Medieval kings had to rule as well as reign. They had to be much more like our politicians than our modern kings. Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, father and son, provide studies in the dark arts and crafts of politics that throw light on the behaviour of our politicians of today. They also provide a contrast in sanctimony, that is, a pretended or affected decency. These rulers smack of hypocrisy, and being other than what they seem. It’s this two-facedness that gets on our quince with our politicians, and the sanctimony here extends over two generations and four plays.
The character of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in Richard II is opaque. He never soliloquizes, and we do not get a window into his mind. Was he a born schemer before the time of Machiavelli, so that the Crown came to him –
But as an honour snatched with a boisterous hand. (2 Henry IV, 4.5.191)
Or did Bolingbroke just go with the flow so –
That I and greatness were compelled to kiss. (2 Henry IV, 3.1.74)
The question is open, and we are left with the impression that Bolingbroke is somehow hollow. And with an author like this, you don’t treat that result as an accident.
But when he attains the crown, King Henry IV gets to upbraid his son for his ways, and we get a clear insight into the politics of this man. This is a man-to-man chat and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the speaker. The father tells the son how Richard II lost his crown. He did so because he debased its currency by taking up with low life.
The skipping King, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools…
Enfeoffed himself to popularity,
That, being daily swallowed by men’s eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness…..(I Henry IV, 3.2.60-72)
How apt do those last four lines seem for Donald Trump? The first line – ‘Enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – might be translated ‘Hocked his soul to Fox News.’ But this description of Richard II, which is fair, applies equally to the conduct of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne.
What then is the sage advice of this seasoned politician who is the father of the miscreant prince? Make yourself scarce and then put on a front.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wondered at…..
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts…..
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne’er seen but wondered at; and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast
And won by rareness such solemnity. (I Henry IV, 3.2.46-59)
As Bolingbroke, he may not have followed this policy to the letter. The king he deposed had observed ‘his [Bolingbroke’s] courtship to the common people’ – even to the point of doffing his bonnet to an oyster-wench. (Richard II, 1.4.24-31)
But we know that young Hal has already worked out a similar trick for himself.
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at….
So when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes. (I Henry IV, 1.2.182 – 205)
Hal parades as one of the boys, one of the people, but it’s all a game, and a game for his benefit only. This spoiled royal brat is just a user. ‘When I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap … I can drink with any tinker in his own language.’ (I Henry IV, 2.4.10-20) But when the game has served its purpose, these human toys, of whom the prince had spoken with such disgust, may be discarded. The young prince takes people under him into his trust and confidence, knowing that he will then break that trust – because as king he will have to let Falstaff and the rest of the motley go. It’s one thing to meet the people; it’s another to sow wild oats before becoming weighed down by care – as we are reminded by some reluctant younger members of the royal family now; but it is altogether a different thing to take up and discard your future subjects when it suits you.
Young Hal is a rat and he knows it. There is something revoltingly clever about a young man wanting to be seen to be paying a debt he never promised. You may not want a guy like that standing behind you at a grouse shoot. When they are play-acting, Falstaff says: ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.’ Hal says, quietly: ‘I do, I will.’ (Part I, 2.4.480-1) When his father accuses Hal of being ‘common’, Hal says: ‘I shall hereafter … Be more myself.’ (Part I, 3.2.92) When he casts off Falstaff and the whole Eastcheap crowd – the common people – King Henry V does so with one of the coldest lines of this author, a passage that so upset A C Bradley. The new king went on to say:
Presume not that I am the thing I was
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self
So will I those that kept me company
When thou dost hear that I am as I have been
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast
The tutor and the feeder of my riots. (Part II, 5.57-64)
So, the new king is saying that he has changed from his former self. But that was not true. As a prince, Hal had only pretended to engage in the gutter – until he allowed his sun to dissipate the clouds. He had not changed – he had merely dropped the front.
That story might pass in the Court, but it could not do in Eastcheap. There they said that ‘the King has killed his heart’, the heart of Falstaff (Henry V, 2.1.91) and the King has ‘run bad humors on the knight’ whose heart was broken. (Henry V, 2.1.125-127)
Even if Eastcheap merely thought that the king killed the heart of Falstaff, it knew that he had endorsed the execution of Bardolph. Bardolph was hanged for blasphemy – stealing plate from a church. The pious King says that he will not have ‘the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language.’ (Henry V, 3.6.115-116). And another sometime mate, or pretended mate, goes under, in order that this king can prove his chivalry to his enemy.
There is something both cold and calculating about each these two politicians, father and son. They are both two faced, but there is something very chilling about the duplicitous cold-bloodedness of the son. How do you warm to a man who treats his confidants with less heart than he would show to a stray Tom? Someone compared the prince to a clever shopkeeper who ‘knows how to display the merchandise of his behavior.’ And in the next play, we will see that that this duplicity runs in the family – the brother Prince John will unload an act of bastardry that may have fazed Hitler.
Hotspur, that soul of chivalry, saw in Bolingbroke ‘this subtle king’ and a ‘vile politician’ (Henry IV, 1.3.169 and 239). The Oxford Edition gives for ‘politician’ a ‘shrewd schemer, deceitful opportunist’ and refers us to King Lear 4.6.172-174 where the mad old king is talking to a man whose eyes have been put out:
…..Get thee glass eyes
And like a scurvy politician seem
To see the things thou dost not.
For ‘scurvy politician’ the Everyman gives ‘vile politic man,’ while the Oxford goes in harder: ‘worthless, contemptible intriguer.’ If all this means that you regard the man who became Henry V as ‘frankly vicious’, then that was precisely the phrase that Sir Anthony Quayle applied to Falstaff – and Quayle was best placed to know the character of Falstaff. And do I not think that such an equivalence would for one moment have troubled the playwright.
The three plays where Bolingbroke is in the lead are for many the three best plays of this author in the theatre. The two great scenes for father and son are two of the glories of our stage, and the failings of these two characters are part of the magic of those scenes. If you see them better done than by Roger Allam and Jamie Parker in the 2012 Globe production, the gods of theatre have truly smiled on you. There is a lot more than mere politics here. When you have buried your parents and raised your children, you will find it hard to go through these scenes with a dry eye.