Tag Archives: henry iv

An ode to Hal and the histories

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works (abridged) is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. The “histories football match” made me laugh until I almost threw up. I adore the histories, I wrote a nerdy sixth form college essay on Hal, and Henry V once gave me an inappropriate case of patriotism by proxy, but maybe that’s why the football match is so hilarious to me. They reduce eight plays to a three-minute tussle for the crown, and in many ways, that’s what the histories can seem to be, especially the Henry VI ones.

But they’re also intricate studies of character. Falstaff and Richard III may be the most famous ones, but there are so many other fantastic roles in there. For me, the young prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V, remains the most compelling character of the histories.

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Lookit! There’s my college nerd paper, complete with my fan girl drawing of Michael Maloney and Julian Glover on the cover page.

The reason I wrote that essay was that I’d read so many critics who painted him as a scheming turn-coat. I seem to have a thing for morally questionable Shakespeare characters (Coriolanus being another), so I set about to defend him against such slander.

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For this was in the days of dot matrix printing…

For me, he’s the teenage Everyman who has to leave his carefree youth behind and shoulder his adult responsibilities. I don’t really have any sympathy for the Falstaff-huggers, since in spite of his larger-than-life persona, he’s actually kind of an asshole. He may have been a surrogate father to Hal, because the king is a bit low on the touchy-feely-o-meter, but he also has no scruples about deriding him in public or lying about killing Hotspur, who was Hal’s grand prize in the war. Sure, the old man is witty and charismatic, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Of course Hal has to leave him behind.

So much for the philosophy. Now on to the clothes. Adrian Noble’s fantastic 1991 production of the two parts of Henry IV didn’t just star Julian Glover and Michael Maloney, it also starred a costume designer named Deirdre Clancy (branded on my memory forever). Before seeing those clothes, I had no real appreciation for the texture of suede hose, the length of boots or the cut of shirts.

There are so many valid reasons to love Shakespeare, don’t you agree?

But back to the more cerebral stuff. The funny thing is that the histories aren’t very historical. For example, Henry IV says he wishes his infant son had been replaced with Hotspur:

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!

But at the time Hal was a baby, Hotspur was already grown up! And the histories are filled with inaccuracies like that – either because Shakespeare didn’t know any better, or because he didn’t care. I’m leaning towards the latter.

In the same vein, I’ve had the characters in Rival Poet speak in a modern way, because I didn’t want the action and the vibrance of the tale clouded by arcane language. Of course, this may be jarring to some readers, but I chose to do it because I wanted the story to feel as if it took place right now, out there in the street or at your local corner pub.

And now I’m comparing myself to old Willie himself to rationalise it…

I’ll end this rambling post with a film tip: The Hollow Crown. Especially Richard II with Ben Wishaw in the title role is absolutely magnificent. That play isn’t even among my favourites, but he does the king with such… I don’t even know. He brings him to life. Makes him understandable, even though he’s kind of weird.

In fact, I think I’ll try to persuade the husband to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday tonight by watching it in our cinema!

What are the odds?

You know why I write? Because life is effing strange, that’s why. And I want to document, explore and exploit that strangeness.

I’m sitting here in the living room with my husband, listening to Saxon’s Crusader, and I’m looking at the album cover. Suddenly my eyes snag on the coat of arms worn by one of the soldiers, and I sit up straight and burst out, “It’s the Henry IV coat of arms! But he didn’t go on a crusade, did he? The play starts with him complaining that he’s too ill to go. Not that Shakespeare got his reputation for being historically accurate, but…”

And so on and so forth. Geeky, yes. But the geekiness isn’t the point. It’s the utter randomness of it all.

Let’s look at the chain of events. Once upon a time in a random country, a random king chose a perhaps not so random coat of arms. It contained the French fleur de lys and the English lion, since his ancestors (and his son) laid claim to France.

A couple of hundred years later, a random Warwickshire boy writes about him, and it’s a hit. The success of his plays are so enduring that, four hundred years later, they’re still produced all over the world. Including the one about the random king.

Enter an even more random player in this strange, eventful history: a Swedish fifteen year old girl who travels to England with her parents to cycle all through the summer and watch a few plays in Stratford. One of the plays is the Adrian Noble production of Henry IV part 1&2, and the girl falls so hard for it that she gets a concussion. Twenty-five years later, she’s still obsessive enough to write a blog post about it. Twenty-five years later, the coat of arms with the fleur de lys and the lion still mean something to her. Those symbols that have long since lost their original meaning for most people — for her, they’re the epitome of nostalgia.

I mean… you couldn’t think it up if you tried!

And now imagine something from our own time and place having that kind of symbolic value for somebody in 500 years’ time. For example, the Swedish king’s official motto having sentimental value to someone in 2416 Argentina.

Mind-bogggling, isn’t it? But it happens. It happens all the time. As humans, we seek for patterns and symbols in everything, and the meanings of artifacts change and change again, moving in and out of the personal, in and out of the general.

The distorted echoes of history. Seriously. It’s the reason to write.