Henry IV, Pt 1 is a play in two parts. The first is concerned with the world of civil rebellion that will ultimately lead to the Wars of the Roses. This is the world of King Henry VI and Harry Percy. The second part is centred around the Boar’s Head Tavern where Falstaff, the Lord of Misrule reigns with Hal and their companies, Poins, Peto, Gadshill, Bardolph.
The play moves back and forth between these two worlds with scenes from one intercut with scenes of the other. It’s a simple technique and helps define the fundamental tension between the views of the two young protagonists, Prince Hal and Harry Percy. It is this tension which holds the two parts of the play together.
For King Henry comparisons between the valiant and victorious Hotspur and his own son are inevitable. He wishes that he had son like Hotspur
Henry: Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is 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 dishonour 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 call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Act I Sc i
At the beginning of the play, the comparisons are obvious and odious. While Hotspur is eating Scots for breakfast, Prince Hal is involved in quite different activities, most noticeably with Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet at the Boar’s Head.
Maxine Peake as Doll Tearsheet, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly
Hal’s world is the anarchic underworld of riot drunkenness and debauchery where Falstaff is the King and Hal his Crown Prince. While Hotspur is in the north leading his armies against the rebellious Scots to ensure the stability of the realm, Falstaff, Hal and their companions are out robbing wealthy pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and whoring their way through Cheapside.
Shakespeare does not draw these two charismatic characters purely in black and white terms. While the brave Hotspur is shouldering the responsibility of keeping the kingdom safe, there is also an element of foolhardy pride in the man that ultimately makes fatal his lack of judgment.
His decision not to surrender his hostages to King Henry brings matters to a head when he is summonsed to court to account for his behaviour. Neither the King nor Hotspur are in the mood to compromise.
Henry: My Lord Northumberland,
We licence your departure with your son.
Send us your prisoners, or you will hear of it.
Exeunt King Henry, Blunt, and train
Hotspur: An if the devil come and roar for them,
I will not send them: I will after straight
And tell him so; for I will ease my heart,
Albeit I make a hazard of my head.
Northumberland: What, drunk with choler? stay and pause awhile:
Here comes your uncle
In a stroke of genius, the BBC has the Percys played by a father and son Alun and Joe Armstrong.
With this brief outburst, Hotspur shows the intemperate rage governs most his relations with friends and enemies alike. He’s a brave man and a good soldier but completely incapable of governing himself.
At the heart of this conflict is Henry’s refusal to ransom Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, Hotspur’s brother-in-law but more importantly the man Richard II, whom Henry deposed, named as his successor.
Worcester: I cannot blame him: was not he proclaim’d
By Richard that dead is the next of blood?
Northumberland: He was; I heard the proclamation:
It is a world where the politics are complex, a mixture of dynastic ambition and long-held grievance. You need to keep your wits about you to survive. Throughout the play, Shakespeare demonstrates that for all his qualities, this is something that Hotspur cannot do. In his dealings with Owen Glendower, the powerful Welsh warlord and important ally to the rebel cause, Hotspur demonstrates a lack of tact and diplomacy that is necessary to hold rebellions together.
On a different planet, Prince Hal inhabits a world dominated by Shakespeare’s greatest comic character, Falstaff. It is also a world completely untouched by the politics and internecine feuds of the Plantagenet’s. Because he is the heir apparent, Hal (and companions) are able to live and play with complete disregard of the law and of the consequences of their actions. For all that, they are immensely good fun and much better company than Harry Percy would ever be.
And while Hal is the epitome of irresponsibility, Hiddleston’s portrayal in the BBC series The Hollow Crown is not one-dimensional and throughout the early scenes of Henry IV part 1, there are moments of detachment from the riot of the Boar’s Head that foreshadow the later Hal.
Hal: I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
In Act II Sc iv, Hal and Falstaff act out a scene where Hal’s father interrogates the Prince about the companions he keeps. It is a brilliantly comic scene, with Hal and Falstaff swapping roles. Finally, Falstaff pleads his case to the king, played by Hal. In four lines, Shakespeare captures central core of the play.
Falstaff: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, 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.
Hal I do, I will.
Whatever the impact is on Falstaff, it is not seen by the audience as the scene is interrupted by the Sheriff who comes looking for the man who robbed the pilgrims.
However, this scene looks forward to the famous Act IV Sc v, where the newly-crowned Henry V rejects his old companions.
Henry V: I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.
Throughout the play, there is an element of Hal that is dispassionate, calculating and constantly detached in his relationship with Falstaff. At no point, does the audience get the impression that Hal does not see Falstaff in his true light, good company but ultimately a drunken petty criminal, a fraudster and a liar.