flesh and thought, inhabited equally by the ghosts of eros and thanatos


Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is the one whose performance history is notoriously strewn with disasters. But, as Dominic Dromgoole, whose new production of Henry IV, Parts One and Two, has just come to the Globe, may have discovered, the Scottish Play is a cakewalk compared with the Henrys. Unlike the other much-performed histories, they don’t have one big theme and one big royal hero or villain to hold them together. But there is, of course, an outsize figure in the Henrys. Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight and leader-astray of the Prince of Wales, is the most immense of all Shakespeare’s creations, his girth matched by his wit, his appetite by his cleverness. And there is a big theme too: the journey of Hal, the Prince, from dissipated lay-about to upright royal pragmatist. Nothing in the Henrys is simple, though. We see Falstaff lie, rob, cheat, celebrate drunkenness, exploit pitiful soldiers, fleece an honest widow and, in his dotage, grope a whore. And yet we give him our heart. We see Hal throw off a life of idle loutishness and accept the mantle of sovereignty, and he turns our blood cold. The end of Part Two, in which Hal becomes Henry V and repudiates his old companion in crime, is more shattering than any denouement of Shakespeare’s tragedies. At the end of Hamlet, Lear or Antony and Cleopatra the stage is littered with bodies. At the end of Henry IV Part Two, all we have is the broken heart of the fat old knight and it is much worse. On coronation day, he gets his crushing put-down. “I know thee not,” lies the new king, and Falstaff, before our eyes, begins to deflate and die.

more from Simon Schama at the FT here.