Shakespeare has a keen understanding of the human psyche, including family dynamics. This is apparent in the 2015 Michigan Shakespeare Festival production of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. Artistic director, Janice Blixt, masterfully cuts two plays into one, bringing out the best in both and highlighting the conflict between King Henry and his son, Prince of Wales, Hal. (spoiler alert – if you are not familiar with this play you may not want to read this until after seeing the stage version.)
The play begins with King Henry lamenting the fact that his ne’er do well son, Hal, is not more like Harry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland. Meanwhile Hal is whiling away his time with his compatriots, including one John Falstaff, introducing this famous Shakespearean character. Falstaff provides comic relief throughout the play, being an integral part of the story line. He shows up during the battle scenes, being characteristically a coward then trying to lay claim to heroics.
When Percy joins with other leaders in revolt against the king, Prince Hal is called to the battle and shows his abilities. He slays his rival, Percy, and gains his father’s approval at the end of Act I. However King Henry continues to have a strained relationship with his oldest son as the play continues in Act II. Hal seeks his father’s approval through success in war. Meanwhile King Henry, suffering under the burden of his crown, is failing.
Lying in his death bed, the king places his crown on a pillow next to him. Hal requests time alone with his father. When Hal mistakenly thinks the king has died, Hal picks up his crown and reluctantly takes on the burden of leadership. He goes away to grieve. When his father awakens and discovers his crown missing, he thinks the worst of his son and berates him. At one point it appears the conflict between father and son will be a burden carried by Hal for the remainder of his life, but Hal is able to finally convince his father of his love and the two are reconciled in a touching scene.
Henry IV’s closest advisors are fearful after his death that Henry V will not look favorably upon them. The play ends with Hal requesting that his father’s advisors’ treat any sons he has as they treated him, a touching tribute to his father.
Thus the wound between father and son is healed and doesn’t continue to the next generation as so often happens.
Family struggles are the stuff of life. The love and acceptance of fathers is essential to the well-being of their children. Kathleen, in my Dancing Through Life series, has a hole in her heart from her father’s death when she was six. This hole got her into trouble in the past and continues to cause problems for her. Other characters in the series deal with the loss of a beloved spouse, mother, daughter, health, livelihood, all creating wounds that long for healing.
In telling the story of a conflict between father and son, Shakespeare’s history continues to be relevant today. Amidst political struggles and court conflicts, the underlying theme of family resonates.