Tuesday, December 24, 2013

O Henry

Henry Bolinbroke, who becomes Henry IV, is featured in three of Shakespeare’s plays, two of which even bear his name. But Henry isn’t the main character in any of these plays. He seems more an instrument of others’ fates—first the fate of Richard II, then of his son, the future Henry V. 

More specifically:

As Henry orchestrates a plan to overthrow the ineffectual, foppish King Richard, Henry is a foil for Richard’s transformation into an eloquent, tragic hero finally capable of keen insights. Only after Henry has laid low the slightly contemptible Richard and he is confined to a prison cell does the latter become a philosopher:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented.

So insightful now—all thanks to Henry and his machinations. 

Then, in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry exists to play counterpoint to his son, Prince Hal, whose journey through these two plays is a classic coming-of-age story, which culminates in his super-rousing ascendency in Henry V.  In the plays named after Henry IV, the dad/king spends most of his time on stage anguishing over two distinct forces: the various rebels trying to take the crown away from him and the profligate passions that possess his son and incline young Hal to disdain all that his father believes he is fighting for. When Henry IV finally seems to be getting the upper hand over the rebel forces at least, he falls ill. Then, as he languishes in limbo between life and death, he is affronted by his son who, having had the decency to come home in time to pay his last respects, ends up offending dear old dad by playing dress-up with dad’s crown when Hal thinks dad has drifted off—to sleep or to something more permanent:

My gracious lord! my father!
This sleep is sound indeed, this is a sleep
That from this golden rigol hath divorced
So many English kings. Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness,
Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously:
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which, as immediate as thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me. Lo, here it sits,
Which God shall guard: and put the world's whole strength
Into one giant arm, it shall not force
This lineal honour from me: this from thee
Will I to mine leave, as 'tis left to me.

After this pretty speech, Hal exits with the crown. And while the speech is pretty and certainly shows some affection for the dying dad, Henry does not hear it.  All he knows is that, when he, who is not dead yet, wakes up, his crown is missing. After he learns that Hal is the one who took it, Henry spends some of his last moments chastising his boy for being in too great a hurry to assume power.  In short, Henry can’t even feel good about the fact that his son may have abandoned his shameful ways at last because the boy also seems a bit too keen to claim the crown that he had, hithertofore, shown so little interest in earning.

Poor Henry. He never catches a break: he overthrows a king only to become the target of others’ plots; he vanquishes his competitors only to fall fatally ill; his prodigal son comes home, only to raid the family jewels. And he feels every irony to the core. In this, he stands for one really profound phenomenon: the elusive nature of pure joy.
Henry gives voice to this profundity just after he learns that the last rebels have finally been overthrown, knowing that his own body is now failing him:

And wherefore should this good news make me sick?
Will fortune never come with both hands full,
But write her fair words still in foulest letters?
She either gives a stomach and no food;
Such are the poor, in health; or else a feast
And takes away the stomach; such are the rich,
That have abundance and enjoy it not.
I should rejoice now at this happy news;
And now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy:
O me! come near me; now I am much ill.
[Part 2, V.4]

“Will Fortune never come with both hands full?!”—with that line, Henry captures something truly poignant about the human condition. How often, just as you attain something for which you have long striven, do you find that you are not quite in a position to enjoy it? That challenge is one reason why the holidays can be peculiarly taxing for grown-ups. Life does not readily permit a person to experience a whole season of unmitigated glee. And the more living one has under one’s belt the harder it is to cabin off the sad stuff just because Santa may be on his way. Henry the foil is the one who gives voice to this terribly real existential frustration: the difficulty of pure, sustained happiness.

Lawyers’ good fortunes, like Henry’s, never come with both hands full.  If you win a big plaintiff’s verdict, you know you will soon be fighting tooth and nail to hang on to some of it as judgment is entered and then as the case is appealed.  When you settle a big case and make a client happy, you realize you have no more work to do.  When you get a new matter in, you realize you will have to cancel the plans you had to take a vacation at long last.  When you finally get the other side to turn over that trove of documents they had been withholding, you then realize you have to dig through thousands or millions of pages of what may prove to be utterly worthless crap. And so forth. It is hard to think of any “happy turn” in litigation that does not have a very palpable down side. For this reason, some might say of lawyers, as Clarence says of Henry: “The incessant care and labour of his mind/ Hath wrought the mure that should confine it in/ So thin that life looks through and will break out.”

That gloomy thought also compels me to acknowledge something. The darkness that has, of late, befallen this blawg has been a source of some distress.  The blessing of ample work has meant very little time to work on this blawg. Therefore, despite an abundance of ideas, I feel I must accept my limitations and make a new new-year’s res simply to post once a month or so—or else let it go.

Meanwhile, I hope that anyone who happens upon this blawg manages a moment or two in the coming year to experience something that always eluded Henry Bolinbroke: unadulterated joy.


  1. A fire may be limited to burn in a pit, but it can never truly know the extent of its warmth. I hope you find the wood to keep it going, even if just to flicker.

  2. Please, please, do not "let it go." I concur completely with comment #1, who has stated my own feelings so beautifully. There are those who lack both the "abundance of ideas" as well as the time (too often, even to comment after enjoying the read) to do what you do so well here. On our behalf, I encourage you: press on at whatever pace you can.