Monday, April 25, 2022

reading Henry IV

Our Zoom play-reading group has been proceeding slowly - we skip some weeks due to schedule conflicts, and it took 3 sessions to get through Shakespeare's Richard II. A reference to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time by someone who'd momentarily forgotten which one was Richard II and which one was Richard III led to the amazing discovery that Tey had written a play about Richard II. She wrote it in 1932 for John Gielgud, after seeing him in the Shakespeare play, having determined that a broader perspective on Richard's life might make him more understandable and sympathetic. It employed the then-daring notion of contemporary 20th century language for these 14th century characters, and reportedly made Gielgud's name outside the Elizabethan stage. It's titled Richard of Bordeaux (Richard was Richard of Bordeaux for the same reason that his uncle was John of Gaunt, because he was born there) and we read it next, having found it in the Australian Project Gutenberg archive. Terrific drama, and it ought to be revived.

Now we're back to Shakespeare's next history play, Henry IV Part 1, which we began today. I get to play Falstaff. And here's the historical background notes I wrote for my fellow thespians:

In our previous plays, the inadequate King Richard II had been deposed and replaced by his first cousin, Henry IV. There's a catch, though. Henry wasn't Richard's legal heir to the throne. Richard's father, the Black Prince, was Edward III's eldest son, but Henry's father, John of Gaunt, was the third surviving son. The second son was Lionel of Antwerp. He had left a daughter who married into a gentry family called the Mortimers, and her current heir by this time is her grandson, Edmund Mortimer. It is he who, by strict primogeniture, should have succeeded Richard as king.

Accordingly, the Percy family - noble magnates from the north of England, the brothers Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Worcester, and Northumberland's son, known as Hotspur - who had rebelled against Richard II, now step up again. They find cause to quarrel with King Henry over the same thing they quarreled with Richard about - confiscatory royal finance, because the king always needs money, no matter which king he is - and they (the Percys) seize on Edmund Mortimer, to whom they're related by marriage, as the banner of their rebellion. They also ally with the always-rebellious Welsh, led by the shaman Owen Glendower. They make an odd assortment, as we'll see later in the play.

The other factor in this play is the king's son and heir, known here as Prince Hal. Shakespeare depicts him as a carefree carouser. This is according to a widespread legend, but we don't know how much truth there is in it. Hal's fellow carousers, though - the famous Sir John Falstaff and all the rest - are completely fictional, Shakespeare's own inventions. Shakespeare is careful, though, to ensure that he depicts Hal as not too naughty, and to let some hints emerge of the sober and mighty warrior king he will someday become.

Changes from history: Hotspur is depicted as a young hothead to contrast him with Hal, but he was actually an older seasoned warrior by this point. And the play combines two Edmund Mortimers: the warrior/rebel in this play was the (non-heir) uncle of the actual young heir.

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