Henry IV: Part Two, or How to Succeed in Politics by Will Shakespeare

(c) BBC

By James Le Grice

At the start of The Hollow Crown series, I praised the BBC for setting these plays in
their original late medieval context. Doing so makes them even more relevant to modern
times, as the individual audience members can relate to the subject matter in their own
individual ways. Henry IV: Part Two illustrates this point best of all. This is a political
manual on how to be a successful public figure, whose themes about false friends,
clearing out skeletons in the closet, and using foreign policy to whitewash domestic
issues are as poignant today as when Shakespeare penned the play.

Henry IV: Part Two is more of a prequel to Henry V than a sequel to Henry IV: Part
One. It answers the question of how the reckless party-boy Prince Hal seen in Part One
became the legendary leader known to history as the Hero of Agincourt and the Scourge
of God. As such, Henry IV: Part Two is focused more on character development than
the more tradition style storytelling of Part One, which had a clear-cut villain a more
pronounced external conflict.

Prince Hal comes to realise that his father was right to keep him away from Sir John
Falstaff. Hal sees Falstaff for what he is, a false friend who mocks him when his back is
turned and only maintains their companionship as an easy ticket to privilege and wealth.
The danger of the latter fact is driven home by King Henry IV’s dying speech to Hal, in
which he laments that England will become a kingdom of graft where criminals have free
reign under his son.

It is a harsh fact of public service that successful leaders must break many of their old
friendships and disassociate themselves from the Falstaffs of the world, despite the
good times they have shared. Once someone becomes a public figure, they cease to be a
normal person, and Hal-Falstaff friendships likewise cease to be tolerable associations,
and instead become pure political corruption.

This fact is aptly true for today’s politicians. Our papers are regularly awash with stories
on the dubious friendships between political leaders and members of the Murdoch
empire, large banks, or major lobbyists.

Likewise, Henry IV: Part Two makes the case for political leaders to clear out the
skeletons in their closet and change themselves from what they once were. In the
climactic coronation scene in which Falstaff breaks out of the crowd to greet his friend
the new crowned King, only to be rejected, Henry V states that Falstaff is a reminder of
the man he used to be. This made him just as worthy of banishment as the assured graft
that would ensue from Falstaff’s continued friendship. Henry became image conscious
as he realised his true responsibilities. He knew that he would not be taken seriously as a
leader if he did not change his old persona.

In this 15th century context, not being taken seriously as a leader could translate into civil
wars. It is less of a life and death matter in most countries now, but the importance of
image to unite a political party, a coalition, and indeed an entire country is very much
a deal breaker. Successful public figures have to distance themselves from their former
selves as much as they have to keep distance from clingers-on.

On a more autocratic note, Henry IV: Part Two provides a much used solution to airbrush
domestic dissent: war abroad. The historical King Henry V is famous for his conquest of
France, and Shakespeare plants the seed of this in Henry IV’s dying speech to his son.
The old king warns Hal that the atmosphere of rebellion is still strong in England, and
that he should, ‘busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
may waste the memory of the former days.’

In other words, if you start a war, people will forget about domestic problems. We may
very soon see this line of thought play itself out in the Middle East. The new regimes
brought to power through the Arab Spring now have the challenge of stifling the air of
revolution and getting their populations to submit. Predictably, anti-Israel sabre rattling
has been on the rise with a lot of talk about conquering Jerusalem. In video footage
not shown on any of the major western news networks, the now President of Egypt
Mohammed Morsi approvingly watches a massive crowd repeatedly chant ‘A million
martyrs are marching towards Jerusalem’ at one of his election rallies.

Henry IV: Part Two is indeed a play for all ages, and this instalment of the BBC’s
Hollow Crown series meets the high standards set by the previous two episodes. Tom
Hiddleston’s acting as Hal/Henry V particularly stands out for making his character
appear noble to a modern audience more accustomed to think of the character as a two-
faced politician. This is not the kind of story we’re used to seeing when you think about
it. The hero is a rich boy who ignores convention, hangs about with lower class people,
lives like an average bloke, and then once in power, turns his back on his friends, acts
more like his father, and we the audience are supposed to think that he did the right thing.
Tom Hiddleston delivers the climactic speech, in which Henry banishes Falstaff, with a
subtly sad look in his eyes. This delivery conveys that the character is rejecting his friend
for the good of both their sakes and the good of the country, not out of vanity, and as
such breaks his own heart a little bit. Splendid performances all round.

Watch The Hollow Crown on BBC Two, Saturdays at 21.00 or on iPlayer. Henry IV:
Part Two will be available on iPlayer until 28 July.

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