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.
At the end of Richard II, Richard has been deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. We know Henry either ordered or suggested Richard’s murder, so he has royal blood on his hands. Now Henry is on the throne as Henry IV; this play follows his attempts to remain king in the face of an uprising. Henry IV is the title character, but his son (Prince Hal) is really more the focus of this play.
Prince Hal is the Shakespearean character I want to love–but it’s tricky. At the beginning of the play, he’s a prodigal son. He wastes time in taverns, pulls pranks, and commits petty crimes. It’s easy to like this Prince Hal, the easygoing, carefree friend of Falstaff. But there’s an edge to Hal that doesn’t let you laugh along with him. Even as he sits with his friends, his words are full of double-meanings. By his soliloquy in Act I, you want to sympathize with him as you would with Hamlet, but, again, there’s an edge. How does Prince Hal know that his reformation will work? How does he know that he’ll redeem his wasted youth? Underneath this free spirit there is a politician–a king. You can tell that all of his words have been measured carefully. It doesn’t matter to whom he is speaking, he is speaking politically. And that’s the side of Hal I don’t trust.
Prince Hal is constantly compared to Harry Hotspur, the leader of the rebellion against the king. There are some great speeches where King Henry laments his own son’s behavior when he sees how noble and honorable Harry Hotspur is.
**This is one of the biggest historical changes Shakespeare makes. Prince Hal and Hotspur would not have been contemporaries. In reality, Hotspur was much older. It’s clever how Shakespeare manipulates historical fact in order to provide a foil for his characters.
As far as other characters are concerned, there’s really only one other character in this play that deserves a mention here: Falstaff. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, but I have to admit, I’m not in the fan club. I see the humor in him, but I also see the baseness of his character, and it makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s Shakespeare’s point–none of these characters are good all the way through, just like none of us are. Falstaff makes me squirm, and Hal makes me a little uneasy, but that’s life. We are all waiting for some kind of reformation or redemption.
The history side of these plays is really confusing. Shakespeare’s audience would have known who everyone is, but I’m lost without my family trees. While I’m trying to supplement my historical knowledge, it’s also interesting to see history unfold according to Shakespeare. Granted, Shakespeare humanized these characters and altered the chronologies to make them interact in a dramatic fashion, but I’m enjoying seeing these events for the first time.
Reading Shakespeare is great, but seeing it performed really gives life to the words. After all, plays are meant to be performed, not just read. Check back for my review “The Hollow Crown” adaptation, starring everyone’s favorite Asgardian villain, Tom Hiddleston, and Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery).