It is good to see that Shakespeare is coming to the Marlowe Theatre next month – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the complete King Henry IV, with Anthony Sher as Falstaff. As it happens, Henry IV is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, so when he dies (at the end of Part 2), he won’t have far to go.
Henry IV Part 1 used to serve as an introduction to the Shakespeare play in secondary school (others in that category were Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth). It is easy to see why Henry IV was included among these starters – despite the awkwardness of ‘unfinished business’ (only Part 1) – it presents Hal and Falstaff in one of the most triumphant comic episodes in drama, performing a highway robbery outside Rochester, and discoursing on it afterwards.
One advantage of bringing Henry IV thus early to the notice of students was that the twin plays, with Falstaff at the heart of them, could establish themselves as the base from which to go out and explore some of Shakespeare’s other English histories. Henry V immediately follows: Richard II immediately precedes. These make one diverse but satisfying four-part series, with some characters featuring in two or three of the plays.
Another advantage was a sort of ‘killing two birds with one stone’ effect. Through the history plays one could also learn some medieval English history – or at least would forget it less – it is surely ultimately due to Shakespeare that the historical Henry IV and Henry V are more landmark medieval kings in many people’s minds than, say, Henry III or Edward II.
Romeo and Juliet has now dethroned Henry IV in the GCSE classroom – despite being no easier to read, and containing, I think, a much smaller quantum of instantly appreciable comedy. I suppose this could be due to a notion (among curriculum planners) that its story of super-dedicated romantic love will broadly appeal to fifteen-year-olds from all cultural backgrounds.
If that is the thinking, I am not convinced it is borne out by fact. My impression from students’ reactions is that they are bemused by Romeo and Juliet’s passions and consequent deeds, rather than admiring or approving of them. ‘No doubt Shakespeare tells it well, with poetry and everything’ – is the sense I get from them – ‘but, really, even for those far-distant days, isn’t the story just a bit too far-fetched?’
Nothing lasts for ever – and it could be that inheritors of the curriculum seats of power will sooner or later replace Romeo and Juliet with other choices for Year 10. Perhaps Henry IV will make a come-back. I would be happy if it did.
Not that I shall be thinking of that particularly, on my night at the theatre next month.