Elizabethan-era English meets my analysis head-on.
Friday, October 21, 2011
I found Henry IV, part 1 to be interesting and engaging, despite my initial reservations. I especially found looking into the characters of Hal and Hotspur to be interesting and informative, and that was originally going to be my only focus, but I found as I kept reading the play and watching the BBC production that this isn't just about the two of them. This play is character-driven. Unlike The Tempest, which is about spectacle and mystery, the drama, action, and humor in this play comes from the characters, and I feel like any appropriate analysis of this work will be mostly centered on the characters.
Let's start with Hotspur. He is impulsive (as his name suggests), honor-driven, and youthful. He's willing to sacrifice anything to maintain his honor, including his soldiers, as he shows here when he learns that his father the earl isn't coming to help the rebels:
I rather of his absence make this use:/It lends a lustre and more great opinion/A larger dare to our great enterprise/Than if the earl were here; for men must think/If we without his help can make a head/To push against a kingdom, with his help/We shall o'erturn it topsy-turvy down (4.1.2299-2305).
He likes looking awesome more than he cares about his army's chance of victory. He exhibits a trait that the Greeks would have called hubris, excessive arrogance and self-confidence. I previously discussed how this even extends to the supernatural realm (or at least one person's claim to the supernatural). Hotspur is the classic tragic hero. Young, strong, rational, and clever, but with that ultimate fatal flaw: arrogance. The BBC production put more emphasis into this reading of Hotspur, showing his impulsive temper and condescension towards others.
I also found online a fantastic blog in which the cast of an all-female production of Henry IV, part 1 wrote about their experiences playing various characters, and I thought the post from the actress who played Hotspur was a particularly valuable insight into the character. Here's the link: http://pcshakespeare.com/blog/2011/08/19/playing-hotspur/
Then there's Hal. Hal is a little more subtle than Hotspur. Okay, a lot more subtle than Hotspur. Hal is the consummate manipulator. Some have taken this play as Hal's realization of his role in life and his acceptance of the responsibilities of the crown, but the thing is, he already knows what his role is supposed to be. He's just planning for it by pretending to resemble a lowlife so he can look that much greater when he's the king. Very Machiavellian, is Hal. The film brought this out even more, especially during the dialogue when Hal and Falstaff are impersonating Henry IV and Hal at court. Falstaff gives his famous line "banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" and Hal responds with "I do, I will." The look on Falstaff's face when he realizes that Hal isn't joking anymore really brought the point home to me that Hal is using his friends as part of his plan. I thought the director and actors really made that scene telling in the film.
The man himself.
I was also struck by Henry's character. I noted earlier that the film brought out his piety and real devotion to the Church, including his desire to crusade. As I searched the Internet though, I found something I didn't consider: Henry does not consider himself the true king of England. Historically, Henry IV seized power from his cousin Richard II, and had him executed. In the play, Henry regrets this and feels as though his honor has been compromised. He is a cross between Hal and Hotspur, combining Hal's semi-Machiavellian tendencies with Hotspur's desire for honor. He shows this when he wishes that Hotspur had been his son instead of Hal. Unlike either of them, however, he tries to redeem himself through the Church rather than seeking solace in combat and rationalism like Hotspur or social vindication like Hal. Here's a link on Henry's motivations and ideas:
I felt with this play that Shakespeare's point was to show some of the hard, cold facts of life: it isn't always the heroic characters who succeed in life. Hotspur dies at Hal's hands, even as Hal finishes Hotspur's last thought-that he is food for worms, and nothing more. In most plays, the hero succeeds. In this play, the hero is mortal just like everyone else, and it is the cold, calm planner who comes out on top.