What I love about this play: This installment begins more or less where the previous one left off, with Henry’s resolution “to chase these pagans in those holy fields / Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet / Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d / For our advantage on the bitter cross.” It never happens. Shaky alliances break down and civil war intervenes. Meanwhile, the story opens out: from the slightly claustrophobic world of the nobility we move into the Boar’s Head tavern, where Falstaff does impressions of the king with a pillow on his head, Mistress Quickly gets drafted to act the part of his “tristful queen,” and Hal deposes him unceremoniously.
I think that scene pushes every last one of my Shakespeare buttons: metatheater, kingship as performance, reversals between high and low, the sudden shift in tone from high hilarity to Falstaff’s recognition that he’s pleading for his life and Hal’s chilly “I do, I will.” And then there’s a knock on the door, and Falstaff protests, “Play out the play: I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff,” but he never gets the chance. I love that scene so much; there’s the cold edge of foreshadowing, but also so much warmth and wine and laughter in the moment, and it’s a rare glimpse of what these kings must look like to their subjects.
Also, the byplay between the rebels is delicious: Glendower sincerely believes he’s got magical superpowers; Hotspur, who has no patience for this sort of thing, relentlessly undercuts him; Mortimer, the man who would be king, is stuck running interference between the two. (“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” “Why so can I, or so can any man / But will they come when you do call for them?”) And then Lady Percy and Lady Mortimer come out – two young women, neither of whom is going to keep her husband very long – and Lady Mortimer sings a song in Welsh, which is the only language she knows, and it all turns strangely melancholy and haunting.
Favorite one-liner: (I’m too tired tonight to think of anything except one-liners.)
Worcester: ... I do protest
I have not sought the day of this dislike.
King: You have not sought it! How comes it, then?
Falstaff: Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.
Rebellion is always lying in people’s way in the history plays. Funny how that happens...