Paul Foot

Haunted by the Future

(March 2001)

From Arts Review, Socialist Review, No.250, March 2001, p.26.
Copyright © 2001 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Henry IV Parts I and II
by William Shakespeare
Barbican Theatre, London

The sons and daughters of the rich and famous often live a ‘wild’ life in their youth in which they eat and drink (and even engage in more dangerous pleasures) to excess. Such dalliance causes their parents much distress, but is usually forgiven when the wayward youngsters return to the fold. This is the theme of Shakespeare’s plays about Henry Bolingbroke, who in 1399 became Henry IV, and his son Harry, who in 1413 became Henry V and later won the Battle of Agincourt. Henry IV was weighed down with guilt and self pity about the way, in the best tradition of a Middle Ages English monarch, he had tricked and murdered his predecessor, Richard II. But in Henry IV Part I he is haunted more by the future than the past. His young son has fallen in with ‘bad company’ in the shape of the jovial and irresistible old knight Sir Jack Falstaff, and a band of friendly rogues and ‘loose women’ in Eastcheap. So deeply has the young prince fallen for this jolly crowd that the king and his advisers fear for the future.

For Henry IV the past with all its lies and hypocrisies, and the present with the threats of rebellion from Wales and the north, are bad enough. But the future, with its rightful heir to the throne poisoned by strong drink, sex, subversive jokes and pranks, is even worse. Moreover, mere rebuke will not restore the young prince to the Christian and military role cut out for him. A mixture of paternal argument, challenge and adventure holds out the only hope for his salvation.

William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist of all time, spotted the dramatic potential in this story, not least the clash of hypocrisies between the Falstaff crowd on the one hand, with its relatively harmless inanities, and the menacing deceit, hypocrisy and violence represented by the king and his adversaries. The king fears young Harry Hotspur from Northumberland, but at the same time wishes that the young man’s bravery in the field and rashness in council were qualities he could recognise in his own son and heir.

Many socialists (though not Karl Marx, who understood and enjoyed Shakespeare as well as anyone else these last 400 years) like to pretend that the playwright held similar views to their own.

Shakespeare was not a revolutionary – if anything the opposite. But his keen ear picked up the revolutionary rumblings of his own times (the Henry IV plays were written in 1598).

Shakespeare the man probably wanted to see the wastrel Harry freed from the influence of Falstaff and properly equipped to become a conquering English king. But Shakespeare the playwright observed the prince’s dilemma – caught between the anti-political satire of Fat Old Jack and the insufferable duplicities of the court. He resolved the dilemma by putting the prince back where he belonged, but the resulting rejection of Falstaff at the end of the second play (‘I know thee not, old man’) is one of the most moving moments in all literature.

The Henry IV plays are expertly represented at the Barbican in the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production. Desmond Barrit fashions a wonderful Falstaff, and the whole production moves at great pace. No one overacts. If you can only get to one play, choose Part I, where the drama is more sustained and more consistent, and in which Hotspur delivers the delicious riposte to the garrulous Welsh general Kinnock – excuse me, Glendower:

Glendower: ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep.’
Hotspur: ‘Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?’

Both plays throb with the turbulence of the times and the revolutionary consequences. The old king prays to what he hopes is his redeemer:

‘Oh God! That one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level.’

As he dies, he begs his son to shy away from interminable civil wars and passes on a message that appears to have been picked up, not just by Henry V, but also by Messrs Bush and Blair.

‘Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels.’


Last updated on 27.11.2004