Henry IV, Part 1: Big Fat Questions

Al Foote III

Everybody loves Falstaff. The rotund knight—his appetite for life as large as his corpulent body, his respect for truth and conventional morality as small as his desire to pay his bar tab—is one of Shakespeare’s best-beloved creations. He’s so vivid, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook the unfortunate detail that he’s not the main event in Henry IV, Part 1, the play that contains his most memorable moments.

And for contemporary audiences, that’s a Falstaff-size problem. The piece is split between the delightful so-called tavern scenes, in which young Prince Hal hangs out with Falstaff, carousing, cavorting, and committing petty crimes (while making some of the very best fat jokes extant in the English language), and a rougher world of realpolitik, destined to be Hal’s future sphere when he becomes King Henry V. A civil war is brewing, as Hal’s father, Henry IV, his new regime shaky, tries to fend off the (quite valid) claims of a rival faction. Lest we forget, Hal’s dad toppled the previous king, Richard II, in a vicious power grab—and Richard’s surviving relatives are justifiably peeved.

Names like Mortimer and Bolingbroke would have been as familiar to Shakespeare’s spectators as the sparring sides represented by Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are to us—but the intricacies of ancient British politics are not as well known now, and we all need a little help to know why, exactly, we should care about who wins the war. What’s at stake for us in Shakespeare’s battles? How do the humorous high jinks and the backroom negotiations fit together?

The Pearl’s well-meaning but fuzzy revival of Henry IV, Part 1, directed by Davis McCallum, doesn’t have good answers for these questions. It possesses an affable if somewhat muted Falstaff in Dan Daily, attacks the tavern sequences with enthusiasm, and makes a game stab at elucidating the power-brokering machinations. But the production appears so fatigued by the effort of heaving the play’s complex plot onstage that it can’t summon the effort to tell us why that herculean task was necessary. We get the requisite tacky sword fights, overstressed consonants, and occasional glimmers of poetry. What we don’t see is the political intelligence governing this supremely politically minded play.

Shakespeare’s histories were a vast investigation of the brutal dynastic conflicts that produced his society, and the four plays known as the Henriad—Richard II (which the Pearl produced last year), the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V—constitute a searching examination of the balance between public and private factors in the education of a monarch. What kind of king should lead a nation? A humane but weak one, like Richard II? Or a ruthless politician, like Henry IV?

These two principles are at war in the person of Hal, and Henry IV, Part 1 ends with doubt about which will prevail. Can he remain fun-loving Hal, or does kingship require a hardened Henry? But though these questions are as urgent for us as they were for Shakespeare, the Pearl’s production leaves us with only a funny fat man and a little war.

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