Reading Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part I

In much the same way Othello is really Iago’s play, Henry IV, Part 1 is, in some ways, Falstaff’s play. I’m not even sure, re-reading the play now, that taken together with Part 2, this really changes. It’s no direct parallel, certainly, because while Henry IV is the kind character we see again and again in Shakespeare’s plays– the Machiavellian, as is Iago and Claudius and Macbeth (and Lady Macbeth!)– the arc of the larger story is not so much Henry IV’s machinations and their result, but the question of what will happen to Hal: what he will do, and in so doing who and what he will become. But in Part 1, at least, the story is really stolen by Falstaff.

And rightly so… Falstaff is, in a humorous and ironic way, the most well-rounded (and without a doubt the most literally rounded) character in the play. Falstaff demonstrates the idea that simple rules can, often counter-intuitively, lead to more complexity than complex rule sets. Falstaff’s rules for living– and living overly much– aren’t complex: enjoy what there is to enjoy, pragmatically, and avoid lessening that enjoyment through adherence to abstract principles such as honor.

That concept of honor, and what it means in practice to different character types, is at the center of this play. Falstaff fully embodies (sorry, it’s just hard to resist references to Falstaff’s fleshy corporeal self when writing about him) one approach to such vexing questions: honor is well and good as long as it doesn’t stand in the way of enjoying earthly delights– “ill-gotten” and otherwise– and certainly honor should never stand in the way of living. “Death before dishonor” is ludicrous. King Henry, on the other hand, also believes in honor when it suits him– he understands it as a principle that can be used as a level to manipulate others– but is willing to risk death for greater glory. Hotspur is, of course, doomed by his own attachment to the the principle of honor. Hal’s ambiguity in this area is the narrative center– if not the center of gravity– of the play. Hotspur’s commitment to a classical idea of honor is what makes Hal’s offer to fight Hotspur mano-a-mano to determine the future of the rebellion, and thus the country so tricky. Does Hal think there’s any chance that Hotspur would accept such an offer, which I think he plainly would if it were up to him, or is his transformation to a true Machiavellian character so well underway that he realizes Hotspur would never be able to take him up on such an offer because the rebellion he has become part of is so much larger than himself and his collaborators, Machiavellians themselves, know better?

Anyway, back to Falstaff. What is it that makes Falstaff such a fascinating character, one that has become iconic, one known to those who’ve never read Shakespeare, and one that has become an adjective of its own (Falstaffian)? For me, it’s a combination of the contradictions– so fat, but so intellectually agile; so dissipated but at the same time able to both bring out the best in others and inspire them to see the best of him– and his deft, humorous wordplay. Falstaff’s scenes with Hal are among the funniest of any in Shakespeare, including the comedies. I often recognize the humor in Shakespeare’s plays but am only moved to actually laugh when seeing those plays performed… but with Falstaff and Hal I found myself laughing out loud many times (it also makes the beginning of Hal’s dispensing of Falstaff, a necessary part of Hal’s transformation, that much more lamentable).

At the same time, I think it’s a bit too easy to feel sympathy for Falstaff and thus overlook that he is also damaged and damaging. I’ve no idea how Falstaff became a knight, which I take to be a recognition of honor and action, but his selfish actions now certainly have very real consequences for others. When he conscripts men into his service, having presumably spent some of the money intended to do so on on “sugar and sack” for himself, he ends up with a ragtag assortment of men who can’t afford to buy their way out of service that he refers to as simply “food for powder.” Falstaff has the haughtiness of a noble, but in service of only his most personal ends, none of which have anything to do with power. His attempts to bilk the tavern mistress out of what he owes her are of a kind of pettiness only lightly obscured by his facility with words and quick wit.

But, for all of this, Falstaff is a character to be both enjoyed and envied. Enjoyed for obvious reasons– if I were an actor, I could think of no character I’d rather play, nor many characters that it would be harder to play (oddly, of contemporary actors, Kevin Kline gets pretty consistent recognition for portraying Falstaff, which I’m going to have to see for myself), envied because for all his faults of selfishness and the deep skepticism he represents, Falstaff is consistent, candid and true. In another context– another world, one of peace and prosperity– it would be easy to dismiss Falstaff as a symbol of what is wrong, but in a curious way in this play, it’s hard not to wonder how much he symbolizes what is right.

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