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Life at the Globe

Life at the Globe: Hal, Falstaff and the making of a king

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

 
 
IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE PRINCIPAL PARTNERS OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE’S 2019 SUMMER SEASON
Merian Global Investors

As I noted last week, the dramatic climax of Henry IV, Part Two — that stew of rot and renewal — is reached when Prince Hal casts off the roguish companion of his younger years, ‘the tutor and the feeder of my riots’, Sir John Falstaff, on the way to his coronation in the final act.

Falstaff is a parodic king, an anti-king. That is what gives much of the dramatic electricity to the clowning scenes in Part One where Falstaff play-acts King Henry. The King embodies the rule of law; and Falstaff holds it in contempt. The King embodies honour; and Falstaff delivers a celebrated soliloquy in which he mocks it as ‘a mere scutcheon’. A king embodies sacrifice; the only sacrifice Falstaff is prepared to make is the lives of the yokels he conscripts into the army for profit.


But, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, Hal’s putting away Falstaff isn’t a simple thing. These ideas — law, honour, sacrifice — are chilly abstract nouns, and Falstaff, however corrupt and corrupting, is the breath of human life. Hal has learned something from Falstaff and in letting him live, he seems to acknowledge that.

Hal’s coronation is not the unthinking assumption of royal grandeur, but a conscious and human submitting to duty. Much discussed in this context is the notion from medieval political theology of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’ (the mortal human ‘body natural’ and the divine ‘body politic’). They share physical real-estate in the King’s person, not always happily. As new King, Hal tells his companions: ‘You all look strangely on me.’ (The Lord Chief Justice looks most strangely of all, fearing the human side of Harry will exact revenge; and Hal sets his mind at rest.) He is transformed, and knows he is transformed: ‘Presume not that I am the thing I was/ For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,/ That I have turn’d away my former self.’ In the words of his old dad: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’

The plays in this summer season are, at heart, about the making of a king. The play that comes next, Henry V, is about the testing of that king.

 
 
IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE PRINCIPAL PARTNERS OF SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE’S 2019 SUMMER SEASON
Merian Global Investors


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