What happens in Henry V

This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, it’s Henry V. It’s gruesome. It won’t make you like Prince Hal any better. In a mock trial in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether Henry V was justified in his slaughter of French prisoners of war. So you know going into it that the sort-of happy ending comes with a serious body count.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “A king’s gotta do what a king’s gotta do. MORAL: England good, France bad.”

What happens in Henry V
(King of England from 1413-1422)

Prince Hal (you remember him from Henry IV) is now King Henry V.

The Dolphin (you remember him from King John; actually now it’s 200 years later, so this is a different Dolphin, but he’s still the heir to the French throne) gives Henry a chest full of tennis balls. Henry is insulted because the Dolphin clearly thinks he is still the game-playing young idiot he was when he was Prince Hal. He decides to invade France. Yes, tennis is that old.

We learn that Falstaff has died, apparently of a broken heart after Henry rejected him. This is the very last nail in the coffin of the young idiot Prince Hal we knew in Henry IV. It’s all serious King Henry V stuff from now on.

Henry invades France. In the town of Harfleur he gives his troops the famous pep talk every shift manager has given before the Black Friday sales, “Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more.” The English occupy the town. Henry demands the local government surrender, making a less famous speech where he warns the French in excruciating detail exactly how the English forces will rape the women and murder the children.

At the French court, French people make fun of English people, but the audience is in on the joke because these French are so very weak and effeminate. Princess Catherine of France has an English lesson so she’s ready in case the English win the war. It’s funny but creepy. Shakespeare makes Catherine unknowingly say a lot of dirty words, which gets a cheap laugh. But on another level, Catherine (symbolizing France) is being set up as an active participant in her own conquest (sexual and political). You could see that as not creepy, considering the historical Catherine and Henry had actually been engaged all their lives, and she was a princess and therefore bound to marry somebody or other for political reasons. But the English occupation of France has been described in the language of rape for pages now. Gets uglier the more you think about it.

There is a diverting little subplot with a Welshman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman, but as much fun as it would be to walk into a bar, where we could drown the taste of that horrifying 2nd Harfleur speech, we don’t have time for subplots here on the Shakespeare TLDR.

There is a big battle at Agincourt. This time in Henry’s pep talk to the troops he famously says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

The English win.

Henry and Catherine seal the new peace accord by getting married.

The Chorus informs us that Henry and Catherine will have a son, who will grow up to be the Henry VI we’ll meet next.


I love the 1989 movie version of Henry V for Ian Holm’s portrayal of Fluellen, the Welsh soldier. He shows you how a great actor can bring dimension to a small role that looks pretty fluffy (sorry) on the page.


What happens in Henry IV

Henry IV was published as 2 plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. But we’ll do them both together in one post. Life is short. Shakespeare is long.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted:

HENRY IV, 1: Same as The Lion King: Princes have to grow up. Also, hakuna matata.

HENRY IV, 2: Prince Hal’s movin’ on up. MORAL: Don’t forget the little people who got you where you are.

What happens in Henry IV
(King of England from 1399-1413)

Part 1

As you might recall from Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke is now King Henry IV of an unstable England full of civil unrest, sheep, and short people whose life expectancy is 48. Some of the civil unrest involves Hotspur, a hot-to-spur-his-horse-into-battle nobleman who is none too impressed with King Henry and eventually leads a revolt against him.

King Henry’s oldest son, Henry (nickname Hal) spends most of his time in the taverns of London with his disreputable friends, including Falstaff (you remember him from The Merry Wives of Windsor). There is a subplot where Falstaff is cheap and has a drinking problem, and it is foreshadowed that Hal will be a complete chode in Part 2.

King Henry calls Hal back to court now that civil war is underway for real. Hal and Falstaff roleplay the conversation between frat-boyish Hal and his stodgy father. Hal’s snarky comments about his own friends give Falstaff food for thought.

Hostpur makes an alliance with King Henry’s other enemies (I haven’t used the word “enemy” this much since the Great Friendship Pin Unrest of 3rd Grade. It’s oddly satisfying).

Hal returns to his father, who sends him off at the head of an army to meet Hotspur. On the way, Hal encounters Falstaff leading a few disorganized “soldiers” he took bribes from.

The King offers to pardon Hotspur if he will back down, but one of Hotspur’s allies keeps the message from him.

There is a battle between the Henry side and the Hotspur side.

Falstaff is afraid to die in battle and wonders why all the fuss about honor. “Can Honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is Honour? A word. What is that word, Honour? Air.”

Hal fights well, saves his father’s life, and kills Hotspur.

Falstaff fakes his own death on the battlefield and then claims he was the one who killed Hotspur.

King Henry’s side wins the battle. On to Part 2.

Part 2

Hotspur’s father mistakenly hears that Hotspur actually won the battle. He organizes the rebels to oppose King Henry’s forces (officially led by Prince John, the King’s second son, Prince Hal being not terrible on the battlefield but in general a disappointing frat boy with no sense of responsibility). But when the news about Hotspur’s death finally arrives, Hotspur’s mother and his widow persuade his father to give up what is clearly a lost cause.

Falstaff returns to London and collects praise after taking credit for killing Hotspur. He promptly gets arrested for his debts to the Boar’s Head Tavern and gets into a fight with the police. He convinces the tavern owner, Mistress Quickly, to give him a loan (we don’t normally do subplots or side characters on the Shakespeare TLDR, but Mistress Quickly). During the celebratory drinking (with his girlfriend, Doll Tearsheet, and you know that name means something NSFW), Falstaff speaks ill of his old friend Prince Hal, who is there in disguise. They get into an argument.

Falstaff gets summoned back to the war, where he acts morally questionable and tries to spend other people’s money.

Prince John engages in some political shadiness to get the rebels arrested. That’s the end of the English civil war.

Back in London, King Henry is very ill. Prince Hal arrives at his sleeping father’s side, thinks he (Henry) is dead, assumes he (Hal) is the king now, and leaves the room with the crown. The king wakes up and gets angry, but they make up.

The king dies. Prince Hal is now King Henry V.

Falstaff goes to London, expecting to get a cushy appointment now that Hal is in charge. But Henry makes a cold public speech where he denies knowing Falstaff. His good friend. Just denies knowing him. Total about-face. He banishes Falstaff and the other lowlifes from coming within ten miles of his court. He says, “Presume not that I am the thing I was, for God doth know—so shall the world perceive—that I have turned away my former self.” Thusly have rich boys turned their backs on their embarrassing college years and congealed into pillars of society since time began.

There is talk about a coming war with France, which sets us up for what happens in Henry V.


What happens in Richard II

Richard II is up next on What Happens in Shakespeare, which means we’re almost, almost to the Wars of the Roses, so hold your Dothraki horses. Richard II seems cruel and wackadoodle enough to qualify as the inspiration for an early Targaryen king, but that’s only because you haven’t met Richard III yet.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Absolute power corrupts two in the bush.”

What happens in Richard II
(King of England from 1377–1399)

King Richard II is arbitrating a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (the future King Henry IV). Richard has accused Mowbray of squandering money meant for the king’s soldiers and murdering Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, believes Richard himself was responsible for the murder. Richard orders a trial by battle between Bolingbroke and Mowbray to sort things out.

The tournament gets underway, but Richard interrupts it, changing his mind and banishing Bolingbroke and Mowbray from England. He sentences Bolingbroke to be banished for ten years, but reduces it to six years when he sees John of Gaunt grieving for his son. Mowbray he banishes permanently.

Creepily, Richard never does anything to really dispel the suspicion that he murdered the Duke of Gloucester.

Mowbray predicts that sooner or later Richard will fall at the hands of Bolingbroke (it’s sooner).

John of Gaunt, who is just about the only nice person we’re going to meet, dies. Richard seizes his property. The nobles get angry and accuse Richard of fining them for crimes their ancestors committed, taxing the commoners (and how noble of the 1% to care), and using Gaunt’s money (which should go to his son, Bolingbroke) to fund the war in Ireland. They help Bolingbroke (remember he was exiled) secretly return to England with a plan to overthrow Richard.

Richard goes to Ireland to supervise the war and probably conduct a little old-fashioned peasant slaughter in person. He leaves the Duke of York in charge.

Bolingbroke seizes the opportunity to assemble an army and invade England. He executes some of Richard’s allies and wins York over to his side.

As soon as Richard returns to England, Bolingbroke lays claim to the throne and crowns himself King Henry IV. He has Richard taken prisoner.

Richard’s allies plan a rebellion against Henry, but York finds them out. They get executed.

An ambitious nobleman who is loyal to Henry murders Richard in prison.

Henry announces his plans to cleanse his soul of any association with murder by going on a crusade to Jerusalem. Apparently it wasn’t realistic for him to give up sex by moving into a brothel. The original, long-lost final line of the play is “hypocrisy and empire go together like peanut butter and chocolate.”


For more on this barely-known play, there’s an illuminating breakdown of recent performance history in The Guardian’s writeup, “Richard II: a play for today.”

Knight Knights Tournament Competition Lego



What happens in King John

I’m doing King John this month because it was time to kick off the histories and I needed an organizing system. “The histories,” as no normal person knows, are Shakespeare’s plays about the English monarchy. Don’t get muddled; Antony, Cleopatra, Troilus, Cressida, Caesar, and a man who powerfully resembled Falstaff might have really lived and gotten Shakespeare plays written about them, but only the English histories are “histories.” I decided to go in king order. John was the earliest king who got a play. It would make more sense, maybe, to go in order of publication date, but I didn’t do that with the other plays. Sorting Shakespeare by date written is a game for actual scholars, and the histories were threaded in among the “tragedies” and “comedies” (the tragedies are pretty tragic as a rule, but they usually have jesters or joke-telling nurses. The comedies are not always funny, but they are often deeply disturbing and occasionally tragic) from the very beginning.

On to King John. No one’s ever seen it. There are no popular movies of it. Theater companies can barely sell tickets to it. The two things you might know about the real King John are 1) he signed the Magna Carta and 2) he was the King John in Robin Hood. Neither thing shows up in the play. It’s a dry-ish text and it’s all in verse. No clowns making NSFW jokes in paragraph form here. But the plot is rock-solid, and as everybody who’s ever written a personal essay or a breakup letter knows, telling a true story well is incredibly hard.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “When writing a play about somebody, don’t leave out the most interesting things (Magna Carta) they did.”

What happens in King John
(King of England from 1199-1216)

King John’s nephew Arthur is plotting with the King of France to overthrow the English throne.

The King of France (his name is Philip, but we’re going to refer to him as “the King of France” here because more than one character is named Philip) demands John’s surrender. John responds by invading France.

There is a subplot involving an English Philip, nicknamed “the Bastard” to distinguish him from the other Philip. He’s a wonderful character. But we can’t slow down for subplots on the Shakespeare TLDR, not even subplots from real history.

The English and French armies fight, but neither side is the clear winner. John makes a peace settlement by arranging a marriage between his niece and the heir to the French throne, known hereafter as “the Dolphin.” (If you’re the heir to the French throne in the 1200s, in most histories your title is the super-fancy “Dauphin.” But some Shakespeare editions use “Dolphin” for the purpose of delighting your inner 6-year-old girl.)

John, in the meantime, disobeys the Pope and gets excommunicated. The church is a massive political power in 1200s Europe. Not being on its good side is dangerous.

The Pope’s representative, Pandulph, threatens to excommunicate the French king for making an alliance with England. Pandulph supports the Dolphin and convinces him to break the truce with England. The fighting starts again.

During a battle in France, John captures Arthur (the backstabbing nephew). John orders Arthur to be executed. John’s representative disobeys and hides the boy instead.

John goes back to England and celebrates by throwing himself a second coronation, a confident act of leadership that definitely proves no one is doubting you at all, certainly not the Pope, the Dolphin, or anybody named Philip.

Arthur tries to escape and falls to his death. The English nobles think John murdered him. They defect to the French side.

John, who is now outnumbered and looks like a prat, has no choice but to negotiate with Pandulph. John agrees to reconcile with the Church. Pandulph agrees to convince the Dolphin not to invade England again.

The Dolphin, beefed up by his new English nobles and their troops, totally invades England again.

The nobles hear a rumor that the French king is going to have them all killed when the war is over. They return to John.

Having lost his allies, the French king gets Pandulph to negotiate peace with England. But it’s too late for John, who had gotten sick and gone to an abbey to rest (remember his new bestie, the Pope?), only to have a monk kill him with poison.

John’s son, Prince Henry, succeeds him as King Henry III. Apparently this Henry did not lead the kind of flashy life that merited a Shakespeare play, but assorted later Henries did.


To find out more about the real King John and how he got his embarrassing nickname, read Marc Morris’ post Why Was King John Known as Softsword?



What happens in Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a comedy the same way oral surgery is an afternoon at the spa. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” may be the most famous line. Plenty of sin to be found here. Virtue, on the other hand, you couldn’t find with a flea glass. Any good Shakespeare nerd will tell you about the “problem plays,” where Will took on a moral problem, which he didn’t solve 10 times of out 10 (okay, there are only 3 problem plays). Measure for Measure even ends with an unanswered question, the question, the pop-the-question question. All moral problems more or less remain in their original state.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Dukes suck. MORAL: Don’t get someone else to do your dirty work.”

What happens in Measure for Measure

The Duke of Vienna announces he is going away and puts his deputy Angelo in charge. The duke is not actually going anywhere, but instead hides in plain sight to find out what happens in Vienna when he’s not around.

Angelo is a moralistic prig, and like all moralistic prigs, he has hidden depravities. His first decision is to shut down the brothels and strictly enforce the laws against sex outside marriage. He has Claudio arrested and sentenced to death for getting his (Claudio’s) fiancée pregnant on a technicality (the lawbreaking. The pregnancy came about the usual way).

Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, pleads for his life. Angelo (and I love that his name is Angelo) agrees to let Claudio live if Isabella sleeps with him. She refuses.

Angelo once had a fiancée, Mariana, but he dumped her when her family lost all their money. The Duke of Vienna, who is by now disguised as a friar, suggests a bed trick. Isabella would agree to sleep with Angelo, but then Mariana would secretly take her place. Having slept with “Isabella,” Angelo would then have to pardon Claudio. Plus he’d have to marry Mariana according to his own law.

Isabella and Mariana agree to the plan. The bed part goes off just fine. But after the deed, Angelo still gives orders for Claudio to be executed because he is afraid Claudio will try to get revenge.

Angelo demands proof that Claudio has been executed. The duke sends him the head of an already-dead pirate who looks faintly like Claudio (Bardaholics call this…wait for it…the head trick). Angelo buys it.

The duke-in-disguise tells Isabella that her brother Claudio is dead. He suggests she complain to the “duke,” who is about to return to Vienna.

The duke “returns.” Isabella tells her story. He pretends not to believe her. Eventually he reveals that he was in Vienna the whole time and knows everything, which forces everyone else to be honest. He also announces that Claudio is alive.

Angelo confesses to the full menu of crimes. The duke sentences him to marry Mariana and then be executed, which would mean Mariana would inherit his money but not have to be his wife.

Mariana and Isabella plead for Angelo’s life. The duke pardons Angelo.

Then the duke asks Isabella to marry him. She never answers. This sparks 400 years of was-it-yes-or-no Shakespeare nerd battles.


If you want to indulge your curiosity about the bed trick, or anything bed-related, and who doesn’t, I recommend Jeannette Winterson’s article Bed tricks and broken women: Shakespeare’s guide to love.



Wordy news

Friends! I’m reading at Literary Speakeasy next week alongside these wonderful writers. Come have a drink with us and I’ll tell you the story about the girl with the magic eyeballs. Or the one about the DJ who gets kidnapped by the fae for a dance underneath the Van Ness Muni station. I haven’t decided.

Literary Speakeasy
Thursday, August 29, 7-8:30 p.m.
Martuni’s | 4 Valencia St., San Francisco
No cover charge, no drink minimum
Facebook event here.


What happens in The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play Shakespeare nerds everywhere are proud to hate. Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I wanted a play about her favorite character, the sloppy knight Falstaff from the Henry IV plays, but “to show him in love.” And to deliver it in fourteen days.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Prequel to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Don’t mess with the ladies.”

What happens in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff arrives in the town of Windsor. He is broke. He is known for his outsized personality and his…appetites. He devises a plan to kill a few birds with one stone by seducing two different rich women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page.

He sends the women identical love letters. The letters get intercepted by their husbands.

The women, who are friends, compare notes and have a good laugh. They decide a little revenge would break up the dull afternoons.

There is a subplot with the Pages’ daughter, who wants to marry a man her parents don’t approve of.

Mr. Ford puts on a disguise and tells Falstaff he is himself interested in Mistress Ford, but first he wants to pay Falstaff to seduce her so she won’t be so…virtuous. Don’t think about that too hard. The point is, someone is offering to help Falstaff have sex. Falstaff tells Mr. Ford-in-disguise that he and Mistress Ford already have an appointment. Mr. Ford, who was already jealous and had a rage problem, flies into a jealous rage.

Falstaff goes to meet Mistress Ford as arranged. She and Mistress Page trick him into hiding in the laundry basket. Then they throw him into the river. It doesn’t faze him very much.

Falstaff goes back to meet the wives again. This time they trick him into dressing up as an elderly aunt whom Mr. Ford can’t stand. Mr. Ford comes home and sees the “old woman” he hates. He beats her and throws her out.

The wives let their husbands in on the joke. Together they engineer one last humiliation for Falstaff. They arrange to meet him in the forest for sexytimes. They get a group of kids to dress as fairies, go to the meeting instead of them, and pinch and burn him.

The nighttime-plus-disguises combo helps the Pages’ daughter elope with her boyfriend.

Falstaff takes the joke pretty well, even though he is still broke and single. Mr. and Mistress Page accept their daughter’s marriage. They invite everybody back to their house to celebrate, including the admittedly entertaining Falstaff.


Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s book Falstaff: Give Me Life illuminates what’s so compelling to some people about the old gent. If you don’t have time for a whole book, there’s the NY Times review, “Shakespeare’s Hot Mess: What We Can Learn From Falstaff.”