Nottingham Shakespeare Society
March 4th 2020
Henry IV Part I: Talk by Lisa Hopkins Sheffield Hallam University
Review by Julia Pirie
Professor Hopkins’ talk made me want to apply for a PhD at Sheffield Hallam on the spot! She is a great speaker: hugely well informed; articulate and engrossing. It would be a joy to study with her though I’d have to brush up on the works of John Ford, her man, first. I was almost as ignorant about Shakespeare’s Henrys till they have now appeared for exploration on our March programme. But thanks to Hopkins’ talk – and in advance of our play readings of ‘Henry IV Parts I and II’ – I am beginning to get a clearer picture. Her approach to this play was through the characters and those members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men who would/might have played them. She pointed out that per se Henry IV is not a very meaty part; in a sense, his story was told in ‘Richard II’. She proposed that the drama here centres round Falstaff, Glendower, Hotspur and Hal. She suggested that Shakespeare was learning to use his company and training his boy actors (under their masters) for roles of the future.
She looked at the magnetism of Falstaff, the scene-stealing Carnival spirit (Medieval Vice) of the play. It is widely believed that the original role here was taken by William Kempe, himself a larger-than-life rumbustious man, famed for dancing his nine-day jig to Norwich. By the time Shakespeare wrote ‘Henry V’ Kempe was no longer a member of the Chamberlain’s Men which Hopkins takes to support the theory that is why he dies off stage in that play and that the role was picked up later, (perhaps via Sir Toby Belch) in a modified form, by John Lowin in ‘The Merry Wives'.
She touched on the Shakespeare’s original use of Sir John Oldcastle as a name which led to something of a protest from the Protestant martyr’s descendants. As we learnt from discussion on ‘Coriolanus’, Shakespeare and his contemporaries generally tried to avoid alluding overtly to topical issues which might incur the wrath of the Lord Chamberlain or the reigning monarch. Writing about the reign of Henry IV was a dangerous topic. Shakespeare was interested in English kingship but had to be careful not to offend the Queen’s sensibilities in the case of the usurper, Bolingbroke.
Hopkins discussed the actors playing Glendower and Lady Percy, his daughter, the former played perhaps by Michael Gough. These Welsh-speaking roles were probably taken by a master and his apprentice, training under him (as those of Othello and Desdemona would have been). She pointed out that Shakespeare made Hotspur - who was historically older than Hal – into the Prince’s contemporary. Researchers have some evidence that the former part was played by an actor with a stammer, perhaps on the letter ‘W’. Her contention is that these characters stand out because Shakespeare was using his cast to tell a story about Britain – a ‘play for the nation’ – which he would develop and conclude in ‘Henry V’ where a Scot and an Irishman also feature. I found it particularly interesting when she drew our attention to how the prototype of a critical character study is to be found in a 17th critical essay on Falstaff by Morgann.
She observed – and examined – Hal’s speech from Act I scene 2 in which, she suggested, Shakespeare begins to formulate a way of character exploration which he perfects in the soliloquies of the great tragedies. Mistress Quickly too was mentioned as Hopkins illustrated (albeit from ‘Henry V’) her particularly personal way of thinking and expressing herself.
Hopkins’ final thoughts were on the importance in the play of England and her great rivers, Trent, Severn and Wye. She suggested the spirit of England is present. Maybe this is what so attracted Queen Elizabeth, so that years later she called for a reprise which Shakespeare artfully set on her own quintessentially English acres by the Thames in Windsor.
After the break Hopkins answered questions and cleared up the matter of textual emendations (editorial choices made about wording where previous source material seems unclear). Further discussion focussed on the presentation of Hal. Some thought his cynical using of Falstaff and his gang was indefensible. Some found his clearly and unashamedly revealed plans to spin a negative picture, to ‘falsify men’s hopes’ so that when he stops behaving like a Bullingdon lout everyone is even more impressed by his reformation, problematic. Falstaff too – although full of energy and larger than life – is also a character of dubious morals. The two members cast to read these parts at our next meeting both admitted to not liking them. It will be interesting to see/hear how they manage to deliver the roles on March 17th.
It was a most interesting evening giving the audience, as the best of these lectures do, some new insights into readings of Shakespeare’s stagecraft and plays to challenge those we may have taken for granted over the years.