It’s my favorite scene in Shakespeare, and it begins with my two favorite characters. Two guys are stumbling around in the dark at 2 am, trying to get their horses ready so they can make a delivery to London. They’ve had a miserable night. The inn they are staying at is a flea-infested dump and they are getting no help at all from its staff. One of the men has a load of bacon and ginger, and the other has live turkeys who haven’t been fed, so getting the delivery on the way is pretty urgent. In walks a man named Gadshill who tries to borrow a lantern from first one, then the other. They both turn him down abruptly and go on their way. As it turns out, Gadshill is a scout for Sir John Falstaff and his band of thieves – he’s on the lookout for any travelers who are carrying a large amount of money. He bribes one of the servants at the inn by promising him a portion of the theft, and leaves with the information that there’s a group of travelers that includes a government employee delivering a large amount of money to the treasury and a wealthy landowner carrying gold. By the way – the group including the government man has just gotten up and are demanding an early breakfast of eggs and butter.
I love everything about this scene. I love Shakespeare’s investment in developing characters who will never appear again or hardly at all. I love that I know that the travelers are ordering breakfast and that the delivery guys had to relieve themselves in the fireplace because there wasn’t a urinal available. Yeah, the inn was that bad, and no Yelp to complain to.
The First Part of Henry IV is a masterpiece in every sense – Shakespeare has total command of his art. Every character is drawn with energy and insight, the poetic language is evocative and amazingly fluid.
Running a close second to my favorite is the scene where the leaders of the rebellion against King Henry, led by the powerful Percy family and their allies, assemble for a strategy meeting. It’s tragically clear well before the end of the scene that the rebellion will fail, as the playwright mercilessly exposes the flawed personalities of the men in charge. Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the charismatic young leader of the group, though a fearless soldier, is also a contentious windbag. Mortimer, the man whom the group intends to set up as the new king, is a hapless weakling. Welsh strongman Owen Glendower is convinced that he can talk to Satan and call spirits from hell. And even Worcester, the devious instigator of the rebellion, turns out to be oddly unable to contribute effectively when it’s time to act, allowing the headstrong Hotspur to take the lead. The playwright shows these men at their ease, giving them likability and charm, making their fate all the more poignant.
The Argo recording is particularly strong, buoyed up by Paul Scofield’s Hotspur. Scofield, the esteemed Shakespearean actor and future Oscar-winner, makes his only appearance in the series and does a fine job. Donald Beves, who is described somewhere (lost the reference, sorry) as a lazy Cambridge don but the best amateur actor in England, has the gigantic role of Sir John Falstaff. He’s surprisingly effective, doing justice to the great comic speeches and scenes and also conveying the Knight’s excess and his essential childishness and criminality. Anthony Jacobs is a great choice to play King Henry, who has grown testy and careworn and carries the burden of unlikability as his cross. And Gary Watson’s Prince Hal, with arguably the most difficult role, pulls off Hal’s mixture of poise and immaturity, playfulness and steely premeditation with skill. The final face-off between Hal and Hotspur is thrilling and effective.
Henry IV, Part 1 with Anthony Jacobs, Gary Watson, Donald Beves and Paul Scofield.