Coming to look on you, thinking you dead-
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were-
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending
Hath fed upon the body of my father;
Therefore thou best of gold art worst of gold.
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in med’cine potable;
But thou, most fine, most honour’d, most renown’d,
Hast eat thy bearer up.’
– Hal to his father, Henry IV
In the fim criticism of Hal’s exploits, filth and cleanliness have become important interpretive cornerstones. Olivier’s Henry V was famous as a WWII rally-cry for a nation at war, more interested in the play’s metatheatrics and commentary on honor than depicting the “perforced decay” of war itself. Branagh’s breakout smash of the same text is notorious now for the murk, gore, and even tinted film stock used to convey a nation in conflict, decaying from the inside out. But these are the stories of Hal at his best. It is partly what makes it easy to love Henry V as a play. But Richard Eyre took on the challenge of telling the story of Henry IV’s reign, embattled by riot from the Welsh and his own son. By contrasting these seditions, the parts one and two trace not the evolution but the revelations of Hal: the realization of who he needs to be as a monarch, and the epiphany of the sacrifice that crown will ask of him.
In this dark and greasy portrayal of early modern London life, the paces to sobering epiphany are marked by Henry very damply. It is as if the film itself is a Falstaff, made of piss, grease, and cheap ale. In fact, cleanliness is the very thing that pisses off Hotspur from the start and ignites the action of part one: one of the king’s cronies, “fresh as a bridegroom” and having not participated in a battle against the Welsh come demanding captives from Hotspur who is badly caught his breath or cleaned his blade from battle. This world of “cracked crowns” is “as gross as butter” indeed, to the point that the dirt and poverty looses its carnivalesque hue and takes on a gravity that we, in age of start wage disparities, empathize with. And Hal, as he walks through his small dominion of the Boar’s Head, meditates on just this through voiceovers of internal monologue. Voiceovers have long been out of fashion in cinematic Shakespeare, often used for soliloquies that, while indeed conveying motivation, do have a kind of audience in mind that stream-of-consciousness does not. However, coupled with direct addresses to the camera, it is actually largely effective here. (I suspect that the usefulness of the device by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards might also be representative of a larger trend and approach to direct address as a sophisticated rather than campy device.)
Before Hal can be taken out of his little room of great reckoning, he must first practice his answers to the King as a truant son with Falstaff. Having robbed Falstaff of his small modicum of honor in the thief jest, the air is tense to begin with. Hiddleston, drenched from head to toe as if he barely survived a keg stand, imitates the spittle and moisture of Iron’s enunciation if a brilliant moment of impersonation. Here, just as on the battlefield against his foil Hotspur, honor and muck collide as if ends on the same continuum. To be without honor is something viscerally disgusting, and “the body of our nation how rank it is” suggests that England as a whole is without honor. From this “fattest soil” must Hal emerge and be something more than merely “food for worms.”
But “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” and Hal resists having to make this transition alone, unable to distribute some of the burden. It is clear that Falstaff, particularly in his nabbing the honor of killing Hotspur for his own betterment and then promising his friend Shallow that he has power to get him a title too, can no longer father Hal through this transition. In battle and in counsel, Poins is a close confidant, able to mingle among those of lowest and highest degree. But even he is ratted out by Falstaff, bragging to others that he has the ear and persuasion of the king, enough to get him to marry his sister. The nation is still “a body yet distempered” from which Hal must extract himself in order to prune and plant anew.
The DVD box set of The Hollow Crown packages both parts of Henry IV together, making up a four-hour middling narrative to the more theatrical bookends of Richard II and Henry V. Where Richard reveled in his monarchy although he wielded it poorly, Henry IV understands its stakes and is consumed alive by it. A long-time fan of Jeremy Irons (even as Leicester to Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth I), I was sure he would steal the role. It has been a long time since he played a frontman so exclusively as in The Mission, but even here he understands that despite having the title role, in reality these are steps in Hal’s story and he plays but a part. He too challenges our notions of kingship by linking it with disgust: even at the moment of victory against the Welsh on the battlefield he throws up phlegm before making his rounds a-horse. At least in this way he is far more the embodiment of the state of the commonwealth ever more than Richard was.
What Irons does do is emphasize the notion than an heir must be “worthy” of a crown, a interesting and potentially seditious component in the play. In some versions Henry IV is played as sniveling and incompetent, a man who has bitten off more than he could chew. But here, the anxieties of legitimacy still linger from Richard II, making his desire for Hotspur rather than Hal as his heir more compelling, more justified and less un-fatherly. In his last moments he finds Hal has put the crown on his head as if “to try with it—as with an enemy / that had before my face murd’red my father—the quarrel of a true inheritor.” He is still unsure of whether his son is worthy of the weight, has the measure of honor necessary to carry the burden of the crown having grown up in a world of taverns and wenches. But as we are to learn, it is precisely that self-elected upbringing that has made Hal capable.
So while Hal’s riotous youth was a self-selected course, his ascension to the throne and his small band of younger brothers are not. His life is no longer his own, and in this moment Hal seems all wiser in having lived out his freedom early and well. No one else knows how to take this transition and what king he will make. Tyrannical? Incompetent? Excessive? His younger brothers wear their concern on their collection sleeve. To them Hal says:
This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easy on me as you think.
Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear.
This is the English, not the Turkish court.
It is for the final installment of the miniseries, the rise of Henry V, to which we are oriented to judge what final kind of king Hal means to be.
- “1 Henry IV” and “2 Henry IV.” The Hollow Crown. DVD. Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by William Shakespeare. 27 September/4 October 2013. California: NBC Universal, 2013. PBS.