Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Sundry Other Literary Delights

With third years I went last night to see John Bell playing Falstaff in the complete production of Henry IV Part One and Part Two at the Sydney Opera House.  As was said in a recent review, this was John Bell’s best performance of his career. 

This was an amazing, energizing production that brought Falstaff and his friends right into the 21st Century. John Bell played a wonderful, gout-ridden, fat “sot” of a man who kept the audience thoroughly entertained, but who also raised questions about the world of self-indulgence contrasted to the world of respectability and social and public advancement. There is no easy answer to this contrast. It is not possible to say that Shakespeare sides wholly with licentious, fun-loving Falstaff, because Shakespeare also values order and responsibility. However with John Bell in this leading role it is hard not sense that the director of this production wanted the audience to have amplified sympathy for this rogue character. And then this production did also paint all the king’s men in suits of unsympathetic grey.

The overall impact of the production was wonderful: the director managed to make most of Shakespeare’s complex language comprehensible to a modern audience. This was done by the pace of the delivery, but also by the clever change of a few words that revealed the essential meaning in the text. For example in the soliloque where Falstaff lampoons “honour” -contrasted so sharply with Hotspur’s passionate quest for “honour” in his own world- Shakespeare’s text finishes with the line “Honour is a mere scutcheon… and so ends my catechism”. The Bell production turned “scutcheon” into “tombstone” – which makes so much more sense for a modern audience: we immediately know and understand the point of Falstaff’s whole rant: that honour might be reflected on someone’s tombstone, but what good does that do them in life! All this clarity by the translation of one word! Brilliant.

Blog Questions


We have been studying this play in the context of Antony and Cleopatra,  so how about a blog question that links these two plays? How about:

Is there anything about the world of Egypt (when contrasted with Rome) that bears resemblance with the world of Falstaff (when compared with the court of Henry IV?

And if you want a creative topic along these lines, manufacture a brief conversation between Cleopatra and Falstaff. What might they say to each other about the world of politics. Maybe begin the conversation with Falstaff saying “Honour’s a mere tombstone”. How does Cleopatra reply to this?

In Nineteenth Century Literature, the high point in week 7 was our exploration of some of the Romantic and Victorian women poets. In particular we found Emily Bronte’s poem “Stars” gave such an insight into her deep, yet subtle understanding of the meaning of her own life. This poem provided a real catalyst for reflections on the impact of day and night on our consciousness.

We also explored at some length Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” and Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar Gypsy”. Both these poems reveal how real human strength has nothing to do with higher education, but has a lot to do with the individual’s capacity to stay focussed and attentive. The leech gatherer has “resolution” and “independence” because he has the amazing capacity to accept his circumstances for what they are- unlike the poet who compares his unstable state of mind with the resolve of the old man bent nearly double in his quest for leeches. Arnold sees the scholar who has “dropped out” of uni as a hero who has dared to follow his own mind, his own quest for meaning and wholeness, not through the conventional means of higher education, but by embracing the lore of the Gypsies.

Blog Questions

Nineteenth Century: Romantic and Victorian Poetry. 

Present your favourite Romantic or Victorian poem (by woman or man) and say what it is you find valuable about this particular poem.

With reference to Emily Bronte, explain how poetry becomes the means whereby she is able to embody a subtle, but important experience that continues to speak powerfully to us today. Consider using the poem “Stars” to illustrate this idea.

Take the first line of any one of the poems set down for this week’s (Week 7) workshop and use this as the first line of a poem based on your own experience.

Invent a brief conversation (in prose or poetry) with either the leech gatherer or the scholar gypsy. Ask them questions and record their answers. Let’s see what emerges from the unconscious parts of your own mind.

And please remember each week you must comment briefly on at least one other student in the list of bloggers in LEO. These do not need to be in your own unit. Remember to copy and paste the comment you have made on someone’s blog, back into your own blog as a new blog. In this way you will credit for all your work. Dont’ forget this! Some of you have not shown any comments in your own blogs so far! This will easily lose you significant marks.


  1 comment for “Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Sundry Other Literary Delights

  1. April 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    I’m glad that you went and enjoyed this production. I should have loved to go myself. Hopefully in third year I will have the opportunity to go with a class to a Bell production. I have always found Shakespeare a little perplexing; but studying it, and then seeing a Bell production should enlighten me no end.

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