The hardest part of staging the two parts of Henry IV has to be how damn busy the play is despite only indulging in one real battle scene. Henry V has all of the action-based catharsis (especially on film), but Richard II and Henry IV mostly contain a lot of buildup to a cunning fizzle, ending in overpowering betrayal or in the one-on-one duel between Hal and Hotspur. But there’s still a ton of winding threads within the plot. From tying off loose ends with Hotspur’s father Northumberland and his now widowed daughter-in-law to the fate of Mistress Quickly’s tavern, subplots run amok from battlefield negotiations to an aside in the country with an old acquaintance.
Which is probably why once again director Richard Eyre cuts liberally from the play. What’s left is essentially the tragic fall of Sir John Falstaff with short arcs of the other threads abbreviated throughout. By the end, Henry’s son and Hal’s brother John of Lancaster has tricked all the remaining rebels into a false peace and packed them off for execution; Hal is crowned Henry V; and the superstitiously tainted circumstances under which Henry IV ascended to the throne have a brief respite with a legendary figure wearing the crown.
I’m not sure exactly how the performance legacy of Henry IV ended up playing the king as a much older man, with Hotspur as an equal rival to Hal. In reality, Hotspur was significantly older than the king, and died in battle five years before Henry succumbed to his final fatal illness—when the Prince was in his mid-20s. But here in the play King Henry is a withering old man, progressively growing madder by the day, and alternately clutching his crown and cursing the prince’s continued merriment with friends of ill repute. Jeremy Irons gets an extended version of what Patrick Stewart goes through in the matter of one scene in Richard II, slowly descending into madness as his advisors (including Iain Glen in a somewhat thankless role) can only stand idly by and worry about what happens when the crows shifts to the son.
But Henry IV Part II is Falstaff’s play. A gloat, a liar, a thief, and a villain by all accounts in the first play, here Shakespeare delves deeper into both his wickedness and his humanity when removed from the Prince’s company. Threatened as a terrible companion to the prince by the Chief Justice at the outset of the play, Falstaff is banking on his friendship with Hal—which he sees as impossible to break—to give him the opportunity to raid the royal coffers and indulge in every extravagance. Maybe it’s that Simon Russell Beale gets more to do than in the first half, or that he’s better suited to tapping into the indignant melancholy, but his performance as Falstaff in this film is superior to the first half.
Broke and suffering from Gout, Falstaff desperately does not want to return to war, and wants to see his friend Hal on the throne so he can reap the benefits of nepotism. Never once does it cross his mind that his own negative behavior could have any negative consequences. But he recognizes just how close to the end he’s getting. After deflecting questions of age in the opening of the play, Falstaff brings that topic up multiple times, as he really needs the money to take care of himself, and to indulge in plenty of sack. His most compassionate moment comes in Mistress Quickly’s tavern, enjoying the company of Doll Tearsheet. It’s a tender scene, made funny by Poins and Hal’s intrusions, but also scary by Pistol’s drunken assaults, that succeeds at drumming up sympathy for who has previously been a monstrous fool. It shows that Falstaff isn’t the creature of pure bravado and trickery he projects, but actually has some awareness of his state, and how badly he needs his friendship with Hal to work out in his favor.
But Falstaff remains full of himself to the point that he deserves existential punishment. He collects raggedy soldiers—and tacitly allows those who have money to bribe their way out of service—to show up late to the final significant battle with the rebels that doesn’t take place, captures an important man by total accident, and alternately mocks Hal in front of others and brags about how his fortunes will be great when his friend ascends to the throne. Part II makes Falstaff a lot more sympathetic, thanks to Beale’s performance and the Eastcheap scene with Doll, but he’s still not blameless in his fate.
As for the other half of the plot—and it’s always been a bit ridiculous that the title king plays second fiddle in both plays named for him—I’ve always felt a little strange about Henry IV’s death and Hal’s coronation into Henry V, since until the elder king starts to fully give over to his illness Hal doesn’t do much in the play except once again stealthily observe Falstaff to hear his true feelings. But once Hal races to the castle in order to be by his father’s side, I was immediately enraptured. Jeremy Irons got his featured moment with the “Heavy lies the head that wears a crown” soliloquy, but Tom Hiddleston shows once again that he makes a better prince than a king. Once he takes the crown, hoping to ease his father’s burden, the play reaches its courtly pinnacle, as Irons and Hiddleston finally approach each other as opposite titans. Hal defers to his father and makes the first truly honest, impassioned plea perhaps in his entire life, and it’s enough for the king to simply sit down and share one final moment of advice before actually crowning Henry V for the first time. That stretch of the play is the strongest part outside of Beale’s bumbling Falstaff material.
My personal favorite version of this story is My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s version that abbreviates plot elements of Henry IV and Henry V—really just that Keanu’s prince character equivalent marries a girl from mainland Europe for the latter—while simultaneously depicting a street hustler’s journey to find his mother. But the least developed character in that version is the Falstaff stand-in Bob Pigeon. The final acts of Henry IV Part II show Falstaff in the throes of nostalgia, reminiscing with a man appropriately named Shallow for his superior intellect. But then Falstaff gets the call, and he supposed that the now King Henry V must want his greasy, portly, disheveled best friend at court, to toss aside the Chief-Justice and let sack run rampant through the streets. It’s one of the great examples of pride before the fall in all drama.
When done right, the final scene of the play can be the most devastating in all of Shakespeare. I’ve seen versions that have made me ardently care for Falstaff and utterly despise Henry’s heel turn to the throne; I’ve also seen mockingly flat version that convey neither the depth of Falstaff’s heartbreak and self-deception nor Henry’s forcibly changed attitude in a promise to his father. In Eyre’s film, it falls somewhere in the middle. Beale looks appropriately pained, and Hiddleston projects the correct mix of cold and steeled—internalizing his father’s final lesson which redouble his commitment to his plan from the beginning.
Henry V is an against-all-odds, inspirational war hero, but Henry IV shows what he had to give up in order to get there. And it’s not pretty. He connects with his father on and around his deathbed in their first significant, honest conversation in a four—hour story. Henry brushing off Hal’s foolishness as divine intervention allowing his son the chance to make such an eloquent explanation is one of the most heartwarming moments in the play. The emotional depth of that scene between Irons and Hiddleston sold the quick transition for me, though I still think it’s silly for Hal to change a little bit after going to war with Hotspur, and then again taking time until his father’s death to truly change his ways.
If there’s one flaw in all of this, it’s that Prince Henry never feels very conflicted about this choice. He’s always a youthful conspirator, declaring opening in Part I that his intention is to eventually leave all of his old friends behind. And though watching his father pass away into his arms tips the scales toward obeying his father and becoming the war hero king, he doesn’t express anything but resolve or offer anything but correction to the skeptical faces populating his court. The way Hiddleston plays the Prince, there’s only venom in his rejection of Falstaff, eviscerating every last weakness, flaying the poor guy in front of everyone. And in the saddest bit of denial, Falstaff still tries to tell his friends that the king will call on him again in private, that they just can’t have a public relationship. That’s the precise moment everything goes to shit, as arrests are finally made. It’s a tragically simple ending for one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters played by one of the greatest living Shakespeare actors.
Orson Welles saw perhaps too much of himself in the rotund megalomaniac cad with aspirations of ascending to the highest possible social status while simultaneously indulging in his baser impulses. Why else would he claim Chimes At Midnight to be his personal favorite film? The Hollow Crown has adequately re-adapted both parts of Henry IV, but they stop short of anything more than solid baselines for adapting these two plays. Again, the plays are hampered by the thematic and aesthetically reined in style, and preserve most of the subplots in some small form so as to maintain a consistent approach over four films. For that to work every other aspect has to be truly superb. What stands out from Henry IV are a handful of masterfully acted scenes by phenomenal actors, and after that the unfortunate fact that this version would’ve been better off choosing a bold focus and sticking to it instead of shooting for the middle of the road.
- Another small bit of history Shakespeare never acknowledges: the future Henry V was around 10 when his father was exiled, and Richard II took him in, and they journeyed to Ireland.
- Once again, the only significant female character in the play has her lines butchered. Other than that I was pretty happy with how Eyre cut the play manuscript and fit it together, cutting between scenes, moving text around to where it made better sense. And Eyre's staging choices work in his favor, especially the scene of Falstaff and Shallow by the fire.