Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are now playing in Ashland at the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival. These plays form half of Shakespeare’s tetralogy, tracing the careers of King Richard II; Henry of Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV; and Prince Harry, later King Henry V.
Ashland being Ashland, the two Henry IV plays boast a number of politically correct flourishes. Hotspur, that model English warrior, has become a woman, Thomas Percy’s daughter. Hotspur’s wife remains a woman; we are expected to believe that medieval England is cool with that. When Prince Harry and Ned Poins rob Falstaff’s gang, they disguise themselves by wearing Reagan and Trump masks because … well, it’s not clear why they are wearing Reagan and Trump masks but it gives the audience a chance to hoot at Reagan and Trump, which is a popular thing to do in a place like Ashland.
But Shakespeare is a sturdy craft. Load it with all the trendy cargo one can muster and it still remains Shakespeare. It never fails to teach. Even without the PC touches, the Henry IV plays have much to say about our times, including our current President.
Henry IV presents three distinct versions of manhood. Depending on where one calls home politically, one can locate Donald Trump in one of them.
The first version of manhood is John Falstaff, perhaps Shakespeare’s most memorable creation. Falstaff is an overweight lecher, lush, and coward. He and his company inhabit the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, where they drink and thieve, and look forward to the day when their friend Harry will become King, hoping that his ascension will bring them honors and wealth.
In one scene, Harry, channeling his royal father, imagines how he would castigate his son for associating with such a rascal:
Why dost thou converse with the trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend Vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years?
And yet, Falstaff exudes an undeniable charm. He has the common touch, equally at ease conversing with royalty as with the robbers, whores, and other denizens of the Boar’s Head Tavern.
No matter how many lies he is caught telling, he is nimble enough to escape embarrassment. When he recounts his gang’s encounter with the robbers, his tale quickly escalates from having fought off a dozen, to two dozen, to more than fifty. Finally, Harry can take no more of his cock-and-bull accounts and reveals that the veritable army of attackers consisted only of Harry himself and Poins in disguise. Falstaff’s discomfiture is only momentary. He quickly recovers, and responds: “By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.” He claims he just pretended to let Harry win because “Was it for me to kill the heir-apparent?”
As a soldier, Falstaff is a rank coward. He feigns death when challenged by Douglas. When he comes upon the body of Hotspur, just bested by Harry in single combat, Falstaff gashes the corpse so he can take credit for the killing.
Trump’s legion of critics will recognize much of his personality in Falstaff: the self-indulgence, the lack of discipline, the lechery. In his capacity to relate to the lowlifes of the Boar’s Head Tavern, they may locate Trump’s ability to connect to the hopes and fears of the “deplorables.” In his facility with whoppers, they will remember Trump’s “birther” mendacity. And they will recall Trump’s nimble response when President Obama finally produced his birth certificate: Trump immediately took credit for putting the issue to rest. In Falstaff’s cowardice, they will see the man who obtained 5 Vietnam-era deferments (one for bad feet), and who years later criticized John McCain for allowing himself to be captured.
The two Henry IV plays provide a second, vastly different version of manhood in the character of Hotspur.
He (and notwithstanding the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Hotspur is a man) is born to fight. His stoical wife complains that even when they are alone, he thinks of nothing but “Sallies and retires, of trenches, tents … /Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin/ Of prisoner’s ransom, and of soldiers slain/ And all the currents of a heady fight.”
He is an honorable man, but his code of honor does not encompass deference to authority or the settled order. Indeed, he welcomes disorder. He tells his wife:
…this is no world
To play with mammets and to tilt with lips.
We must have bloody noses, and crack’d crowns.
Later, he tells his compatriots before battle: “An if we live, we live to tread on kings.”
His most serious – perhaps, his only – flaw is his impatience. He goes into battle at Shrewsbury undermanned because he simply cannot wait for his father’s army to arrive. To Hotspur, the absence of the reinforcements is all the more reason to fight now:
I rather of his absence make this use:
It lends a lustre and more great opinion
A larger dare to our great enterprise,
Than if the Earl were here.
This is the Donald Trump of his admirers. Trump is Hotspur: combative, decisive, and impetuous. He is a born fighter, willing to tread on the establishment, whether that means attacking the Republican Party hierarchy or the “lamestream” media. Sure, he may go off half-cocked from time to time. Yes, his immigration bans were issued without proper vetting, and so the courts struck them down. But that’s what fighters do. They don’t wait until every “t” is crossed and every “i” dotted. If they get it wrong, they get it wrong. There’s always time for the clerks to fix it later. Meanwhile, warriors like Trump are off to bloody some noses and crack a few crowns, all the while making American great again.
And then we come to the third, most intriguing version of manhood. This is the version embodied by Prince Harry, the central figure of three of Shakespeare’s histories. Although only one – Henry V – bears his name in the title, he is also the central character of the two Henry IV plays. His father is little more than a foil, through whose critical gaze the audience views the maturation of the son.
At the outset, Harry’s father is beside himself over his son’s debauchery. He envies Northumberland, whose son Hotspur inspires universal admiration, “Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him/ See riot and dishonour stain the brow/ Of my young Harry.” He even assumes that Harry’s failings represent God’s way of punishing him for his own sins. Else how:
… could such inordinate and low desires,
Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts,
Such barren pleasures, rude society
As thou are match’d withal, and grafted to,
Accompany the greatness of thy blood,
And hold their level with thy princely heart?
But in the course of the three plays, Harry matures into a noble leader, eventually reaching the almost mythic heroism of Henry V at Agincourt. (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”) Along the way, he must jettison Falstaff and his Boar’s Head Tavern crew. But in so doing, he shows that his attachment to them was more than just the frolic of a pampered bad boy. There was method in his badness. His association with the low will make him a better ruler when it is time to ascend on high:
Sirrah, I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers,
And can call them by their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis.
… and when I am King of England,
I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.
Harry by the end of Henry IV, Part 2, has become a different man than the rowdy youth of Part 1. When Falstaff merrily accosts him on his way to his coronation, the soon-to-be king instantly puts him in his place:
I know thee not, old man….
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest;
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
Falstaff is stung by this rebuke, but in true Falstaffian fashion, quickly recovers and tells his companions: “Do not grieve this;/ I shall be sent for in private to him.”
As King, Harry turns to wise and experienced men to advise him. He tells the Chief Justice, who once imprisoned him for his misbehavior:
You shall be as a father to my youth,
My voice shall sound as you do prompt mine ear,
And I will stoop and humble my intents
To your well-practiced wise directions.
He summons Parliament, and vows to “choose such limbs of noble counsel/ That the great body of our state may go/ In equal rank with the best governed nation.”
In the transformation, we see a third Trump, neither the image of his critics nor of his friends. Here is a Trump for those chagrined by his past and present conduct, yet stubbornly optimistic of what he may yet become in the future.
This is the Trump of the undecided’s hopes. They imagine a Trump who grows into his job. Just as Harry discarded Falstaff, Bardolph, and Pistol, Trump has removed Bannon, Scaramucci, and Spicer (these names would serve wonderfully for Shakespearean characters!). Just as the newly crowned King turns to the wise old Chief Justice to advise him, they see Trump turning to respected, patriotic men like John Kelly and James Mattis.
Those who see this third Trump are not completely naïve. They’ve seen the videos. They’ve read the Tweets. But when they watch the plays, they hear Harry say “Presume not that I am the thing I was.” And they hope for a comparable evolution in America’s Commander-in-Chief.
One may smirk at their expectations. After all, Harry was 27 when he became King. Trump is 71, an age perhaps too late for transformations. But even if hopes for a Henrican transformation in Trump are unrealistic, Shakespeare himself would not begrudge our harboring them. After all, one of his favorite characters, who loses and regains high office, informs us that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”