Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book 137, England: "Henry IV" (Parts One and Two) by William Shakespeare

UPDATE: The country marker for this post was later changed from the United Kingdom to England, due to a decision to cover each of the four nations of the UK separately.

It's been a bloody long time since I finished a book while actually located in the nation that book was written - in fact, that moment was probably three years ago, when I started this blog in Singapore.

And truth be told, the last pages of these plays were read in a country that might not even want to be part of the UK anymore. I'm spending Reading Week in Scotland, zipping between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, St Andrews, holding prolonged conversation with my local informant Scotticus (no, that really is his name) about devolution and the likelihood of secession from the union. In the process, I've learned a bit about how separate this land is - they don't just have their own parliament and banknotes, they've also got a sense of an independent culture - Scotticus didn't even study Shakespeare in English lit! The school did Philip K. Dick instead, which I can't say is an awful choice.

Anyhow: Shakespeare. I know he isn't the most British of writers - he set most of his plays in Italy, for crying out loud - so I'd been thinking about doing Dickens instead, or perhaps a great novelist like George Eliot or Zadie Smith whom I've never actually finished a book by.

But I've been swayed a little by watching Simon Schama's Shakespeare: This England on the plane - piqued by his assertion that Shakespeare was great because he represented the genuine, earthy voices of the pub and the market that still make England England today. In particular, the voices of Falstaff and Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet from his seldom staged duology, Henry IV (Parts One and Two).

Falstaff I'd heard of, of course - he's supposed to be one of the great characters of Shakespeare, popping up again in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which in turn became a Verdi opera. In the Henry plays, he's the wayward father figure whose drunken carousing and mischief-making is viewed as a corrupt force on the young Prince Harry, the future warrior king Henry V. And yet you're supposed to find him a lovable buffoon, a jovial rascal, a character so popular that he promises to come back for further excitement in an epilogue after Part Two (in fact, he died offstage in the first act of Henry V, purportedly because the original actor, William Kempe, had a huge falling out with Shakespeare and left the Lord |Chamberlain's Men to go on a Morris-dancing marathon for London to Norwich).
I didn't actually like Falstaff all that much. One reason, of course, is that reading Shakespeare is hard - even with the Arden footnotes, which are academic rather than explicatory - which dampens the enjoyment of a text. But it's also because he isn't a member of the proletariat: he's a knight who happily exploits the poor, whether by loading the innkeeper Mistress Quickly with credit he can't pay off or by accepting bribes from peasants who don't want to be conscripted into the army and retaining the pay of the poor schmucks who actually get killed in battles. Plus, his whole big prank at the beginning of Part One is a highway robbery. What is this guy, a sociopath?

What makes Falstaff rather more likable, however, is the fact that his rambunctious world of prostitutes and thieves is so much less nasty than that of the kings. There's the gloomy eponymous Henry IV, who feels guilty about his usurpation of Richard II (this is where we get the "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" line), and Prince John, who reneges on his courtly promise to the rebel leaders to do no them no harm, and of course Prince Harry himself, who's supposed to be on a huge coming-of-age voyage, graduating from his wild boyish days to heroic responsibility, but who actually seems to have had the whole teen rebellion thing planned out in a Machiavellian way from his first appearance:

"So, when this loose behavior I throw off  
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,  
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;"

And then at the duology's end, when he's crowned, he refuses to even recognise the fat old man who's Falstaff, and has his old innkeeper Mistress Quickly whipped. Oh, and he acts like a complete dick to Falstaff all through. What a turd bucket.

So really, it's the rebels I have more sympathy with - Henry Hotspur, in Part One, is something of your classic tragic hero, battling against both royal Henries and dying honorably on the battlefield (though his slaying is falsely claimed by Falstaff, who's a coward and liar on top of everything else). The Archbishop of York's got some great lines in Part Two as well. Plus, in their insurrection, they've actually teamed up with the Scots and the Welsh - they're more of a united kingdom than the king's, thank you very much.

Oh, and Doll Tearsheet's got some great speeches too. She's a doxy: Falstaff's paramour, whom he's promised marriage to, and she's tender and loving to him, but she's a sharp-tongued virago to everyone else. Just do a search on her lines in the full text of Part Two. Bad-ass.

Ah, but as Mohan told me, there's no way I'm able to really grok these plays until I've seen them in performance - even on video. And didja know, Orson Welles did a condensed film version? Even Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho is supposed to be a 20th century gay hooker reinterpretation of the tale.

Odd how no-one stages the history plays - other than Richard III, which is arguably to be classed with historical tragedies like Julius Caesar or Macbeth. Richard II's had a recent revival, of course, but King John and Henry VIII and the trilogy of Henry VI plays have kind of ended up on the historical/literary trash heap. Maybe it's because of the way historical fact gets all wound up into these stories, weighing them down with these interminable speeches and milquetoast queens, while legendary stuff like King Lear allows so much more room for the imagination.

Who knows? Anyway, good to get the UK out of the way. I'll return to Scotland if the referendum says over half the population wants independence. I respect self-determination, y'all.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
King: Harry the Fifth is crown'd. Up, vanity
Down, royal state. All you sage counsellors, hence.
And to the English court assemble now,
From every region, apes of idleness.
Now, neighbour confines, purge you of your scum.
Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
The oldest sins the newest kind of ways?
Be happy, he will trouble you no more.
England shall double gild his treble guilt;
England shall give him office, honour, might;
For the fifth Harry from curb'd license plucks
The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog
Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent.
O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that my care could not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
O, thou wilt be a wilderness again.
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants!

Next book: Isak Dinesen's Anecdotes of Destiny, from Denmark.

No comments: