Henry IV Part I, 1975

From the mid 1950s forward, theatrical configurations of I Henry IV's close for the most part avoid the seamless, unitary discourse of spectacle characteristic of late nineteenth- and earlier twentieth-century versions and so not only "play out the play" but extend its boundaries, though not, except in one case, in order to say more on Falstaff's behalf (2.4.460-61). In that it so clearly articulates patterns of substitution and replacement among rival sons and fathers, Terry Hands's 1975 Royal Shakespeare Company I Henry IV draws the closing scenes into what might be called a structuralist's dream. In the Hal-Hotspur combat, Hotspur disarms Hal, who then seizes Hotspur's sword and aims two blows at his shield and a third at his stomach, which brings him to his knees; Hal then removes Hotspur's helmet and slashes his face with a dagger. On "I better brook the loss of brittle life," Hotspur grabs Hal and slowly stands, to die in his arms. To further cement their brotherhood, Hal lays Hotspur's body down and, kneeling beside it, enacts a series of ceremonial gestures: after wiping Hotspur's blood onto his own face, he places Hotspur's sword on his chest, crosses the dead hands over it, takes a red cloth from his own dagger to cover Hotspur's eyes, and finally stands and removes his own helmet while he praises his dead rival. In contrast, he pauses just long enough to see Falstaff and speak his epitaph but does not touch his body. When Falstaff returns to life he not only performs a sequence of actions - speaking a few lines before rising to his knees and, finally, standing - that echo Hotspur's but repeats Hal's tactics by stabbing Hotspur with his own sword; linking him to both, his mimicry also calls the value of such gestures into question and, when he drags Hotspur's body offstage, subverts them completely. To further the transformed value of Hotspur's body, Hands repeats the image - not once but twice. As Falstaff exits, Hal re-enters with John and registers surprise at seeing neither Hotspur nor Falstaff; then Falstaff returns, dragging Hotspur's body behind him to hear a bemused Hal "gild" his lie. Left alone after Hal and John exit together, Falstaff again drags Hotspur's body out, undercutting his final promise to "live cleanly as a nobleman should do." Although this staging replaces Falstaff with John as Hal's companion, neither Hal's bond to Falstaff nor his to Hal is severed: indeed, this Hal seems to accept Falstaff's lie in order to accept his own counterfeiting self.

Hands's final stage images trace a further range of substitutions. Led in on ropes, Worcester and Vernon flank King Henry's central figure, while Westmorland stands directly upstage of Henry, with Clarence and Humphrey at either side of him. Deliberately enforcing military justice, Henry drops, first, Worcester's rope and, after a pause, Vernon's. When Westmorland and Humphrey exit with the prisoners, Henry moves downstage where, as Hal kneels at his right, asking for leave to dispose of the Douglas, and John moves to his father's left, both sons replace Worcester and Vernon, the traitors. On "ransomless and free," Hal stands, as Hotspur had earlier when Henry questioned him about his prisoners (1.3); and the echo of one son replacing another persists when Henry calls Hal "son Harry," puts an arm on his shoulder, and draws him toward a prominent downstage position before, pausing as though in doubt, he speaks his final line, "Let us not leave till all our own be won," which cues music filled with expectant drumbeats. Hands's staging reconstitutes the initial image of Henry surrounded by roped prisoners as a Plantagenet family portrait: Clarence and John stand in Vernon and Worcester's positions, Humphrey directly upstage of King Henry, Westmorland up left, and Hal, now the "authentic" heir, directly downstage of Henry. As in Hands's closing images for the Henry VI plays, this final tableau figures a hard-won stability and predicts the "true" successor. And if replacing traitors with sons and cousins also refigures rebellion as a family matter, freeze-framing the close not only supresses such potential contradictions but makes them unreadable, masked by an image of exclusive familial hierarchy that perfectly expresses the self-regarding gaze of legitimated royal power.

Extract from Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History (Princeton UP: Princeton NJ, 1991) pages 161-3


Playing Shakespeare/Henry IV Part I