So, what the Hal am I missing? Because to me, this play was a complete snoozefest until Act V, and even when it got exciting, it didn't logically hang together. You have Hotspur in one corner, a bonafide badass who has spent his whole life stomping balls, and Prince Hal in the other, a teenage dirtbag whose master plan is to lower everyone's expectations of him so drastically that he'll look comparatively awesome once he pulls himself together. And Hal bests Hotspur?
NO. Not allowed. I mean, I know it's meant to be what happened in real life. But the rumors about Prince Hal being a youthful delinquent were probably made up by his enemies, and his combat record suggests he was a committed soldier as an adolescent. Besides, regardless of historical veracity, I just don't buy Hal's sudden bid for redemption in Act IV. Since that's the lynchpin of the story, the whole thing fell apart at the end like a soggy burrito.
A quick summary for those who haven't read it: at the start of the play, King Henry IV has just usurped the throne, but is getting some blowback from one of his former supporters, Henry Percy (who goes by "Hotspur"...sounds like Darth Vader's voicebox!). King Henry tries to deal with the dispute rationally, but Hotspur has a huge war boner and cannot be dissuaded from rebellion. For his part, the King actually entertains the idea of making Hotspur heir-apparent since his own son, Hal, would rather be getting trashed with a bunch of goons than learning the ropes of dominion. Yes, Hal is short for Henry because in 14th Century England, EVERYONE MUST BE NAMED HENRY.
The father-son relationship reminds me a little of the one between Tywin and Tyrion Lannister, albeit with less devastating emotional abuse. Like Tyrion, Hal spends the first part of the story in no rush to give up whores and booze, until circumstances force him to face the considerable power thrust upon him. And like Tywin, King Henry actively and publicly wishes that he could get a refund on his son. For example:
King Henry: Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Hal, meanwhile, defends his lifestyle as being some half-baked long con in which tanking his reputation will rack up more political capital than being a capable prince from the get-go. Everyone loves a redemption story, right? He lays out this idea in the below speech—note that he compares himself to the sun a whole bunch. This is one of the many reasons I think Hal is kind of a sociopath. Not only does he deliberately humiliate his father, he manages to spend all his time with people on the lowest rung of the social ladder without ever having one iota of modesty rub off on him. Behold:
Prince Hal: I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Uh, okay...great plan, though it would probably be easier and less hurtful to just be a good person. Honestly, by the time Hal and his friend Poins play a mean practical joke on Falstaff, I realized the Prince is essentially a frat boy with zero empathy for anybody around him (and thus the comparison to Tyrion ends). Even at the end of the play, when he thinks Falstaff is dead, he makes fun of his old friend instead of mourning him. What a callous butt-booger.
Come to think of it, I'm actually not sure why Hal and Falstaff are friends in the first place, because they have a lot of mutual animosity...stuff that goes beyond brotherly ribbing. Some of it boils to the surface after the prank, and results in a fantastic insult war. Behold:
Prince Hal: These lies are like their father that begets them, gross as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou claybrained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow- catch- [...] I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin. This sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh--
Falstaff: 'Sblood, you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish! O, for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck--
So overall, I gotta say, thumbs down to Henry IV, Part I. The first acts of the play were tedious, and the last acts have Hal pulling such a swift 180 on his identity that he must've gotten whiplash. Plus, he kills Hotspur in a fight despite being way less experienced ...just somehow. I don't get it, and I wish I knew what all the fuss was about. ENLIGHTEN ME.
A quick note to my favorite bull pizzles—usually I alternate between comedies, tragedies, and histories, but I'm just going to go ahead and tackle the whole Henriad this time. Not only will this make it easier for me to keep track of all the random lords and ladies waltzing through the tetralogy, it will mean that Twelfth Night will end up being the twelfth review in this series, and that is very pleasing to my latent OCD. So, the next two reviews will be of Henry IV, Part II, and Henry V. May they be better than this play, which was as disappointing to me as Hal was to Henry IV.
But since I don't like to leave on a negative note, here's one of my favorite passages of the play: Falstaff's speech about honor. It rocks dino-balls.
Prince Hal: Why, thou owest God a death.
Falstaff: 'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
Shakespearean Science: When Hal confronts Hotspur on the battlefield, he says, "Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere." Unless it's a binary star system, Shakespeare! Someone go back in time and explain astrophysics to this rookie, because I bet he would write great plays involving black holes.
Real Stumper, Part Deux: As I mentioned in my review of The Merry Wives of Windsor, when I don't know the idioms Shakespeare throws at me, I prefer to leave the interpretation open. For example when Hal says, "Didst thou never see Titan kiss a dish of butter?" Can't say that I ever have, ole Princey.
Most Petty Parrot: Hotspur, irate that the king won't help his captive brother-in-law Mortimer, threatens to buy a parrot "taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer' and give it him." I really appreciate his commitment and creativity in devising imaginary punishments.
Saddest Post-Mortem Stabbing: Falstaff tries to convince everyone that he killed Hotspur by stabbing the corpse in the leg. What an odd note to end a play on—one of your characters just weirdly stabbing random dead people.
Best Nasal Poop Lantern: As Hal leads him into battle Falstaff says, "Thou bearest the lantern in the poop, but 'tis in the nose of thee." All I hear is "you have a poopy lantern in your nose" and that's all I want to hear.