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.