Henry IV Parts 1 and 2

July 29, 2012 at 8:15 pm (literature, Rosie B, theatre, TV)

The Hollow Crown series has been marvellous in direction, acting and settings.

Jeremy Irons, who played Henry IV, also presented a thoughtful documentary about the three Henry plays in the series.  This includes footage of different productions especially those at The Globe and you get an idea of how those plays worked up their audience with contrasting scenes – a comic bit, followed by a love scene, followed by a fight.


I am glad that the plays have been set in medieval times, when these dynastic discords occurred,  and that the actors are wearing chain mail or robes.  The battle scenes, in snow or through bare woods, are excellent, as the warriors get into single combat and  go to it clanking sword againstsword.  Single combat always makes a good spectacle.  Why else employ light sabres in Star Wars?

That is a problem with modern settings of Shakespeare.  How do you make the fights work, especially when the dialogue constantly mentions swords?.  Baz Luhrmann‘s production of Romeo and Juliet tried to get round this by making the camera zoom in on the brand names Sword and Dagger printed on the guns that the Mafia style gangs fought with, but it was a clumsy fix.  Two recent modern productions, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus managed to sneak in a little hand to hand engagement from the blood-thirsty combatants, however unlikely that would be in the age of ballistics.

Macbeth and Coriolanus were both updated to be political thrillers, and they worked well.   But it can  be annoying to have modern parallels pushed at you.  I once saw a production of Coriolanus with the main man goose-stepping, which infuriated me because (a) Coriolanus isn’t a Fascist, just a general bad at democratic politics; (b) even if he were, I don’t want the director holding up Think Mussolini! signs like that  It’s slightly insulting, like being harangued about politics by Rory Bremner.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find parallels in your own times.  Young Prince Hal goes slumming among the low-life and I thought of a rich boy, the son of a CEO or banker, hanging out with rappers, Falstaff being the veteran MC and the Godfather of the Dive Club.


The talking heads in the Jeremy Irons documentary agree that, as King Henry IV wishes Hotspur was his son, so Prince Hal is seeking a father figure in Falstaff.  That is neatly symmetrical, but while there are lines where King Henry says that of Hotspur, there is not one to suggest Hal regards the reprobate Falstaff as anything but a playmate.   Hal is eloquent, quick witted,  – one of Shakespeare’s smart-arses, like Hamlet, a great world-wielder -and his and Falstaff’s exchanges are duelling performances as each out-nouns and out-adjectives each other.

Hal: 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 elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck,—

Tom Hiddleston as Hal suggests lithe and young energy and is an eyeful lounging with the bad ass Poins (David Dawson) in the bathhouse scene.*  He gets all of Hal’s moods – his enjoyment of his own talents and pranks, the splinter of ice that observes coolly his low-life chums while acting as one of them, the growing awareness that one day he will have to do the equivalent of graduating from Harvard and taking his seat on the board.  His knowledge that his wild ways are a gap year before returning to his real life make him unlovably cool and self-contained.   Prince Hal has to grow out of Falstaff, put on the armour and start fighting as a modern privileged roaring boy starts wearing the suit, tapping the blackberry and spending his days in a glass tower to maintain his position in the world.

Simon Russell Beale was a sound fat Falstaff. with his mixture of intelligent cynicism, warmth and the pathos of one feeling age approaching.  Age presses more and more on him while his corruption becomes less amusing as he accepts bribes from the press-ganged working men and exploits the daffy Mistress Quickly’s affection for him (Julie Walters, good, but isn’t Mistress Quickly a marriageable forty or so, not sixty?).

Prince Hal and Falstaff are both complex characters that could come from novels, in that we are given much of their thinking as well as their words.  Around them are simpler and vivid characters – the king, Hotspur, Glendower, Pistol, Justice Shallow.

Jeremy Irons as the king, sick and furrowed with anxiety and guilt is superb. Joe Armstrong, playing Hotspur as a touchy, scrappy whippet of a Geordie lights up every scene he is in, whether rousing his troops, undercutting the operatic Owen Glendower’s grandiosity or teasing his wife.  The scene when Glendower’s daughter sings in Welsh by the fire in the Great Hall while Hotspur and his wife (Michelle Dockery) are together for the last time is very poignant.

This scene’s poignancy is echoed later by Falstaff’s last hours with Doll Tearsheet ( Maxine Peake).  I liked her fierceness and also her tenderness, but in late medieval England surely even a cut-price whore would wear some finery, not just a torn hempen sack.

When Hal and his father go off to do serious business together, i e. put down a rebellion, Hal speaks his father’s language.  The rapping has stopped:-

Henry IV: How bloodily the sun begins to peer
Above yon busky hill! the day looks pale
At his distemperature.

Hal: The southern wind
Doth play the trumpet to his purposes,
And by his hollow whistling in the leaves
Foretells a tempest and a blustering day.

I have not seen the Henry IV plays before.  They are as rich and complex as the great tragedies.   The old feel themselves failing and dwindling and fear the burning young waiting to take their place in the world.  Is there any scene in literature about ageing that is as sad as those between Falstaff and Justice Shallow (a lovely thin reed, David Bamber) talking of their youth?  The powerful use the less powerful and then discard them.  Power colours every relationship – father, son, spouse, friends, comrades.

*Totally gratuitous, as the stage directions just say “A street” but they are fine male specimens.


  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Generally agree but Shakespeare himself did his plays in modern dress – Falstaff’s ramshackle company are armed with calivers (the late Tudor term for arquebuses or muskets) rather than longbows and Fortinbras has cannon in Hamlet (which was inspired by a probably fictitious Viking age king of Denmark).

    Poul Anderson riffed on this in an amusing fantasy novel called IIRC a Midsummer Night’s Tempest where Shakespeare was ‘The Historian’ rather than the playwright and so Prospero and Oberon are real and the English Civil War is accompanied by the industrial revolution (as if Shakespeare’s 1400 had 1600 technology then in his world 1645 would look a lot like 1845 with puritans driving steam trains and Prince Rupert experimenting with hot air balloons).

  2. Rosie said,

    Shakespeare is full of anachronisms – clocks in Julius Caesar, and so on. However Elizabethan weaponry was closer to medieval than to ours, so the hand to hand still makes sense.

    Modern sensibility likes accuracy in such things, so part of the pleasure of watching Henry IV is seeing armour which has been well-researched. I read a bit about the costume design – the chain mail was made out of rubber. You do marvel how fit those guys had to be not just to wear that stuff but fight in it.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      I’d forgotten the clocks in Julius Caesar (although of course Shakepeare was hardly to know what Romans actually dressed and lived like – most of the frescos and mosaics and statuary and friezes that we use as visual references were only discovered in the later C17 or C18 – and those that were in existence c.1600 would have all been in Italy and the Mediterranean and had not been widely reproduced in any format easily accessible to Northern Europeans.

      And barring the occasional fanciful attempt at a toga or Roman parade helmet even Italian Renaissance artists who were more likely to have access to classical images typically represented Romans in Renaissance costumes or those then current in the Ottoman empire (look at Tintoretto’s Crucifixion frex http://uploads6.wikipaintings.org/images/tintoretto/crucifixion-1565.jpg)

      I am a bit of an amateur expert on medieval armour and costumes and the BBC series was actually very variable.

      The Richard II was visually gorgeous but with several screaming anachronisms: the worst of which were the woad-painted barbarian Welshmen straight out of Braveheart and Richard’s beautiful but utterly fanciful gilded plate armour,

      (the two jousters on horseback were also wearing gear several decades too early: 1390s knights wore less plate and more mail – and would never have gone into such a combat without shields and lances – although the number of stunt men who can ride and fight convincingly with shields and lances in plate is probably very limited so this may have been a cost issue).

      The Henry IV’s were better but the knights and footmen at Shrewsbury were generally under-armoured – Orson Welles’s depiction of the battle in Chimes At Midnight http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpTtyLRbQIw from about 0.50 is much better despite the legendary budgetary constraints he was under.

      Above all in the Welles version people are mostly wearing helmets – the one piece of armour even the lowliest archer or billmen would try not to be without – but if all your aristocratic heroes were wearing full-face closed helms and very similar plate mail then it would be difficult to tell them apart (which is why heraldry was so important) so there is always an dramatic reason for the leads behaving suicidally in battle,

      And as various TV films by Mike Loades have shown properly made and fitted medieval armour was by no means as restricting and uncomfortable as generally depicted – the field plate used in battle was actually light enough for a man to run, jump and vault onto a horse in (now why isn’t knightly athletics or indeed jousting an Olympic sport?).

      It was only late Renaissance jousting plate which became so heavy (particularly after Henri II died in a jousting accident and so sparked off the French Wars of Religion) that you sometimes needed a winch to get the man onto horseback.

      Just about to watch the Henry V and may bore on about that.

  3. Rosie said,

    I certainly can’t claim your knowledge of medieval armour. I really liked the jousting helmets in Richard II, especially the one with the bull’s horns.

    For a modern audience, that is part of the spectacle, all that cool armour. In Henry V the Dauphin’s horse has a great neck protector in concertinaed metal. No doubt you will say that was anachronistic.. . I imagine the horses are wrong as well – lighter than medieval horses.

    I’m sorry to hear the Beeb got it wrong here and there. I always thought that costumes are well researched, whereas the screen plays of period novels sometimes make screaming mistakes in language – I heard “parenting” being used in The Turn of the Screw.

  4. Rosie said,

    I had a look at the Chimes at Midnight – very good battle scene and troops wearing helmets a bit like the Tommies in World War I..

  5. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Other than the ridiculous Welsh Woad Warriors in R2 I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were errors – more they made deliberate decisions to fudge some stuff rather than insist on obsessive accuracy to the exact year (and in any case Shakespeare telescopes together the whole reign as if it were a few weeks rather than a dozen years so you’d have had significant continuity issues being 100% accurate anyway).

    And jousts were actually the only place you might see horns (or antlers or wings or whatever) on a helmet – but given their dangerous impracticality they were made of papier mache and stuck on so they would just disintegrate or fall off if hit.

    BTW the footmen’s helmets in Chimes are kettle helmets – so called because they were used for cooking off the field – in fact given that medieval infantry were generally peasants who were called up from the farm for a summer’s campaign and then sent straight home again I imagine that many kettle and pot helmets were exactly that as cast iron was expensive.

    Breastplates were also used as impromptu barbecues or griddles as late as the Battle of Waterloo (where British troops stripped them from dead French cuirassiers to cook their bangers on).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: