The Henry IV plays are Shakespeare’s only plays to focus on friendships, and what causes people to betray their friends is a driving force of all the Henriad plays. In any friendship, someone always holds the balance of power, and it’s usually when he feels threatened that he uses this privilege destructively. In Rupert Goold’s adaptation of Richard II, we watched Richard rob Bolingbroke of his inheritance out of desperation, only to be deposed by Bolingbroke as a last resort to maintain his honour. In Eyre’s adaptation of Henry IV Part 1, we watched Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) carelessly disregard the wishes of the very friends who helped him to the throne, out of fear that their desires could get him deposed: they then betray him just as he feared.
The second installment of Henry IV is less of a standalone piece than The Hollow Crown: “Henry IV Part 1”, but it does what good television should do: it builds on “Part 1”, and it lays the groundwork for the final installment in the series, The Hollow Crown: “Henry V”. “Henry IV Part 1” ended just as Hal and others were seeing glory, and “Henry IV Part 2” picks up shortly thereafter, in a sort of hellish limbo: everyone must deal with the aftermath of the rebellion and the changing tides of leadership. At the beginning of “Henry IV Part 1”, we heard Hal’s (Tom Hiddleston) internal monologue, acknowledging he will eventually have to sever ties with his friends at the Boar’s Head. Now that Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) is deathly ill from the wars, Hal knows the end is near and so do his friends though they all pretend it isn’t: it’s why in “Part 1” the play extempore, where the jest was too close to reality, turned chilling, as Poins (David Dawson) and Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale), especially, saw where their friendships were headed.
If you watch Richard Eyre’s adaptation of “Henry IV Part 1” on its own, you could choose to ignore the dark foreshadowing that becomes present reality in “Henry IV Part 2”: that Hal will eventually cast off his friends and break their hearts, that Hotspur’s battle cry “Die all, Die merrily!” was prophecy, and that Henry IV will die and Hal will succeed him at the throne. It’s not that the darker underbelly wasn’t present – it was – but the genius of Richard Eyre’s “The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1” is that it was so buoyant because the characters were opting to live in a fantasy world where the good times would never end. Even though at the end of “The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1”, Hal plays along with Falstaff’s lie that Falstaff killed Hotspur, he does so reluctantly, as though it’s a final favour to a friend; Falstaff recognizes it yet is so invested in pretending he doesn’t.
“Henry IV Part 1” established the affection between the friends: the sweet companionship between Hal and Poins and the tenderness between Hal and Falstaff. But it never glossed over the fact that they’re all also using each other. Hal wants a sidekick as much as he wants a friend, and Poins hopes to gain something — in “Henry IV Part 2” we discover it’s a royal marriage for his sister — from winning the Prince’s affection. Likewise, though Falstaff and Hal enjoy trading witticisms, Hal just as much wants a sanctuary away from his father, and Falstaff wants advancement.
Yet in “Henry IV Part 2”, Eyre constantly reminds us that power is merely a construct, and a lonely one. Late at night, alone with his thoughts, Henry IV is just a troubled, mortal old man. He wanders the halls of his palace where he’s surrounded by guards but not by equals, and there’s nothing to disguise his loneliness. When he posits,“uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, he is speaking to himself at his throne, now just a chair sitting in an empty room, and he’s just a babbling old man. It’s the reverence of the people at court who give the throne its meaning, and his kingliness is nothing but a performance. He delivers part of this speech while we follow him from behind as he walks through his palace, just a small man in a lofty building, a mere mortal. Similarly, Falstaff may be able to bewitch with his words to entertain the Prince, or scheme his way into money, but Eyre reminds us of his own frailties: there’s a tender scene between him and Doll Tearsheet as he bemoans his old age, unable to keep up with the able-bodied Prince.
Nevertheless, we are constantly reminded that exercising power is still a very real action with real effects. The chief rebels are tricked into an arrest; Falstaff conscripts only those who can’t buy their way out; and Hal’s attempt to divorce himself from his former life leads to the arrest of Falstaff and his other former friends. In a bout of fatherly advice, Henry IV counsels Hal to focus his reign on foreign wars to distract the country from its civil unrest: it’s tender advice from a dying man worrying about his son, but the utterance of it also foretells thousands of deaths. In different situations, everyone is a victim and everyone is a perpetrator.
Even the atmosphere in the Boar’s Head changed to please the powerful Prince: “Henry IV Part 2” marks the first time we see the tavern without Hal, and it’s a scarier, drearier place. Doll Tearsheet (Maxine Peake), the prostitute, is sick, and Falstaff is sicker still, while Mistress Quickly (Julie Walters) struggles with poverty, and the other knights fear for what’s to come in the wars. Gone is the constant merriment that characterized Hal’s sojourn here, a performance they all put on for his benefit. So when Hal overhears Falstaff talking ill of him in an intimate moment with Doll, he misses the larger context: Falstaff’s dismissal of Hal is an attempt to mask his own fear of losing this surrogate son, and it’s a mood that can only be expressed in privacy.
We see Hal growing into himself and can anticipate the great leader he will become, but we also see his nastier side more clearly: his snobbishness is even less concealed when dismissing Poins, there’s no tenderness on display with Falstaff, and we see the brutal end of their friendship. Yet even when Hal, now Henry V, famously tells Falstaff “I know you not, old man”, definitively ending their friendship, it’s only done so coldly because Falstaff insists on claiming acquaintance with Hal in the middle of Hal’s coronation: it’s wildly inappropriate, and with such a large audience, Hal has no choice but to put his old companion in his place.
The “Henry IV” adaptations are Eyre’s masterpiece: the visuals are stunning and visceral; the interpretation of the text is solid; the performances are all rich, nuanced, and as close to perfection as possible; and it all feels very modern. There’s not much difference between the woes of Henry IV hundreds of years ago and those of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg on Danish television’s “Borgen”, and Eyre reminds us why Shakespeare’s history plays haven’t lost any of their relevance.
You can also rent or purchase all four episodes from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. The DVDs are also available for purchase.