Thursday, July 24, 2008

1 Henry IV - Identities

Welcome to the Henriad, part two,

What happens in a play which begins “no more”? (Please don’t evoke the “no way/ way” joke.) Well, of course … more! King Henry, our Bolingbroke, has ascended to Richard II’s throne (and the guilt of usurpation will follow until his son, King Henry V, attests “Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,/ Who twice a day their withered hands hold up/ Toward heaven, to pardon blood” [Henry V, IV.i. 303-50]), after Northumberland, his son Harry Percy and others have supported an insurrection against Richard and his party, York, Carlisle, Scroop, etc.

Henry addresses his council with a state of the realm declaration: the antidote to such civil unrest is, of course, foreign war (“I am the war king, and I get to decide”).

"So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenc’d in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood,
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flow’rets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces. Those opposed eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery,
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more oppos’d
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies." (I.i.1-16)

Listen to this blank verse with formal tropes. Though eight of the sixteen lines run on, the constructions are formal, carefully constructed, the syntax is thrice inversed in the opening period, the opening lines have alliterations, then assonance. The coda, “no more,” is thrice repeated. The figure of civil war—earth extended to lips daubing blood, hoofs trenching channels and bruising flower’ets—are metaphors that are grotesque in their extremity, and they coalesce in “civil butchery” evoking Montagues and Capulets. This is public speech, Henry being kingly, employing such rhetoric that will later empower his son to declaim “Once more into the breech, dear friends, once more;/ Or close the wall up with our English dead!” (Henry V, III.i.1-2). The speech is so political, so rhetorically composed that today we would automatically assume a committee of speech writers has generated it. There is no opportunity here to infer Henry’s identity. He is the office-of-king, using the royal “we” six times in the opening address. As public speech, it is so finished, so definitive, yet so ponderous. The irony, of course, is that “no more” lasts only 48 lines, when news of troubles in the North reverses public policy: “It seems then that the tidings of this broil/ Brake off our business for the Holy Land” (I.i.47-8).

Contrast this to Prince Hal’s soliloquy after some Boar’s Head chatter about sack, highway robbery, and the moon’s men, larded with fat jokes.

"I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor 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 wond’red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him." (I.ii.199-207)

This is “personal” speech. Hal is talking to himself about himself, declaring not the state of the union, but describing his private, Machiavellian strategy. Not only does it begin with ‘I” rather than a royal “we,” it builds the extended simile, starting with a sun/son pun, and then explaining how and why the comparison will work. Still blank verse, four of the nine lines run on, but that is necessary to build the logic of the comparison. The last half of the whole soliloquy unpacks the trope, connecting point-by-point the beclouded sun to the loose-behaving son, until he “pay the debt I never promised.”

To me the contrast of public to personal is striking. I hope we will return to Hal in our discussion, but this soliloquy fires the first round of individualism, ironic because Hal is confessing that he is playing a role, though that role beclouds some hidden self, as yet unrevealed. Soliloquy is a convention that suggests the audience can accept as truth what is said uninfluenced by the tactics of conversation, but I hope we can also test whether Hal’s asserted self itself can be trusted.

Preceding the “I know you all” declaration, Hal has been exchanging insults and all-boys-together badinage with (Sir) Jack Falstaff, who riffs on his vocation of highway robbery:

“Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon, and let men say we be men of good government, being govern’d, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal” (I.ii.22-9).

This is, I say with trepidation, prose. Trepidation, alas, because as a teacher if I would point this out to a class, I would always have a dozen students who would thereafter insist that any one who spoke prose was eo ipso lower class (and it didn’t help to tell them that John Stuart Mill was shocked to discover he had been speaking in prose all his life). Forty-five percent of 1 Henry IV is in prose. Falstaff’s utterance is filled with similes, word play, puns, repetition and variation, and sheer joy in talk. It is not just prose that separates Falstaff from King Henry. Though a denizen of taverns he is still a knight of the realm, and he will be selected to captain a company of foot soldiers in the Battle of Shrewsbury. But what separates much of Falstaff from Henry’s ponderous conceit about the blood-soaked earth is exuberance, joix de vivre. Identity? Yes, I think so.

But Falstaff is always putting on a show. When he is claiming he was attacked by two, no four, no seven men in buckram (after Hal has reminded him he had first said “two”), he is performing to amuse the audience. Even when he stabs Percy’s corpse and claims his own valor, it’s just a little show for Hal’s sake. He has been, after all, lying on the ground within ear-, and eye-, shot of Hal’s victory in combat and the epitaph Hal bestows on the fallen Hotspur. And when Falstaff rises and stabs Hotspur, he intentionally does it in the groin, not something I like to think about, but clearly not a mortal wound. Thus, he knows Hal knows he is just having a little fun, a Hawkeye Pierce offering a comic interlude at the peak of the horror of war. We must return to Falstaff’s catechism on honor before we finish our discussion, but I think Falstaff may be “himself” if we allow that he is always at play, and such play may allow him to avoid facing the truth about himself.

Lastly, Hotspur. Nothing fancy for him:

"I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn’d,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree,
And that would set my teeth nothing an edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry," (III.i.129-132)

a surprising declaration for Hotspur who belongs in the tradition of chivalric Romance. It recalls Theseus’s Platonic theory:

"And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name." (Midsummer Night's Dream, V.i.14-17)

Theseus also dismisses lovers and fairies, but soon greets midnight with “Lovers, to bed; ‘tis almost fairy time." Similarly, Hotspur dismisses his ally Owen Glendower:

"O, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house. I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill far
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer house in Christendom." (III.i.158-163)

I could choose almost anything Hotspur says and it would illustrate how he summons up marvelous terse similes in order to make his case both precisely and tediously, given he almost always makes his point four or five times. Think of his unstoppable account of the “popinjay” sent from court to (legitimately) claim Hotspur’s prisoners in the name of the king—40 lines without a breath—or his own dying words:

"But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. " (V.iv.81-3)
(Frye notes the Folio reading of 81 is “But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool,” closer to the heart of tragic vision.)

One of us must address his “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,/ To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon.” But my point is that, of these four, “anti-poet” Hotspur is the most poetic, and yet he is farthest from Randall’s call for exploration of the nature of identity. King Henry is public, the expression of the office of authority. Prince Harry claims a disguised self, apparently fully-formed but unrevealed. Falstaff, the comic hero, may have an identity, but because he is always performing, we must look, perhaps, to his catechism against honor to discover that his core identity is consistent with his repudiation of all values hostile to life. And the most vivid character, Hotspur, impetuous, passionate, “heroic” could be the most attractive, yet he has least identity, made up as he is of the now-lost values of chivalric Romance, devoted to “honor,” which is a value in service of death. His true epitaph is spoken by his uncle Worcester:

“[My nephew’s trespass] hath the excuse of youth and heat of blood,
And an adopted name of privilege—
A hare-brained Hotspur, governed by a spleen." (V.ii.17-19)

See? I have called monsters from the vasty deep,

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