The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 3 February 2014



or, to give it its full title,


So no spoilers there.

First things first. Who are the Doctor Who people in this? Well, there's the Pirate Captain, Balaton, Wulnoth the Saxon, Corporal Lane and 'Mathematician'. There's also Jack Galloway, who really had his work cut out trying to make sense of the character of Willow in The Awakening, Jenny 'Sabormyhusbandmylovewhydidyoudoitwhywhy' Laird and David Neal (it took me about half an hour to work out where I had seen him before, I'm giving no clues). Plus, in a rather neat bit of casting coincidence, taking over from Elisabeth Spriggs as Mistress Quickly is Brenda Bruce. Quite useful as she is landlady of the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap where bits of door are quite frequently seen flying about the place.

I say 'taking over' but this is in no way a continuation from Merry Wives. It continues directly from Henry IV Part One, Merry Wives is not canon, it is not part of the continuity, it is a 'sidestep'. No-one in this adventure has any recollection of the events of Merry Wives, and there is no way the two can be reconciled. They may both contain characters called Justice Shallow but they are entirely different people - here Shallow is an old friend of Falstaff's, in Merry Wives he was just an incredibly annoying berk played by Alan Bennett. Similarly Mistress Quickly and, to a lesser extent, Falstaff are completely different characters. Only Bardolph could conceivably be the same Bardolph, but he's a rather dull stereotype - he's Bostock out of Revelation of the Daleks, a vagrant who works as Falstaff's factotum.

What is it with the name Bardolph? This play not only has Bardolph the smelly, but a Lord Bardolph as well. It's not a common name so it's bizarre it should crop up twice in the same play. Then again, this is from the same guy who brought us Gromio and Gremio. Maybe somebody called Bardolph gave Shakespeare extra money to include characters called Bardolph in his plays. It would explain a great deal.

Interestingly - well, maybe not, I shouldn't big this up in advance - there's an odd congruity between the names Shakespeare and Falstaff. Not just because spears and shafts are quite similar, but because they were both euphemisms for big cocks. The prefix 'fal' means deceitful (i.e. false) so Falstaff might mean 'big cock who talks shit'. Gosh I am scholarly today it must be these new underpants I'm wearing.

Structurally this play is pretty much a re-working of Henry IV Part One, in the same way that Return of the Jedi is a bit like A New Hope. The first three acts switch between the high politics of the King's court, the various rebels forging their alliances and Falstaff and Prince Hal mucking about in the pub. The play then switches to a battlefield and Prince Hal has what might be called a catharsis of morality.

It has to be said, though, that things were done better in Part One. The Falstaff japes this time once again involve Prince Hal and his chum Poins disguising themselves - but rather than to stage a dramatic highway robbery, this time it's merely to overhear Falstaff trying to stick his big cock into Doll Tearsheet, the prostitute. Quite why he is so keen to do this I'm not sure, as the dialogue makes it quite clear that the last time he shagged her she gave him a rather painful sexually transmitted disease. I'm not sure which disease but it was associated with a burning sensation; other people more expert on these matters may be able to identify the culprit. Some sort of flaming cockrot.

Second time round, the battle isn't as good either. In Part One, you may remember, it was about Hotspur versus Prince Hal, and there were bloody bodies flying about the place in the manner of bits of door at the Boar's Head Tavern, Eastcheap. This time round, the battle doesn't really get started as there are 'peace talks', and the rebels are arrested by the Earl of Westmoreland before anybody can unsheathe. So the only action we get to see is the King's men hitting the rebel soldiers over the head with sections of tree as they run away in all directions.

Part Two also repeats the joke of Falstaff recruiting his own regiment, a 'World's Worst Step' bunch of soldiers totally ill-equipped for battle; first time round it was because he was keeping some of the wages for himself, this time it's because he's taking bribes from potential conscripts who don't want to fight. On the one hand, it's a deliberate echo of the earlier scene; on the other hand, it is just recycling. We're not being asked to draw ironic contrasts, it is just more of the same - indeed, this play contains one of the earliest examples of characters pointing out the shortcomings of the play (‘Hanging a lantern’) where Hal and Poins point out that listening to Falstaff chatting up a trollop isn't as exciting or funny as that bit in the last play where they did a robbery.

The repetition of structure also means that the character of Hal, who had gone some way towards reconciling with his father at the end of Part One, has now been re-set switched back to square one, pretty much, so that he can make a similar journey through this story. Even after his exploits on the field at Shrewsbury, he's back to his old ways, kicking in the doors at the Boar's Head Tavern, Eastcheap.

These Henry IV plays - and Richard II - are a development over the earlier histories. The earlier histories were concerned largely with events, with battles, with the endless game of 'you're it' that constituted the war of the Roses. Dicky II and the Henry IV's, though, don't have that much event to get across, and are instead more explorations of themes and ideas. Dicky II is 'How do you get rid of a bad King' and Henry IV part one is 'Should Kings be remote, or should they court popularity?' And Part Two is all about the burden of being King, and what it means to become a King. This is because Part Two, uniquely amongst Shakespeare's plays, has a succession from King to first-born son - the way it’s supposed to work - and Hal is uniquely the only prince who has grown up whilst his father was still on the throne, in the knowledge that one day his father will die and he will take over the Big Job With The Shiny Headgear.

When the play gets interesting - the last two acts - that's what it's all about. It's about the old King finding a sort of closure, as he dies in the hope that his death will end the rebellions, as everybody he has pissed off is now either dead or has f*cked off to Scotland. His hope is that whilst the country couldn't unite behind a 'usurper', they will be more loyal to a King who has inherited the job.

And it's all very touching. Hal thinks his father is dead, which causes Hal to suddenly grow up, as he knows he now has to rise to the occasion of being King. He takes the crown from his dad's bedside, and, with due solemnity of purpose, puts it on. His father then turns out to be not dead yet - 'I'm get-ting better!' - but, seeing that his son now has, finally, developed a sense of responsibility, of honour, courage and all round Kingy-ness, he can, at last, reconcile with him and die, safe in the knowledge that his shiny hat is in good hands.

His dying suggestion is that perhaps it might be a good idea to go to war with the French, to give the people back home something to unite about, because although we may all dislike each other, we all hate the bloody French. With their baguettes and garlic and sexy black and white films.

The second knockout bit of business in this play comes towards the end. Falstaff learns of King IV's death, and presumes that now that his young friend Hal is king, he will be made Lord Chief Justice, just as Hal has promised. Falstaff tells all his friends that he is, like Sonya from Echobelly, destined for great things. He joins the crowd as the King does his walkabout after his coronation, and shouts out, 'Remember me!'.

And Hal, now King Henry V, rejects him. He says he does not know him, that their time together was like a bad dream from which he has now awoken a changed man (like Paul Weller). He publicly mocks and humiliates Falstaff for being old and foolish, and arranges for him to be banished from the country (by conscripting him into the navy, if I understand it correctly). Henry V has no time for his old door-splintered friends from the Boars Head Tavern, Eastcheap. In a way, it was foreshadowed by having Hal privately taking the piss out of Falstaff for being old and foolish in the scenes in the pub in Act II; but this time, he doesn't make it alright by saying 'only joking, old mate' afterwards.

The guy playing Falstaff is very good here, as his eyes fill with tears waiting for the 'only joking, old mate' that never comes. This is the big, heartbreaking moment that the two plays have been building towards. The audience has known all along that the relationship between Falstaff and Hal was untenable, that one day Hal would have to dump his old friend on the quayside as he was piped up the gangplank of the ship of state. But Falstaff doesn't know that, and you can't help but feel sympathy for the poor guy as all his hopes for greatness are dashed, and with not a little cruelty. Maybe that's why the character is so compelling; he's like Hancock, or Del Boy; he has delusions of grandeur, but he is his own worst enemy by always over-reaching in his ambitions, and whilst he is a comic character, he is ultimately very tragic.

I haven't really touched on the plot in any great detail, because I can't be arsed. My main thoughts with regard to that is the sheer pointlessness of the whole business with Northumberland deciding not to join in the rebellion but instead to f*ck off to Scotland. And we don't get to see Owain 'birth-quake' Glendower either, his Leek-wielding uprising of buckle-hatted close-harmony coalminers is squished offstage.

I should also mention that this play seems to be the origin of the pithy phrases 'eating me out of house and home' and 'as dead as a doornail' and it's also where we get 'the chimes of midnight' from (used for both an Orson Welles adaptation of the Henry IVs and a very good Doctor Who audio adventure). There's also a very funny monologue from Falstaff about the benefits of drinking; it provides courage, wit, and vigour, apparently. And it causes Joe Lidster to fall over a lot.

Next up:  As You Like It

1 comment:

  1. "I'm not sure which disease but it was associated with a burning sensation; other people more expert on these matters may be able to identify the culprit." My guess would be gonorrhoea. It was around then, and known as the "burning". And it's on its way back.