Henry IV Part 1

John Bell on Henry IV

It is easy for a young actor to identify with these aspects of Hal – the resentful teenager rebelling against an autocratic father yet desperately seeking his approval; what amounts to a sibling rivalry with the show pony Hotspur, and the desire to escape the close confines of stuffy respectability and sow a few wild oats. It seems to be the destined path for many a Prince of Wales.

There is a wit and ingenuity in Hal; there is a love of life and adventure and a good deal of generosity – when it suits him. He covers up for Falstaff in an embarrassing confrontation with the Sheriff and, despite the cruelty of his rejection of Falstaff, there is provision made for his future.

Hal has a sense of honour and is big enough to admire Hotspur’s qualities, yet one cannot afford to sentimentalise him or apologise for his ruthlessness. He is above all a realist – not altogether admirable but nor is he devious like his younger brother. When Falstaff challenges him, ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,’ Hal warns him: ‘I do. I will.’

For me the sustaining interest in Henry IV is the emotional triangle between Hal, his father and his surrogate father, Falstaff. The latter gives him the affection and companionship his real father denies him, but Hal is shrewd enough to recognise Falstaff’s self-interest and ambition. In spite of Falstaff’s enormous appeal he is a fraud, a liar and a user of people. He is quite brazen and unrepentant in his misuse of his office as a recruiting sergeant. He tries to enlist wealthy yeomen’s sons who will pay a bribe to be excused. The recruits he is left with are feeble and useless to the army, but Falstaff callously dismisses them as ‘food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better’.

Hal is one of Shakespeare’s ‘new men’, whom he seems to regard with a mixture of fascination and distaste. They are creatures of the Renaissance, students of Machiavelli – shrewd, calculating and cold-hearted. At their best they are men like Hal and Falconbridge in King John. At their worst, Iago in Othello and King Lear’s Edmund. Macbeth’s Malcolm is one of them, Octavius in Julius Caesar another and so is Hamlet’s Young Fortinbras. They always come out on top but you wouldn’t necessarily want to get too close to them.

Despite the inevitability of the new men and the triumph of Elizabethan ‘policy’, one feels that a lot of Shakespeare’s sympathy and affection belongs to an older England, the carnival riot of Falstaff and chivalric flourishes of Hotspur. With the death of those two, the last vestiges of medieval England fade away.

Source: John Bell. 2011. On Shakespeare, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp. 135-36.