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Playreading Report: Henry IVth Part 1, Edinburgh, 10th December, 2017

We ran a playreading of Henry IV Part 1 on Sunday, 10th December ’17, here in Edinburgh. Seven of us gathered to read the play. Two players had cancelled in the week prior to the reading. Luckily, we have castings from 5 to 12 players so the cancellations didn’t cause any difficulties – it just meant we each had more lines to read.

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We drew lots for parts as usual, and I drew Hotspur – the largest part in the play. I started fairly hot, but I was sitting in the most comfortable chair, and slowly the energy sapped! In fact the reading became a little heavy all round. The language is beautiful, but there’s lots of long speeches. Part of the subject matter is also rather difficult. The glory of battle doesn’t seem quite so attractive to our modern age – at least in Edinburgh.

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In these reports, I usually try and give an overview of how the play-reading went from the group’s perspective, but I want to make an exception this time, and give a very personal view of what happened.

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I know Henry IV Part 1  (and the rest of the Henriad) quite well. I was obsessed with Falstaff for quite some time, particularly with Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (see my review at: Review: Chimes of Midnight). In fact I became so interested that I put on a staged production of Gentlemen of the Shade (see and download a copy of the script at:  Gentlemen of the Shade).

I love the powerful, heavy language and can’t resist giving you some examples from A1S3:

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“Our house, my Sovereign Liege, little deserves
The scourge of greatness to be used on it,
And that same greatness too, which our own hands
Have helped to make so portly.”

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“Shall our Coffers then,
Be emptied to redeem a Traitor home?
Shall we buy Treason and indent with Fears,
When they have lost and forfeited themselves?”

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“By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright Honour from the pale-faced Moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where Fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned Honour by the Locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence, might wear,
Without Co-rival, all her Dignities.”

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Powerful stuff – and the plot of the conflict of the Percys against Bolingbroke stays at this level, interwoven pretty well scene by scene, as one o f our players said, with the comic plot – another rebellion – of Prince Hal’s fun with Falstaff in the taverns of Eastcheap.

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Chimes of Midnight has led me to develop what I hope is my own idea of one of the themes of  many of Shakespeare’s plays. – the shift from a medieval view of the world (Christian; the Divine Right of Kings; Heroes; Feudal system of agriculture, trade guilds to support skilled tradesmen , etc) to an ‘Early Modern” view of the world (Science-based; Machiavellian politics; invention of the Joint-stock Company and limited liability; acceptance of financial banking, etc).  We still live in a later development of that culture, but are more aware of the problems that arise from it.

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The Henriad explores in some detail the political shift from Richard II‘s belief in the Divine Right of Kings, to Henry IV’s (and V)’s rather more Machiavellian view of the world. Other plays show other aspects of this cultural shift in some of their plot elements: The Merchant of Venice explores the development of banking and financial loans, and the importance of limited liability, as well as its more obvious plot elements; Prospero, in The Tempest, can be seen as a proto-scientest based as many scholars  think on John Dee, adviser to  Queen Elizabeth, the alchemist, astrologer, and stage effects maestro, and advocate in the development of a ‘British Empire’.

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Can we see this shift in culture in Henry IV Part 1?  In brief, yes:

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  • Hotspur is admired by Henry IV for being a hero, obsessed with honour – like all heroes, medieaval or even ancient Greek.
  • The Percy’s complaint against Henry IV is that he has behaved in a Machiavellian manner
  • Prince Hal demonstrates a Machiavellian streak in his first scene  (A1S2) in his speech which ends:
    “I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
    Redeeming time when men think least I will.

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So if you’ll suspend your disbelief a while, how was this view reflected in our play-reading?

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There are three scenes that I find quite difficult in Henry IV Part 1.

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A2S1 where the Carriers prepare for their trip to London
The start of A2S4 where Prince Hal and Poins tease Francis, the drawer
A3S1 where England is divided up between Glendower, Mortimer, and Hotspur and the lady speaks and sings in Welsh.

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All three of these scenes have been cut from Gentleman of the Shade, mostly because I disliked them or didn’t see their point.

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The play-reading helped me see the light about Act 3 Scene 1, and discussions with my partner after the play-reading deepened that understanding.

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My partner thought that the play explores pretty much all of English scoiety – both geographically, and by social class. With this view, A2S1 and the start of A2S4 paints a view of English life as carriers and drawers – the workers of the scoiety. A3S1 explores the Celtic fringe of England, and the archaic, pre-Christian religion of Wales – and parts of England -with Glendower’s talk of Dragons and how the Earth moved at his birth:

at my Birth
The front of Heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The Goats ran from the Mountains, and the Herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.

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To these ideas, my own obsession with the shift in culture from medieval culture to early modern English, added the following.

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The young Prince Hal,  without a mature view of the Machiavellian responsibility of royalty, shows, in the start of A2S4, disdain for the ‘common people’ in his fraternizing with the drawers and his teasing of Francis. This can be added to his rejection of Falstaff in his soliloquy at the end of AAS2, his explicit promise of rejection of Falstaff at the end of A2S4 (“I do, I will”), and  his actual rejection of Falstaff in A5S5:

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“I know thee not, old man: Fall to thy Prayers:
How ill white hairs become a Fool, and Jester?”

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Of course this is all well-known, but what is new to me at least, is that perhaps these weaknesses of the young and Machiavellian Prince Hal, are reflected in similar weaknesses in the equally young (at least in the play,) and heroic Hotspur.

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One of the weaknesses of the ancient hero is a tendancy to sulk when they don’t get there way:

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Most of The Iliad is taken up with the consequences of Achilles’ sulk when Menelaus claims Achilles’ girlfriend as a prize.

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In Elizabethan times, the Earl of Essex – a famous aristocratic hero – got into a tremendous sulk when Elizabeth got cross with him for messing up the suppression of the Irish revolt led by the Earl of Tyrone.

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Does Hotspur get into a heroic sulk? Yes he does, in A3S1, when he bates Glendower badly, and unpolitically given that he hopes for his support in the battle against Henry IV. He teases Glendower’s ancient, pre-Christian beliefs, because, he says:

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“Sometime he angers me
With telling me of the Moldwarp and the Ant,
Of the Dreamer Merlin and his Prophecies,
And of a Dragon, and a finless Fish,
A clip-winged Griffin and a moulten Raven,
A couching Lion and a ramping Cat,
And such a deal of skimble-skamble Stuff
As puts me from my Faith.”

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And this sulk perhaps has serious consequences. Glendower doesn’t  turn up for the Battle of Shrewsbury.

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Of course, Hotspur has sulked quite a lot earlier, and is only prevented from making a complete mess of things by his father. Speaking of the prisoners that Henry IV has demanded from him in A1S3, he says:

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“And if the devil come and roar for them
I will not send them. I will after straight
And tell him so, for I will ease my heart,
Although it be with hazard of my head.”

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A thing that strikes me as interesting about this, is that these thoughts arose from a play-reading. I went into it thinking that it would be good fun to play the play again, but I wasn’t expecting any new thoughts. I don’t feel it is likely that these thoughts would arise from viewing a production (there’s too much going on to do much thinking), or from acting in a production (unless you were playing Hotspur) – the focus is on the character you’re playing. So what is it about a play-reading that lets these thoughts arise?:

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Because we cast randomly, everyone’s focus is more on the story(ies) of the play, rather than the characters – there’s no time to prepare a character.

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When one isn’t speaking. one is listening and reading. One has the script in hand as someone else plays there part. There are some who think it’s better to play the scene in ‘Parts and Cues’ mode as that makes you listen more attentively. I guess both ways can work. Perhaps the key thing is that one listens to the text in a more meditative frame of mind, than when watching or performing in a production.

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There’s something in this play-reading thing. Maybe you should give it a try?

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Let’s playread!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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