Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories
Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 673-757).
Why Shallow ? He is partly a foil for Falstaff, believe it or not. Even Jack sees through his old acquaintance’s claims to a riotous youth, his selective and creative memory about his own personal past. Shallow is “shallow” because the currents of time, for him, run thin – there’s no depth or authenticity in him. Falstaff is privileged for a while to be near the royal sunshine, at least while it’s clouded over. He meets some of the great people of the times, like Henry IV’s sons as they march across the stage of English history. But not Shallow.
The disorder of rebellion has transformed men from their proper selves – a theme that provides some of the more powerful rhetoric in the play. The Archbishop comes in for criticism most of all since he turns his religious authority towards taking down the king. This kind of distortion from right office and proportion is the dark potential in historical change. Hal, by contrast, is more like Jove hiding himself to practice his deceptions before returning to Olympus. He is friends with that old lord of misrule, Falstaff, who is constantly described as being almost like “Vice” in a morality play, but it turns out, as we are told from the outset, to be true that Hal is in league with providence and that his sense of time is redemptive. Misrule is an education for him, a pattern by which to judge the wrongdoers he will later need to deal with sharply. A prince royal or a king may be “but a man,” but it seems we aren’t to judge him on quite the same temporal scale as we judge others.
The source of Henry IV’s fear, we know already from the first play, is guilt because he had initiated his own rule at the expense of Richard II’s death, and the consequences have been violent revolt. Now that peace is restored, he fears his heir will unleash the spirit of revelry and greed upon the kingdom, achieving only an anarchic reign rather than true succession, which had been the king’s best hope for a happy continuation of his dynasty.
In Act 4 note the parallel with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – could you not wait with me even for an hour? Yet we see the inappropriateness of this reference because Henry IV is no angel, considering how he came by the crown.
The play stages reflections on the private personal mythologies of men like Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow, mythologies that have currency and scope only within such characters’ restricted social circuits. But we know that such “personal mythologies” are by no means limited to small or middling characters; recall Owen Glendower’s sureness that the very heavens quaked with prodigies at his birth, or the manner in which Harry Monmouth, Bolingbroke, i.e. Henry IV, came by his crown. Ever the public-relations expert, he is dealing with the necessity of crafting a legend and an image that the people will accept, casting this image before himself as an interpretive guide to his actions present, past, and future. It seems that some (like Henry IV and Falstaff) are more self-conscious about this “creative” process, and try to use it to their gain, while others, like good Master Shallow, engage in it more or less unconsciously, to cover up the void of their present existence. (We notice Shallow’s concern for advancing age, the yawning grave – something Falstaff has shrunk from, too.) Some, like Henry IV, see the limitations and perils of this drive to mythology, too. Perhaps they use it after the manner of Plato’s well-intentioned philosopher kings in The Republic. I suppose Falstaff is in his way just as reflective, though of course his way of dealing with it is to turn to cynicism and moral relativity that can have dire consequences for those who serve him, like the poor ragamuffins who are “peppered with shot” under his cowardly command. Falstaff has certainly mixed with the great, taking his part in the weaving of history, thus showing that they are not gods. Ultimately, Hal’s promise to maintain the lie that graces Falstaff’s absurd pretensions can’t be sustained: the great events and their aftermath demand better, and he is swept aside with nothing but a vague promise of possible rehabilitation, redemption. But we know from Henry V that old Jack dies a sad, broken man, lost in his abandonment by the prince he loved.
The sentimental moments in WS’s portrayal of Falstaff are genuine, but their scope is ruthlessly limited by events and great personages from the tapestry of English history. This is something his plays’ very structure is determined to bring home to us. Word and sentiment can’t be permanently subordinated to action, and in the end, the world is not to be sacrificed to a quibble or a quibbling character. On a more existential level, this “roasted manning-tree ox with the pudding in the middle” Jack, brimming with life and overflowing, bursting his proper confines, is reduced to his true dimensions: the ones left him by a life poorly lived and a decaying mass of flesh. Everyone, as the meanest soldier in King Henry IV or V’s army might have told him, “owe God a death.” It’s his privilege that no less a man than Prince Hal informs him of his responsibilities.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake