed Hal asks him for a weapon, he offers his “pistol,” which turns out to be an empty bottle of sack. Later, after witnessing the climactic battle between Hal and Hotspur, he absconds with Hotspur’s corpse and claims the kill as his own, right to Hal’s face.
If your father will 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.
Although Hiddleston does a great job of laughing this off, it’s difficult for the audience to appreciate the humor, or what Hal could ever have admired in the miserable fellow. This may have been an artistic choice on the part of the director, so that the message about kingly responsibility is crystal clear: it sets the stage for the different Prince Hal we meet in Henry IV Part II (and the utterly transformed Henry V). Still, I missed the bravado that ought to be here. Like Hal we should be willing, in spite of ourselves, to laugh at Falstaff’s knavery, and even to see him rewarded for his outrageous behavior. Maybe there are very few actors with the charisma and comic chops to manage this, but in my book that’s what makes a good Falstaff.
it’s really terrible of me but haven’t watched these yet, sounds like a good stab but maybe not a great one… the Globe one is tough competition.
I was truly impressed with Hiddles in the role 🙂
yes he does live up to his name /hype his Coriolanus was very good i thought 🙂 He’s a really nice bloke it seems too
Is he? That’s good. I like it when these lovely, talented actors turn out to be sweet men too 🙂
Oh yes he is, very open and funny, if you have time watch this Taxi interview with him, part 1 here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSYKHpRgi7M and part 2 here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdfobYiZsVk Pretty much the only interview with him i’ve seen but it is very nice and so was he 🙂
Charming! He has such a winning smile. And a well cut suit 🙂
Yep the fairly posh English with their tailored suits:-) but very likeable
I saw first the Hollow Crown and then both Globe’s productions, and, as you say. great actor as Simon Russell Beale is, he’s not Falstaff. Roger Allam fills exactly the blanks that you have indicated; I strongly suggest you to watch it (available in Digital Theatre).
As far as prince Hal is concerned, we must not forget his first soliloquy, the “reformation speech” ; after that, the “I know thee not, old man” should not surprise when it arrive, it is indeed like ” brigth metal on a sullen ground”, but Hal has told us since the beginning.
Yes, Hal’s change is not a surprise–there is plenty of preparing of the ground for it. I must check into the Digital Theatre (and get over my technology aversion). It seems to be a source of very high quality entertainment 🙂
BTW I read two Perez-Reverte books recently: “The Fencing Master” is my favorite of all his I have read, because of that character–even though the story is sad. I also loved the character Father Quart from “The Seville Communion,” but did not like the ending. I just could not believe that Cruz was the hacker. Still, the writing in that story was beautiful. A very contemplative book. His books are like potato chips. As soon as I finish one, I want the next.
Yes, indeed I’ve read all Reverte’s book because they’re just like a pack of Pringles, once you pop you can’t stop. 😀 I don’t remember well “The seville comunion” (La piel del tambor) I just remember that Padre Quart is another awesome “Reverte Man” 🙂 I’ve read in Spain that they will make a tv series, but the leading lady is Paz Vega, an absolutely beautiful woman but, in my opinion, with very limited (I’d rather say unexistent) acting skills. My favourite Reverte novel is the one I talked you about, “El tango de la Guardia Vieja”.
Digital Theatre is also highly addicitve, I’ve just bough Almeida’s Theatre King Lear with Jonathan Pryce. 🙂
Jonathan Pryce, wonderful!! Of course I am spending a lot of time looking into Hamlet these days 🙂
I love the depth and breadth of thought and detail that goes into your comparisons here, Linnet. Your passion for the play clearly shines through, as well as your fair-mindedness and ability to highlight what appeals in each actor.
And I’m wholly with you on Welles as Fallstaff. Born to play the role.
Now I’m quite desperate to go back and watch each with your post at my side for easy reference. It would make it even more enjoyable.Cheers!
Thanks Shelley! I just realized that I omitted to include the shirtless scenes of Hal and Poins in the bath house. Might have to go back and correct that.
Umm … yes, please.