TT: Henry IV, Part 2

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and take a look at how I decide if a story is a car crash or not.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we steal a title from Shakespeare and have more fun with the Henries.

JANE: Henry IV certainly picked a difficult way to become king.  Was his reign supported by his subjects?

Prince Harry and Lord Hotspur

Prince Harry and Lord Hotspur

ALAN: For much of his reign, Henry found himself fighting battles the length and breadth of England as various factions disputed his claim to lead them. The Welshman Owen Glendower saw this as the perfect excuse to throw off the English yoke and, in the far north of the country, Henry Percy (“Hotspur”), the Earl of Northumberland, tried three times to overthrow the king.

JANE: So, basically, Henry didn’t have a very easy time of it.  I suppose once you’ve shown that the status quo can be upset, other people decide they might as well have a chance at unsettling your claim.

ALAN: Henry’s problems weren’t helped by the fact that he developed an illness which his contemporaries referred to as leprosy. Nobody is quite sure what the illness actually was (suggestions range from leprosy, through syphilis to psoriasis) but it was definitely disfiguring.  He also suffered several acute attacks of what might have been epilepsy or possibly some sort of cardiovascular problem. He died of his illnesses in 1413.

JANE: A disfiguring illness would be a problem for a ruler even today.  Weakness is not permissible.  In a day and age where such illnesses were often taken as a sign of God’s displeasure, “leprosy” and epilepsy both would have been seen as God’s punishment for slaying God’s anointed monarch.

As you mentioned earlier, Henry planned to free the Holy Land from the “infidel.”  If he had succeeded, that would have gone a long way to redeeming his reputation.  Wasn’t there a prophecy that Henry would die in Jerusalem?

ALAN: Yes, there was. Henry always assumed that this meant he would die gloriously in battle on his avowed crusade to free the Holy Land. In reality, he died in the Jerusalem Chamber of the house of the Abbot of Westminster.  Holinshed records the prophecy, but he might well have inserted it after the fact for dramatic purposes, and Shakespeare, of course, fell on the idea with glad cries of glee because it perfectly suited his play!

JANE: For those of you who aren’t either history or literature buffs, Holinshed’s Chronicles were a widely circulated “history” of the English monarchy.  Shakespeare drew so heavily upon it that scholars have made careers out of showing where Holinshed must have been Shakespeare’s source because the play perpetuates errors that (as far as anyone knows) only occur in Holinshed.

As Alan said, Shakespeare, for whom a good bit of drama always ruled over historic accuracy, uses the element of the crusade and this misunderstood prophecy to good effect.  At the end of Richard II, the new King Henry IV promises to make his journey to the Holy Land.  In Henry IV, Part 2, the dying king asks the name of the room into which he is being carried.  Hearing it is called Jerusalem, he accepts his fate with kingly fortitude: “It hath been prophesied to me many years,/I should not die but in Jerusalem,/ Which vainly I suppos’d the Holy Land,/But bear me to that chamber, there I’ll lie,/ In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.”

ALAN: Bill the Bard was quite notorious for preferring drama over history. My favourite example is “the Scottish play” which we studied in minute detail at school. Almost nothing in it resembles the actual history of which he was writing. James VI (of Scotland) had just inherited the English throne and Shakespeare’s play is deliberately stuffed with Jamesian references and parallels. James was a great patron of the theatre and Shakespeare wanted to ingratiate himself with the new monarch. Who can blame him?

JANE: Absolutely, although one sub-set of the plays are commonly called Shakespeare’s “Histories,” that’s only to differentiate them from his Comedies and Tragedies.  In reality, the Swan of Avon never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

The two plays about Henry IV are among of the best examples of this.  One of the greatest liberties the Bard took was with the ages of the characters.  King Henry is presented as not only infirm, but old.  He was actually only 46 when he died.  However, having a king teetering on the brink of the grave added tension to plot elements dealing with his wayward heir.

ALAN: Oh, he did that all the time. In reality, the Scottish King Duncan was a reckless and very unpopular young man, but in the play Shakespeare has him as a well-loved and kind old man so as to make Macbeth’s crime seem that much more horrible.

JANE: You’re right about Macbeth being widely varied from its historical sources!

Another bit of age juggling takes place with Prince Harry and Hotspur.  In the plays they are presented as roughly the same age.  In reality, they were roughly a generation apart.  This provides better parallels between the two characters, leading an ignorant reader of the plays (as I certainly was in my first encounter) to wonder why Harry can’t live up to Hotspur’s example.  If the disparity in age had been preserved, the reader’s (or playgoer’s) reaction would be more like “Hey, give the kid a chance to grow up before comparing him to Hotspur.”

Shakespeare also compressed the time between the four great military conflicts of Henry’s reign.

ALAN: I presume you mean the so-called Abbot’s conspiracy (1399), the Percy Revolt (1401), Scrope’s  Rebellion (1405), and the Northumberland uprising of 1408? Mind you, since the Percies were ringleaders in the last three uprisings, I’m not sure it makes any sense to differentiate them. I tend to think of all three of them as just The Percy Rebellion, so it can be argued that what Shakespeare did with them was quite sensible.

JANE: Excellent point.  The Abbot’s conspiracy is used at the end of Richard II to show how much more decisive a ruler Henry IV is when compared to the king he has deposed.

The Battle of Shrewsbury (which was part of the Percy Revolt) actually occurred four years after Henry IV took the throne.  However, Shakespeare has the king state he had only been “twelve month” on the throne when the revolt begins and the battle follows with nice, dramatic promptitude.

ALAN: There he goes, bending time to dramatic purposes again!

JANE: In Shakespeare’s version of events, Henry IV, Part II concludes with the newly crowned Henry V putting all his bad friends and loose living decisively behind him.  Was the real Henry V such an angel?

ALAN: Ah! Now thereby hangs a tale…


8 Responses to “TT: Henry IV, Part 2”

  1. Paul Says:

    Shakespeare wasn’t the last to prefer drama to history. Any “docu-drama” movie or TV show does exactly that. And, just as we remember Shakespeare’s versions of “history” better than the textbook versions, we remember what we “see” in the live dramas because the visual impact is greater than the mental one. Movie director John Ford admitted as much in the words he put into the mouth of the newspaper editor at the end of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” about printing the legend.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Did a double-take when I encountered this one. This is perhaps an appropriate point to inflic^^^^^share it with you :^)

  3. CBI Says:

    I’ve quite enjoyed these discussions. Looking forward to learning more next week: “Hank Cinq” is probably my favorite of the historical plays, possibly due to the force of Henry’s “We few, we happy few” monologue.

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