Richard Nisley

Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears The Crown
History - World Released - Jan 26, 2015

It’s called the “The Henriad,” four plays by William Shakespeare about three English kings--Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. The plays were written between 1595 and 1598 when Shakespeare was peaking as a creative artist, the same time he wrote “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” The Bard was on a roll. The following are four reviews:


Something is rotten in Denmark, oops, make that London. The Duke of Gloucester is dead, and two lords in the king’s court--Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray--are each accusing the other of the crime. King Richard orders Bolingbroke and Mowbray to a trial by combat. As the fight is about to commence, Richard changes his mind. Instead of trial by combat, he banishes them both from his kingdom, Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for a period of six years.

Thus begins "Richard II." Unlike Shakespeare's flamboyant and charismatic Richard III, Richard II is a subtle, complex character. Richard III is outrageous, an explosion of character. Richard II is introverted and mysterious, a smoldering fire.

After banishment of the two nobles, the truth emerges: it was Richard who ordered Gloucester's death, in order to seize his wealthy estate. In fact, Richard has been bleeding the kingdom dry through heavy taxation of commoners and enforced loans of the nobility. Having banished Bolingbroke, Richard is now free to seize the estate of Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, who is near death. From his deathbed, John of Gaunt accuses Richard of being "landlord . . . and not king." In one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, John of Gaunt says of England's plight under Richard II: "This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England . . . Is now leased out . . . That England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself."

Against the advice of his senior staff, including the powerful Lord Northumberland, Richard seizes John of Gaunt's estate to finance his military campaign against Ireland. While he is off fighting the Irish, Bolingbroke returns to England, joins forces with Northumberland, and marches to Berkeley Castle. Sick of heavy taxation, the country rises in his favor. Bolingbroke's avowed purpose of merely reclaiming his father's estate is soon replaced with talk of being king.

When Richard returns, he learns his country has turned against him, and laments: "Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs, / Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth . . . let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings." Richard is arrested by Bolingbroke's men. Back in London, he yields the crown without a fight. Imprisoned, Richard's introverted nature comes to the fore. He counters his loneliness by creating thoughts with which to "people the world." He sees his body as a "prison for his soul” and acknowledges the fragmented nature of his identity, commenting, "Thus play I in one prison many people, / and none contented. Sometimes am I king; / Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar, / And so I am. Then crushing penury / Persuades me I was better when a king. / Then am I kinged again, and by and by / Think am I unkinged by Bolingbroke . . . ." Richard is murdered by Sir Pierce of Exon, a crime mourned by Henry Bolingbroke who may or may not have ordered it. Crowned King Henry IV, Bolingbroke’s troubles are just beginning, and taken up in Shakespeare's next play, "1 Henry IV."

"Richard II" is a rare example of Shakespeare writing a play entirely in verse. It's a play that's "more admired on page than on stage" (as one critic puts it). According to actress Fiona Shaw, the play is about Richard's journey to wisdom, who too late realizes the error of his ways and becomes more human and thus wins our sympathy. According to another critic, Richard's biggest mistake was his failure to recognize that the first duty of a king is to make sure he stays in power.


Was William Shakespeare trying to tell us something? On the surface, “1 Henry IV” is about civil war, with an array of memorable characters who live, breathe, and speak in verse, as only the Bard could imagine them. However, you soon realize there is more going on than at first meets the eye. Shakespeare is showing us how some leaders succeed while others fail. “1 Henry IV” is nothing less than Shakespeare's clinic on leadership.

First there's Henry IV, who deposed Richard II and now faces opposition to his legitimacy as England's king. Henry is an able administrator but perhaps not a great leader. He gets by. Faced with civil war, he's distracted by small issues, such as his son Prince Hal, who spends most of his time rollicking with friends in an Eastcheap tavern. Hal promises his father he will reform--when he's ready. In one memorable scene, King Henry wishes his son had somehow been switched at birth with brave Harry Percy. Harry Percy, also known as Hotspur, is fearless and idealistic, a man of action and not words. He's also a hothead and leader of the rebel faction. Hotspur knows everything about leading an army into battle and nothing about the politics of running a kingdom.

Then there's the Fat Knight, Sir John Falstaff. War and politics do not interest Falstaff in the slightest, other than as fodder for his jokes. Unlike Hotspur, Falstaff (one of Shakespeare's great comic inventions) is a master of wordplay and punning, and an inveterate lover of wine, women and song. Falstaff has no means of support other than his sharp wit. Indeed, words are his capital. They pay for his food, drink and lodging, and get him out of jams.

Finally, there's Prince Hal, next in line to be king. Hal's ambition is little more than drinking and trading puns with Falstaff at the Boar's Head Tavern. In Act I, Shakespeare reveals that Hal has exceeded Falstaff as the master of wordplay. With civil war pending, Hal returns to the court, convinces his father he has reformed, and prepares to lead the English army into battle against Hotspur and the Scottish and Welsh rebels.

When the scene shifts back to Hotspur, we learn the result of his idealism. He sees the world in terms of black and white, of good and evil, and therefore lacks political savvy. It's a fault that leads to his death, as his partners in rebellion manipulate his lust for honor in order to refuse King Henry IV's offer of a truce. Ultimately, Hotspur is the tragic figure, caught in the trap of his own idealism.

At the other extreme is Falstaff, who is asked to head up a battalion (he is a knight after all--Sir John Falstaff). His consuming interest is to stay alive, and make money on the side. Rather than hire a first-class outfit as expected, he recruits the dregs of society and pockets the money that's intended as their pay. As he puts it, his ragtag battalion is mere "fodder for bullets" and won't live long enough to spend it. He dismisses talk of honor. "Can honor set to a leg? No. Can honor mend a wound? No. What is honor? Air. Therefore I'll none of it." When confronted in battle, the Fat Knight falls down and plays dead. For all his impropriety, Falstaff proves to be more politically astute than Hotspur: able to bluff, to bide his time, and ultimately to survive.

After the battle, Prince Hal is a hero and the toast of England, primed to become king. What is Shakespeare telling us? According to Shakespeare scholar Claire McEachern it’s mainly this: Hal's wasted years in the tavern were not wasted at all, but taught him well the art of rhetoric and verbal give-and-take, thus making his transition to the court smooth and effortless. Indeed, it is to Falstaff, the actor and liar, to whom Hal is most indebted, as the world of the court is one where power belongs to those best able to improvise in response to ever-changing circumstances, and where compromise and consensus-building are the tools of effective leadership. With Shakespeare, as with life, it's the pragmatic leaders who give a little to get a little, who ultimately succeed.


“2 Henry IV” is seldom performed today. The story, which continues the action that more or less concluded in “1 Henry IV” is a bit anti-climatic. So why bother? Well, first it is Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is always worthwhile (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” is among many memorable lines), and second, one of the characters is Shakespeare's greatest comic invention, Sir John Falstaff. The Fat Knight, who also appears in “Henry IV Part 1,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and dies in “Henry V,” has been amusing playgoers for 400-hundred years. He is no less funny today. (Actor John Goodman achieved fame in 1985 playing Falstaff in New York’s Central Park.) Equally worthwhile is the introduction by Claire McEachern (Shakespeare Pelican Edition), a professor at UCLA. She sets the stage for “2 Henry IV,” showing us a change has taken place in English society since the battle at Shrewsbury, that concluded “1 Henry IV.” The teaming universe of valiant young men in possession of high and often misguided ideals, has been exhausted and largely decimated by war, replaced by "a country of old men," where "politics is no longer a matter of high ideals and high tempers, but an ignoble and repetitive motion of declining momentum.”

Even Falstaff has been affected. He's no longer quite as funny. Writes McEachern: "The vitality, energetic wordplay, and improvisational mockery of power that endeared him to us earlier have dwindled to a few stale jokes about his girth." It is Prince Hal who has changed the most, having shown himself in battle as a fierce warrior and an effective leader. He no longer has time to banter with Falstaff in an Eastcheap saloon, and is fully prepared to assume leadership of the English people--too ready. In one memorable scene, thinking his father has died, he tries on the English crown only to be severely reprimanded by his father who is in fact very much alive. At the play's conclusion, with his father buried and Hal crowned Henry V, king of England, he refuses to recognize his old friend in public, Sir John Falstaff. "I know thee not, old man," he says. It's one of the key moments in the play. Says McEachern: "The rejection of Falstaff by Henry V may be the most painful moment in Shakespeare."

McEachern has more to say about “2 Henry IV” which makes the Pelican Shakespeare edition worthwhile. The play isn't bad either. Which begs the question: why spend 10-hours reading today's novelists who are here today and gone tomorrow when you can read one of immortal Shakespeare's plays in 90 minutes? It's nourishment for the brain, not sweets for the tongue.


Who wouldn’t want to play Henry V? Talk about ego gratification: Henry delivers a number of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches, defies the odds in battle, wins the day and gets the girl. Look who’s played him: Laurence Olivier, Alec Clunes, Christopher Plummer, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, and most recently, in a BBC adaption for TV, Tom Hiddleston. “Henry V” is nothing less than Shakespeare’s ideal heroic character, the larger-than-life king who will not fail.

Is he too good to be true? Let’s see. Based on little more than some old Salic law, Henry V has decided that being king of England is not enough, and that he is the rightful King of France, too. When the French Dauphin sends him a bag of tennis balls as a sign that he is less than impressed with Henry and his claim, Henry declares war. Meanwhile, at Henry’s old hangout, the Boar’s Head Tavern, Sir John Falstaff and his cronies cannot understand why their old friend Prince Hal, now that he is king, has abandoned them. Poor Falstaff dies of a broken heart while all England wishes King Henry godspeed and conquest as he embarks for France.

At Harfleur, Henry gives the first of his great speeches (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead!”). Harfleur is taken, but sickness and lack of food weaken the English army. Nevertheless the English King, relying upon the bravery of his men, pitches camp at Agincourt, well-knowing the French will give battle there. So confident are the French of victory on the morrow, they make little preparation for battle. At dawn, Henry makes his second great speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.”) Despite vastly superior numbers, the Dauphin’s forces are soundly defeated and sue for peace. Henry agrees once his demands are met--that he be recognized as heir to the French throne, and that Katherine, daughter of the French king, be given him in marriage. Henry’s wooing of Katherine is both comical and charming (“You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate”) and makes for a happy ending.

But what do the critics say? Are they impressed with Henry? Charles Hazlitt (“Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays”) was not. “(Henry) was fond of war and low company: we know little else of him. In private, he seemed to have no idea of the common decencies of life, which he subjected to a kind of regal license; in public affairs, he seemed to have no idea of any rule or right or wrong, but brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy and archiepiscopal advice.” On the other hand, Edward Dowden (“Shakespeare--His Mind and Art”) was an outright fan. “With his glorious practical virtues, his courage, his integrity, his unfaltering justice, his hearty English warmth, his modesty, his love of plainness rather than pageantry, his joyous temper, his business-like English piety, Henry is indeed the ideal of the king who must attain a success complete, and thoroughly real and sound.”

Finally, there is Claire McEachern, UCLA professor and author of the introduction to the Shakespeare Pelican Edition. She offers a moderate but coldly realistic view. “Henry is both the ‘mirror of all Christian kings’ and a ruthless and Machiavellian performer of power. . . . He threatens war and rapine, as in the speech before the gates of Harfleur— 'the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart, / In liberty of bloody hand shall range / With conscience wide as hell, mowing the grass / Your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infants’. But he also condemns them, as when he refuses to pardon an old friend from his tavern days, the hapless Bardolph, caught stealing chickens from a farmer. Bardolph is summarily hanged. ‘We would have all such offenders so cut off. And we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for; . . . for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner’. McEachern continues: “These two sides, the inspiring and the calculating--constitute the double face of Henry, but it is a duality that does not so much discredit his rulership as render it all the more compelling. He is both righteous and ruthless, glorious and repellent, and the combination serves to make him both difficult to grasp and a king for every moment.”

“The Life of Henry V” is wonderful storytelling, with high drama, low comedy, inspiring speeches, and a clever chorus to comment on the action (that some say is Shakespeare himself).

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