Henry IV, Part 1: Act 2


Yes, Henry’s intentions for a crusade seem already deferred because of the threats from the North. His pious language may sound outdated, and if the very idea of crusade seemed dated in the early fifteenth century, it certainly would sound so in Elizabethan times. Maybe the best commentary on Henry’s language and intentions here is what he would tell Hal in 2 Henry IV: “Therefore, my Harry, Be it thy course, to busy giddy minds/ With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,/ May waste the memory of the former days.” Hal’s famous soliloquy, “I know you all”, sets up his turn toward the serious and shows him a certain chip off the old block. Falstaff’s desire for euphemistic titles, Diana’s foresters, minions of the moon, our noble and chaste mistress the moon, goes daringly close to some of Elizabeth’s favored mythic titles. Amusing that he’s going all Spenserian on us. And after this he starts to sound comically Puritan, almost his default position; he’ll give over his dissolute life and repent, and then insists that robbery is simply laboring in his vocation. What follows gives us a good forecast of the Gad’s Hill trickery. Does this comic falling out among thieves find an political parallel in the following scene? Hotspur’s characterization verges on the comic, but only verges, in his tendency to fly off the handle in his language, which his elders try to calm. As we know the historical Hotspur was a few years older than the king, so what Sh. has done with him seems a brilliant dramatic stroke to make him a foil for Hal.

Act 2 is massive, and the robbery and the tavern scene take up a good deal of text and playing time. The robbery begins with some portrayal of an inn yard and the kind of intelligence that would lead to the planning of highway men. Falstaff would give opportunity for some comic slapstick during the robbery of the thieves; his girth obviously makes him an unlikely highway man, and this is exploited at the end of the scene.

The scene of Hotspur and Lady Percy is effective on stage, an unexpected domestic scene that tends to humanize Hotspur in the banter with his wife. We presume that his reluctance to tell her of his planned rebellion is partly defensive, but also to keep her genuinely innocent of the treason involved if he and his counterparts fail. The insistence on his roan horse may have some thematic resonance, a red horse for the fiery warrior. The roan horse comes back up in Hals joking with Poins about Hotspur, who becomes a miles gloriosus in his parody.

Back to the tavern in 2.4 and 536 lines, surely the longest scene in the play — and most consequential in its comic reflection of the political scenes. The opening with Hal, Poins, and the drawer Francis doesn’t appear consequential for the narrative, but provides a bit of comic business when Francis is finally left perplexed between two customers. What it does is emphasize Hals aristocratic status even amid the tavern milieu, and maybe indicate his pleasure in his assumed identity. I imagine someone has found thematic relevance in the scene, but it doesn’t jump out at me. Falstaff’s account of the robbery of the robbers is the fun of the scene, even as he knows hes not fooling Hal and the others; it seems a kind of pure comedy that’s detached from an attempt at real persuasion, like the multiplying insults at l. 237 (which Falstaff seems to win), then the quick switch to knowing the true prince, which of course raises the unspoken question who is the true prince. No one can object to this without raising the uncomfortable question. But the unfailing nature of Falstaff’s invention is the heart of it all, and the wit just keeps rolling out.

Falstaff’s suggestion that Hal rehearse the answer hell give to his father in the morning prompts the closest involvement that the tavern has with the court. The very image of Falstaff impersonating the King with a pillow on his head and a dagger for a scepter is comic enough, but the language in King Cambyses’ vein makes it all the funnier. Its also in Lyly’s Euphuistic vein in the prose that follows. In fact its a brilliant parody of Euphues. When Hal and the prince trade places, the comic playing grows closer to what will become necessary in the court world, as Falstaff as Hal makes his plea for Falstaff’s retention, Banish plumb Jack, and banish all the world. And Hal’s chilling reply is “I do. I will. It’s almost as if this is the cue for the outer world to break into the tavern world. And as the sheriff and law come into the tavern, Falstaff behind the arras falls asleep. And the final comic bit is the list of Falstaff’s eating and drinking, and the absurdly small amount of food to the gallons of drink. Hal’s threat to take Falstaff out of the tavern world and push him into the political and military world will be the next way of commenting on the latter.


Further on Act I: yes, I think the falling out among thieves is like the falling out of political conspirators. And, more generally, the robbery roughly parallels the plot against the king. Interesting that Hal backs out of taking part in the robbery, like the conspirator — who is he? — who writes a letter to Hotspur backing out of the plot. (Later, in Act 2, Hal promises to pay back what was stolen. Is that a sign that his decency and principles are coming through, or just a sign that he takes care that he cannot be charged with a crime?) In various ways we are invited to compare Hal and Hotspur. But don’t we also compare Falstaff and Hotspur? In some ways they are opposite (e.g., concerning honor), but in others they are similar (e.g., their bombastic rhetoric — though maybe a careful analysis would show that they are bombastic in different ways; both, when challenged, falsely defend themselves — Falstaff often, and Hotspur with I did deny no prisoners).

On Act 2:

I agree that all the business about planning and executing the robbery is a reflection of the political situation. The recurrent references to true men, thieves who are not true to one another. Even the opening scene, with the house turned upside down since Robin Ostler died, seems to hint at the state of the nation, turned upside down since Richard was killed, especially with the apparently stray remark that great ones prey on the commonwealth. There’s a lot of wonderful comedy involving Falstaff. One of the best moments, as I think you once pointed out, is in 2.2 when Falstaff, told that the four thieves will be facing some eight or ten, fearfully asks “will they not rob us?” (Which turns out to be prescient.)

In 2.3, when Hotspur tells himself that the conspirators plan is a good plot, you get the sense that he cares more about the plotting and the fighting than about the ultimate purpose (of overthrowing Henry). Maybe a bit like Hal and Poins, who engage in the robbery not because they need the money but because they think its good sport — one of Hotspur’s words. I think the dialogue between Hotspur and Kate is very ingratiating. Yes, it humanizes him, but it also makes clear that, although like Hal he’s a bit boyish, unlike Hal he is a sexually mature man with a loving wife. By contrast, Hal seems to have no interest in women, and more interest in sweet Jack Falstaff. (I wonder if a director might be careful to have Hal steer clear of willing barmaids.) In 2.4 Hal is the king of courtesy, able to talk with the commoners (like Henry 5 at Agincourt), but the trick played on Francis the drawer seems to suggest that Hal is ready to make fun of common people — anything but courtesy. The scene with Francis does at first seem inconsequential. I think I remember an article about Francis as the man in the middle, called/drawn in two directions by Poins and Hal, just as Hal himself is drawn in two directions — toward the pleasurable life of the tavern, and his responsibilities as heir apparent and his future as Hotspur’s adversary. That may seem a stretch, and to rely too much on a stage direction: The Drawer stands amazed, not knowing which way to go. But Hal himself makes a connection between Francis and his situation when he, without apparent logic, says, out of the blue (and just after laughing at Francis), “I am not yet of Percy’s mind. Not yet.” Seven lines later he proposes playing a scene with Falstaff: “I’ll play Percy...”

Instead, Hal and Falstaff play out a scene between Henry and Hal, in which there is doubleness in every line: the two actors are making fun of each other, and of the king, but they sense, and we sense, how much is seriously at stake underneath their words. Hal’s “I do. I will is” indeed chilling. But I can imagine an actor (playing an actor) delivering that line in a flat chilled voice (followed by a Just kidding! sort of laugh), or in a jovial, or mockingly regal voice, as if extending the joke. Immediately following, there is a knocking at the door, and Hal is literally called to court. A director might make this a big moment, with a loud knocking, as ominous as the knocking at the gate in Macbeth.


Yes, I think there is a thematic comparison intended in the Falstaff/Hotspur relationship, probably based on the humors. Hotspur is the fiery, irascible humor, bilious, more inclined to anger and battle than to the softness of love, so he and Kate tease and rough-house with one another. And hence the roan horse? Falstaff is phlegmatic and associated with drink and the sexuality of the bawdy house and tavern. So where will Hal end up?

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell