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Let’s Play: Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Henry IV

The play-reading report of Julius Caesar which we published last week was well-received. I was excited by the  distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’  that I explored in that report, and thought I’d see if it applied to other plays.


As I said in that play-reading report, I was pretty obsessed with Julius Caesar at school. Other plays which I have been equally interested in during, and since, schooldays, were Henry IV Part I and II, mostly because of the character of Falstaff. I’ve been so obsessed with Falstaff that, with my partner, I followed Orson Welles’ example and adapted the story of Henry IV, Prince Hal and Falstaff into a 1-hour play, Gentlemen of the Shade, which we put on in the Edinburgh Festival in 2004. You can download a copy of that play for play-reading or production for free from this site from our Shakespeare @ Chirstmas  post. 


What better play than Henry IV Part I, I thought, to explore to see if it, too, fits into the public / private category. At first sight it should: the play definitely has a ‘public’ dimension – it’s a history play about Henry IV and his efforts to put down rebellions resulting from his overthrow of Richard II; it has a ‘private” dimension – the relationship between Henry and his son Hal, should have a private dimension, and perhaps Falstaff’s relationship with Hal could be considered to have a private dimension.

So I’ve spent a happy week exploring Henry IV Part Iand in particular, the relationships between Henry IV, Prince Hal, and Falstaff. I’ve done this by setting up and exploring “Let’s Plays” of four scenes which struck me as particularly relevant:

  • Let’s Play: An Introduction to Falstaff and Hal (A1S2 Henry IV Part I): Here, we first meet Falstaff and Hal. Through some light-hearted banter we learn that Hal has a pretty low opinion of Falstaff, and that Falstaff is hoping that he and his criminal friends will benefit once Hal becomes king. This is looking hopeful for our ‘public’ / ‘private’ dimension to the play. You can find out more, and, more importantly, play the scene, by clicking on the link above.
  • Let’s Play: ‘A Plague on all cowards’ (A2S4 Henry IV Part I):Here Hal and Poins try and trick Falstaff into revealing his cowardice after the robbery at Gadshill. This scene has little overtly to do with the public-private dimension. The scene is a bit of ragging of Falstaff by Poins and Hal, and yet one does wonder why Prince Hal is so keen to shame the old man. Again, for a more detailed analysis, and to play the scene, click on the link above.
  • Let’s Play: Falstaff and Prince Hal ‘practice an answer’ (later on in A2S4 Henry IV Part I):
    Later in the same scene, Falstaff re-enters the scene with news from the King. Rebellion is afoot and needs to be put down – and the king wants to see Prince Hal. Falstaff’s news obviously affects the Prince – perhaps he will have to go and fight, perhaps his responsibilities will be thrust upon him. Then they  ‘practice an answer’ for Hal’s interview with his father. Here we have the private / public  coming to the fore, with Falstaff playing Henry IVth – but no, his focus is on trying to persuade Hal of his father’s good opinion of him, Falstaff. When Hal takes over as king, he shows his low opinion of Falstaff, and tells him, to his face, that he will banish him, foretelling the coronation scene in Act 5 of Henry IV Part II. As you won’t be surprised to know, you can get a more detailed analysis, and the opportunity to play the scene, by clicking on the link above.
  • Let’s Play: Henry IV telling off his son (A3S2 Henry IV Part I):The final scene we explore is the magnificent slagging off Henry IV gives Hal when they get some time alone. Not only does Hal get torn off a strip for his coarse behaviour at Cheapside, and his political stupidity in risking his place at court, but an aging father shows his resentment as he prepares to hand over the results of a life-time of work to an unappreciative future generation. One of my favourite scenes in the play and well worth playing. Just click on the link above.

Much to my disappointment, I can see little of the significance of the difference between ‘private’ and ‘public’ that we found in Julius Caesar. Of course it is there, but not significant. Orson Welles thought that Falstaff offers an alternative ‘philosophy’ to the young prince to Henry’s. His version of the tale Chimes at Midnight is pretty persuasive, but coming back to these scenes, what now seems significant, is the struggle Prince Hal is going through to come to terms with his responsibilities. Falstaff’s ‘philosophy’ seems little more than self-centred irresponsibility, perhaps summed up by his attitude to the soldiers he has chosen to be under his command in Act 4 Scene 2:  “food for Powder, food for Powder: they’ll fill a Pit, as well as better:”  Perhaps Prince Hal’s struggle with responsibility is exaggerated by conflict with his father over leadership of the nation.

Now we’ve explored the relationships between Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Henry IV,  we can move on to another set of relationships, by clicking on the following link:

As so often, at the end of this article, it seems to me that I may have said more about myself than I have about Falstaff, Hal, or Henry IV. Perhaps I can end with another relevation. Rather like Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, I have my own ‘good’ angel’, and ‘devil’, trying to influence what I do, but they go under the names of Brutus and Falstaff.

Let’s Play!

‘The Director’,
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