PTS readthrough: 1 Henry IV, II, iv
‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.’ (King Lear, IV.i), [a]
In Nick Hornby’s terrific ‘High Fidelity’, the music-obsessed narrator, owner of a record store, is asked to name his favourite songs by a pretty, young journalist type. [b] He has an embarrassing meltdown. Stumbling out a few choices, he resorts to contacting her several times afterwards, with constant revisions to his ultimate ‘best of’ list, until he realises he’s practically stalking her …
That’s me, asked to identify my favourite scenes.
Yet this scene has, HAS, to be in my top three … or else why is this blog named after its location? For the curious, I’ve provided the other two (today’s, at least) at the bottom. Please give me shout and let me know if you agree or have others to add!
Let me explain why I admire Shakespeare’s writing so much in this scene.
‘Flies to wanton boys‘…
It took me quite a while to see Hal’s trick on Francis for what it was, for what it said about our heir to the throne. Superficially it is pretty funny, and clever, and I’ve laughed a number of times at the way Charles Simpson delivers Ned Poins’ increasingly furious calling for the hapless under-stinker in the masterful Arkangel audio version.
We might call this a microcosmic example of Hal’s MO. Here, as he does with Falstaff and his crew, and you might argue he does with Hotspur, he dangles the prospect of fortune (pecuniary fortune for Francis and Falstaff, glory for Hotspur), with no intention to repay the debt he HAS promised, never mind the one he never did:
HENRY V. I will give thee for it a thousand pound: ask me
when thou wilt, and thou shalt have it.
EDWARD POINS. [Within] Francis!
FRANCIS. Anon, anon.
HENRY V. Anon, Francis? No, Francis; but to-morrow, Francis;
or, Francis, o’ Thursday; or indeed, Francis, when thou wilt.
Except it’s not when Francis wilt, is it? It never was.
Hal IS the wanton boy, and the rest of the world are his flies. It’s a sociopathic character trait that repeats throughout the three plays he appears in: CRUELTY. And as I’ve said before, I’m with Blanche Dubois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire‘: deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. Hal strikes me as the kind of person who would burn a twenty pound note in front of a homeless person. After sitting and chatting to them for a while, whilst waiting for his late train.
Poins’ prank is one of the consequences of this blithe hope-stoking. There’s a deadly antagonism between him and Falstaff as they battle for Hal’s future patronage. Ned ‘speaks poniards, and every word stabs.‘ (Much Ado, II,ii) Setting that aside, it is an amusing practical joke, and I think it backfires on Poins, inasmuch as it plays into the irrepressible, outrageously hyperbolic fun that underlies so much of Falstaff’s character.
I can’t help but wonder if Tolkien was inspired by the scene. In The Hobbit, Gandalf uses a very similar crescendo to trick his suspicious potential host, Beorn, into accepting a far larger party of bedraggled dwarves (plus, of course, Bilbo Baggins) under his roof. In the play, Falstaff has a disregard for the truth, even for what he said in the last breath, that Donald Trump or our new decidedly sub-Prime Minister would be proud of:
HENRY V. What, four? thou saidst but two even now.
FALSTAFF. Four, Hal; I told thee four
EDWARD POINS. Ay, ay, he said four.
FALSTAFF. These four came all a-front, and mainly thrust at
me. I made me no more ado but took all their seven
points in my target, thus.
It’s glorious fun (divorced as it is from Brexit, etc). Again in the Arkangel, Richard Griffiths (RIP) makes Falstaff’s bombast sing, even when caught out in his lies – in fact he produces one of the biggest laughs of all:
By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.
Utterly, wonderfully, shameless.
Incidentally, look at the way he figures himself as Hal’s second father, here. Amongst the fun, amongst the litany of outrageous, hilarious name calling, there’s a high stakes game taking place.
Having vanquished Poins in the tilting yard, and with the stage his own – as he undoubtedly loves it to be – Falstaff decides to joust further with the Prince, his surrogate son. He revels in his role as the King, and to be fair, so do I. And yet even as we are laughing, Falstaff is always self-promoting. There is an insecurity, perhaps a subliminal understanding that this carnival ride can’t last forever, which is captured with heartbreaking poignancy by Simon Russell Beale‘s performance in The Hollow Crown. It IS funny, but heartbreak is never far away from the best comedy:
FALSTAFF. there is a virtuous man whom I
have often noted in thy company, but I know not his name.
HENRY V. What manner of man, an it like your majesty?
FALSTAFF. A goodly portly man, i’ faith, and a corpulent; of
a cheerful look, a pleasing eye and a most noble
carriage; and, as I think, his age some fifty, or,
by’r lady, inclining to three score; and now I
remember me, his name is Falstaff
there is virtue in that
Falstaff: him keep with, the rest banish.
Here we have the nub of it: Falstaff’s greatest fear, perhaps what his mind is telling him whilst his heart denies it, is banishment. This is the first of eight times he refers to it in the relatively short part of the role-play which remains.
And, as I have suggested in my latest Forensic Friday, it’s interesting to consider to what extent either is playing roles, and how much of what they say is ill-camouflaged truth. When they swap roles, there’s an ‘oh, I say!’ viciousness to Hal’s extended derogation of his sparring partner. With the dramatic irony created by Hal’s opening soliloquy, if we laugh, we laugh a little nervously at Hal’s tirade:
there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an
old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why
dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel
of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed
cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with
the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that
grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in
years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and
drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a
capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft?
wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous,
but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?
Ouch. Suddenly, no-one’s laughing.
The denouement of the play extempore is horribly painful. It’s like having dinner with a couple who are close friends. In the kitchen, whilst helping out before the meal started, one of your friends has confessed that they are planning on asking for a divorce …
Thank God, Shakespeare gets the real world to intrude before this can go any further.
‘Our revels now are ended‘, as Prospero might say.
o o o
My three favourite scenes in Shakespeare? In no particular order:
1 Henry IV, II, iv: for the reasons I’ve already outlined;
Richard III, III,Vii: at school, we’ve always described this one as ‘the play within the play’. Richard, Buckingham and Catesby collude to have the collected good men of London beg a reluctant, pious prince to usurp his nephew for the good of the land; and
Julius Caesar, III.ii: Caesar’s funeral – Brutus justifies the emperor’s murder to the mob, only to have the rug pulled from under him by Mark Anthony’s masterclass in rhetoric
What are yours?
[a] quotations from plays are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org