Saturday, September 6, 2008

2 Henry IV - Opening Remarks


With incomplete returns, my impression that 2 Henry IV is relatively unfamiliar ground for us is born out. With the exception of Ernst, most of us are tabulae rasae (forgive my pig-Latin): 3 have read, only one has taught, two have seen, at least in the Chimes at Midnight film, and only two, Ernst and Cindy, have seen it staged (Seattle Shakespeare Company will do a “brilliant distillation” of Parts 1 and 2 in late October which I hope to report on). Ernst notes 2 Henry IV is one of his favorite plays, but I think the rest of us might just say ‘Lord, Lord, here is something we might talk about,” and I’ll try to keep it oiled enough so we can chat without any need to find conclusions.

I am among the initiates. My only reading was in grad school, and my marginal notes are now too small to read without a magnifying glass. Since, through general reference, I am familiar with IV.v, Hal trying on his sleeping father’s crown, and V.v, the turning away of Falstaff. I remember the Lord Chief Justice and justice Shallow, but somehow I conflated them into the same person, which makes no sense.

I have no 2 Henry IV t-shirt, but I do have a few lines: “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance,” “They were his fancies or his good-nights” (John Collier has a book so named), “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought,” and, alas, “I know thee not old man.” Before we finish our discussion, I want to talk about “he that dies this year is quit for the next.”

I don’t want my opening remarks to direct your thoughts, but here are a few of the ways my mind is tumbling. “Part 2” telegraphs “sequel,” and, except for fanatics of super-hero genres, this promises a negative experience. Northumberland is still rebelling, Falstaff is still drinking, Hal and Poins are still playing at disguise, poor Frances is still drawing bumpers of sack, King Henry, as though the triumph at Shrewsbury never took place, is still disillusioned with his eldest son. Hotspur and Glendower are gone. Yes, but … what do we get, beyond a chronological transition from Prince Hal to King Henry V? Doll Tearsheet? The Justices, chief and least? Ernst has stimulated me to think about “its study of three old men living out the consequences of their lives.” That’s a play I want to read.

Hal: 1 Henry IV began with “I know you all” (1 Henry IV, I.ii.195). Stu was troubled that if this was a premeditated scheme, the character would be less sympathetic, and he wanted his actor to speak fresh—“as if hatching his plan in the current moment, and justifying his past behavior in the context of the new plan.” But now we have “I know you not, old man” (2 Henry IV, V.v.47). Anyone troubled by this? Still, here I begin to apply Ernst’s “three old men”—Northumberland, King Henry, Falstaff—and begin to see a great play. Maybe in the second phase of our discussion, instead of “digits,” each of us could write a paragraph on “I know you not.”

Falstaff is an extraordinary character. Is there another character in all English literature that has similarly burst out of his play or novel? We have not much talked about him yet. I’m wondering about Falstaff, Part 2. I think he alludes more to age than fat this time, but what else?

A generic sidebar: 1 Henry IV might be subtitled “The Tragedy of Harry Hotspur” (Mike, I owe you a response to you last posting on Hotspur and Hamlet. I think I may be working on the Meaning of Everything.). Can we here think of “The Tragedy of Northumberland”? For that, the scene I most respond to is II.iii, Northumberland, Lady N. and Lady Percy, Hotspur’s widow. What has happened to honor in this play? Time to think of the cold-hearted Prince John of Lancaster? Or, without Hotspur, who do we have new: the Chief Justice, Shallow, Pistol (who has read Marlowe), Doll Tearsheet?

(When I found my magnifying glass, I was able to read a marginal note from thirty years ago, at the end of II.iv, the Boar’s Head, with Pistol swaggering, Falstaff and Mistress Quickly bantering, Doll Tearsheet waxing sentimental, and Eric Partridge, author of Shakespeare’s Bawdy, hysterically disapproving. My note says “Bill Matchett calls this one of the sweetest, saddest, funniest scenes I know.” Bill Matchett is a friend and mentor to both Ernst and me.)

Last, the text. Ernst has noted “some magnificent dramatic poetry” in 2 Henry IV. Yes. In small, I noted two “tide” images that took me all the way back to Mike’s consideration of water and oceans in Comedy of Errors. This play begins with Northumberland, contrasted to 1 Henry IV starting with what I called King Henry’s public or political rhetoric (“No more…”). The father/ son exchange when Henry is dying, wonderfully rolls. I feel the verse is still closer to, maybe (a stretch), Romeo, than to Coriolanus. Yet 2 Henry IV is 52% prose (1 Henry IV is 45%, Richard III is 1.5%, and Richard II is 0%, none, nada, as Rudy Giuliani might say—percentages from Marvin Spivack, Concordance).

OK? Enough? Just jump in for a moment, the beat of a sparrow’s wing. No essays. But here’s a threat. If no one bites, I will construct a statement about “public” and “personal” in 2 Henry IV and the Republican Convention.


No comments: